The United States Cannot Be The World’s Superhero

There’s a natural urge to want something done when you see injustice. Human beings are wired for community, collaboration, and fairness. If someone or a whole group of people is wronged, we can feel in our gut that there’s a need for the wrong to be made right.

At a time when people around the world are as interconnected as they’ve ever been, with 24/7 media coverage of nearly every corner of the globe, we are constantly made aware of a multitude of conflicts, crimes, dysfunctions, and dehumanizing acts. Famine, war, oppression, poverty, and more.

Once you become aware, you feel the weight of the injustice and the longing for resolution.  

Who’s going to fix this stuff?

For some time now, there has been a widely held assumption that–as the world’s only true superpower–the United States will step in to right such wrongs. If there’s a brutal dictator, the US will remove them from power. If there’s a war, the US will show up with guns blazing to take over for the good guys. If there is famine or poverty, the US will provide essential resources.

That all sounds pretty hopeful and noble. Captain America will be there when things get bad! We all long for a force that can intervene no matter how dire and horrifying things get. That’s the appeal of superheroes. If only it were that simple.

With nearly 200 countries in the world, there’s no way that one of them–however powerful–can show up and rectify every act of injustice in the world. It would require an impossible amount of people, resources, and time. How much thinner can the United States stretch itself than it already has? How do you choose which international injustices get attention and which can be ignored?

Even if the United States or any other superpower could intervene anywhere and everywhere, countries are sovereign spaces. They have their own political systems, beliefs, identities, and goals. The US should not step in as it pleases–no matter how good the intentions. Millions of Americans were outraged at the slightest suggestion of foreign interference in our 2016 presidential election. How do other countries feel when the US barges in and imposes its will in much more drastic and consequential ways?

Frankly, the United States doesn’t have a great track record. There’s a long history of fragile and struggling states because the US intervened without a long-term plan for the prosperity and sustained independence of those places. Without a plan that meets those countries’ ideals and goals and respects their autonomy. More often than not, US intervention creates a vacuum, establishes what’s purely in America’s interests, or leaves things worse than they were before.

As often as possible, justice needs to emerge from within a country rather than heavily influenced by external forces. The United States and others may be able to provide support, guidance, or some resources from the outside. But they should definitely not be the primary actor and influencer within other countries. Too often it leads to destabilization and ruin.

And honestly, we have enough of our own injustices to rectify within the United States. A broken healthcare system. Voter suppression. Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and economic inequality. Various local environmental disasters and a transcendent climate crisis that’s constantly worsening. And much more.

How might things be different if we had used the amount spent on the deadly, failed wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria–something like 3.5 trillion dollars and counting–on the wrongs within the United States?

What effort has gone into establishing more fair and accountable police forces? Toward fair and equal voting? Toward employment and a robust social safety net? Toward a renewable energy system and environmental restoration?

The United States can’t do it all. It often makes injustices in other countries worse. And there are already millions in American neighborhoods who are suffering and forgotten. America needs to learn how to be just in our own communities instead of arrogantly and brashly trying to be the savior of the whole world. If we must lead, let’s lead by example in the way our own country’s wrongs are righted. That would be truly patriotic and powerful.

This Week in Upgrades: Jan 30

OK. So that was not a good weekend for humanity. The Trump administration’s Muslim ban on Friday was already a lot to handle. The shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center, and the six people who died there, was a terrible bookend to the unfolding drama. If you’re trying to wrap your head around the immigration ban, this is a good place to start.

These kinds of things are the reason that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about human nature and the common good. I know it’s not as fun or easy to digest as cat videos and comfort food recipes. I would love to quietly mind my own business and go about enjoying those things all day. But we’ve got some serious individual and social issues to work through, too.

Just in the last few days, we’ve clearly seen that people are a mysterious mix of altruism and fear. Humans can be the worst, and the best. Sometimes there is a unified, compassionate weAnd other times we seek to erase those who are different. Things can flow in a direction of community and hope and kindness, or toward despair, cynicism, and cruelty. We’re not anywhere close to realizing our individual and collective potential. Sometimes we take steps backward.

