When I was growing up in Hartford during America’s great depression years, my life was quite simple. I wasn’t constrained by a whole lot of rules, but the few that were in force have stayed with me for a lifetime. My mother was the family disciplinarian, and she really meant what she said when she laid down a few understandable guidelines, repeating them often enough to be sure they stuck.
She told me that I must never lie, never cheat, never steal, try to be the best at whatever I did, always work hard, and always respect everyone else and their properties.
Breaches of that code that came to her attention were met with quick, stern, and memorable responses. Some years later, when it was my great privilege to serve as a naval submarine officer, I found that all my childhood guidelines were already clear features of the Navy’s code of conduct and were enforced by what were called Captain’s Masts aboard ship, backed up by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
With my family’s culture already embedded in me, I was completely at home during my six-plus years of active and New London Reserve duty and during that time I also developed greater appreciation for the impact of personal self-governance and accountability in public and private life.
In the late 1960’s, after having launched myself into a precision manufacturing career, I started taking uncomfortable notice of major changes in the ways America was behaving, especially at our national governance level.
Much to the embarrassment and chagrin of several administrations, it became known that our operations in Vietnam had been conducted and characterized by an ugly pattern of lies. Further, our government’s respect for human life had deteriorated to the point that progress in the field was largely expressed in terms of relative body counts.
About 58,000 young American lives were lost as the horrendous cost of disgraceful political blunders. During this same period government policies and legislation had started following the advice of people like Milton Friedman, the Chicago economist, who captured the minds of policy makers with his assertions that profits were the only important responsibility of corporate America.
In that climate, anti-trust mechanisms were idled, and industrial, commercial and services monopolies exploded. A terrible effect of all these changes was that the long-present societal cancer of inequality received huge doses of what amounted to growth hormones. Almost simultaneously, information technologies raced ahead of any meaningful legislative awareness or interest and presented America with what has become a surveillance economy unencumbered by anything even remotely close to the regulations long since governing traditional printed and broadcast media.
Our personal likes, dislikes, behavior, and preferences are now public commodities in a new marketplace dominated by unconstrained new monopolies. In addition to the losses in individual privacy, social media are now a “wild west” of mis- and dis-information and have provided meeting places for the tribes that now divide us, so that they can continue to share their excursions into harmful unrealities. In efforts to do something about the loss of personal privacy, several states, including Connecticut, are beginning to address this complicated issue. That is an encouraging sign, but we are now in danger of winding up with a confusing hodgepodge of local rules across the country.
In the 2020 national election almost half of the electorate voted to reinstall an administration which had left America with a shameful legacy of something like 30,000 lies and big tax breaks for the top 1% of private wealth holders, thereby further worsening our largely unaddressed epidemic of inequality. Individual self-governance, one of a democracy’s most necessary features, has largely been lost as several of our tribes pursued the much easier short-term path of just following a demagogue.
The pervasive absence of truth fomented exponential growth in the mistrust of government. In the Congress, useful dialog in the public’s interest came to a virtual halt as one of our two major political parties abandoned its responsibilities to legislate constructively, and devoted full attention to just obstructing anything with useful potential put forward by the other.
In this weakened climate a tendency has developed to lean on our courts to provide new law through ideologically biased interpretations of what was already on the books, as a replacement for the sworn duty of the Congress to provide balanced legislation. It has become almost impossible to get focused action on even such existential matters like climate change.
Efforts to shore up fundamental democratic basics like voting rights have bogged down in tribal warfare that smells like odious racism. Even in the event of the Covid pandemic, solid scientific recommendations in the public’s best interest were attacked at the highest levels of government because of perceived political implications. In the midst of that pandemic many tribal members in the streets followed their misinformed persuasions to resist and protest scientifically proven measures like vaccinations and mask-wearing, mistakenly claiming that such recommendations and mandates in the public’s interest violated their constitutional freedoms.
