June 28, 2007
SANGAMON COUNTY, ILLINOIS — The tragic events that occurred last April at Virginia Tech rendered all of us speechless. The best I am able to offer to the families of the victims and to members of the Virginia Tech community is to join the rest of the nation in offering my condolences.
In the painful analysis of what happened in Blacksburg, we are left with more questions than answers. We ask, how is it possible that a quiet middle class suburb can produce such violence and hatred? We ask, shouldn’t it be harder to acquire guns? Shouldn’t we ban violent video games? Is it something we’re eating?
It is easy to be distracted by the misuse of guns, and the tastelessness of certain music, video games, websites, TV shows and movies. In some sense, though, all of these are reflective of some rather powerful social dynamics that have been shaping American culture during the past century. Ultimately, the guns and the shows of violence in pop culture are like the rocks that end up hitting us in the avalanche. They can hurt us and they can even kill us – but it does us no good to outlaw rocks. We have to examine what started the avalanche.
Allow me to point out a few interesting generalizations about our country.
- Around 1915, the population of the U.S. shifted so that a majority of Americans lived in large cities rather than in rural areas. From 1970 to 2000, however, suburbanites began to displace city dwellers; the percentage of Americans living in suburban areas shifted from 38% to 50%, while the urbanites dropped to just 30% of the American population.
- While most Americans still live within 100 miles of their birthplace, at least one out of five families changes its residence each year.
- In 19th century literature, the iconic American family living under one roof most often consisted of middle aged parents and their multiple children, along with grandparents and occasionally a spinster aunt or bachelor uncle. In 1970, less than 18% of American households consisted of just one person, and households with five or more people represented about 20% of all households; but by 2000, large households now only represent about 11% and one-person households represent 26% of all households. The iconic American family is now fairly often represented in our culture as the single parent with one or two children.
- Affordable air conditioning for the home was introduced in the 1930s. By 1997, 93% of all housing units in the warmer climates of the South had air conditioning, a circumstance which appears to have had a pronounced effect on the increase in population in the Southern half of the U.S.
- As late as 1969, one fifth of American households did not own a single car. Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2000, however, 30 million vehicles were added to American households on a net basis, and it is common for Americans to spend 60 to 90 minutes alone in their cars going to and from work.
- More than a quarter of all Americans watch television every night, and one third of those go online while they are watching TV. One group projected that in 2006 the average American will have spent 575 minutes a day – over 9 hours – consuming various types of media, including TV, radio, the internet, recorded music, DVDs and video games. Books and magazines represent a mere 37 minutes per day of that total.
- Look on any residential city street with homes built from 80 to 100 years ago, and you will see rows of tightly collected houses, with ample front porches for sitting and taking in the sights and sounds of a neighborhood. Look on any suburban street today, and you will often have a hard time finding the front doors of the houses; the most prominent feature will be a driveway, or a garage, or a gated wall. Is anybody home? You be the judge.
To crystallize all this – in a century, we went from being a people who rarely moved; lived within multi-generational extended families, mainly in small towns or rural areas; enjoyed homes with front porches on which we actually spent time; and generally worked within a short distance of our places of employment …
… to being a more transient people, collected within fractured nuclear families; living in suburban homes with hidden front doors, often located a significant distance from our jobs, spending significant hours of each day seated within our cars or barricaded with our air conditioning, watching TV, surfing the Net or playing video games.
One thing that small town America did very well was provide moral stability. Living out in the open, within a community of acquaintances, there was a certain built-in deterrent to doing harm to your neighbors. It was the glare of community disapproval. One learned early that actions had consequences – and generally speaking, that good actions have good consequences, and bad actions have bad consequences.
What happens in the dark? The cockroaches come out and do their work, until someone turns on the kitchen lights and sends them scattering. Fungus grows. You can spread out your arms, but you can’t see what you might be hitting with them.
I don’t mean, by pointing out every-day differences between America Today and America Past, to promote the idea that we need to reorder ourselves into a kind of mythical Leave it to Beaver or Little House on the Prairie lifestyle — that would be a vacuous suggestion. When the spirit of an age passes away, there’s no returning to it; you simply have to do the best you can within the spirit of your own age. And I do not intend, by the way, to indict the Internet or air conditioning as the roots of all evil. They are not.
I do wish to point out, though, that in America we have gone from being primarily social actors to being de facto solitary figures, and that we should not be surprised that a certain kind of unremitting solitude produces anti-social behavior.