So keep organizing. Keep aiming for the best of who you can be, and believing that every other human being can get there, too. Keep searching for empathy and commonality. Keep donating. Keep looking for the truth behind the illusion. Keep looking for–and being–the helpers.

 

Here are some other things from the last week worth checking out:

Loneliness is terrible for your health. No one can go it alone all of the time.

Some of our best creativity happens when we’re bored, but we’re too busy on our phones trying to make boredom disappear.

Alcohol has been shaping culture for a long time.

Butter makes everything better. These guys take their butter very seriously.

Props to the restaurant, Syr, near Amsterdam, which was set-up to help Syrian refugees settle into the country.

Rachel Carson was a hero.

I like the occasional soda or box of Sour Patch Kids as much as the next person, but human beings consume way too much sugar. France’s ban on free soda refills is a step in the right direction.

Millennials are spending a lot to exercise.

Here’s a nice little side-by-side video of several references La La Land made to older musicals.

I hope your week is full of love and calm.

 

How Will You Grow From It?

It’s just days away from the end of the year. Lots of people are reflecting on what the last twelve months have given us. The movies, the music, the books. The pop culture moments. The politics and historical events. What stood out for you? How are you feeling about 2016?

I lost count of the posts, articles, and conversations I’ve seen talking about how terrible this year was. There’s a lot of pessimism and defeatism in the air.

Without a doubt, 2016 was challenging and disheartening in many ways. From the changing climate of our planet to political BS to deaths of cultural icons to rampant inequality and social friction, these have been some of the darkest months we’ve gone through in some time. I’ve heard more than a few people longing for 2017–as if January 1st will be some kind of reset button.

That New Year’s Day morning may feel a bit different when it comes (hopefully for reasons other than a hangover). But things won’t actually have changed much from the day before. Or from December 30th, or from today. A different year number may give us an important psychological fresh start (are you making resolutions?). In so many ways, though, we’re going to be in much the same place we are now.

And who’s to say what 2017 will be like. The future has a nebulous uncertainty. Not yet visible, not yet formed. It could be a good year. It could be another hard year. We won’t know until we live it.

When times are hard, does that mean it’s a waste? If you’re feeling down about 2016–ready for it be over with–would you rather have skipped right from 2015 to 2017? If 2017 is hard, too, is that then two years wasted? What if those are the last two you have?

Tomorrow is never guaranteed. Some people who are around now won’t see 2017. They’ve been through years of rollercoastering from high highs to low lows, and they’re coming to the end of their ride. If they could go back and do it again–even through the difficult and lame parts–would they? Would you?

As long as we’re still here, we’ve got all of our past behind us and today in front of us. Nothing need be a waste unless we choose to waste it. Whatever happened yesterday or this last year or 10 years ago is an opportunity to grow. To learn. To become stronger. To become more agile. More connected. More whole. More fully human.

No matter the situation, there’s always something to take away from it. A bad movie is a slog to watch, but it might have a great soundtrack you end up listening to over and over. A traffic-filled commute may be a pain in the ass, but perhaps it gives you time you needed to think through some things. A dysfunctional family can be incredibly painful and debilitating, but it can reveal to you all the things not to do in your relationships. An Office Space-like workplace is a dehumanizing struggle, but it may fuel you to give your all to your real passions. A broken political environment makes you wonder how society is going to get any better, and then you realize that it’s going to be largely up to you to make it better. What crack can you fix?

Our past–individually and collectively–is always an opportunity to grow. We break time up into cleanly separated days and years, but really it all flows together. There is everything that came before leading up to now. When you think about the chunk of time we call 2016, what can you take away from it that helps you be a better you? How did you grow in 2016 from 2015? That’s something worth celebrating, however else you feel about the last twelve months. It’s never all hardship.

We can declare yesterday or the last year tough or shitty or wearying, but it’s never a waste. Never something to just toss aside and try to forget about. It’s going to shape the present whether we want it to or not. And we never know how many days or years more we have ahead of us. So we might as well live deep and suck all the marrow out of life. Take everything we’ve experienced and use it to make today something more–for ourselves and the world we live in. Out of everything that has happened this last year–the amazing things, the depressing things, the boring things, and the agonizing things–how will you grow from it?

