It is not just the Unitarian Universalists who hold democracy as scared duty and hope; much of humanity honors mutual self rule. We no longer believe a king or pope has the right to rule us, for the divine hierarchy isn’t top down, it’s inner out, both individualistic and communal. This isn’t a passive putting up with bossy rulers; it is protecting, perfecting, and promoting humanity’s rising to be itself.
By democracy I don’t merely mean voting. Voting for others to represent us is a minimal function of citizens. Citizens derive their authority from within, you remember, from those “inalienable rights” built into us by Creation. Allowed to flourish and flower, we can live and let live. We can have our particular self, group and cause by agreeing to allow others to have theirs. Freedom of belief, speech and assembly are humanistic core aspects of a dynamic, resilient, satisfying democracy. It is faith in ourselves actualized.
Nor is democracy a done deal. It only works as well as we work it. What we do or don’t do can destroy or develop democracy. It matters little if we praise the Founders for their fulfilling the early seeding and growing of democracy if we fail to tend it. We need to live up to our times like they did to theirs. Advances and advantages can be lost or stolen. The mere show of democracy doesn’t guarantee its healthy presence. Citizens tend democracy by being authentic in their being while allowing others to be true to theirs. Patriotism is more than a flag pin. “It is not the short, frenzied outbursts of emotion,” said Adlai Stevenson, “but the tranquil and steady dedication of the lifetime.”
Democratic government is us taking care of ourselves and our lands, acting nobly in the family of humanity. I am dismayed, alarmed, and angry that various selfish forces in our society have many of us chanting a suicidal mantra: Government is bad for us. Yes, we can have a government that is bad for us, especially if we keep electing those who say it is and then inflict it on us. There will always be some form of government. The issue is whether it will be done on us or by us. Lincoln’s phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was lifted almost word-for-word from a sermon by a Universalist who didn’t believe in dividing and excluding humans into “the chosen and the damned.” Yet, as we allow privatized interests to steer our democracy, we see an increasing divide between the economic chosen and damned, and we watch before our befuddled eyes a systematic set of raids on our public commons, taking from the common wealth to profit those who have no interest or care for our common condition.
From a recent Sunday newspaper I piled up all the ads next to all the news. Over an inch of slick ads with stunning photos of stuff I don’t want or need stood next to a mere few pages of news, which I do want. I had to pay in order to recycle or waste a huge volume of paper and printing representing countless hours of people’s time and earthly resources to get at a bit of information and opinion. Much to my chagrin, Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News and now the Wall Street Journal, wrote a piece saying something I agree with: “To make informed decisions, free men and women require honest and reliable news…” He’s right. Essential in democracy is a free press telling the truth as best it can. Murdoch says the press prospers from one thing, “representing their readers’ interests and giving them the news that’s important to them.” He says this is in part “standing up to the rich and powerful.” (Medford Mail Tribune, Dec. 13, ’09) I would quibble with the honesty of this last platitude of his, changing the “to” to a “for” to be honest, as in “standing up for the rich and powerful.” Since Regan undid the Fairness Doctrine in the ‘80s and gave over our cable system and airwaves for cheap to the largest corporations in the world we’ve been inundated with conservative religion and ideology, all under the guise of resenting “the liberal press.” Nuanced analysis, scientific consensus, and crucial ecological realities all are ignored, ridiculed, and undermined by deceivers such as Murdoch’s Fox News.
For instance, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity repeatedly claim White House Science and Technology director John Holden advocates forced sterilization and compulsory abortions, pandering to its listeners’ typical bias and fear. It is a lie of course, made-up news, but it got repeated by the two 32 by them times over five months. It never was corrected or rescinded. (Tracked by PolitiFact.com, in Washington Spectator, Jan. ’10.)
Gene Lyons, in a nice column, “A Perfect Storm of Stupidity,” asks if we want Sarah Palin explaining the Large Hadron Collider, or Rush Limbaugh telling us how Black Holes work. Yet many Americans listen to and trust them more than they do experts in their respective fields. Charles Pierce says in his book “Idiot America” that such stances rest on the three premises of talk radio: 1) do anything that moves units, 2) fix the truth by talking loudly about it, and 3) facts are set by enough people believing them. Complaining that those who have the wealth and weaponry are those who decide what truths get promoted in this world and which get ridiculed, silenced, or suppressed, critial thinking advisors Richard Paul and Linda Elder note truth often succumbs to spin and the words communication and manipulation collapse into virtual synonyms.
