The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Two Clocks

Many people over time have compared the world to a clock.  It is an apt comparison: the world is complex, and it conforms to the passage of time.  In recent days, however, I have come to appreciate that this world-as-clock notion actually allows for two different views.

One view

Some people, myself included, see the world as mechanical.  To these "mechanics," life and society are functions of interworking gears, pulleys, levers, and fulcrums.  The clock is a marvel, yet it is ultimately comprised of simple machines following understandable laws and methods.  We can study it; we can grasp pieces if not the whole; we can learn to tweak it and fix it when it breaks.

Mechanics may or may not believe in a "clockmaker," a divine force that established the system in the first place.  Those mechanics who do, again myself included, see this clockmaker as having done the assembly, and we do regard the possibility of periodic intervention -- winding, maintenance, and even occasional improvement to the original design.  Other mechanics believe that the clock came into being by chance, that no one ever checks back on it and there is no clockmaker at all.  We differ in this regard, and it is a significant difference of opinion, but we are unified in our general perception that that clock, however it was made, is now ours.


I have recently come to appreciate that a great many people view the world as digital.  These "electricians" do not concern themselves with the workings of the clock.  The clock tallies time and things occur, presumably according to rules, but in a world of integrated circuits of microscopic size, these workings are so complex as to be beyond virtually all inspection.  The clock works because it is connected to power, and the electricians' sole concern is that power not be interrupted. 

Electricians also may or may not believe that the source of power is divine, though in the vast majority of cases they do.  The unifying perception of the electrician is that the clock works as it will, and that it is not our place to do anything but keep it connected and watch it count forward.  One minute will follow the next in the fashion intended, whether by God or by "The Universe."  (These technically differ; I find that when one personifies the universe, he or she is merely abstracting the concept of God.)


The implications of how we perceive the world -- whether we are mechanics or electricians -- are of great practical significance.  Mechanics like me see flaws in the system and want to correct them, and we believe that it is both possible and morally proper that we do so.  The progressive ideal flows from the mechanical view of the world, that by tightening and loosening, oiling and dusting, we can help ensure equality of opportunity for everyone.  The liberal ideal also flows from the mechanical worldview, that we are morally obligated to provide for some level of comparable life outcome.  These views are not the same, but they are related.

Libertarians and conservatives belong to the electrician school of thought.  The former believe that equal opportunity exists by design (market rule) and the latter believe that inequality is intended and meaningful ("Everything happens for a reason"), but these distinct views are nonetheless common to a belief that any attempt to "correct" the system is at best absurd and perhaps blasphemous. Electricians do not welcome the "meddling" of the mechanics because they see the system as both closed and charged; prodding at it with simple tools is likely to blow circuits and make bring the whole thing down, and then it would be beyond human ability to fix it.

Mechanics are fact-seekers.  The most extreme electricians are decidedly opposite: desperation to believe that we cannot understand the world can manifest outright denial of science because it contradicts their truth.  (The most familiar example of this in American culture will be the contrast between those who believe in evolution, which may include the notion of a guided intelligent design, and the strict creationists who insist all life appeared in its current form.  The notion that the Earth is not more than 7000 years old based on Biblical interpretation is another example.)


When there is such a fundamental divide between us on what it means for things to be "right," it may be impossible to find common ground.  One side getting its way on an issue is likely to spark outrage among those on the other side. 

For a time, perhaps, numbers may shift sway so drastically that one side holds a near-dominant position; this happened in America during the first half of the 20th Century, when the progressive agenda took hold in both our our main political parties.  But beyond certain points, progressives break with liberals and libertarians break with conservatives, so after any such shift, it is likely only a matter of time before we find ourselves again where we are today: deadlocked.

So, we are going to argue.  As we do, however, we should at all times strive for civility and respect.  We might help smooth over relations by cutting back on the extent to which we tout our "wins."   History shows that coexistence with those whose beliefs are fundamentally different from ones own is genuinely difficult.  When we forget that everyone means well and start to see each other as enemies, the future of our country becomes murkier.

That isn't an outcome any of us should want.

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