Embrace or Erase

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over by the police because that’s yet to happen to me as a driver. I especially do not know what it’s like to be pulled over as a Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, or person of any other race because that will never happen to me as a white man.

I’ve never had a talk with family about how I might be profiled, and how it’s essential to do everything exactly the right way (or better) so that I’m not persecuted or violated because that doesn’t happen to people with white privilege. I’ve been spit on a few times, and threatened with violence of various kinds, but I think that was more to do with people who were not of sound mind than expressing hatred for who I am. Those incidents were minor in comparison to what many Americans who are not white men experience. I can’t even begin to imagine what some people have gone through and continue to endure. We need more people to be able to tell their stories openly, and for their stories to be genuinely heard and addressed.

As much as I want to believe with President Obama that “we’re not as divided as we seem,” it’s nearly impossible to understate the tension–apparent or real–throughout the United States. Black men murdered during routine police calls, and officers gunned down are not isolated, one-off occurrences–they’re symptomatic of broader, embedded ways of thinking and acting.

Many of us are uncomfortable and even outright aggressive when we encounter difference, conflict, paradox, and contradiction as we cross paths with other people. Instead of allowing those instances to be an opportunity for deeper learning and greater humanity, we try and eliminate the tension in whatever way we can. Avoidance, belittling, ignoring, striking, disparaging, and more. By doing so, we dehumanizing ourselves and others.

In short, we erase instead of embrace.

As we bump into the lives of our fellow humans, we always have a choice. We can choose to learn from others, expanding our understanding and appreciation of the complexity and interconnectedness of all people. Or, we can choose to close up and try to shut down, minimize, and erase them–even to the most violent and complete erasure: murder.

Difference challenges us. For many, different means strange, repulsive, vulgar, or inferior. But different simply is different. We each have a history and identity that makes us distinct from any other human on the planet.

When we’re confronted by difference in other people, we are always at the crossroads of embrace or erase.

When you encounter someone who is of a different race, gender, religion, or another identifier, what if you saw that difference as an opportunity to grow in understanding and humanity?

They’re human and you’re human–just in different ways.

We’re hindered and shaped, of course, by history. Every previous act colors the present and how we perceive others. This is especially true if we perceive someone to be part of a group or the kind of person that’s a threat to us. White America perpetrated at least two original sins: the genocide and oppression of countless Native American tribes, and the incomprehensible horrors of Black slavery (there is also some overlap between the two). Those are just two broad sweeps of history among millions of other acts of inhumanity over the last few hundred years that have informed and patterned the present. Erasure has become structural and infiltrated all levels of American society. Blacks, Native Americans, women, people who are mentally ill, and others are still unequal and unjustly treated today. Not just by an ignorant asshole or two, but by the machinery of modern American society: economy, criminal justice, media framing and representation, healthcare, education, and the rest.

Acts of violence–citizen to policeman, policeman to citizen, or between anyone else–perpetuate and exacerbate distrust, and reduce the potential for embrace in future encounters.

For safety, we separate into ingroups and outgroups: us and them. If someone is us, we’ll start out more trusting. They’re less of a threat because they’re more like me. If someone is them, we’re wary from the get-go. This person is not really like me, so I need to be on guard.

To break through the history and the structural dehumanization, we will each have to be patient and attentive. We will have to lower our guard a bit and let difference, paradox, and conflict wash over us until our understanding is opened up and increased. We will have to get into the gritty realness of each other’s pain, oppression, uniqueness, experience, hopes, and fears. There will need to be some deep listening, owning up, apologizing, forgiveness, advocacy, and activism.

As such openness spreads through more and more individuals in one-on-one encounters, it will begin to permeate society at large. Not instantly, deterministically, or completely. But we need a steady, intentional movement of replacing structural erase with structural embrace. Neighborhoods to cities to states to the country as a whole (including social media and the rest of cyberspace).

That’s not to say it’s easy for anyone. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to overcome experience, history, and what’s comfortable. Avoidance, belittling, violence–erase–are easier. Maybe even safer for you, though certainly not for the people you erase.

