Thursday, September 29, 2016

How Did We Come To This?

In a little over a month, we, the citizens of the United States, will be electing a person to the most powerful job in the world, one that has the capacity to improve lives across the face of the planet, or to set in motion events that could very easily lead to human extinction, all at the stroke of a pen or the utterance of a few words. We will be electing the 45th President of our young country.

What is both sad and truly frightening is that it has become abundantly clear that far too many who have the power of their vote are not taking the heavy responsibility that comes with that power seriously. Too many pay heed only to things that reinforce their heavily biased likes and dislikes, and they ignore even what should be the most worrisome aspects of their chosen candidate’s actions, words, history, and character. No matter how well-proved a concept, or how well-documented an event or statement, the decision is too often made to rationalize, twist, and spin an event sufficiently to reinforce a chosen narrative, rather than consider it on its own merits.

I frequently find myself referring to a brilliant passage, written by Kurt Vonnegut in what is, for me, his seminal work, “Breakfast of Champions.” In the passage, the book’s protagonist, Kilgore Trout, describes the absurdity, the dangers, and in the final analysis, the futility of ideas in our modern culture. I offer the passage here, for your review.

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges on friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.

The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of years, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.

They even had a saying about the futility of ideas: ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’
And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse. But agreements went on, not for the sake of common decency or self-preservation, but for friendliness.

Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead. And when they built computers to do some thinking for them, they designed them not so much for wisdom as for friendliness. So they were doomed. Homicidal beggars could ride.

Over the course of the last decade or so, we have not only programmed our machines so as to reinforce our “badges,” we have taken to structuring our approach to governance and even our closest relationships in like manner. We have no qualms about berating friends and loved ones for not wearing our chosen badge, and have shown an escalating willingness to abandon even those ideals we claim to hold dear if those ideals are actually demonstrated by someone with a different badge. Too many people bellow their patriotism at the top of their lungs, even as they demand that the core principles upon which that patriotism is supposedly based are discarded and damned.
A twice democratically-elected president is reviled, disrespected, and sabotaged, even in the House and Senate, by those who have taken oaths to fulfill the responsibilities of their offices, to work in tandem with fellow officials who may or may not share their political or religious ideologies. They demand that the will of the majority be ignored, and the laws they have sworn to uphold be broken, rather than work with a man they didn’t vote for.
They do everything in their power to discredit, delegitimize, and even destroy a politician they do not like, even threatening to imprison or kill her, should the voters decide that she is their preferred candidate.
They bloviate about their commitment to a Constitution most have never read, yet pick and choose which aspects of that Constitution they are willing to acknowledge. They demand the right of mentally unstable citizens to purchase weapons of destruction, but demand the silencing – or the heads – of journalists who seek the truth. They scream about what they perceive to be government overreach and tyranny, yet clamor to the side of candidates who profess their desire to be unencumbered by any laws or Constitutional limits.
As we near the day of the election, I cannot help but wonder what lies beyond. I sense that a cataclysmic sequence of events is all too possible, no matter which way the election goes. If a tyrant is elected, we will almost certainly lose most of our allies around the world, and will definitely lose their trust. At the same time, our enemies will be emboldened, knowing that they no longer face a united front consisting of all rational nations and their leaders. Actions once considered unthinkable are now very much a part of the debate. Torture, genocide, and nuclear holocaust are considered by the worst among us to be viable tools for achieving our goals, and the kind of rhetoric we as a country and a world rejected over 80 years ago has become mainstream and deemed worthy of consideration. And if the tyrant loses, a significant number of his supporters - self-described as "patriots" - threaten to overthrow the government to which they so loudly and proudly proclaim their allegiance.
I think we all need to listen to our own words, and ask ourselves, Is this the kind of country and world we want to leave our children and their children? Are the lessons we are teaching them really consistent with our proclaimed values as Americans? Or do we want to leave our children a world in which they can feel valued and safe from rage, both within and beyond our borders? If nothing else, do we really believe our children will look upon us with pride if we leave for them a world – or a country – always on the brink of war, over badges? And what if you learn that your children choose not to don the badges you prefer? What then?

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