Hence, Global Warming is a lie. No doubt you’ve heard. Scientists hide data to protect their political agenda. Or so Fox News, informed by the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (funded by Exxon), repeatedly told us. Not so apparent was their incessant search for such discrepancies, only to find obscure technical nuance in an enormous e-mail record ten years old rejecting tree ring studies known since the ‘60s as being unreliable. Pay no attention to the thousands of scientific experts raising dire warnings about obvious radical change to our weather. Laugh off the vanishing glaciers, the dead zones growing in the oceans, the impending flooding of all coastal communities, the possibility of a new ice age freezing us for a hundred thousand years – Fox News has exposed it all as a liberal lie.
Even China knows it isn’t a lie. China now buys more cars than anyone, including us. A manufacturing power house, it burns more coal than us, Europe, and Japan combined. This exacerbates global warming, but at least they’re beginning to address the problem while jumping on an opportunity. They produce and use half of the world’s solar hot water heaters. They’re doubling their wind power every year, soon to create more electricity by wind than five times their huge Three Gorges Dam. They’ll soon be manufacturing and exporting large numbers of small, light weight electric cars.
While Regan tore off the solar heaters from the roof of the White House and quickly dismantled Carter’s alternative energy plans, and Bush canned a program designed to reclaim the engineering expertise we’re quickly losing, Obama is succeeding in turning our economy slightly greener. While getting decentralized energy production and savings into our actual houses and cars is still a small trend, it is hopeful. China can make big bold moves while we trip over ourselves, but Americans are clever and resourceful. Imagine a government that actually elicits, organizes, and promotes our genius and practicality on its own and in concert with private enterprise.
Trusting free enterprise to do this all on its own is risky. Witness how free enterprise exploits our health dollars while withholding health care. I can just hear Karl Marx call from his grave, “I told you so.” Medical and scientific knowledge are humanity’s inheritance. It shouldn’t be owned, doled out, and directed by privatized interests. That may be lucrative for a few, but it could be deadly for us, especially given what we’re learning about this rapid Sixth Extinction we’re lost in and lunging through.
As Elizabeth Kolbert reminds us in the New Yorker (May 25, ’09) most huge extinctions were due to global chemical changes. What killed off the dinosaurs and 75% of all other species then was not of their own doing. But killing until they’re all gone is typically human. New Zealand, Hawaii, North and South America – the record is clear and tragic. Gone are the moas, most of the birds, all the mastodons and the parakeets. Currently, one eighth of all birds, one fourth of all mammals, and one third of all coral reefs and land amphibians are headed into extinction. The rise of CO2 from our coal-fired electricity plants, houses, factories, and cars has gone up more in the last 100 years than in the preceding 100,000. Our oceans have grown more acid in the last 50 years than in the preceding 50 million years.
We’re hooked on habits that are temporarily profitable for a few but ultimately suicidal for the rest of us and our descendants. That’s news. But you won’t hear about it much, especially on Fox. Nor are you likely to learn there of the increasing abandonment of the lower and middle classes by the incredibly rich. There have always been poor and rich, but only in the last three decades has it grown preposterous. Protecting the poor rich people has been the cause of both our media and our representatives. Witness the recent attempt to improve health care in our country. At twice the cost and half the effectiveness as comparable democracies we’re still diverted, told “government can’t do anything,” even as the entrenched interests drain our wallets and leave us hurting, their hired government helping them.
When we’re hurting, humor helps. M.A.S.H. provided comic relief during Vietnam but didn’t directly expose lies or challenge authority. Both are pilloried by today’s humorists. “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” put Al Franken in the public eye and ultimately helped set him in Paul Wellstone’s senate seat. Comic Steven Colbert satirized George Bush to his befuddled face. He acts like a right-wing host, only more so. Cheering on the thousands of money-wielding lobbyists in D.C., he changed an old gay slogan only slightly: “We’re here. We’re insincere. Get used to it.” More told there in mockery than all the other pundits put together. And Jon Stewart, ostensibly a comedian, is more informed and asks harder questions to his squirming guests than any other journalist, yet does it with humor. No wonder more young people get their news from him than any other source. He tells it like it is in a few funny words.