Embrace is our only hope, however difficult in practice, of moving toward a society that is more fully alive and flourishing. We each, ourselves, want a society where we feel safe, are able to openly be who we are, and receive respect from the rest of the community. That kind of society will never arrive without including, understanding, and empowering–without embracing–everyone we’ve deemed to be other. We’re all in this together.

 

Humans and Nature: Our Place in the World

In 1870, an expedition entered the area we now know as Yellowstone National Park. There had been unsubstantiated rumors of remarkable natural features there, and so a team was put together to go explore and report. Early on, a man by the name of Truman C. Everts was separated from the group and went missing. None of the rest of the group knew if he survived. Initially, they rode around on their horses trying to find him. They were unsuccessful. As they continued to travel through the area, they left clues and supplies in the hope that Everts was still alive.

He was, in fact, but just barely. Over the next several days after going missing, Everts would find himself clinging to life through a whirlwind of what the wilderness could throw at him. His horse ran away with nearly all of his gear. He spent a night in a tree with a lion waiting underneath. He suffered severe frostbite on his feet. He took refuge next to some of the hot geothermal features, only to accidentally break through the surface of one of them and scald himself. 150 miles from the nearest settlement, Everts began hallucinating, promising himself that he wouldn’t die in the wild.

37 days after being separated, he was found on a hillside. With little to eat, he weighed just 50 pounds. Burned, frostbit, emaciated, delirious, he had barely survived. He slowly recovered, later writing a popularly consumed account of his lonely struggle in the elements. He prophesied that one day soon that area would be made comfortably “accessible to all,” and that when that day comes, “…I hope, in happier mood and under more auspicious circumstances, to revisit scenes fraught for me with such mingled glories and terrors.”

How should we think about nature? How do we think about nature?

The complex, decades-long march of technology has allowed us to comfortably settle into robust homes and cities, and most of the world seems easily “accessible” and safe. If we were to drive through Yellowstone National Park today, we would barely give it a second thought that at one time it would take all of the human ingenuity and willpower possible to survive through the often uncompromising harshness of the environment.

Is the natural world a kind of frontier? Most of the early European settlers of America thought so. Inspired by a Garden of Eden, providential vision for a “New World,” the continent seemed to be precisely what the book of Genesis describes–wilderness and waste–ready for them to cultivate and make flourish. They, of course, were either oblivious to or disregarded the indigenous communities–countless, diverse Native American tribes–that had been living on and with the land for centuries. If America was ordained by God to subdue, it was given to someone other than the Europeans long before.

Perhaps nature is primarily a romantic thing–a more John Muir kind of spirituality rather than a biblical one. There are mundane places and then there are transcendent places. Places like Yosemite, for example, that are a sort of secular cathedral where aesthetics, vastness, and remoteness are praised. In this view, true nature entails remarkable places that we choose to go into and out of to elevate the soul.

Or, maybe nature is only just a vast storehouse of resources–something to think of in utilitarian terms. Everything that is there–water, trees, animals, and the rest–are for our excavation and exploitation. A biological warehouse of sorts, for whatever endeavors we have in mind.

Notice that all three of these conceptions put human beings above everything else. There is us, and then there’s nature, whether it’s to be tilled like Adam and Eve, for spiritual transcendence, or for utilitarian use. Us and nature is another binary–a variant of us and themapplied to the world in which we live. We see ourselves as something more than nature: something higher, something else–a type of being that can use nature (whatever it’s best used for) as we please.

Missing, of course, is the simple realization that human beings are themselves one among many kinds of animals. A rational, self-conscious, complex animal, to be sure. But ultimately a creature that is a part of nature–not something separate from it. This kind of understanding might be called the ecological view of nature. Nature is to be viewed as a dense structure of relationships, of “complex, interpenetrating systems,” to use Jedediah Purdy’s description. His book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, outlines these four common conceptions of our relationship to nature: providential, romantic, utilitarian, and ecological.

