Timeless truths for trying times

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I think you are starting to see a lot of what has preserved US democracy is decorum, not necessarily strong institutions, just good behavior. –Ory Okolloh-Mwangi, Kenyan political commentator and international observer monitoring the 2020 US elections

In a spoof of country music’s sad songs of heartache and woe, the old Hee Haw TV show periodically featured a couple of its regulars dejectedly wailing a song of total anguish:

Gloom, despair, and agony on me
Deep dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all
Gloom, despair, and agony on me

For many Americans in 2020, that lament could be the anthem of our national despondency, expressing our dismay and exasperation at humankind, which has seemingly gone mad:

  • Fanatics in MAGA caps rabidly cheering a tyrannical, lying–and clearly insane–president
  • Avaricious corporate executives and reckless public officials spreading and prolonging the coronavirus by rushing employees into infected workplaces, thus knowingly sickening and killing thousands of them
  • Viciously xenophobic US government officials cruelly separating impoverished refugee families at the border, incarcerating their terrified children–even babies–in cages
  • A militarized police system that won’t stop targeting and murdering innocent Black people, and then beats, shoots, and arrests the outraged citizens who protest the killings
  • Corporate profiteers who routinely poison people and our planet have no fear of being stopped or jailed for their rapacious immorality, routinely poisoning people and our planet. A supposed “democracy” that produces plutocratic, kleptocratic governments by autocratically rigging the rules to block millions of eligible voters from casting ballots
  • Roving gangs of goofball “Proud Boys” strutting around in militia costumes, puerilely proclaiming themselves heroes for beating and shooting protesters whose politics they dislike
  • A new cadre of wackadoodle extremists who advocate political violence by promoting the group hallucination that Nancy Pelosi is secretly leading a takeover of America by a fiendish Democratic cabal of child sex traffickers and cannibals

And … holy crap. What is wrong with people? Has the savagery, selfishness, and raw, animal hatred within the human species finally come out of the darkness to devour our society?!

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

Art in this issue is by Bread and Puppet Theater, Glover, VT. For info on the 2021 National Tour: breadandpuppet.org. Thank you, Peter Schumann.

Undeniably, 2020 has been despair-inducing–and there are still some dicey weeks left! Indeed, as we go to press in late October, we at the Lowdown don’t know the outcome of November’s national election–which will either somewhat alleviate or dramatically exacerbate the sense of gloom permeating the progressive community. So, instead of speculating about either outcome, we’re offering up some TIMELESS TRUTHS ABOUT HUMANITY that will apply however the election turns out. We believe that diving together into these little-discussed maxims might help all of us get a grip, step back from hopelessness, and push ahead in our political work with a fresh perspective on what is possible.

Warning! These truths are so contrary to present-day conventional thinking–and so at odds with our recent sojourn through the dark jungle of Trumplandia–that when some people are first exposed, their brains whiplash. So, brace yourself. Here goes:

#1 Truth
 Most people are fundamentally fair minded, kind, and generous.


#2 Truth
The basic human instinct is not dog-eat-dog selfishness, but social cooperation and sharing.

Wait! you might holler in disbelief, how can such happy “truths” jibe with that litany of horrors above? Well, although there are obvious exceptions to the rule, decades of behavioral studies, recurring surveys, in-depth conversations, cultural histories, real-life experiences, and every other kind of group observation have by and large produced the same finding: The great majority of people are guided in their daily actions and relations by deep values of fairness and sharing.

Unfortunately, these days the small minority that rejects those democratic values for the meaner spirits of elitism, avarice, narcissism, privilege, and self-aggrandizement tend to be wealthy 0.1-percenters–plutocrats who own and run nearly everything from the economy to the political system. Having deliberately and relentlessly maneuvered in the past half century to attain a controlling level of wealth and power in our country, those moneyed few are now doubling down to grab even more wealth and power at our expense. (A less-happy truism of the human experience is that “power corrupts,” exemplified by Trumpism, the Koch brothers, Citizens United, and the assorted horrors cited above.)

And while that is distressingly negative, the countervailing positive is that we progressives have far more potential than generally realized to build our majority in politics, the workplace, legislation, and social programs. We ought to be ardently appealing to the public’s innate preference for a society that’s equitable and cooperative.

