Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Compliance, Creativity, and Community

Many models exist that purport to describe the structure and functioning of a healthy community. To some degree, the diversity in the models can be attributed, at least in part, to the point of view of whoever has the power to define health and success for community participants. The preponderance of existing models are grounded in hierarchical structures, so that the accepted view is typically from the top down.

To illustrate: Much of religious thought posits a god “above” who determines what is best for all “below.” Such a god’s earthly representatives assume the superior position and promulgate the terms of morality and social success to those deemed inferior. That inferior group would include the rest of us. I might add, parenthetically, that these earthly representatives of the divine also assume the right to determine the use and fate of our planet, too.

Persons and groups with economic, political, or social power tend to replicate the top-down pattern of authority. (Corporations and super-wealthy individuals, kings and others with political power, and strict fathers, respectively.)

All who inhabit these superior positions assume as truth that they actually possess the vision, knowledge, and even wisdom to determine what is best for everyone else. With few exceptions, this model continues to hold sway in the present. Any person or group that attempts to challenge or de-legitimize this hierarchy of “benevolent dictators” is in for a fight.

There are many examples of creative, grass-roots movements and activities that have challenged the hierarchical status quo. Sadly, for the most part, they have ended up, either defeated, or more typically, co-opted into the prevailing model. Early Christianity, for example, was a threat to the culture of the Roman Empire, not because it represented some rival dominant power, but because the egalitarian nature of its community structure rendered unnecessary the prevailing pursuit of upward mobility. Because the Empire traded in coercive power, it could not countenance any system that devalued its might. The Empire eventually prevailed, not by destroying Christianity, but by embedding its own hierarchical power structure into the organization of the Church.

Several centuries later, The Protestant Reformation effectively challenged the Church’s presumption to divine power, and instead located that power in the faithful relationship between the the individual and the divine. Still, the system maintained the power structure by establishing the Bible as the incontrovertible word of the divine Father (up there!). The dominant power of interpretation simply re-rooted itself in new ecclesiastical structures.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the college-educated (G.I Bill?) middle class challenged the political and economic power structure of the “military-industrial complex,” particularly around the questionable morality of the War in Viet Nam. So, what subsequently happened to the energy of that extraordinary era of political activism? It appears to me that it got “bought off” by the lure of a kind of consumerism that kept people so focused on making money for their increasing standard of living (meaning, toys?) that there was no longer time left for nurturing or developing the capacity for ethical reflection. Wealth tends to speak with arrogance, teaching all other people and cultures that their cultural inheritance is less important than what they should be able to buy. At the same time, the power structure has put relentless pressure on our educational institutions, making them function more as skilled worker generators and less as places where people learn to think (or reflect on practical applications of ethics and morality).

For a time in the 20th Century, liberation theology and feminist theology began to have growing influence on public opinion with regard to the needs of historically disenfranchised groups. But the prevailing power structure continues to work very hard to undermine the legitimacy of such a position (no matter what Jesus said about faithful responsibility to the poor). There still exist creative proponents of these unorthodox positions, but world events in the realms of economics, climate change, and natural disasters have served to distract us all from the deeper issues that might turn out to be more relevant to our long term well being and even survival.

Each of the above examples has articulated a perspective different from the hierarchical model of dominance. The power of love in community, the spirituality of the individual, the moral and ethical perspective of those who are forced to pay for wars that do not reflect their personal ethics, and the valuable experience of the world’s disenfranchised groups each give us unique and useful ways to determine and assess the elements of healthy community.

In short, it appears that radical creativity is the enemy of compliance. I wonder, given the state of the world, if we will teach our children simply to comply and fit into the existing system or if we will encourage their creativity and capacity for a healthier vision.

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Finding Hope and Vision in a Troubled World

Is it getting more difficult for you to watch the news? It is for me.
My problem is not that bad things happen in the world. Earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, and collapsing economic systems are really old news. The record of history shows that such events have happened constantly somewhere in the world for millenia. My problem with the news today is the difficulty in finding any compelling or fundamentally hopeful vision through all the dust and smoke kicked up by present events. Yes, we hear about outpourings of generosity in response to disasters, and we hear about the resilience of the human spirit, but those expressions seem to deal with a relatively superficial morality. To my mind, such rhetorical flourishes don’t rise to the stature of truly hopeful vision.

I find myself feeling scared and then angry at the state of the world – not at the natural disasters; those will happen; but at the general lack of profound reflection about the quality of community we might be capable of creating for ourselves – the kind of community that can maintain resilience in the face of crisis. In my anger, it’s tempting to point fingers in an attempt to identify who is to blame for this mess. It is no real surprise that blaming never really works, though according to Family Systems Theory the tendency to cast anxious blame in the face of crisis is normal enough. I find myself wondering if the time has come for me to throw up my hands in despair? Shall I toss a lifetime of optimism into the dustbin where it can hobnob with the rest of life’s disasters? Certainly, that is one option. But before doing it, perhaps I should explore exactly what I would be throwing away with my optimism.

If I choose to remain optimistic, it is necessary to determine the direction of my optimism. I have to figure out what vision operates as the foundation for my hope. I am reminded of all the high school valedictory speeches over the years that have exhorted fresh-faced graduates to create “a better world in which to live.” (The grammar of that phrase has never sounded quite right.) Still, that concept intrigues me: A better world! A better world? Better, how?

