William Michael Hanks : Good Government and the Mountain Within Us

Mount Fuji. It’s all in how you look at it.

Climbing the mountain:
The foundations of good government

By William Michael Hanks / The Rag Blog / June 20, 2010

It is interesting how we each, in the progressive community, have different takes on the same issues — social justice, civil liberties and others.

How much more difficult may it be to come to agreement with others of more widely divergent views? Yet, that is what will be required to achieve substantial remedies to the very serious difficulties that stand in the way of realizing our hopes for a free society.

Are we, and our political opposites, really seeing and pursuing different goals or are we seeing and pursuing the same goals in different ways? The answer will determine our ability to achieve the power in numbers to effect change.

It’s like a group of companions who are hiking in the wilderness and suddenly see a mountain in the distance. It’s an awesome sight and everyone has something to say about it. The geologist comments on the clearly defined folded strata, the forester is taken with the different varieties of trees ascending from the base to the tree line, and the skier instinctively looks for that perfect line of descent on the slopes.

I believe there is an internal landscape, like that mountain, which exists within each of us and indeed within all human beings going back to our humble beginnings. At first the imperatives of survival took precedence over all other concerns. But, as civilization formed cooperative communities, mankind began to express and codify this internal landscape into the domains of culture and law.

We see traces of these attempts to describe our common internal sense of truth in the laws of Moses, Hammurabi, and Salon in Greece, Roman law, the Magna Carta, and the U.S. Constitution, among many others. The most successful examples are those that resonate with the greatest fidelity to each individual’s view of their own internal landscape.

That is why the ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have such currency. They are not inventions or discoveries but expressions of truths that exists independently and within all individuals — truths that each of us can recognize within ourselves.

So then, with all this truth in us, how is it, as a people, we find it so hard to describe it, agree on it, and act together? The answer, I believe, is twofold. Our experiences influence how we view the truth, like the geologist who sees the rocks, and the forester who sees the trees. And, our self-interests influence our interpretation of it — it’s meaning in our lives.

During the period of the civil war, the traditional churches condemned slavery and, in contrast, the fundamentalist churches justified it. Why? It wasn’t so much because one was better than the other. Surely principles influenced these positions, but a far more powerful influence was that the constituencies, and therefore the financial support of the churches in the South, were overwhelmingly fundamentalist.

It was in the self-interest of the economic powers to favor slavery. Those who had no “dog in the fight” were free to act on principle.

Likewise the corruption and the infidelity to our sense of internal truth in our present day can be seen in the economic influences acting upon our legislative, administrative and judicial systems. Examples abound. BP’s sacrifices of human life and of the environment for self-interested financial gain are being exposed in the Congressional hearings today.

It seems that our greatest challenge is not so much in defining what is right or wrong — we all carry a more or less clear idea of that within us — but in designing social and political systems that remove as far as possible the influence of individual self-interest from the process of deciding public policy.

If we continue to merely react in outrage to pork barrel deals, corrupt influence, and cavalier military excursions we have accomplished nothing. The perpetrators are duly corrected and admonished and, rubbing their hands together, chuckle gleefully to the bank. Instead, let’s design a system that works for citizens, not just politicians and financial interests. We have a good start but it is the responsibility of each generation to move closer to that goal.

For the solution to the problem of adverse influence on public policy I believe we must proceed from the following premise: that the people are the foundation and the guardians of democracy (not a new idea). And, that for the people to effectively exercise that responsibility, certain things are conditional. There are four major obstacles to good government today. When we overcome these, I’m sure there will be others.

The first is that people must have the time to focus on the issues. Therefore a revisiting of labor laws is in order. If people are being worked to death and entertained silly there won’t be much left for the more important task of guarding democracy. Corporations have found ways around the 40-hour week by promoting workers to “executive” or “supervisory” positions that are exempt from labor laws that limit the required workweek.

In their few hours of spare time people naturally fall prey to the seduction of mass media and constant sales messages. Corporations must be prevented from working people to the point of not being able to discharge their civic duties. A real and effective limitation on required working hours would go a long way towards reducing unemployment as well.

Second, we must insist upon making available quality education through the baccalaureate level for any who desire it and are willing to do the work. It does little good to have a vote if one hasn’t a clue as to how to exercise it — or is not well informed.

In fact an ignorant and uninformed electorate insures the fact that people will not and cannot have a positive influence on their government. If this is done, military adventurism will take care of itself — we simply can’t afford to both educate our people and support foreign military adventures at the same time.

Third, we must have universal health care. If people are too sick to be concerned with good government we will suffer from a weakening of one of the pillars of good government — a healthy electorate. If people are financially ruined or mentally and physically destroyed by health problems they won’t have the ability to exert a positive influence on our democracy. The people’s numbers — our greatest strength — are diminished.

Then we must remove the immunity of power and return to a true representation of the idea, which exists within each of us, that no one is above the law. Politicians, powerful government appointees, and corporate executives get away with “taking responsibility” without taking consequences. We need to insure true accountability. We send people to jail who do far less damage to our society than corrupt politicians, inept appointees, and greedy executives.

A healthy, well-educated public with the time and ability to exercise their civic responsibilities and hold their representatives accountable is fundamentally necessary to advance “the great experiment.” We’re a long way from that today.

These are strategic measures that will go far towards realizing the ideals that, for the most part, we all carry within us. The tactical ways to achieve these goals will require compromises.

To secure real change we must have a substantial majority of the people focused on these four strategic goals. No single political party can secure these alone. We must find practical ways of working together — even with those with whom we may profoundly disagree — or find distasteful. We don’t have to find a way to achieve the lofty destiny of loving one another, just how to work together towards achieving the goal of good government.

To do that we must begin to identify common cause with all those who are stakeholders in our democracy — or at least as many as possible. Then, having identified common ground, create understanding with others who see things through the lens of different culture, experiences, and self-interests.

The point is that the left wing-right wing, Democrat-Republican battles are playing in to the hands of those who benefit from the status quo. The ongoing battles are fun for some and profitable for others but as long as we are pitted against one another we cannot move forward towards curing the ills of our times. I know this is counterintuitive, but when the enemy of good government is not our political opponents but the status quo, it is nevertheless true.

Does that mean we shouldn’t debate with others — just agree? Absolutely not! The constructive exchange of ideas is the soil from which good decisions emerge. Well-informed and good-natured debate sheds light on the issues of our times. We would be derelict in our duties and in our intellectual integrity not to pursue these issues vigorously.

I guess what I’m saying, regarding the tactical measures to achieve the strategic goal of removing the current major obstacles to good government — time, education, health care, and accountability — is to extend the kind of discourse we have among progressives to others of even more divergent viewpoints and create a force that cannot be ignored. Take a Tea Party follower to dinner tonight. We can’t win this alone.

[William Michael Hanks is a writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Nacogdoches, Texas.]

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