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Yes, the established order assumes We the People are at heart wicked beasts who must constantly be constrained, lest we return society to kill-or-be-killed barbarity. But the preponderance of real-life evidence exposes that ideological precept as an elitist canard. In fact, it turns out that humankind is, well, overwhelmingly kind.

Merge left
One of the most trying tests of civility is driving in heavy traffic. No doubt we’ve all experienced being rudely cut off by a zip-a-dee-doo-dah, I-own-the-road lane changer. (Check your mirror in case it’s you.) But the surprise is that, rather than viewing their commutes as a NASCAR competition, nearly all drivers are actually predisposed to driving harmoniously with everyone else. Wall Street Journal auto columnist, Dan Neil, observes that “only about 1 in 10 American drivers is oblivious, demented, incontinent with rage or obsessed with never being passed.” He notes that even faced with irritating, unexpected lane closures, the great majority of drivers slow and shift into the hive mode of ants and bees, yielding peacefully to one another so they all get past the blockage in a timely fashion, with no crashes. Neil concludes that the most effective way to restrain hoggish drivers is “the force of manners, the sting of taboo, and the normalizing of nice.”

Who are you?
 Until his death in 2002, political philosopher John Rawls conducted exercises to find out how all sorts of people envision a just society. He asked participants to draw up the ethical underpinning for their ideal social structure, focusing on principles and strictures that best serve their own interests: Maybe a meritocracy that prioritizes IQ, a laissez-faire society where the strongest and richest rule, a Christian theocracy, a matriarchy allowing only mothers to vote, etc.

Rawls put only one restriction on this otherwise free-wheeling exercise: The social engineers were to operate under what he called “The Veil of Ignorance”: None of them would know who they would be in the society they designed. Race, income, sexuality, education, immigration status, disability, age, religion, neighborhood … all would be luck of the draw. Over and over, participants from every social status and ideology designed worlds with deep, broad egalitarian structures to ensure that the least well-off, most marginalized person would be treated justly. After all, they might be that person.

You animal, you!
 Well, yes, we Homo sapiens are animals, as the dour scolds of human behavior ceaselessly point out. They try to reduce our existence to the nasty and brutish Law of the Jungle, insisting that selfishness and survival of the strongest is the natural order. Indeed, that noted philosopher of animalism, Professor Donald Trump, expressed this soulless view in a book he titled Think Big and Kick Ass: “In a great deal you win. …You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”

But the animal kingdom itself suggests a better route to winning than crush-your-opponent competition: Cooperation. While some animals do eat and battle other animals, some the most successful species are not the strongest, but rather are the ones that work together in a sharing society. From ants to elephants, some animals in the wild organize to hunt together, build family and group homes, nurture and teach their young, share their available food throughout the community, and mourn their lost ones.

They even vote! The real “king of the jungle” is not a singular king but the group. In communal societies as varied as meerkats, baboons, and bees, such decisions as where to live and in which direction to forage are made by democratic consensus reached in a sort of caucus system. When several thousand honeybees, for example, split from a hive to form a new colony, they dispatch a few hundred scouts. One by one, the scouts report back, doing unique waggle dances that convey what each found. Gradually, scouts decide they like this or that site best and synchronize their waggles accordingly. Once the scouts are all doing the same dance, the whole swarm flies off together to settle into a new home. Interestingly, such decisions are based more on the merits of the case presented than whether the presenter is a dominant or subordinate member of the group.

Primatologist & pollsters
 Social anthropologists find that before the invention of agriculture and property law, “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies had an egalitarian ethos that made them more successful than authoritarian, coercive leadership could have been. The community depended on each other for survival/prosperity, so a cooperative, sharing ethic was superior to one based on “I got mine.” From the earliest human times, then, there was no conceit of “producers v. moochers.” Families that were less fortunate or skillful in their foraging nonetheless shared what the group produced, for they contributed in other ways.

Despite intervening centuries of indoctrination by ideological Scrooge-ists, property supremacists, and corporate plutocrats, this deep egalitarian impulse remains ingrained in people’s ethical DNA. Some numbers:

  • In a blind survey that presented a choice of living in a countries with high income inequality (USA) or one with modest inequality (Sweden), 92% of Americans–including a similar majority of Republicans and the rich–preferred Sweden.
  • 75% of Americans told pollsters in October that they’d support paying higher income taxes if the money went to healthcare, education, welfare, and infrastructure. (68% said the tax system must be overhauled to make the richest pay more.)
  • Contrary to right-wing theology, only 33% of people say the rich deserve their bonanzas because they work harder than the rest of us, while 65% say the good fortunes of the rich are due to special advantages they get in life. (Likewise, 71% say people are poor because they’ve faced more obstacles than others, with only 26% blaming the poor for not working hard enough.)
  • While Trumpeteers spread fear and loathing that America is fast becoming a non-white majority population, 64% of people say it doesn’t matter. And the percentage that thinks it’s a good thing has jumped from 14% in 2016 to 24% today.

