Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture
Chapter 12 -- The Good Stuff
Chapter 12 — The Good Stuff
A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. …If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.
—Thomas Jefferson, writing about the conservative John Adams presidency
At the core of every form of political and social organization is culture—the collective stories people tell themselves about who they are, how they got there, and where they’re going. Government, in many ways, is one of the most direct expressions of culture, as we’ve seen by the forms of governance adopted by groups ranging from the Maori to the New Caledonians to the Danes to modern-day Americans. Conservatives are fond of describing contemporary political battles as “culture wars,” and this is far truer than most Americans realize.
The good news is that democracy has come under assault in America before, we’ve survived, and the nation actually became stronger for the struggle. The year 1798, for example, was a crisis year for democracy and those who, like Thomas Jefferson, believed the United States of America was a shining light of liberty, a principled republic in a world of cynical kingdoms, feudal fiefdoms, and theocracies. Although you won’t learn much about it from reading the “Republican histories” of the Founders being published and promoted in the corporate media these days (particularly those of John Adams, whom conservatives are trying to reclaim as a great president), the most notorious stain on the presidency of John Adams began in 1798, with the passage of a series of laws startlingly similar to the Patriot Act.
In order to suppress opposition from the Democratic Republican Party (today called simply the Democratic Party) and about twenty independent newspapers who opposed John Adams’s Federalist Party policies, Federalist senators and congressmen—who controlled both legislative houses along with the presidency—passed a series of four laws that came to be known together as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The vote was so narrow—44 to 41 in the House of Representatives—that in order to ensure passage, the lawmakers wrote a sunset provision into the Acts’ most odious parts: Those laws, unless renewed, would expire the last day of John Adams’s first term of office, March 3, 1801.
Empowered with this early version of the Patriot Act, President John Adams ordered his “unpatriotic” opponents arrested (beginning with Benjamin Franklin’s grandson) and specified that only Federalist judges on the Supreme Court would be both judges and jurors.
The Alien and Sedition Acts reflected the new attitude Adams and his wife had brought to Washington, D.C., in 1796, a take-no-prisoners type of politics in which no opposition was tolerated. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, George Washington, America’s second president had succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear and division in the new republic, and it brought out the worst in his conservative supporters. Across the new nation, Federalist mobs and Federalist-controlled police and militia attacked Democratic-Republican newspapers and shouted down or threatened individuals who dared speak out in public against John Adams.
In the end, the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials, expired in 1801. The Alien Enemies Act, which enables the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries are at war with the United States of America remains in effect today (and is most often brought forth during times of war). Some things, it seems, have changed, but many remain the same from the days of Adams’s Federalist hysteria.[liv]
Recovering a Culture of Democracy
Our democracy and culture have truly reached a threshold. It is time, now, for us once again to follow Jefferson’s wise advice. Hope for the best, organize for a better America, and recognize the power and evil unleashed by politicians who believe that campaign lies are defensible, laws gutting the Bill of Rights are acceptable, and that the ends of stability justify the means of repression and corruption.
America has been through crises before, and far worse. If we retain the vigilance and energy of Jefferson, who succeeded Adams as president—as today we face every bit as much a struggle against the same forces that he fought—we shall prevail.
For the simple reason that, underneath it all, “this is a game where principles are the stake.”
While the principles of that day were confined largely to issues of democracy, personal liberty, and the public good (the interconnectedness of humans), today we have an added principle that we must draw quickly into our national—and international—consciousness. Very simply, if we fail to realize—and to make part of our national education and discourse—the reality of our interconnectedness with every other life form on the planet and the importance to hold them all sacred, we may well perish, or at the very least descend into a hellish existence of our own making.
