by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
We often ask ourselves why Americans do not care about politics.
Perhaps the real question is "Why should they?" The mainstream of America is not strongly political. It never was.
Most people live their lives with politics on the periphery of their experience. They are drawn into politics because they have been lead to believe that they, as individuals, are incapable of changing the way things are -- but, at the same time, envision of a world that they yearn to make real for themselves and their children.
The overwhelming majority of us share that vision. We want a more benevolent world, one where the weak are not exploited; where all can enjoy the unfolding potentials of technology while the environment moves towards a pristine condition that now seems impossible.
We want the potential to stretch the limits of our own strengths while we need not fear the depredations of those around us.
We seek to see the weak cherished, the strong aware and responsible. That is what we want. But to get there we need to reconsider the road that we have marked out for that transit in time.
Political action does not work. The public knows this on an intuitive level. And slowly, individuals are reaching out to find ways to bring that world into existence.
So, ask again. Why should the woman on the street care who is running for president?
Even when, more and more rarely, political figures win the respect of the average American, those figures are not central to their lives and the political dialogue is less important that the daily concerns of making a living and caring for their families.
Politics is, in fact, less important to the average American than what they are about to watch on television - or their child's grade in English. We vote with the hours of our lives as well as with the dollars we earn, and what we do with our time speaks truth about what is most important to us. Americans live their lives in other forums, divorced from the process and postures of politics. In the civic forum they are members of groups, such as Lions Club, Optimists, Masons, the Little League, Red Cross and the other voluntary institutions which, by in large, are the means by which real public policy, consensual voluntary policy, is enacted.
America does work -- amazingly well. Benevolent outpourings of aid have marked every catastrophe in recent time. Compassion is perhaps the most essential quality of the American people.
The cynicism of the political world conflicts sharply with the cultural reality that underlies and lives in the minds and hearts of Americans. Private concerns, individually funded, do more to feed the poor and sustain the needy than do governmental programs, which have also committed generations of women and children to dependency.
Individuals know that. They go about their business, quietly donate money and work while the trumpets and cacaphonic announcements of ever-larger intrusions into their lives continue to drown out the voice of benevolence that lives within each individual.
Politics does not work. The present ground swell of support for Senator John McCain can be viewed as a strong "no" to the political process. He is supported not because of who he is but despite it.
In creating a world of unfolding possibilities we need a new technology of thought and action. If all you have is a hammer it is reasonable that everything looks like a nail.
Politics doesn't work. And the reasons are plain, if you really think about it.
Politics began here in America on the model of the town meeting. Individuals, each familiar with the others and aware of their needs, came together and decided what needed to be done.
They were worse than dirt poor by our standards. Starvation was not an unusual cause of death. Malnutrition was common in the early years.
People on the edge understand that the choices they are making have grave impact. They know that they will be looking at the same faces, year after year. They also will have hard times and need the support of their communities. But they also understand what they can afford and lack the means to give more than has been produced. Few illusions exist in such an environment.
Prosperity multiplied what it was possible to give. And they gave more and more freely as their means increased. But the poor and less able understood that the gift was charity and participated in a world that urged them to become self-sufficient. The illusion of entitlements did not exist.
We are the children of nature and nature recognizes no entitlements. But we are also the children of a culture of human weaving as deep and as long as all time. We have failed to understand and appreciate that we are neither animals or divorced from our biological roots.
We are in error. We have believed that politics as we know it today is natural. It is not. It is a human device that is failing to work because of the flaws in the thought from which it was constructed. Politics as practiced today makes the vision we hold in common impossible to realize.
And the reasons for this are also the answers to what must be done.
If we want to create a world in which each individual is empowered we must begin with moving towards a system where every individual exercises power. It is not the job of politicians to debug the system and then return it to the people.
What we build, and how we build it, process and product, and indistinguishable. If we want benevolence we must choose it directly, now, with the acts of our own lives.
What does that mean? We are the compassionate animals. And it is benevolence that made us human, drew us in the image of the sacred, however we relate to that most intimate and inherent of human values. And benevolence cannot be carried out with acts of coercion. Those are the fang and claw that we also carry within us. But which we need to use our minds and acts to change.
There is a simple and short way of stating what the rules should be in terms of how we relate to each other. It is drawn from the similarities of all the major religions and philosophical points of view. We call it Benevolent Individualism.
1. To create a world of increasing creativity, production, and trust all exchanges between individuals must be made in the absence of force, coercion and fraud.
2. The more powerful party to any exchange is responsible for ensuring that the exchange is fair.
It is as simple as that.
We come to the world as mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, aunts and every kind of friend to each other. In each of these venues that we live the most intimate moments of our lives. And in this arena we also speak and are heard, both by word and by our acts.
