Saturday, January 26, 2008

Disillusionment Vision

Working through this series on disillusions in America today, readers may wonder what vision may possibly replace our current structure. Let me begin with a recent event.

Yesterday morning was our last day of intensive classes at Meadville Lombard Theological Schools for January. My Religious Humanism class was discussing pastoral issues and side-tracked into a dialogue on social justice issues. Now, if you are a Unitarian Universalist, you have almost certainly heard this conversation before. After 20 or so minutes of Wal-Mart bashing and opining for a living wage, I could stay silent no longer. With a quiver in my voice that this topic always arises, I expressed my exasperation with incremental thinking and the eternal hopefulness of Unitarian Universalists and the religious humanist manifestos that set forth visions without tangible blueprints for change.

As I hope my 'disillusion' postings reveal, I have evolved to the belief that we will never transform America into a just society through our current strategies of social action. Effecting the fundamental changes that are needed will require the creation of a large-scale model of an intentional community as a focal point for our vision of the future. Like Gandhi's ashram, we must establish a new type of society from the ashes of failed America, and not merely nail aluminum siding onto our termite ridden home.

So, what is this vision? Later in the day, I had to escape the class for a few minutes. So, I walked out into the Gothic stone sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. I have always loved Gothic stone structures. The power and majesty of that architecture evoked my image of a new 'Architecture of Life' that I propose. I will flesh this plan out in future postings, but the basic plan is that after a period of planning and fundraising, a significant block of property is bought in an urban area that has been destroyed by city policies of the past century. After leveling whatever building shells exist, we build a new community, with these attributes:
  • 500-1,000 citizens, with as diverse a representation as possible;
  • a community center with activity spaces and dining facilities;
  • encouragement of all forms of entrepreneurial enterprises, as well as common community service expectations of all;
  • 100% green architecture and sustainable lifestyle;
  • schools that teach our vision of preparing children for modern living;
  • assisted living for the elderly;
  • basic health care provided for all; and
  • cooperative consumption in all walks of products and goods.

Most important is a commitment to the elimination of the acquisition of private wealth and excessive materialism.

Of course, an enormous number of details exist to be addressed. The hope is that the vision will attract people of all talents and walks of life who will help iron out difficulties and support the developments of this community. So, if this idea interests you, maybe you can join in the planning and become part of the movement to rebuild and re-envision this nation and this world.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Illusions in America Today #3

I recently began reading Abbie Hoffman's 1969 book Woodstock Nation. Two portions particularly caught my eye. One was the following from “Thorns of the Flower Children.”
They were sick of being programmed by an educational system void of excitement, creativity, and sensitivity. A system that channeled human beings like so many laboratory rats with electrodes rammed up their asses into a highly mechanized maze of class rankings, degrees, careers, neon supermarkets, military-industrial complexes, suburbs, repressed sexuality, hypocrisy, ulcers, and psychoanalysts.
Education will be a subject of a future posting on this topic, but not today. After the initial assault of reading this passage, I felt that mixture of wanting to soften it for those involved in the system who are indeed doing good work and the feeling that nothing had really changed in nearly 40 years. I was 13 at the time Hoffman wrote this, and was fully enmeshed in middle class comfort. So, the radical hippie message was an alien voice to me.

But, today, after more than 30 years in the American higher education system, I am beginning to speak Hoffman's language. Dealing with the bureaucracy and, too often, hypocrisy of a system that is bankrupting our youth financially and perhaps in other more important ways, has left me cynical.

Then, I read further in Hoffman's book, to a selection titled "Che's Last Letter." I saw Motorcycle Diaries when it came out and then read Che's Diary. The writing did not reflect the angry image I was taught as a child, but a gentle and reflective person. After calling for the youth of the United States to join in the revolution, Hoffman's chapter continues
"What is so revolutionary about your revolution?" But, of course, you are cynical. Your universities teach you to be eternal cynics, a cynicism that can only be drowned in alcohol and diet pills and psychoanalysis and golf. Forget your cynicism...You must vomit forth your cynicism on the streets of your cities...
One may argue with the content or philosophy of the revolution. But, this passage speaks to a truth that the motivation to effect change in the world may only begin with the seed of cynicism. In order to view the illusions we live in, and grow the tree of a new way, we must shed cast aside cynicism as our primary tool. We must be willing to put aside the axe and use the shovel and how. We must always use the microscope, but add poetry and song. A revolution in society must be born of reason, but also passion.