As Leonardo DiCaprio so eloquently points out in his movie of the same name, we are now at the eleventh hour:
An acre and a half of rainforest is vanishing with every tick of the second hand—rain forests that are not only one of the two primary lungs of the planet, but also have given us fully 25 percent of our pharmaceuticals, while we’ve only examined about 1 percent of rain forest plants for pharmaceutical activity.[lv] They account for fully half of the planet’s biodiversity, although in the past century over half of the world’s rainforest cover has vanished. In Brazil alone over 90 separate rain forest human cultures, complete with languages, histories, and knowledge of the rain forest, have vanished since the beginning of the last century.[lvi]
In 2008 the “Red List” of endangered species was updated to note that fully half of all mammals on earth (we are mammals, let’s not forget) are in full-blown decline, while the number of threatened mammals is as high as 36 percent.[lvii]
* Every five seconds a child somewhere in the world dies from hunger; every second somebody is infected with TB, the most rapidly growing disease in the world, which currently infects more than a billion people; every day one hundred to species vanish forever from this planet.
In America there are 45 million people with no health insurance, and most Americans are one illness or job-loss away from disaster. Worldwide, more than half of all humans are already experiencing that full-bore disaster, living without reliable sanitation, water, or food supplies. As global climate change accelerates, within thirty years more than five billion humans living along seacoasts or in areas with unstable water supplies will experience life-threatening water-related crises.[lviii]
Every single one of these problems (and the many others mentioned earlier) is, at its core, a crisis of culture.
Reunite Us with Nature
Nothing but changing our way of seeing and understanding the world can produce real, meaningful, and lasting change, and that change in perspective—that stepping through the door to a new and healthy culture—will then naturally lead us to begin to control our populations, save our forests, recreate community, reduce our wasteful consumption, and return our democracy to “We the People.”
This requires transforming our culture through reimagining and re-understanding the world as a living and complex thing, rather than as a machine with a series of levers and meters. We are not separate from nature, and we are not separate from each other. “We are all one” is a religious cliché, but when you look at our planet from space and see this small blue marble spinning through empty blackness at millions of miles an hour, you get that, like most clichés, it’s grounded in a fundamental truth.
The message of mystics from time immemorial is that, at its core, that we’re all interconnected and interdependent. Ironically, such mystics were the founders of all the world’s great religions, yet that part of their message has largely been ignored—although every major religious tradition still has within it the core of the idea of oneness.
In October 2005, the thirty-million-member National Association of Evangelicals sent a statement to their fifty-thousand member churches that said, in part: “We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part. … [G]overnment has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation.”
It’s a beginning that we must bring to all religions, to all governments, to all people of the world.
Create an Economy Modeled on Biology
As noted earlier, cells that grow infinitely and consume the resources of everything around them, in biology, are called “cancerous.”
Our fractional banking system using privately owned Federal Reserve banks creates money every time money is borrowed, but never creates enough to accommodate the payment of interest. The result is that the system is set up like a game of musical chairs: there will always be somebody left out when the music stops, somebody who must pay interest but has no money. If we are to end the cycles of boom and bust that fractional banking produces, money should be purchased from its private hands and brought into the Treasury Department as the Constitution envisaged.
Similarly our modern industrial society is set up in ways that produce enormous amounts of waste that cannot be used as a raw material for something else. It’s a linear system—an unending line—drawn inside the circle of our Earth, and a line that is now puncturing the edges of that circle, destroying our planet.
In nature, everything’s waste is something else’s food. We must reinvent our economy to be entirely sustainable, just as humans did for tens of thousands of years before we developed the most modern of technologies. We can do this by heavily taxing those industrial systems that produce waste (particularly carbon) and rewarding those whose processes and products produce no waste.
At the same time, we should seriously consider rolling back the Reagan tax cuts. To get us out of the Republican Great Depression of the 1930s, FDR put this nation back to work, in part by raising taxes on income above $2.3 million a year (in today’s dollars) to 91 percent, and corporate taxes to over 50 percent of profits. The revenue from those income taxes built dams, roads, bridges, sewers, water systems, schools, hospitals, train stations, railways, an interstate highway system, and airports. It educated a generation returning from World War II. It acted as a cap on the rare but occasional obsessively greedy person taking so much out of the economy that it impoverished the rest of us.