If your child spends all of his or her non-school time poking around in Internet chat rooms or playing video games, they are engaging in the practiced avoidance of social consequences for their cruelest actions. In the meta-interaction of a video game, we can whack away at virtual human beings without meaningful punishment – the only bad consequence is losing the game, pushing the cancel button and starting over again. In chat rooms, we can be shunned for being obnoxious, but we can always rejoin under a new identity. Participating as a voyeur in the daily violence that television has to offer has no readily identifiable, immediately admonishing consequence at all.
In some children, these circumstances merely create sloth or apathy toward social goals; in the worst situations, they can create a habit of sociopathic behavior. The outdoor, public precedents of each of these activities, on the other hand – beating up people, being obnoxious, even witnessing crime — provided immediate consequences that tended to teach better manners and higher ethical standards.
Is it chat rooms or video games that I deplore? No, other than to remark that they evidence a race to the bottom, fed by value-neutral commerce. What I deplore is a generation of lives structured around institutions and habits that are inherently anti-social, fueled by one of the greatest public frauds perpetrated upon American citizens over the last 100 years: the self-righteous misapplication of a right to privacy as a right to remain isolated and uninvolved.
You have a right to avoid publicity, generally. You have a right to make decisions about the conduct of your health care and to conduct your spiritual affairs outside of the public eye. You have a right to keep your financial information private in order to avoid the misappropriation of your identity and your credit. I want to assert to you today, though, that as an American citizen, you have no right to secede from your community. You have no right to avoid the warning signs of anti-social behavior. You have no right to fail to exercise moral authority within your community simply because you don’t want to get involved. You have no right not to intervene.
We’ll never hear a constitutional scholar say it, but a community simply does not work unless people are willing to participate in it. Or, more importantly, a community in which the inhabitants do not meaningfully interact with each other on matters of ethics and social welfare is not a community at all. Rather, it is simply a mob, an anonymous random selection of human lives inevitably subject to the moral ambiguity of “mob rule,” in which sociopathic behavior is unfortunately often rewarded.
In this context, it is easy to see that the Sixth Amendment right to confront one’s accuser does not exist simply to benefit defendants. It is emblematic of the moral function inherent in the idea of community – the effective exercise of moral authority is always personal and confrontational, it cannot be enforced with anonymity. I believe our founding fathers implicitly recognized that.
It has been discussed, ad nauseum, that the teachers and other officials at Virginia Tech felt powerless, within a maze of privacy regulations and potential liability, to do anything about what they perceived to be a troubling situation involving the young man who ultimately committed mass murder in their community.
So, we are starting with the disadvantage of a physical and social milieu in which, without effort, isolation prevails, and in which socialization is therefore weak. Adopting “isolation” as a kind of ersatz public virtue, we have built around ourselves a fortress of laws, regulations, common law misjudgments and bad habits that actually discourage the very behavior that keeps a community running smoothly.
And all of that is shrouded by the misguided notion that the poverty of my neighbor, my neighbor’s illness, the consequences of my neighbor’s advanced age or of his or her hard times are not my problem. The notion that these are problems that the politicians in Washington, or the financiers on Wall Street, or the capitalists in their board rooms, should be solving – not me.
Well, it is really no wonder that our society is breaking down around our ears and elbows.
There is no morality in society unless I can also get it through my head that I am my brother’s keeper. That is the essence of an ethical relationship. Community moral authority is not solely about restricting behavior – moral authority in the absence of practical human charity and compassion is empty and ultimately meaningless.
I know we want to remain secure in our hermetically sealed cars with our satellite radios, drowning out the ugliest noises; we want to remain comfortable on our couches, watching our TVs and sending emails; and we want to elect Presidents who tell us that we should just sit tight and they will solve our problems. That’s a lie that we’re all participating in on some level.
The tragedy at Virginia Tech shows that, fundamentally, beneath all the manifestly ungovernable debris of pop culture, our communities are not working the way they should. We’re not producing real citizens.
The solution to all of this is not a simple one. Each of us has to examine our own role in providing moral authority within our communities, and we need to exercise courage in seizing the initiative. We need our legislators to examine ways in which we can liberate those of us who would rise to community leadership, to help bridge the gap between the forces that isolate us and the necessity of self-stewardship. And we need a President and a federal apparatus that uses its authority to enable communities to take the leading role in solving their own problems. Our nation’s leaders have to stop pretending they have all the answers, and instead show real leadership in providing us with the tools to help our communities coalesce and flourish.
There is no Superman, there is no Wonder Woman. There’s only you and me, and we’ve got to get busy.