What is the direction of “better?” And is it possible to couch such a direction in profoundly hopeful vision rather than stale political rhetoric?

Humanity has always created (or discovered) visions that have been adopted by diverse cultures, often articulated and promulgated by charismatic figures. Too often, the power of the leader overwhelms the vision itself, and if it is being promoted on behalf of those in power, the vision can obscure, if not obfuscate, the often greedy self interest of the promoters.

Given these questions, I find myself wondering what validates any particular vision. Are some visions, then, better than others, or do the visions that find practical success merely reap the benefit of more effective promotion? Perhaps in this postmodern world where everything is subject to deconstruction, the variety of visions can all find themselves in the proverbial column with the heading: “There’s no accounting for taste.” Can all of our visions be reduced to the most potent combination of cleverness, intimidation, and wishful thinking (sometimes referred to as “false hope”)? Or can we evaluate our visions with more depth and creativity than that. The rest of this essay looks at some potential evaluative measures for our visions.
Here are three:
  • Does a vision deal with real people who face real life issues? Many of the visions that have emerged and held sway over the millenia have done so in conjunction with religion: “The Peaceable Kingdom,” and “The Promised Land” from Judaism; “The Kingdom (or Realm) of God” from Christianity; and “Nirvana” from Buddhism to name a few. Many visions are essentially worldly, some are otherworldly, and some don’t have a “world” view at all. How does "worldliness" affect the usefulness of our visions?
  • How does the relationship of the individual to the collective affect the usefulness of the vision? Visions vary enormously in how they deal with the individual in relationship to the collective. At one extreme is the importance of the survival of the individual or immediate family at all costs. At the other end of the spectrum is the value of individual sacrifice on behalf of the greater (collective) good. Some visions connect the extremes by positing the notion that healthy individuals make healthy communities and healthy communities foster the growth and development of healthy individuals. 
  • How important is it for a vision to be “forward-looking?” Some visions look at potential well-being in the short term only, while others promote a deep concern for the future, “even to the seventh generation.”

Putting it all together, what vision(s) inform(s) your life and your economic, relational, and political stances? And if you find hope in your vision, what does it look like when you evaluate it by the above three criteria?

I would be interested in your answers to these questions, and I assume that others who read this blog would be interested as well.

I hope you will let us know what you think.

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Putting Wealth and Community into Perspective

Well, big money wins again! Once again, the the wealthy are prospering and the rest of us are fighting over the crumbs. I read a disheartening statement in the news today. The article, by Geoff Mulvihill is called “Anger brews over government workers' benefits” reports, among other things, that government employees actually do have a slightly better economic deal than private sector workers. Here’s what the article says:
National data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that public-sector workers do better when it comes to pensions and benefits.
As of last September, professional and management workers in the private sector were making $34.91 in hourly salary; public sector professionals made $33.17 an hour.
The government entities spent 1.7 times as much on health care per employee-hour worked and nearly twice as much on retirement costs. Public-sector workers — who are more often represented by unions — are far more likely to have defined-benefit pensions with promises to pay for the retirees' whole lives.

So, here’s the deal: private sector workers make slightly more and public sector workers have better benefits. If we look exclusively at this data, we might be able to make a case for some adjustment. But first, let’s put these figures into some perspective.

Consider this: The richest 400 people in the country have a combined worth of about 1.37 Trillion dollars. That deserves a WOW, but there is an even more significant figure than that. Between 2009 and 2010 the net worth of our 400 wealthiest increased by 8%. First of all, who among the private or public sectors got an 8% raise between 2009 and 2010? In order to put the middle class wage struggle in perspective, let’s assume that 8% is the income for a year of the wealthiest 400.
An 8% increase from $1.27 trillion of $1.37 trillion is about $101.5 billion. That’s about $254 million for each of them.

There are 52 40-hour weeks in a year. So $254 million divided by 2080 hours per year shows us that each of our 400 wealthiest people made $121,995 per hour!!!!!!!!!!

(Someone might argue that the wealthy work hard for their money, so let’s assume, again for the sake of perspective that they work every available hour, never sleeping or taking any kind of a break from work. There are 24 hours times 365 days in a year, or 8760 hours. This means that this group makes $28967 per hour for every hour of the year! If the average worker’s whole economic package is about $50 per hour for 2080 hours per year, consider that the wealthy make more than 2400 times the amount the rest of us make in the same number of hours! (Try putting your own economic numbers into the calculation and see how you fare.)

Now, I ask you, given this obscene disparity, why should the $33 and $34 dollar per hour workers be encouraged to fight with each other about who has the better deal.

So Wayne, you might ask, what does this have to do with community? Well, in the political arena, it appears that the wealthy retain their power in part by fomenting a political situation that makes the rest of us enemies of each other as we fight over the economic crumbs. How can we ever build community when we are manipulated into such an adversarial relationship with the very people who should be our allies against a grossly unjust system? As long as we maintain our narrow focus on the tiny differences between the public and private sector, we will never even see the much more significant elements of systemic injustice.

That’s how I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”