Though it’s a relatively recent way of understanding nature, we need to take the ecological view because we live in a time when human activity impacts the natural world more completely and more dramatically than ever before. We are inseparable from the environment in which we live. It’s not us and nature, it’s just this. We need to realize that our attempts to master the natural world have not brought pure progress, and that because everything is related to everything else in complex ways, we need to be thoughtful about how any of our activity may harm or destroy in ways that may not be immediately apparent. Something here can significantly alter another thing over there.

Our supposed mastery has veiled us from the intense Truman C. Everts kinds of experiences of nature that now occur mostly only for hardcore outdoors people and survivalists, humans who’ve wandered off the beaten path and gotten lost, or people who’ve been tossed into a wild place in some kind of a disaster. But we are in nature all of the time. It’s not just awe-inducing vistas like Yellowstone or Yosemite. And it’s not just endless trees in a forest somewhere out there seemingly there to be cut down and transformed into “things that are actually useful.”

Nature always surrounds us. And we are, at all times, nature ourselves–embodying and impacting the whole interconnected thing in profound ways. How we think about ecosystems and animals and natural resources and the climate and ourselves as a relatively new species trying to survive on this planet is important. A proper understanding of nature and our place in the world is vital. There’s just this. Let’s think about how we fit in with the rest of it all.

 

The Common Good: A New American Dream

It seems pretty clear at this point that the original American Dream isn’t something that’s ever going to be a reality for most people. The typical trades training or college education, good-paying middle-class job, family, kids, home, car, retirement, etc. path is a naive relic of capitalist optimism from decades past.

Today, for those who make it through college, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt without a payoff end date in sight. Finding a job becomes as much about a modern form of indentured servitude as it is entering a satisfying career. And because employment prospects are precarious, even people with high-level degrees can have difficulty becoming or staying employed with enough income to pay the bills. Nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to.

For those who are able to get some employment and income stability, only 13 percent of people worldwide say they find their job engaging. “For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfillment, or redemption…” 87% of workers around the world see the tasks they must complete as insufferable, pointless drudgery.

Is this the kind of world we want? Surely we can build something better than this.

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of Inventing the Future, think so. Though they cite plenty of sad statistics about the current state of affairs like the 13% one above, they still have grounded hope for an imagined future that would actually benefit everyone.

Inventing the Future advocates for what some call a post-work society. Instead of continuing to struggle for robust full employment–ensuring the original American Dream for everyone (which hasn’t happened and is extremely unlikely to ever happen)–we should aspire to full unemployment. Work would become something that you do only if you desire to. Maybe your personal passion is to spend time writing or counseling or farming. You can do that. Or, you just don’t work at all and spend all of your time with family, friends, traveling, and whatever else you want to do with the 80 or so years you’re given. Instead of being indentured to a soul-crushing 9-5 job that you may not even have next year, your life (and everyone else’s) is freed up to live it in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.

How is such a post-work future possible?

First, we need to transition to a universal basic income for all people. Each and every citizen receives a stipend of what they need to cover the basics to live: food, shelter, transportation, etc. Is this a costly project? No question. But as Srnicek and Williams note, “…most research, in fact, suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programs, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.” There are already a number of communities and countries considering a shift to universal basic income. And it’s not an entirely new or outlandish idea. Previous American administrations and Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, attempted to pass versions of it. It could have already become a reality several decades ago.

Having the foundation of a universal basic income will allow people of every socio-economic background to decide whether they want to do additional work or not. Maybe you want to dabble with being a professional musician. Maybe you want to hold public office. Or maybe you want to just have a day full of family, exercise, food, learning, entertainment, and other things that make you feel whole. The point is that the basics are taken care of. Work becomes a choice rather than a necessity.

But if many people don’t work because the inherent necessity is gone, who’s going to do all of the stuff that needs to get done to keep the world afloat?

Part two of a post-work future is full automation. Anyone who doesn’t see that the majority of existing jobs are already in danger of replacement by automated technology is in denial. Whether it’s 10 years or 50, anywhere from about 50-80% of jobs will see the human being replaced with some form of automation. Even for careers that seem irreplaceable like lawyers and chefs, there is already technology being developed that will be able to perform the same or better as the person currently doing it.