I thank you for listening, and I’ll be seeing you along the trail.
June 23, 2007
ALONG INTERSTATE 80, SOMEWHERE IN IOWA — When I last checked, the United States was a nation of approximately 301 million people, with a gross domestic product of $13 trillion. The annual federal spending budget stood at $2.8 trillion. Total federal indebtedness is around $8.5 trillion. We spend, as a country, $2 trillion on health care each year, and 47 million Americans are lacking health care coverage. Around the world, perhaps 3 million people have died in armed conflicts from 1998 to 2005, and perhaps 25 million have been displaced because of conflicts or human rights violations during the same period. Perhaps 1.1 billion people around the world live in poverty.
Notice that there wasn’t a single number in that string of very important facts that had a value of less than a million. In most of these cases, we’re talking about numbers in the tens of millions, billions or trillions. Is there anything that any of you are required to exercise some conscious effort to control within your daily lives that is numbered in the tens of millions, let alone in billions or trillions? The answer is no. I don’t care who you are, or what you do. These are numbers that are really beyond the scope of day-to-day human understanding. Even the heads of multi-national corporations, guys like Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates, aren’t really called upon to control the effective, socially responsible dispensation of trillions of dollars on a day-to-day basis, or to worry about the welfare of hundreds of millions of souls.
And yet, as I watch the debates that have transpired over the last several weeks, I find that there are at least 10, maybe 11 Republicans, and at least 8, maybe 9 Democrats, that are telling you that they can do it, that they can actually exercise effective, socially responsible control over such numbers – with every promise they make, with every admittedly artful critique of what is wrong with our country, and with all of their body language.
They’re probably fine fellows, the lot of them. Mrs. Clinton, too.
I don’t know any of them personally, but I can assure you that each and every one of them … is probably certifiably nuts.
Really, you have to admit that the notion that they are seriously vying for the privilege of occupying a role that each of them would describe as being “the most powerful human being in the free world” has all the earmarks of a certain pathology to it. If you look at the DSM –IV – the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as published by the American Psychiatric Association – there is a description of a character of mental disorder known as the “narcissistic personality.” It is described as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy … an exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) … preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love” … someone who “believes he is ‘special’ and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)” and “has a sense of entitlement.”
It is without any apology whatsoever that I assert to you today that any man or woman that believes that he or she can solve our most important problems, standing as the protector of a billion people and directing the movement of trillions of dollars, is defined, inherently, as someone having a narcissistic personality.
And I hate to say it, boys and girls, but there is no Superman, and there is no Wonder Woman. Heck, there isn’t even a Flash or a Hawkman. At best, we’re all a bunch of Jimmy Olsens and Lois Lanes – flawed, with flashes of heroism and cleverness.
The fact that there are no super-human beings in brightly-colored dancewear available does not, however, mean that the United States is inherently ungovernable. Especially with regard to our most pressing domestic issues – energy independence, poverty and the availability of medical and elder care – our best chance to achieve effective governance in this country is to take a cue from Aristotle. Break the problem down into easily manageable and understandable sections. Divide and conquer.
Thomas Jefferson, one of our most revered founding fathers, certainly thought this was a good idea. In a letter to Gideon Granger in 1800, as he prepared to become our third President, Jefferson wrote: “Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens; and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite public agents to corruption, plunder and waste.”
And after his presidency, in a letter to Joseph Cabell in 1816: “The way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the function he is competent to. Let the National Government be entrusted with the defence of the nation and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.”
And in a letter during the same year to Samuel Kercheval: “We should thus marshal our government into, 1. the general federal republic, for all concerns foreign and federal; 2. that of the State, for what relates to our own citizens exclusively; 3. the county republics, for the duties and concerns of the county; and 4. the ward republics, for the small and yet numerous and interesting concerns of the neighborhood; and in government, as well as in every other business of life, it is by division and subdivision of duties alone, that all matters, great and small, can be managed to perfection. And the whole is cemented by giving to every citizen, personally, a part in the administration of the public affairs.”
You can say that it is impractical in the 21st century to approach the problem of, say, health care in the United States by focusing on how you provide it to groups of 5,000 to 7,000 people. I would say that it is impractical not to look at providing health care in this way, that we are in dire need of looking at the problem in this way … to improve accountability, to tailor our measures to the specific problems of our own community, and to avoid corruption, plunder and waste. I would say that your Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates, with their pathologically narcissistic point of view, have led you to believe that the federal government needs to “be big” and “think big” in order to handle the issue – even the ones that talk about smaller government. Each of the major candidates for President talk about providing universal health care coverage, or at the very least, about tinkering with federal programs like Medicare. They have led you to believe that a President should control these issues, as if in the final analysis, in practice, one size fits all.
