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Monday, September 23, 2013

A Congressman's Mystique

What is the motivation that drives political lawmakers?  Is Congress a representative sampling of America’s very best?  Or are other human factors at play?

Some believe that how much we think we know, measured up against how little in reality we actually do know, is the difference between book smart vs. experience smart.  It’s knowing that the lessons learned as a kid on the playground in grade school may be more relevant and important than the high-minded intellectual concepts studied later in professional school.  It’s also the difference between knowing when to talk, and knowing when to shut up and listen.  Others say it’s the difference between amassing knowledge and gaining wisdom.

At some point, the brain logically shifts from consideration of “what is the law” to “why is it the law.”  How many times do we find ourselves uttering the familiar words, “If I only knew then what I know now.”  There is always more to learn.

More and more these days, whether it’s about politics, religion or even the local Little League program, I find myself questioning the motives of the leaders involved.  What do they have to gain, or lose, should a particular policy which is being put forth prevail?  Or whether the institution permits discussion of any changes to its arranged order?  When we’re dealing with human nature, doesn’t it seem that self-interest is typically the proponent’s top priority?  Even (and especially!) if it does not appear to be presented that way?  And is the delivery of the proposal true and unbiased, as Jeffersonian simplicity would demand, or are the familiar forces of physical and psychological manipulation hard at work?

Membership in the US Congress provides an illuminating example.  When I was in grade school, I believed that the 535 individuals who comprise the legislative body charged with the unenviable task of lawmaking (435 from the House of Representatives and 100 from the Senate) were idealists.  They maintained character and integrity first and foremost and stood on a higher intellectual plane.  These lawmakers subordinated their own self-interests, bestowing favor instead upon policies for the benefit of the masses of ordinary citizens.  After all, this was the oath they had taken to public service.  They were distinguished citizens, people we looked up to with great respect and admiration for all that they had accomplished and stood for.  And as for those in the Senate, the more reserved, deliberative body, all the more so.

I continued to believe in this line of thinking for many years, until learning Abraham Lincoln’s views.  Many ordinary citizens are unaware that Lincoln was a member of the House of Representatives in 1846, where he served a brief, two year term, some 15 years before he was elected president.  I was much pleased to learn that Lincoln shared at the outset the same speculations and musings about the character and motivations of the men who filled the seats of Congress, and who he was about to meet, encounter and interact with.

But when he had occupied his own seat, then-Congressman Lincoln's views quickly changed.  He became extremely disappointed, finding members by and large to be “men of mediocre ability and only local reputation.” [1]  This was a huge letdown for Lincoln, the thought striking me also with a dull thud.  Further pondering, however, provoked another sobering question: If that was the makeup of Congress then, could it possibly be any different now, with the threat of another federal government shutdown looming on the near horizon?  Being somewhat familiar with the players, I was pretty confident of the answer.

-Michael D’Angelo

[1]  Of course, Congress consisted only of men at the time.  Lincoln mentioned one great exception in John Quincy Adams, the former president, who was one of only two former Presidents to do so (Andrew Johnson later served in the US Senate in the post-Civil War era).  According to Lincoln, JQA was “distinguished alike for his rocklike integrity and his implacable hatred of slavery.”  He was elected to the House of Representatives, serving Massachusetts for eight consecutive terms from 1831 until his death in 1848.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Unreality of Personal Ambition

Is the realization of self about oneself?  Is the great motivation only about collecting things and changing money?  Or does the essence of satisfaction seem to lay elsewhere? ...

We don’t have a lot of detail on the day to day life of Jesus, unfortunately.  But in one familiar story he overturns the tables of the money changers who had infiltrated the halls of the temple, casting them out with a rare display of anger.  It seems that economics had gained an undesirable preference over morality.

And so it goes with the American system.  A human being, to whom we sometimes refer as labor, is a commodity to be used up and exploited.  We have witnessed exploitation in the form of unsafe working conditions, excessive hours, of a wage below the poverty line.  The idea of a “living wage” simply “does not compute” on Wall Street.  When wage “costs” become excessive, jobs and even entire industries are outsourced to a distant shore.  The displaced worker is not consulted.  When he cannot find a comparable paying job, he is ridiculed for being lazy, lacking initiative.  Moreover, little consideration is given either to the needs or desires of the locals in the new “work force.”  What ever happened to altruistic notions of paying a fair share, giving back and paying forward for the next generation?

Typically, the exploitation of a human being is accompanied by the exploitation of the environment and natural resources, without any thought given to sustainability.  Although global warming is now an in-progress fact of life, the powerful status quo continues to muddle the picture for the ordinary citizen, stubbornly refuting its proven scientific validity.  And as progress stalls, the privileged few who comprise the base of the status quo quietly add to their material conquest.  Conservation as a “National Duty” and policy as expressed by T.R. more than 100 years ago, based on “efficient use of finite resources and scientific management of renewable ones,” remains a utopian liberal plot.  It’s either economic prosperity, or the environment, but not both.

The violence of unregulated capitalism, which is portrayed in too many places in the nation’s heartland, produces sacrifice zones, areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. Think coal mining ventures in West Virginia, offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, fracking for natural gas in a multitude of geographical locations. Rich natural resources are extracted, yet the money is not funneled back into the communities that are sitting on top of, or next to those resources. Destruction is not limited to the environment. It includes communities, human beings, families. There appears to be no way to control corporate power. The system has broken down, whether it's Democrat or Republican. We’ve all become commodities.

Why is the value of labor in the human condition to be diminished?  Why does labor only seem to be an expense on the economic balance sheet – but not also an asset?  How is human welfare to be fairly measured, and acknowledged?  T.R. had felt that those who gave earnest thought to the matter saw that the problem of labor was not only an economic, but also a moral, a human problem.  A generation later, F.D.R. signaled the primary role of government was help for the dispossessed, especially in time of need.

But the crisis of a Great Depression occurs.  Then, it passes.  The calamity of a Great Recession of 2008 takes place and passes, too.  A sense of normalcy returns.  But no matter how hard we strive to create a more perfect union, collecting things and changing money remain the great motivation which obscures life’s true purpose.

Consider the story of the man who does yard work.  Taking a break, he drops the rake in a pile of leaves.  When the break ends, since it is partially hidden or perhaps forgetting that the rake is there, he carelessly steps on it.  But when the shaft springs up and strikes him square in the forehead, he is immediately reminded.  Startled, he makes a mental note never to do that again.

But inexplicably, we keep stepping on the same rake. In this way, the business of providing a fair shot for the many, of achieving equality of opportunity for all citizens, remains our great unfinished business. The president said as much in his recent remarks on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s march on Washington.

Yes, the challenge can seem daunting.  But can it be any more daunting than that facing the New Dealers who descended upon the grimness of Washington in the midst of 25% unemployment and the corresponding national fear and despair of 1933?  For the best of them, the satisfaction lay

in some deep sense of giving and sharing, … rooted in the relief of escaping the loneliness and boredom of oneself, and the unreality of personal ambition.  The satisfaction derived from sinking individual effort into the community itself, the common goal and the common end.  This is no escape from self; it is the realization of self.

Yet despite the New Deal’s accomplishment, 35 years later, what had really changed, if anything?  “For the many,” said Robert Kennedy, “roots of despair all feed at a common source.  …  Our gross national product … measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth while."

-Michael D’Angelo