There was absolutely nothing in the way of national leadership that addressed the onset of this, the worst single public disaster in our lifetimes. Instead of leadership we received insane suggestions like drinking antiseptic cleaners. More than 985,000 Americans have died to date, the worst record in the developed world.
To change such a picture of our society into something less chaotic will require a long-term effort at every level of governance. This not to say that we should strive for the “good old days”, whatever they might have been like, since they are what got us here.
Thomas Friedman, in one of his past columns observed that only something like a calamity will occasion important changes in the way we conduct ourselves. If we cherish the responsible freedoms of representative democracy at all, the case can be made easily that a national calamity is at hand.
A huge problem for us is that the ugly implications of our mess and their root causes are not generally recognized or understood by our people. Americans have always reacted in vigorous common cause when external threats assaulted our ways of life. A huge difference now is that the vast majority of our current problems are home made. We have yet to get a firm grip on that reality, and deal with it for what it is.
Freedom isn’t free, and never has been. As long ago as mid-19th century, Horace Greely, of “go west young man” fame, observed that serious citizenship needed to be undertaken as a vocation before people could have a lasting impact on the governing processes of a democracy.
In other words, if we want to introduce positive change and install real accountability therein, we must work at it as individuals and groups in dedicated ways. Although it’s surely true that the task of recovering national unity is vast enough to require our government’s lead in many key particulars, the rest of us out here in the provinces need to first figure out how to get it to listen.
The ugly fact of inequality in America has been talked about ad nauseum, but its role as perhaps the prime disabler of democracy hasn’t been clearly recognized as such, with the result that not much beyond talk has happened.
For instance, while an astonishing number of states are making it harder and harder for disadvantaged people to vote, Voting Rights legislation remains bogged down in our tribally handicapped Congress. In order to get constructive messaging heard so that it might make a difference, it needs to come from the local and state groups in which we are engaged; our clubs, societies, professional and civic associations, unions, and churches, etc., and be repeated often enough to break through the selectively permeable sound membranes many of our politicians have erected around themselves and their offices.
The wisdom of the many is often a revelation to authority figures in public or private offices. A long time ago I served on the corporate staff of a very diversified large company. My responsibilities generally were to improve its manufacturing capabilities. Business and strategic planning were almost exclusively the province of marketing and financial departments.
It had occurred to me that this arrangement took no advice whatsoever from what was by far the largest cohort of people who would create the lion’s share of cost and represented the greatest bulk of resources that could be used to satisfy customers. I developed a process for integrating manufacturing insights into business planning. This process attracted top management’s attention, (and maybe alarm), and I was directed to appear before a small corps of highest-level policy makers to explain myself. I did that, they thanked me graciously for my work, and then they went back to business as usual.
For whatever reasons, I was later assigned manufacturing and general management positions in a number of businesses, both domestic and foreign based. All of these were situations with long histories of financial and technical failure and had largely been written off as almost hopeless.
They were anything but hopeless. The people were resourceful, interested in becoming better, and looked mostly for a chance to do what they believed they were really good at. In every case, they expressed their joy at being heard by delivering exponentially improved results. The most important factor in such positive change was creating a culture of stewardship where people listened to each other, became accountable to each other, and directed as much attention as they could to their future possibilities instead of their problems.
As long ago as 1914, Walter Lippman wrote that we couldn’t expect civic virtue from a disenfranchised class. In that statement we recognize how many generations it has been since inequality’s impact on our culture was evident. There can now be no greater threat to our well-being than the state of disunity into which we have fallen.
For some time now we have recognized that this weakness is the aspect of our culture to which adversaries like Russia are addressing themselves. They continue their efforts to worsen it, weaken us, and thereby help friendlier tribes in America reassume autocratic policy power.
Countering this calls for the best we have in us, the same kind of dedication to personal active citizenship that worked in World War II, but even better than that because the enemies are here among us, and the tools of this war are infinitely more subtle.
Charles M. Ericson lives in Farmington.