Structural Change

I still have thoughts after last week’s post, and after previous posts related to Critical Race Theory, so the discussion continues. As you may notice, I have commented on the need for a change that is greater than lip service or genuine good will. I have written of the need for inclusivity in education from a paradigm based on international education, rather than our current paradigms which can sometimes be politicized and alienating rather than constructive and informative. Why do we not have structural change yet? I believe there are a few reasons.

-We have an emphasis on language and image. For example, we can instruct kids and students and people about what words to use to address someone or a particular group. Of course, it is crucial to set certain boundaries and rules about respect (such as never using the N-word with Blacks, or the F- epithet with the LGBTQ community). But this emphasis on language often remains superficial. A white woman may love listening to “Chicano and Latino” singers but vote in ways that don’t stop discriminatory gerrymandering. A college freshman may refer to an 18-year-old as a “woman” rather than a “girl” in the classroom but use her as a booty call on a Friday night after a few drinks. It’s very easy for people to tweet and retweet things like “Black Lives Matter” or post a “Stop Asian Hate” image on Instagram, but are they taking action to help lower SES black kids, or informing themselves about Asian geography and immigration? 

            I am not saying language and image are not important; however, I believe that these things have become a rallying cry and superficial solutions to what are structural problems. People can feel like they have accomplished something by using a politically correct vocabulary. The sad result is that there has been a backlash against political correctness, as we have seen from the rise of the right wing in politics as well as the media. There is a sad reason why Trump got elected. And there are many liberals or generally open-minded people who are also tired of having their speech policed. The Atlantic featured an article in 2018 about this, with the clincher that (from polls and data) those in favor of political correctness tend to be “Rich, highly educated – and white… and make more than $100,000 a year.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/large-majorities-dislike-political-correctness/572581/

-America is a country founded on individualism, which can create ignorance. So, is it any wonder that people may like minorities they know personally or elements of minority culture such as food or music, but not understand the greater challenges various minority groups face? We need to be informed about history, domestic and global, to understand our demographics. We also need to be aware of the economic structures of this country, and how they have favored certain groups. The right wants to blame the immigrants (who are supported by the left) for economic problems; what they don’t realize is that both right and the left are being manipulated by the 1% who have all the power and resources. Class stratification is a huge problem in developing countries as well as the United States, where there are a few government regulations or social support to mitigate the problems. It’s not only our personal individualism that is destroying us as a country, but also the economic individualism.

-A lack of knowledge of history. We scarcely know our own history, let alone the history of other countries who were also powerful and global empires. The late historian Chalmers Johnson mentioned in a lecture I attended that the United States was going the way of the Roman Empire, which fell nearly 2000 years ago. Rome controlled so much of the world, and yet we do not heed any warning signs or choose to learn what brought the downfall of the mighty. We should not repeat past mistakes that were made.

-A lack of knowledge of science and the application of science to public policy. In America, science has largely been ignored or politicized. The number of politicians who truly understand science, the scientific method and rationality, or preventative medicine are few and far between. In popular culture, stereotypes abound about the “nerdiness” of scientists and those who work in STEM fields. There is inadequate explanation by the medical establishment about procedures, wellness, preventative care, and the limits of what medicine can treat. Granted, this has improved in the past few decades. However, not enough attention has been paid to underserved communities and communities that have been manipulated in the name of science and “experiments.” And therefore, we have paid a price, as we have seen during this pandemic, with many communities being suspicious of the Covid vaccine, or not even getting access to it easily, resulting in sickness and death. The individualistic mentality has also led to a questioning of the medical establishment (which is not necessarily a bad thing when done carefully), and so we have anti-vaxxers and quack medicine movements. 

            Medicine has been treated as something very individual. The extreme privatization of our healthcare system is immoral, disgusting, and criminal. Public health has not existed as a visible entity until recently, because we do not think about community and health as a collective issue. Hillary Clinton was bullied for trying to institute universal healthcare; Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”) has met with many challenges as well as opposition from the public and politicians.

-Transportation. Outside of a few urban areas, public transit is poor. This is a country built on the automobile, and even many urban areas require a car. Owning a car also involves maintenance, paying for gasoline, and insurance, all of which can be very expensive depending on where one lives. For many people, this is a huge expense and leaves people in debt. For others, they are dependent on public transportation, at this adds hours of commutes to their days. Families pay a price for this. In addition, there are millions of people who live in extreme climates where it is severely cold or wet, so walking, cycling, or taking public transportation is not always an option. In these cases, eco-friendly vehicles are a key solution, but the economies of scale and availability and technology are not yet affordable for the majority, and so we continue to use polluting vehicles. 