It is into these two forums for human dialogue that I suggest we take our desire for change using Benevolent Individualism as a tool to help people understand what standards should be. Most Americans believe in individuals before they believe in abstract principles. They are right. Political leaders are expected to be role models because most people, every where on Earth, learn from watching others act in their lives, unconsciously deriving the principles that give birth to those acts, from these observations. But they do not identify the underlying philosophical premises as the source of the principles. They believe that principles spring from people and their actions. People watch us act as individuals to hear what we are really saying.
I shudder to think what politicians have been saying to each of us.
When a candidate speaks voters listen - and then they consider the candidate as an example of the worldview he or she is promoting. If Mother Theresa tells you she cares about the poor and dying, you believe her. She demonstrated her concern through a lifetime of acts.
The argument gains moral weight.
If the local head of the homeless shelter tells you he or she is running it so that means can be found to provide answers to the problems facing the dispossessed can be found, you believe them. But if the candidate has never contributed, volunteered time or is even known to those who have made the issue their concern tells you they care you find a very different response. The uninformed may believe you, if your speech is good enough, but those in the know not only don't believe, they know you are just looking for votes. You lack moral weight because you have not earned it. All values must be earned to be real.
This is why where politics works best is on the local level. People know and use the unstated dialogue of the individual's life written in action to judge suitability for trust in office. It works least on a national level where spin and media create a presence that is manufactured to order. Recent events have impressed this on the public.
Americans are the most benevolent, giving people in the world. Routinely, Americans give billions to charities of all kinds.
They volunteer in astonishing numbers, training pups toward the intense discipline of becoming seeing-eye dogs, feeding the hungry, caring for the abused, dropping everything to go stand on the line and hold fires at bay, search for missing persons. You name it; volunteers do it. They are not usually savvy philosophically. They are ordinary people who see problems and solve them using their own time and money. Each of us is, personally, a representative to everyone who knows us, of the philosophy we espouse.
If you cheat on your wife or husband, declare bankruptcy, don't pay your bills, don't honor your word, or engage in other entirely private behavior you speak loudly to those around, you will be heard. If you decry government and then turn around and use it to gain advantages you have not honestly acquired, you are heard. If you justify such behavior as "personal" then you have defined your worldview as being morally schizophrenic. You have committed moral suicide. You have lost your voice to speak truth. And truth is an essential aspect of a benevolent world.
Why have we lowered our expectations for truth from those serving in high office?
Entirely personal modes of behavior can convince those around you that the world you envision is possible and desirable. But unethical behavior: lying, engaging in ever-so-personal frauds, tells those around you that your politics is just words. You are just a different brand of politician. Speaking to others through the highest standard of personal behavior is transformational on all levels -- for ourselves, for our communities, for our nation and for the world. Let us consider for a moment some other movements that were successful in changing the world for freedom.
It will probably surprise you to know that early Christianity was, in fact, a freedom movement for the most disadvantaged. Women. In the classical pagan world women were chattel.
Owned, sold into early marriage, forced to abort unwanted pregnancies, kill their infants, resold if their husbands died, not allowed to speak in their own defense or raise a hand to keep their children from a similar fate.
They owned nothing, being property themselves. No manumission was possible short of the grave.
In early Christian communities it was different. A woman chose her husband and when she would marry. She was free to keep her children; she was a respected member of the church community, contributing time and money in her own name.
How did this change that world? Look around you. In the 300 years that this was true of Christianity the sect grew from an original estimate of 3,000 to a majority of the population. Other factors contributed. Such as nursing the sick, family and pagan neighbors, through the frequent plagues that afflicted cities, but the increase is steady, lead by the majority of women in the Christian sects. A steady 40% a decade until Christianity was the dominant religion of the Western World.
You can view Christianity as a religion and disregard its effects. Or you can view it as a philosophical and cultural pattern of behaviors that worked. Benevolence worked. Freedom worked. The world changed.
When I began studying the cultural content of freedom movements I did not expect to find Christianity among them. But it was. So was Islam, it its early years. Again, lead by increased freedom for women, it became a major cultural force along with becoming a major religion.
But we do not need to end our inquiry with religions. We can look as the origins of America itself.
Early Puritans and Quakers, despite reports to the contrary, were bastions of comparative female freedom. That is not to say that they were what we would view today as egalitarian in a gender sense, only that they gave women a greater share of freedom than the cultural and religious offerings otherwise available to them. Women, the least free, chose, and the world changed. The American Revolution, the Transcendentalist Movement, the Abolitionist Movement, and the Suffragist Movement each reflect the same underlying dynamics. Women worked, most often without credit, and the world changed.
The reason that New England, the source and strength of the American Revolution, was able to field the incredible 10,000 men marching towards Concord on April 19th lay in the fact that wives, mother, sisters and daughters both urged them to act and continued to provide the capital to make it possible.
The least free choose and the world changes. But we need to give those hungry for freedom a choice. And the least free are still women, although that is changing.