I want to propose to you a new role for the presidency, a new role for Congress, and ultimately, a new role for every citizen of this nation. And by “new,” I mean something that’s incidentally a lot closer to the original intent of the framers of our nation’s political institutions. But I say “incidentally,” because my argument here is not that we need to have the government operate in a certain way because some good, smart fellows said so a couple of hundred years ago. That’s certainly helpful, but … I propose these “new-old” roles because the wisdom and human instincts reflected in the design of the founders are still compelling – and we’ve gone completely astray from such wisdom and instincts as a nation and as individuals.
The new role of the President and Congress in a community-oriented society will be to set the tone and to formulate the policies for a federal government that shifts the focus of problem-solving to citizens at the local level. The governing principle of such a presidency is that the best solution to many if not most of the primary challenges we face in our country is one that is designed and implemented locally.
Divide and conquer. Delegate control, assist with resources. Tailor solutions to fit local circumstances. 5,000 to 7,000 people at a time. With greater accountability for failure, and for corruption, plunder and waste. Engaged, self-governing communities, enabled by the federal treasury and enforcement, subject to the basic principles that reflect one of the best services our federal government is capable of providing: a national playing field of fairness and individual human dignity.
I’ll be spending the next several months talking about the national issues that are best served by a community-oriented approach – ones that desperately need to be wrenched away from the pathological control of unchecked federal actors – and some issues that still require a practical and supportive overlay of federal regulation and enforcement, or the sure and steady hand of an appropriately empowered chief executive.
And finally, another theme we will be looking at is the new role of the citizen. Don’t think for a moment that you were going to get away so easy. Unfortunately, the best enabler of a pathologically narcissistic President or member of Congress is an apathetic populace that expects the federal government to fix all our problems without bothering us too much.
It is time for us to break the cycle of co-dependence, people. It is time for an intervention. Let’s start soon. The problem is only going to get worse if we continue to deny it exists.
I thank you for listening, and I’ll be seeing you along the trail.
June 23, 2007
FROM THE HEARTLAND OF THE U.S. — Friends and accidental by-standers, welcome and thank you for coming. I will keep my remarks brief today.
After much deliberation and discussion among family, friends and the occasional detractor, I have decided to throw my hat into the ring as a candidate for President of the United States. Rather than enter a quixotic and ultimately fruitless slog through the primaries for the nomination of either the Democratic or the Republican Party, however, I have decided to initiate a quixotic and probably rather fruitless slog through the general campaign, beginning today, as the candidate and nominee of my own self-formed political party, the Ward Republic Party.
We have no funds for this campaign – nor do we intend to seek any. We have no access to the ballot, and frankly, we have no real base of support. And by “we,” I really mean me. I do have plenty ideas, though, and time.
Of course, whatever the merits and advantages of the so-called top tier candidates we all read so much about, all of them have more currency, in every sense of the word, than I do. Nevertheless, over the next several months, I will be traveling around the country and unveiling and hopefully leading a discussion of my ideas and views on everything from the Iraq War to Energy, from Fiscal Policy to the Role of Government itself.
The central themes of each of these discussions, I think, will be most unique among candidates for President. We will be focusing on the values of proximity and community.
Our national politicians have, for too long, thrived on their self-created illusion that this nation is actually governable from their monolithic marble village inside the DC Beltway. It is not. Both the solutions for most of what ails us, and the best habits of living that can be created from such solutions, are local; and the role of national government, should be to stand ready to aid in local solutions – it should exist to encourage empowerment, rather than merely to consolidate power. So we will be talking about restructuring our government, and ultimately our lives, our culture and our perceptions of self in ways that will help this nation meet the challenge of maximizing our limited resources, and that will reinforce our ability and our desire to care for one another.
Those of you who have read my blog on a regular basis, back when I was posting more regularly, know that I like to poke a little harmless fun at the rampant fascination of certain segments of our culture with gloom, doom and the end of the world, with antichrists, members of the so-called illuminati, and other sinister boogey-men … our fetish with hopelessness. Well, I do think there’s much around us to inspire our fear. But I also think there’s a lot to be hopeful about, especially if we focus first on what’s in our own backyard. If I can help a few more people to see that, then this quixotic slog of mine will be anything but fruitless.
I thank you for listening, and I’ll be seeing you along the trail.