Instead of allowing this change to emerge without much reflection and planning, we should hasten it with strategy and financial support. After all, if only 13% of employed people like their job anyway, we should see automation as an ultimately good thing–developing technology that can slide in to perform the tasks we’d rather not do.

A universal basic income and full automation would fundamentally change the nature of what work is. And that’s good thing too. Instead of having to rationalize dehumanizing drudgery, paycheck-to-paycheck living, college debt, and the rest, we would have a society where work is truly only the vocational pursuits that add to our individual and shared humanity.

A post-work society like this is much more reflective of a world aspiring to what’s good for people. And, hopefully, we’re all coming to realize that what’s good for people is actually the common good. That’s an American Dream worth pursuing.

 

We Are All Pretentious

As a kid, there’s probably no more interesting and vital place than the playground. There, budding youngsters experiment with all sorts of different versions of themselves. Queen of the castle. Thoughtful people-watcher. Superstar athlete. Goofball comedian. Alpha boy. And more.

By trying out various roles and interests as if they were costumes in a wardrobe, we begin to shape our identity—a richer and truer sense of who we are. This is a crucial part of growing from childhood into adulthood.

But for some reason, as soon as we enter the public square of adulting, trying things on is no longer praiseworthy identity experimentation. It is labeled pretentious. The young woman exploring the world of craft beer or wine is a snob. The student raving about up-and-coming indie bands is a hipster. The colorfully dressed urbanite is a narcissistic deviant. The Midwesterner who moves to the big city is an elitist dismissive of their roots.

Why do we encourage kids to try things out but condemn it in adulthood?

Condemn it in others, that is. We’re fine with it when we’re trying things out ourselves. If you’re eating through the city’s 10 best list, you just like new food in new restaurants. But as soon as someone else does it, they are a snobby foodie who thinks they’re too good for other people and other places to eat.

We seem to find it important to police other people. If there’s an apparent gulf between who someone is and who they’re trying to be, it’s some kind of social violation. Identity exploration has become so closely tied to elitism and otherness we can’t see it as something beneficial to growing as a person.

But pretense originally simply referred to pretending without all the other baggage. To pretend is not necessarily to be a narcissist, to think you’re better than everyone else, or otherwise. Snobbery, elitism, and self-inflation certainly do happen in the world. People unquestionably do things just to stand out from everyone else in a self-centered way. In a time of rampant materialism, conspicuous production and consumption are alive and well.

At its core, though, pretending—trying things on to see if they fit—is how we figure out what we like and who we are. We are all unique, sometimes weird, sometimes into things that other people can’t wrap their minds around. We should celebrate that in each other instead of castigating it.

Whether we’re the kid at play or the adult in the urban playground, we are all pretentious in some way. Acknowledge it and move forward. Let others try things on and figure out who they are—just as you do.

 

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

The Common Good: What’s Good for People?

A couple months ago, I wrote a Part I for a series of posts about the common good. It’s here if you want to check it out.

The basic idea in Part I is that our barometer for whether or not society is working for its people is too simple. That barometer is a nebulous thing we refer to as the economy. Apparently, if the economy is doing well then all of us are doing well. If the economy isn’t great, politicians and journalists start to peek at more refined measurements like new jobs created, interest rates, unemployment, or wages.

Do any of those things really get to the heart of the common good? Do they get to the heart of your life and what’s good for you?

I don’t think so. There’s an underlying problem that we aren’t sure what’s good when we say common good. And whatever good is, we don’t seem to have it in common. The economy is a kind of lowest common denominator to be able to say something about whether life is going well or not. But it doesn’t tell us much about the complex lives of actual people.

Zoom in a bit closer, and what you’ll find is:

Some do put money, career, and purchasing power at the center. For them, the economy doing well probably does indicate life going well.

Others put most of the weight on adherence to a particular religion. Perhaps for them, if we were all devotees of their worldview then society would be doing well.

Still others are strong believers in maximizing individual freedoms and liberties. The fewer limitations that exist, the more we’ll find happiness in being ourselves–however we please to do so.

And some find their greatest sense of well-being in relationships–in strong bonds with family, friends, and romantic partners.