Lord of the Flies, revisited

Many of us Lowdowners read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in high school–and it’s still being taught. The 1954 novel depicts the gradual decent into barbaric darkness by a group of English schoolboys shipwrecked on a small deserted island. Its portrayal of innate human depravity was hailed at the time for its unblinking “realism.” Only… it was total bullshit.

In his superb 2019 work Humankind: A Hopeful History, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman documents that Golding had no knowledge of behavioral science and was hardly an impartial judge of children’s propensities. Rather, he was an alcoholic prone to depression who beat his own kids. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Goldman once said, “because I am of that sort by nature.” So, he made up the story, and it wasn’t about children’s dark nature, but his own.

After learning about the man behind the tale, Bregman became curious about what would really happen if kids were left alone on an island. He kept poking into everything from scientific studies to news reports, and–amazingly–finally unearthed an actual incident of shipwrecked children: In 1965, six bored schoolboys from Tonga, 13-16 years old, took a small fishing boat out on a lark, but they were caught in a sudden storm and blown far from home. Their boat’s mast and rudder broke, and they drifted for days before washing up on a desolate rocky islet, where they were stranded for more than a year.

Fifty years later, the intrepid Bregman spent months tracing multiple dead ends before at last locating a few survivors, then traveling to Tonga to meet them and get the true story.

He learned that, far from devolving into barbarism, the inventive teenagers had set up a functioning democracy and communal economy. They split chores into teams of two, built sleeping huts and a kitchen, tended a garden, stored rainwater, created a gymnasium, fashioned a badminton court, and got a fire going (taking turns protecting it so it never went out). One boy even constructed a rudimentary guitar to accompany their singing. Yes, they had occasional arguments, but the rule was that the quarrelers had to go to opposite ends of the island to cool down for a few hours before they were brought back to the group to apologize. “That’s how we stayed friends,” one former castaway told Bregman.

When rescued by a passing fishing crew after 15 months on the island, the boys were extraordinarily healthy–physically, socially, and spiritually.

And now, the news

There’s the world we live in, and then there’s the frightening world we see every hour on “the news” and in social media: Invading hordes of murderous immigrants! Black and brown rioters and looters rampaging through city streets! Organized squads of illegal voters and ballot thieves stealing elections! Lazy bums mooching on food stamps and encroaching on “our beautiful suburbs!” Fear and loathing!

We shouldn’t be oblivious to or uncaring about the wickedness, avarice, and violence that obviously abound in society–it’s there, inside corporations, police and military complexes, lobbyist-controlled governments, many religions, and other top-down constructs that prioritize profit and institutional command over democratic values and the common good. But in striving to institute a culture of justice, it’s self-defeating to assume humankind is innately selfish. Rather, we should shame the culprits as deviants and rally the majority to common-good solutions by appealing directly to their natural instincts for an egalitarian society that equitably shares both responsibilities and benefits.

In Humankind, Bregman cites a parable about the possibility of achieving such a society:

An old man says to his grandson: “There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil–angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good–peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you and inside every other person, too.” After a moment, the boy asks, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man smiles. “The one you feed.”

Do Something: Keeping the faith in good governing

The GOP just loves to trash and demean our public sector, consistently maneuvering to–in the words of one right-wing ideologue–“shrink [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” All the while, behind those smears, ingenious public officials around the world have been working to make government work better. Apolitical, a London-based news site, was created to bring that good work to light.

Written for public sector leaders, Apolitical “curates what’s working in the public service worldwide and profiles the people behind the most imaginative and effective government solutions to the complex problems our societies face.” Recent stories feature innovative evidence-based approaches to dealing with homelessness, electric roads that power a city’s public transportation, legislation to protect labor rights while people work from home, tackling systemic racism in the public sector, and much more. Sign up for their email newsletter at apolitical.co.

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