Yet these fundits are relatively unknown by the larger American audience. We no longer have an Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite to rely on. News is scattered across the dial, the cable, and the Internet. On the Internet, anybody can say anything. WWW is the Wild, Wild West right now. Deep and rarified information is available right along with virus-laden, out-and-out lies. Fewer and fewer common stories and public figures are shared by Americans. There are lots of Nancys and Grettas, but only one Rachel Maddow. Slowly, people find her and Keith Oberman, which provides some beginning of balance for all the medical-industry-financed news spins of the standard networks, yet even there, ads for clean coal and health insurance pays their salaries.
The old saw that we have freedom of the press for those who can afford one used to be our gripe about the old William Randolph Hearst or the new channels of disinformation headed by the likes of Karl Rove, but now anyone can be a publisher. Moneyed control of huge networks still churns out slick deception. Witness Murdoch’s worldwide clout. But look also at the Internet, where anyone with a computer, microphone, and video camera can be a reporter, commentator or analyst. Amidst all the sloppy junk, outright lies, and commercialism we find an explosion of self-expression. Art, music, news, and opinion all flourish. The Internet fosters freedom of speech galore!
The problem is finding it. Amidst the millions of web pages, which are reliable? A recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review guesses at which funding mechanisms might keep serious journalism alive. In the last decade, some 200,000 media jobs, largely in newspapers, have been lost, including for some 20,000 journalists in the last two years. This leaves a vacuum easily filled by organizations finding such misleading facts as the “Scientists Fake Global Warming” story. Used to discredit the greatest challenge to humanity ever, news shows needing drama eagerly grab it up and only begrudgingly later report the pesky, boring truth. I sometimes learn more from the BBC or al Jazeera than I do from CBS, NBC, and ABC combined. Yet they are also huge institutions with built-in slant. Between the very large and the very small, where can we go for honest news and informed, thoughtful analysis?
For good reason, we have grown to distrust both journalists and politicians. For good reason, we need both. Our country is largely out of our control. We have no say on what the CIA does, or whether Halliburton and Bechtel take billions from the public coffers, or whether privatized mercenaries wage unlawful, unreported wars in our battered good name. We will incur the revenge that comes from programs we never asked for or condoned. Most in our Congress are millionaires, hardly representative of us, and beholden more to corporate contributors than to us. Nearly half engage in constant obstruction and incessant ridicule. It is a dark and fragmented time for both journalism and earnest political representation. Our democracy is weakened, de-funded, torn apart by selfish interests. There are no saviors to rescue us. There is only us. The fix for undermined journalism is re-envisioned journalism. The answer to shallow, conniving politicians is honest, thoughtful ones. It takes heroes to dedicate their lives to these functions at this difficult time. We’re far more able and heroic than we’ve been told. “The good, strong leadership we’re craving,” said Jeff Golden in a recent column, “just isn’t going to emerge without good, strong citizenship.”
At its core, I believe democracy is influenced by an erroneous spiritual assumption. Some believe we are flawed and fallen, damned for daring to think for ourselves and trying to live happily and well in a plush shared garden. Cast out, we’re supposed to suffer. Thinking we’re all sinners, we try to craft a society that balances out our mutual selfishness by the invisible hand of the free market. It’s all against all. Yes, we can sin. But we’re not only sinners. Creation builds in far more than flaws. Open-mindedness, generosity, and intelligence are in us. Care, honesty, and mutuality are also ours, inherently ours, inalienably ours. In our democracy, which is still in formation, we owe it to our ancestors and descendants to live up to the responsibility and potential Creation has in us.
If you can be an honest journalist, a fair and capable politician – good. We need you. Most of us aren’t that. But all of us participate is social circles that are enlivened and guided in part by who we are and what we do and say. All of us have access to the talk shows and letters to the editor where we can help veer the vast momentum of society towards decent, fair, inclusive relations. Our UU congregations and fellowships are arenas for praising, protecting, and perfecting the hopeful health of democracy, at least in ideal and effort. The essential spiritual core of democracy is our own authenticity, being ourselves fully in such a way that allows others to be their selves as well. Tell the truth you know. Be the person you are. Have faith that as we do this together inclusively, creatively and responsibly – all will be well.
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© January 3rd, 2010