Through the 1950s, though, more and more loopholes for the rich were built into the tax code, so much so that JFK observed in his second debate with Richard Nixon that dropping the top tax rate to 70 percent but tightening up the loopholes would actually be a tax increase.
JFK pushed through that tax increase to take us back toward FDR/Truman/Eisenhower revenue levels, and we continued to build infrastructure in the United States, and even put men on the moon. Health care and college were cheap and widely available. Working people could raise a family and have security in their old age. Every billion dollars (a half-week in Iraq) invested in infrastructure in America created forty-seven thousand good-paying jobs as Americans built America.
But the rich fought back, and won big time in 1980, when Reagan, until then the fringe “voodoo economics” candidate who was heading into the election trailing far behind Jimmy Carter, was swept into the White House on a wave of public concern of the Iranians taking U.S. hostages. Reagan promptly cut income taxes on the very rich from 70 percent down to 27 percent. Corporate tax rates were also cut so severely that they went from representing over 33 percent of total federal tax receipts in 1951 to less than 9 percent in 1983 (they’re still in that neighborhood, the lowest in the industrialized world).
The result was devastating. Our government was suddenly so badly awash in red ink that Reagan doubled the tax paid only by people earning less than $40,000 a year (FICA), and then began borrowing from the huge surplus this new tax was accumulating in the Social Security Trust Fund. Even with that, Reagan had to borrow more money in his eight years than the sum total of all presidents from George Washington to Jimmy Carter combined.
In addition to badly throwing the nation into debt, Reagan’s tax cut blew out the ceiling on the accumulation of wealth, leading to a new Gilded Age and the rise of a generation of super-wealthy that hadn’t been seen since the robber baron era of the 1890s or the Roaring Twenties.
And, most tragically, Reagan’s tax cuts caused America to stop investing in infrastructure. As a nation, we’ve been coasting since the early 1980s, living on borrowed money while we burn through (in some cases literally) the hospitals, roads, bridges, steam tunnels, and other infrastructure we built in the Golden Age of the Middle Class, between the 1940s and the 1980s.
We even stopped investing in the intellectual infrastructure of this nation: college education. A degree that a student in the 1970s could have paid for by working as a waitress at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant (what my wife did in the late 60s; I did so working as a near-minimum-wage DJ) now means incurring massive and life-altering debt for all but the very wealthy. Reagan, who as governor ended free tuition at the University of California, put into place the foundations for the explosion in college tuition we see today.
The Associated Press reported on August 4, 2007, that the president of Nike, Mark Parker, “raked in $3.6 million [in compensation] in ’07.” That’s $13,846 per weekday, $69,230 a week. And yet it would still keep him just below the top 70 percent tax rate if this were the pre-Reagan era. We had a social consensus that somebody earning around $3 million a year was fine, but above that was really more than anybody needed to live in America.
In the worldview Americans held in the 1930–1980 era, Parker’s compensation was at the top end of reasonable. But William McGuire’s (also known in the business press as “Dollar Bill”) taking over $1.6 billion (that’s $1,600,000,000.00) from the nation’s second largest health insurance company (you wonder where your healthcare dollars are going?) would have been considered excessive before the “Reagan Revolution.”
There is much discussion of what the floor on earnings should be—the minimum wage—but none about the ceiling. That’s largely because effectively there is no ceiling, and those who control vast wealth in America are happy to have Americans fight over “How poor is too poor?” just so long as nobody asks “How rich is too rich?”
When Reagan dropped the top income tax rate from over 70 percent down to under 30 percent, all hell broke loose. With the legal and social restraint to unlimited selfishness removed, “the good of the nation” was replaced by “greed is good” as the primary paradigm.
