Can We Elect a Leader That Will Make Us Better People?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 26, 2019

If Democrats win the 2020 election will we become better people? We assume whoever we elect will change the country for the better but isn’t it “we the people” rather than a single leader that will make that happen? Liberals believe Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us. But conservatives feel the future is brighter than its been in years. Which is it? Trump gave the rich a gigantic tax cut but added a staggering amount to the national debt. Trump is fighting for economic fairness with our trading partners yet Wall Street is in a panic, our farmers are going broke, and our allies think we’ve gone nuts. Trump has rolled back on all kinds of regulations just when we need more regulations to save the environment. Trump has revealed the hidden racism and xenophobia we thought we’d had overcome.

However, if a Democrat is elected in 2020 will any of this change? Can a new president pass sweeping laws that will halt climate change, stop greed, or end hatred of other people?

I’ve been reading two books that are so positive about the future I almost think they were written by someone named Pollyanna: The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku and Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance by Naveen Jain. Kaku is a physicist that sees a glowing science-fictional future of mankind colonizing the Moon and Mars. Jain is an entrepreneur that pleads with us to think positive and overcome our self-fulfilling pessimism.

Positive books

I have to wonder if Jain is right. Can we be better people if we think positive? His book is quite inspirational, but I wonder if he isn’t selling snake oil. There’s a huge industry out there selling success, with costly seminars, courses, and books that people buy to convince themselves to become rich by willpower. Both books show how we’ve accomplished so much in the past so why not believe we’ll do the same tomorrow.

Doesn’t chasing abundance ignore the price of abundance? Trump says I can make you richer by cutting taxes. That appears to be true. But how rich will we all be if he runs the economy into the ground? When the Republicans deny climate change are they saying, “Don’t spoil the magic of abundance by bringing in reality!”

And I’m not just questioning the conservatives. If we elect a Democrat will that person stop global warming, halt illegal immigration, eliminate gun violence, dissolve racism and reduce xenophobia? Isn’t that also magical thinking? What Trump revealed is society can make people speak and act politically correct but still think political incorrectness in their hearts.

The only way to stop climate change is for everyone to use 90% less of fossil fuels. That means driving less, flying less, eating less meat, heating and air conditioning less, and I mean a whole lot less. The only way to keep the oceans from filling up with plastics is to stop using 90% of the plastics we use now. The only way to end racism is to fully integrate, make everyone truly equal under the law, and bring about economic equality. The only way to end sexism is for everyone to live by the Golden Rule.

However, if we quit using fossil fuels the economy will collapse. How do we shop when practically everything comes in a plastic container? The government has been trying to bring about integration for decades and we haven’t allowed it. And who really lives by the Golden Rule? I don’t think Elizabeth, Kamala, or Bernie can pass laws to change these traits. We have to change ourselves. But if we could do that wouldn’t we have done so already?

I’m an atheist, but I do read the Bible. The most common thread in the Old Testament is the prophets constantly pleading with the people to follow God’s will. They never do. The Bible is one long story of people failing to live righteously, failing to change. Hasn’t laws replaced scripture as a method of social engineering? Can we vote in righteousness? Haven’t we already decided religion failed and our best hope is law and order?

If you look at history, people are better under laws. Isn’t the social unrest we’re seeing, the mad shooters, the road rages, the street gangs, the political corruption really a rebellion against laws? Republicans hate regulations but isn’t that because those laws hinder their greed? Conservatives want libertarian laws for themselves, but law and order for everyone else.

One interesting insight that Naveen Jain points out in his book is Americans are extremely pessimistic about the future, but the Chinese are practically glowing with optimism. Why would that be? Isn’t China an extremely regulated society with a rigid Big Brother government? Shouldn’t living under an Orwellian rule crush the Chinese people’s spirit? Why do they have hope when we don’t?