These are just some signs that those in power need to rethink the underpinnings of our society. What are the key institutions that support us? How have we been misinterpreting the Constitution and principles set by our founding fathers to a degree that there is absolutely no collective well-being or consciousness as a society? Why have the obsessions with individual rights going to such extremes that they jeopardize basic well-being for everybody (think: school shootings)? Let’s hope that the recent Black Lives Matter protests, incidents of violence, elections, and pandemic will get people thinking and most importantly, effecting structural change.

Beware the Power Grab

The war on the Ukraine (which is personally disturbing to me, as I have a good friend who grew up in Mariupol) has led me to think about how such terrible acts happen when a very high majority of people in the world are so peaceful, loving, or at the very least, not willing to take action even if they are angry or disagree with someone or an ideology, a people, a religion. Most ordinary citizens are trying to go about their daily lives: paying bills, buying groceries, taking care of their families, going to work, trying to get enough sleep. This is the plight of billions of people in the world, and there are often many more stresses added to it for people in difficult socioeconomic conditions, such as no water, no reliable electricity, poor access to healthcare and education. And when there are crises, these people feel alarmed, deeply affected, sad, or at least concerned. There has been a global outpouring of support for Ukrainians, be it performing music and concerts to raise money to help the people there, hanging Ukrainian flags in their yards, donating money, or wearing a button with a kind message.

When there is this deluge of love and sympathy, how is it that Putin and other warmongers, sociopaths, dictators, or even local-level bullies, greedy individuals, and manipulative people manage to have so much control and wreak havoc? One big piece of it, I believe, is a power grab. While people are attending to daily preoccupations, some people are willing to sacrifice their personal life for power. They are willing to lose sleep, have terrible quality relationships, commit unethical deeds to get ahead. Granted, political activists have told us for decades, centuries or millennia even, that we need to be involved in our political systems; otherwise, the power-hungry will take over. Perhaps, after attending to their Maslowian needs, people get caught up about their clothing, enjoying entertainment, feeling apathetic about the political system, or checking social media ad nauseam in the modern era? 

While there could be an element of truth to this belief that people are sleeping while a few grab power, this is a gross error and huge misassumption in the overall context of culture and evaluating power dynamics. People in power often use force or violence to get there. Think of countless coups in Latin America, genocide in Cambodia, Armenia, and Central Europe, or 9/11. The access to weapons and tools of aggression is frightening at a level that is staggering in our globally-interconnected world. Trying to find the paper trail of, say, a Saudi sheikh who is funding terrorism would be quite difficult, perhaps even nearly impossible in some cases. Same for the one percent who can stash their money offshore through all kinds of financial havens and evade paying taxes. In their case, their weapons are loopholes in the law.

What does this tell us? That the structures and institutions we live in are unjust, unethical, and favor a tiny minority who is in power and in control.

We all start out the same as babies and children. We differentiate into unique personalities, and in these early stages, trauma can have a lasting impact for the rest of a child’s life. Personality disorders form: if not treated, they grow and become a menace not only to the afflicted individual, but also to society. Sometimes these things are invisible: think of the doctor who is accomplished, holds a prestigious degree, appears respectable on the outside, but is cheating her tenants as a landlady and violating local laws. (I, unfortunately, have been the injured party in this situation not once but twice.) Or perhaps an event later in life like a major life change, or a discovery of a talent for making money, amassing property, or holding sway over people leads a person to develop a false sense of power and confidence. Unchecked and unregulated, this individual develops into a narcissist. At the core, this person is weak and frightened, and can only compensate by losing a sense of empathy for others and getting ahead. We live in a frightening era with the rise of the far-right all over the world (with South Korea most recently added to the list.) Innocents and truth tellers are punished, even killed: for every Maria Ressa, there is a Daphne Caruana Galizia.

All these things which I have discussed are things we have witnessed in all sorts of institutions: the Catholic Church, the Oval Office, 1930s German politics, academic departments, 12th-century Mongolian rule, and too many more to list. What does this tell us? We need to evaluate our institutions and ask what sorts of people they produce. Are they enabling bad behavior? Are we, on an individual level, enabling bad behavior simply by not speaking up about it? The bystander effect is something very real. Fundamentally, how do we regulate human behavior, eliminate violence of any form, and develop empathy? These questions extremely difficult to answer and are as old as human beings themselves. So is the situation of powerlessness. But so is the human capacity to fight back and offer love and support.