In the years since then, mind-boggling wealth has risen among fewer than twenty thousand people in America (the top 0.01 percent of wage-earners), but their influence has been tremendous. They finance “conservative” think tanks (think Joseph Coors and the Heritage Foundation), change public opinion (think Walton heirs funding a covert effort to end the estate tax), lobby, and work to strip down public institutions.
The middle class is being replaced by the working poor. American infrastructure built with tax revenues during the 1934–1981 is now crumbling and disintegrating. Hospitals and highways and power and water systems have been corporatized. People are dying.
The debate about whether or not to roll Bush’s tax cuts back to Clinton’s modest mid-30 percent rates is absurd. It’s time to roll back the entire horribly failed experiment of the Reagan tax cuts. And use that money to pay down Reagan’s debt and rebuild this nation.
These steps—and other commonsense things such as a national single-payer healthcare system (aka “Medicare for all”) and reinstating the .25 percent Securities Transaction Excise Tax (STET) on stock trades (which was repealed in 1966 after stabilizing the stock market since the early 1930s)—won’t be easy. The three hundred thousand multimillionaires and billionaires in this country will fight it with everything they have. But it’s been done before, by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, a change that led to five decades of prosperity for the middle class. (The wealthiest Americans did okay, too.)
It’ll require a complete re-understanding of the purpose of an economy (that it’s here to serve us, not vice versa), but it can be done.
Balance the Power of Women and Men
The Iroquois Confederacy, which our constitution was largely inspired by, required that all decisions be based on their impact on the seventh generation, and placed women in positions of equal power with men.
The Iroquois had it right. We must stop looking at short-term profit and consider seriously the future of our nation and our world. It’s not just the “right thing to do” but the essential thing to do.
And the primary leverage point to do this is the world’s religions, since they’re the principal carriers of the toxic stories that women are responsible for the fall of man, should be the property of men, or at the very least should, as St. Paul says in I Corinthians 14: “… as in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
Christianity—even the Catholic Church—has largely risen above these very explicit and specific instructions found in the New Testament, although many denominations have a long way to go with regard to allowing an equal station for women in the church hierarchy. Judaism similarly now has broadened its scope to the point where in many synagogues it’s not uncommon to find a woman as the rabbi. All need to go further, and Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism need enlightened men and women among their ranks to awaken them to the importance of egalitarianism and gender equality.
We no longer live in an age when the largest army or the largest congregation wins the day. We can—we must—safely discard these now-destructive notions of male superiority and dominance. Beyond immediately stabilizing the world’s human population, it’ll also bring to the benefit of society tremendous creative and leadership potential that in most societies around the world is trapped in the shadows.
Influence People by Helping Them Rather than Bombing Them
Thomas Jefferson—and a number of others among the Founders—argued strongly that we should not have a standing army at all during times of peace. None.
In a September 10, 1814, letter to his friend Thomas Cooper, Jefferson noted that “Our men are so happy at home that they will not hire themselves to be shot at for a shilling a day.”
In his December 20, 1787, letter to James Madison during the Constitutional Convention, Jefferson said that he would not support ratification of the new Constitution without “A bill of rights, providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land, and not by the laws of nations.”
In the end, monopolies were not restricted (regulation of corporations was left to the states—the words “monopoly” and “corporation” don’t appear in the Constitution), and the ban on standing armies was stripped from the Second Amendment (although it had found its way into the Constitution of Pennsylvania early on).
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as he left office in January of 1961, famously warned Americans against the rise of a permanent military establishment in bed with a permanent arms industry:
“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea,” Eisenhower said. “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well.”
But the cold war had brought into being this new creature, and it alarmed Eisenhower:
“We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. …Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Eisenhower—the general who oversaw the U.S. victory against Hitler and led more than a million men in battle during his years—went a step further than just calling for us to be wary of defense contractors having a cozy relationship with the Department of Defense. He called for outright disarmament and a spiritual renewal of America.
“As we peer into society’s future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
“Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”
“Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. …
“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.