I don’t think people are going to change. But I do think society changes. And I think society suppresses human nature, controls greed, and codifies the Golden Rule. I wonder if the followers of Trump love him because he apparently frees them from the growing burden of rules. Trump is all for regulating people he doesn’t like but isn’t he loved for deregulating human nature in his true believers?

Essayists are those folks making running commentary on the side-lines of history. We don’t have the answers. We’re just trying to guess what’s happening from making consistent observations. I believe both conservatives and liberals wished the world was more orderly, just, and fair. The conservatives want to be free to pursue their dreams of abundance and hate regulations that hinder their success. They don’t want to see limitations. Liberals see life on Earth like being in a lifeboat. We must share our resources fairly. Conservatives hate that attitude because it assumes there isn’t unlimited abundance for all. How does picking a new leader change this dynamic?

Have we reached a stage in society where laws are no longer effective? Many people will say they were never effective, but if you study history and other societies around the globe it’s obvious that’s not true. What might be true is we’ve reached a new stage where they are becoming ineffective because too many people are ready to revolt. We are getting very close to “It’s every man for themselves” panic. (I wanted to rephrase that old saying to not show gender bias, but when society collapses, women will lose all their political gains and the bias will be true again.)

I got a clue from this New York Times article, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Your Vacation?” In Sweden, air travel is down because enough of their citizens worry about its impact on the climate. Some of their citizens have voluntarily acted on their own for the good of all. But that’s from a smaller, less dense country than ours, and one that’s socialistic, which means they are more concerned with the common good. We are more concerned with individual freedoms and opportunity. Our nationalistic psyche is different. We believe we should grab all we can take, to go for the gusto. We have revised greed from sin into a virtue. Are Americas fundamentally different from citizens of other societies?

I’m not sure if we vote in Harris, Sanders or Warren that will change. I’ve been thinking about how I’d have to live to walk my talk. I already feel I do a great deal to be environmental, but I doubt its enough. If I used 1/7,000,000,000 of my share of sustainable resources, what would that be? And if I polluted 1/7,000,000,000 share of sustainable waste, what would it be? And what’s the difference between choosing on my own to live environmentally, and voting in a person that will pass laws that make us?

Even though I’m an atheist, I would say that difference would be finding the Kingdom of Heaven within, and being a slave in Paradise.

JWH

[Damn, I write about weird shit sometimes, don’t I? No wonder some writers feel they are channeling a muse. Sometimes I feel its all pointless philosophy and I should go play in my science fictional worlds.]

Like and Sharing Society

by James Wallace Harris

Today we like each other by clicking a Facebook icon and share by inviting others to view images and videos that trigger our strong emotions. Oh, we still share by getting together for an activity or like each other with hugs and kisses, but it seems less often, doesn’t it?

In David Brooks’ latest column at The New York Times he says:

When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it became a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.

As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.

That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.

In primitive societies, whole groups would live in one big room. Over time families moved into their own separate dwellings, but often were multigenerational. Then we invented the nuclear family. And now people often live alone in apartments. We connect by computers to create virtual social bonds. It’s kind of weird when you think about it.

This also reminds of the classic 1909 science fiction story by E. M. Forster called “The Machine Stops.” Eighty years before the WWW Forster imagined humans ultimately living alone in rooms connected to each other by a machine. Read this story, it will amaze you.

These trends sound like a sad progression of human evolution, but I believe there are reasons why we’ve chosen our paths. Primitive people worked together with a common goal of survival. Everyone had to contribute. The same was true to a lesser degree during the era of multigenerational families. Even during the early era of nuclear families, we had much to keep us together. But once everyone had a different job that took them into a different direction, and we developed our own personal interests and goals, things came apart. Even as late as the 1950s and 1960s families still had a lot of shared experiences. With only one television parents and kids would gather around it in the evenings. They ate their dinners together while watching Ed Sullivan or Lassie. Kids would go to school, and parents would go to work, but they still found countless shared interests to spend time together.