The feminist movement has failed women. As we move into the new millennium NOW and similar organizations fight a constant shrinkage of memberships and support. They failed to offer women alternatives to the substantial problems that define their lives. Women are leaving quietly, taking their support with them.
The philosophical premises of the left are anti-freedom and anti-individualist in many ways. The leadership of feminism today is inherently socialist. Socialism, which promised greater individual autonomy, actually creates an even more oppressive hierarchy.
We know that the world is moving away from hierarchies and towards a network model for human action. This reflects in every aspect of our lives, especially in leading edge technologies, such as the Internet.
It is also true that hierarchies are intrinsically male while networks are essentially female.
But this is not a simple issue of gender conflict. It is an issue of conflict on a level of choices in behavioral strategies.
Like with original Christianity, behavioral strategies, the exemplification of theological commitment or philosophy, is the means by which individuals change the world around them. And those lines are not cut on lines of gender but on lines of what we are and are not willing to do to get what we want. The present placement of women as leftists is an historic anomaly. All successful movements have had, at the center of their being, a solid core of committed women who constituted the continuity and source of energy. This was true because women, as the least free yet most invested in outcomes that impacted their children, were the most likely to work for change. But that did not mean that the means they adopted necessarily worked. The Prohibitionist Movement is stark proof of that.
While activists were right about the costs liquor exacted they were wrong about what to do. If instead of outlawing liquor they had worked to empower women, make husbands accountable for battery, depredations on assets and given women presence as people the problem would have faded. Instead they mandated external controls. And we are still living today with the power distortions they thus created.
The freedom movement, the new left, the establishment -- in many ways there is little to choose between them. They will fail because they have not take-ups the issues that effect women and others who are powerless where they live.
The real issues are all freedom issues.
The assumption that the State can or should legislate marriage law takes from women the most important thing they possess; their personal autonomy. We would not allow this practice for business; we should not tolerate it for women. Women, in the absence of a consensual and non-coercive contract to the contrary, should have the right to control not just their bodies but all products of their bodies. The chief among these their own children. But women cannot write marriage contracts that contradict mandated State policy. They cannot do that any more than they can contract to sell sexual services without inciting the wrath of law enforcement.
One of the first items on the agenda for freedom should have been the cessation of governmental intrusion into the sovereign rights of all individuals to contract in the most intimate of their relationships. It is time to redress this neglect.
The failure of the State to provide justice to women who have become victims of violence, domestic and by strangers, is an issue of freedom. If you cannot be safe in your own home you are not free. Individuals who have been abused know this in their bones. They know the shackles of fear. They are constrained and yearn for a freedom they do not even believe possible.
It is time to stop crime against individuals by providing to them the guarantees of autonomy backed by the right to redress and real restitution from their abusers.
Each answer must model to the observed the same principles: that we do not tolerate the use of force, coercion, or fraud in any context.
As we enact this on the most personal level the ripples of change will go out making change easier on every other level.
If we expect consistently excellent personal ethics from all individuals, reducing conflict in our personal lives and suffering on all levels of society, we will have moved mountains. We will have shown those around us that ethics and honor can be individually enforced.
If we ask nothing less from politicians and turn all out of office that fail to meet those standards we will have gone far towards changing the way politics plays out on our public stage.
There is nothing so private that it is not impacting others except your own unspoken and unenacted thoughts. And to pretend the world is otherwise is to create a slippery slope that will consume all hope for change.
We have created entitlements for politicians. In a largely unspoken agreement media and politicians have acted as if their personal acts of predations did not happen. And into the gulf thus opened have slipped the lives of countless individuals. If the truth is voided then we live in the unreality of a lie. Lies, in distorting the truth, kill the unfolding potentials of the human spirit.
The victims of abuse will tell you that far worse than the abuse it the pressure to not talk about the truth of what happened. One may distort the body but the other kills the soul.
We are the product of the actions of biological forces that we only imperfectly understand. Onto that we have built a human culture that moves beyond what was possible for animals. We live in our image of the Sacred, using this, too, as a model for the unfolding process that is the human experience. We are human and treading the sabers edge of time into a future we can only barely imagine.
Is what I say impossible? No, nor is it unlikely. It needed to be said. As you read this you will think about it and recognize that such changes are long in coming. It is hard for individuals, and hard for us working together. But it is possible. And it is really very simple.
The hardest things usually are.
All journeys must have a beginning. And this is such a time -- a journey that we will not live to see. But that we helped launch
Why do we tolerate politics as usual?
In writing this I read numerous books which proved to be most interesting.
I heartily recommend these four in particular:
- Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1994, W.W. Norton & Company)
- The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: : The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain (1998, Viking Press)
- Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light by Leonard Shlain (1991, William Morrow & Co)
- The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark (1997, HarperCollins)