It is a terrible and tragic acknowledgment of the power of the fear, hate, and revenge that have defined and driven the Bush administration for eight years that such language by a national leader today would earn him derision. When Dennis Kucinich proposed a Department of Peace at the cabinet level, so there would always be an advocate for peace in every presidential cabinet meeting, his own party largely ignored the call.
Yet peace is the only way to truly influence others. Over the short term we may have our way with bombs and guns, but over the long term it’s the nations we’ve helped rebuild who have been our best and most lasting friends.
If we want to end terrorism in the world, we must end its cause—poverty, oppression, and the domination of women by men under the guise of religion. Building hospitals and schools around the world would cost us a tiny fraction of the trillion dollars we spend every year on our military (and of the interest on the money we borrow to fund our military).
On March 28, 1999, Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times:
“For globalization to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is. The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonald-Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
This is the pure reasoning of empire, and when followed it always produces the same result: collapse. Every civilization in history that has followed this mentality, creating a permanent armaments industry (remember Eisenhower’s observation that such a thing had never existed in the United States history until the 1950s) and intertwining that with hundreds of external military operations (we now have more than seven hundred military bases outside the United States; the second busiest airport in the world, second to Heathrow, is one of our air force bases in Iraq), has imploded with painful consequences to its citizens.
Changing Our Response to Terrorism
Similarly, our response to terrorism must be recalibrated.
When America was struck on April 19, 1997, by a terrorist in Oklahoma City, President Bill Clinton didn’t call for a perpetual war against the Christian terrorist groups to which Timothy McVeigh belonged. In fact, McVeigh had read a novel popular among the Far Right in the United States that starts with an Aryan Christian patriot bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City, then leads to an overreaction by the president, leading to the good, white, God-fearing Christians taking up arms and bringing down the government of the United States. That scenario, laid out in The Turner Diaries, was what McVeigh both hoped for and expected.
Instead, Clinton declared McVeigh and his associates to be psychopaths and criminals, arrested them, held a fair and open trial, and convicted and punished them. The citizens of Oklahoma City got closure, the American people were able to move on, the white supremacy movement was devastated, and the criminals got the justice they deserved.
On the other hand, Osama Bin Laden had openly declared his hope that his acts of terrorism against the United States would cause President Bush to overreact militarily, and that overreaction has cost us a fortune in blood and money.
A week before the election of 2004, Bin Laden released a videotape in which he gloated:
“We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah.
“We, alongside the mujahedeen, bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.
“[It is] easy for us to provoke and bait this administration.
“All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.
“Every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars, by the permission of Allah, besides the loss of a huge number of jobs, … As for the economic deficit, it has reached record astronomical numbers estimated to total more than a trillion dollars.”
Bin Laden wrapped up his rant by saying, “And it all shows that the real loser is you. It is the American people and their economy.” He said of Bush:
“The darkness of black gold blurred his vision and insight, and he gave priority to private interests over the public interests of America. … So the war went ahead, the death toll rose, the American economy bled, and Bush became embroiled in the swamps of Iraq that threaten his future.”
Imagine how different the world would be today if instead of immediately bombing Afghanistan in 2001 we had taken the Taliban up on their offer to turn Bin Laden over to a third nation, where he could have gotten a fair trial for planning 9/11? If he had been convicted and imprisoned, and we had taken even 1 percent—$10 billion—of the $1 trillion we’ve spent on two wars and used it to help build infrastructure and schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan? We would now be the heroes of those regions, instead of the goats.
Our goal must be to bring all our own people—and then the rest of the world, in each culture’s own way—above Maslow’s threshold of safety and security. Whatever country, religion, organization, or culture that does that will then have the minds and hearts of the people, and can drive from the bottom up the kinds of cultural change that will bring stability, freedom, peace, and sustainability to the world.
Nothing less than our survival is at stake; if we succeed we could create a world we’re all pleased to have the seventh generation from now thank us for.