What separated me from my family in 1962 was a clock radio. But also my father worked two jobs and my mother one, so they disappeared for most of the day. Yet, when they were home, I began retreating to my room to listen to Top 40 Rock ‘n’ Roll and reading science fiction while they watched The Beverly Hillbillies with my sister.

Brooks dates our divergence with the computer, but I think it came earlier with other technologies. When I got that clock radio and my sister got a portable record player we went our different ways. By the 1970s many families had multiple television sets, so each family member took to their separate rooms to watch only what they loved. We stopped making the effort to sit through shows other people loved. In the 1980s personal computers came out and we divided again. Walkmans, MP3 players, audiobooks, tablets, smartphones, they’ve all given us ways to isolate ourselves into pursing highly unique art forms.

Anthologies-web

Think about all the interests and hobbies that only you love. Above is a photo of what currently separates me from other people. My fascination with reading old science fiction short stories and studying their history culls me off from the rest of humanity. By Brooks’ distinction, I’m defined by both print and digital technologies, but I also love hearing these stories read by professional narrators, so that connects me with an oral tradition too. But when I listen, I’m wearing headphones that shut me off from the rest of reality, although I’d love to know someone who’d like to listen to the stories with me.

When Susan, my wife comes home from work we sometimes eat together, and sometimes not. We faithfully watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy that we recorded on our TiVo, and then she goes to the living room to watch her shows and I stay in the den to watch mine. We got married in 1978, and through 2008, we had one television set, and we’d watched the same shows together every night.

In 2008 Susan took a job out of town, and for ten years we watched television separately and we learned exactly the kind of TV that resonated with our personalities. I developed a number of friends who came over to watch TV with me, and I learned that friendship was a VENN diagram of shared TV shows. No two people have exact tastes. When Susan moved back permanently last year she brought her own TV, so we had two. We also had two Rokus, and subscriptions to several streaming TV services that allowed us to watch exactly what we want to watch when we wanted to watch. We had also learned to binge-watch different kinds of shows. Taste in TV now separates us.

We do find other ways to share. We’ve been doing game nights with friends. Last night was a game night, and the four of us all talked about the TV shows we watched. It was kind of funny because our tastes overlapped in various combinations. If I wanted companionship to watch my TV shows, I might need to call a dozen different people, and some nights I’d still be watching TV alone.

When TV was broadcast, most of my friends watched the same shows. Now with over 500 scripted TV shows being produced every year, friends connect by the few unique shows we each share a love to watch. And I often feel I disappoint people when I tell them I don’t like the shows they love. It was damn surprising how much The Game of Thrones united people.

I really enjoy having friends over to watch shows together, but that seldom happens anymore. For ten years my TV buddy Janis and I shared a love of several shows and we’d get together and watch them 3-4 times a week. But Janis has moved to Mexico, and most of my other friends don’t want to come over to watch TV that regularly.

I have a handful of internet friends who also love the old science fiction anthologies, and we have a group email address we use to discuss them. I’m also in two online book clubs where we discuss books daily by email. I guess these replace my water cooler friends from my work days.

Facebook is constantly attacked in the news nowadays, but it’s a very useful tool for keeping up with family and friends. Knowing that someone else likes the same cat videos as I do is nice. Not much of a bond, but at least it’s a shared affinity. What really bonds people is raising a family or a career that forces you to work intimately with other people. Susan and I never had kids, and my work days are over. My friend Mike and I work on a computer/web project together, and that’s a great way to connect.

It’s funny, but I think the single thing that brings me and my friends together now is our collective worry about getting old, and our constant talk of bodily functions. Nothing bonds aging baby boomers like a conversation about constipation.

Lately, I’ve wondered about retirement villages. Would moving to a 55+ community would create new kinds of social bonds? I’ve wondered if it would create the social structures I had back in my K-12 years. Would playing Pickleball and Four Square everyday undo all the specialized isolation that TV and computers created? Who knows, maybe I could find other people to watch Perry Mason, or even share a love of 1950s science fiction like these guys:

JWH