When we talk about the common good, there are many different ideas of what’s good–none of them held in common–so we have a gauge like the economy slide in. We should talk about that.

Despite our great differences as people, we actually are quite similar. Academics refer to a whole set of shared qualities called human universals. These are the things that are true of human beings because they’re human beings, no matter the place they’re born, the time they’re alive on the earth, their political party, what their favorite sports team is, how much money they make, who they want to have sex with, and everything else that makes us distinct from one another.

Behind the pursuit of money, career, religious perfection, civil liberties, and specific relationships, there are fundamental desires we all long to fulfill.

What are they?

Surprisingly, six basic needs make up the roots of all our other longings and pursuits. The list of six comes from a sociologist, Christian Smith, who’s studied human nature and society extensively. He compiled the work of several other academics into one universal grouping.

First, the endurance of our bodies: survival, security, and pleasure. What does that entail? Avoiding injury and illness. Feeling and being healthy and energetic. Enjoying the pleasures of our senses–music, sex, food, art, and the rest.

Second, knowledge of reality. It’s hard to function if the world doesn’t make some kind of sense to you. So we all have a map in our minds how what we believe and experience fit together. The mental map we establish allows us to navigate life better, even though none of us know or understand everything.

Third, identity coherence and affirmation. That’s a bit of academic-speak for what’s actually a straightforward concept. Each of us seeks to develop a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, and have it endure and strengthen through the course of our lives. Knowing who you are, and feeling comfortable with who you are.

Number four: exercising purposive agency. OK, clearly our friendly sociologist could have given us some more accessible terms. Exercising purposive agency just means you’re able to have at least some influence or power in the world when there are results or goals you want to achieve.

Fifth, moral affirmation. Each of us, on the whole, seeks to do what we think is right, admirable, or justifiable, based on a set of ethics that makes sense to us. We do what we can to avoid fault, blame, and guilt.

Finally, social belonging and love. None of us functions very well alone. We crave and require relationships of varying depth–to know others, and be known. To be welcomed, included, and cared for. In some relationships, to a depth and intimacy best referred to as love.

Together, these six needs form a kaleidoscope of basic humanity. To fulfill these needs is to live well, a state some have called flourishing.

Which allows us to say succinctly: A society that is successfully achieving the common good is a society in which every person, individually and as a community, is able to flourish.

If a society is set up in such a way that it systematically threatens someone’s safety, it’s not yet achieving the common good.

If it systematically marginalizes, discriminates, or oppresses certain people, it has not realized the common good to its fullest potential.

If a society denies or obscures aspects of reality–things like man-made climate change or racial injustice–it is not functioning for the common good.

There are a bajillion examples.

Point the lens of the six basic needs at anything in society, and the common good comes into focus.

Is survival, security, and pleasure preserved?

Does it enhance our knowledge of reality?

Does it promote self-identity and self-confidence?

Does it allow all people to have the influence or power they need?

Does it cultivate a sense of morality, justice, and admiration for what’s right?

Does it encourage strong relationships with family and friends, and the pursuit of love?

Make sense? Is that a way of understanding the common good we can all get behind? I hope so. There’s so much more depth, beauty, and potential than what the economy can fathom.

If you don’t think so, say why in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading. More to come in Part 3.

 

Us and Them

A little while back, I came across a really interesting bit of theory that has helped me tie together all kinds of different ideas I’ve had about people and society. In David C. Korten’s The Great Turning, he outlines increasing levels of “human consciousness”–what we think about each other and how we relate. Levels of human consciousness probably sounds nerdy and boring, but bear with me–it’s actually easy to understand and deeply insightful.

“First order consciousness” is called magical consciousness. As young children, we start out seeing the world as full of magic and surprise. Most things when you’re a child seem to happen rather mysteriously. Fantasy and reality are difficult to distinguish. Cause and effect are concepts just beginning to be perceived–perhaps when we trip and fall or cry out and receive attention. Our behavior is “impulsive, immediate, and emotion driven.” We depend on other people to do things for us, are confused and frustrated when they don’t attend to us, and are not aware of or reflect on the consequences of our own actions.