A humanist vision can be critical of our current progress and helps us break down centuries-old paradigms and institutions. But, the intellectualism of the humanist vision needs to embrace the cocktail of Hoffman's anger and Che's compassion. Cynicism can serve as a primary vehicle to disillusion. We should water our tree of transformation, however, with the sweat of our determination, the wine of our creativity, and the tears of our love.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Illusions in America Today #2

When you look over the course of your entire life to date, what has given you the most unbridled joy? What was it in your life that made you so happy or had such worth that you would preserve at all costs?

I would guess that most of you thought about things like family, love of a partner, children, and accomplishments. I would also guess that few of you thought about acquiring some amount of money, buying an expensive car or appliance. We live in a society that espouses a capitalist economic philosophy, and yet, the truly important events and experiences in our lives rarely have anything to do with money or the acquisition of wealth. But, a huge proportion of our lives seem to revolve around getting resources and obtaining commodities.

We have all read statistics about how a tiny proportion of people in our society control a massive amount of the wealth. We read these statistics and we shake our heads at the economic injustice that creates poverty, and its affiliated afflictions of racism, inequality, and hopelessness. But, we continue to buy insurance, invest in mutual funds, and buy brand name products of things that we "need" at Wal-Mart and its clones. Have you ever asked yourself why you do this?

We do this because, from childhood, we are taught that these are the behaviors that make our society healthy and strong. And who teaches us this lesson? Who owns the vehicles of this message and propogates this philosophy on every billboard, web site, television show, and magazine? The answer is people who have money and want to acquire more money. So, if their goal is to procure our resources to fill their coffers, should we not question the basic assumption about whether our current form of capitalist economy is indeed in our best interests?

You may ask, what is the alternative? Let me respond with a series of questions.
  • If you lived in a community where your well being was guaranteed by the community, would you need medical insurance?
  • If you lived in a community where, upon your early death, the well being of your dependent loved ones was guaranteed, would you need life insurance?
  • If you lived in a community that valued the elderly and fully integrated their lives in rewarding and meaningful pursuits, would you need retirement plans?
  • If you lived in a community that guaranteed a basic level of a satisfactory lifestyle to every citizen contributing to the welfare of the community, would you need to spend the majority of your life pursuing the acquisition of wealth?
Now, you may well be thinking that this sounds like communism and that we have seen that communism does not work. You would be right in that this sounds like communism at first. But, here is the difference.
  • In this society, you keep your earnings - up to a certain level - and those earnings are yours to spend as you wish.
  • In this society, you are free to pursue the occupation of your choice, with rewards given to those whose activities exemplify social responsibility, justice, and community health.
  • In this society, you will give up unlimited choice of consumer products in return for lower prices and preference given to a market basket that is produced ethically and responsibly.
  • In this society, all market choices are made publicly and disseminated freely by democratically elected citizens (to be more fully discussed in another posting).
Is it possible? Once we shed the illusion that the capitalist system that we have in 21st century America is actually working for the good of all, perhaps such a vision is possible. But it will not be easy. Citizens entering this community must agree to limit their annual income to a cerain level, with amounts exceeding that level going to the community as a whole. The assumption here is that very few people (if anyone) "hit the jackpot" of the American dream, or that they ever do it alone. This model also assumes that the possession of was sums of wealth by any small minority of private citizens is inherently bad for the community, no matter how magnimous those people may be.

Once a caring community of responsible citizens comes together in common purpose, do you really need to buy security? Once you can depend on your neighbors, do you really need more than one home? Once your community functions ethically and responsibly, do you really need the status symbols of wealth? Because, like it or not, our participation in our current system of economics make us complicit in the ongoing poverty and oppression of millions in this country. Until we create an economy that is just, ethical, and compassionate, we will continue to spend most of our time earning money just to buy things and keep us away from the people and experiences that truly bring us joy in life. Until the priviledged in this country sacrifice their "earning potential," that is their ability to acquire more wealth than they would need in a rational and loving community, then the poor will remained consigned to lives of desparation, class systems will perpetrate economic injustice, and people will continue to hate each other merely on the basis of skin color, physical appearance, or accent.