The next level is imperial consciousness. As we start to grow up, we come to see the difference between fantasy and reality more clearly. We gain awareness of predictability and consequences. We understand a little better how some of the basics work, and we feel a greater sense of control. We see that others have their own point of view, and “getting what [we] want generally requires some form of reciprocity.” Quid pro quo seems to be the name of the game. We may fantasize about having superhuman powers that would allow us to rise above the tit-for-tat to control certain events with unparalleled influence. In imperial consciousness, like magical, our perspective is primarily, “if not exclusively self-referential, even narcissistic.”

The third level Korten calls socialized consciousness. We start to see things functioning on a societal plane, and the cultural norms of the community become our point of reference. Rules and authority appear necessary to make sure everyone is playing by the rules and treated fairly. Our individual identity is shaped by adherence to others in our same reference group: “gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, class, political party, occupation, employer, and perhaps a favored sports team.” We’re “commonly militantly protective of [that] group and prone to take any criticism of it as a serious affront.” We do not subject ourselves or those groups to critical examination. We expect to follow the rules of the groups we are attached to and have things go well for us in return.

The fourth is cultural consciousness. The more we grow and mature, we encounter people who have beliefs, perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences much different from our own. “The initial reaction to such encounters is commonly a chauvinistic sense of cultural superiority and possibly an embrace of cultural absolutism: ‘The way of my people is the only right way.’” But if the socialized conscious person is reasonably comfortable in their own identity, they “may come to recognize that culture is itself a social construct, that each culture has its own logic, that different cultural ‘truths’ lead to different outcomes for individuals and society, and that cultural norms and expectations are subject to choice.” We can more fully empathize with others; we begin to question our own societal assumptions; and act selflessly for the benefit of people who are much different than ourselves. The majority of people who live in modern societies never achieve cultural consciousness because “corporations, political parties, churches, labor unions, and even educational institutions actively discourage it. Each of these institutions has a defining belief system to which it demands loyalty. Those who raise significant challenges are likely to be subjected to a loss of standing, if not outright rejection.”

Finally, “level five consciousness” is deemed spiritual, or perhaps enlightened for those uncomfortable with an overtly religious connotation. The world is seen as a “complex, multidimensional, interconnected, continuously unfolding whole.” Those who have matured to this level support “an examined morality grounded in the universal principles of justice, love, and compassion…It approaches conflict, contradiction, and paradox, not as problems to overcome, but as opportunities for deeper learning.” “…[T]he sense of duty once reserved for members of one’s immediate family, ethnic group, nationality, or religion now extends to the whole.” They recognize that the rules and structures in place don’t always work for everybody, and actively transform society to benefit everyone.

So how does this have anything to do with anything?

Well, for starters, if you live in the United States, it reveals a lot of what’s going on with the upcoming presidential election. There is the obvious and endless fractiousness between Democrats and Republicans–perhaps the most blatant us versus them rift in existence. But there are also more subtle divides. Between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters, for example, for myopically in-group reasons like gender and the desire to be a proud gun owner. Maybe you can’t stand a single thing about either of those people or what they support. You certainly wouldn’t be alone. But human maturity–expanding consciousness–would consider what each of them has gone through as a thinking, feeling, sensitive, fallible person, and try to understand why they do what they do. I’m trying to do that myself for certain candidates running for president.

With December 25th around the corner, we’re also getting into the Christmas season–and specifically “The War on Christmas” season. Christmas zealots decry alleged cultural affronts to “the meaning of the season”–this year, somehow the Starbucks red holiday cups–and everyone else moans incredulously that we’re doing this all over again. It undergirds a whole lot more us and them at a time of the year when many people are just trying to get the bills paid and take some time off to be with people they care about. Perhaps we could all aspire to a level-five moment and consider just how much we’re all in a similar situation. Few people are actively trying to denigrate anyone’s holiday, so let’s shoot for a little less outrage–and less outrage about the outrage.

The examples are endless. We’re really good at breaking people down into simplistic labels and categories that we can quickly accept or reject. But one of the best things we can do as a human being is to work to expand our in-group wider and wider until it encompasses all of humanity. Most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions.” We’re more alike than we are different. There is only us.