THE GOLDEN RULE: In A World Of Complex Problems…It’s The Simplest Solution

February 15, 2012

We live in a world beset by complex problems.  Naturally, our inclination would be to assume that in order to solve those problems we need to divine equally complex solutions.  It is my pleasure to assure you that seeking those complex solutions won’t actually be necessary.  The answer to all that plagues our planet can be found in one of humanity’s oldest and most universal principles…you may know it simply as, “The Golden Rule”.

The maxim to “Do Unto Others As You’d Have Them Do Unto You,” sounds more like a reprimand from a kindergarten teacher than the answer for all the world’s ills.  But we’ve marginalized the power of this idea by allowing it to be constrained to Sunday School classes and dusty philosophy textbooks.  The Golden Rule is not merely a neglected childhood lesson, it is a naturally occurring shared value that speaks to the interconnectedness of all living things.  It is a preeminent universal guideline that reminds us that the well-being of each individual is reliant upon the well-being of us all.  When we ignore it…when we downplay its importance, we do so at our own peril.

The Golden Rule is the solution to our problems precisely because its absence and neglect has been the trigger that has brought all of our problems about in the first place.  Millions go hungry, our environment is destroyed, violence is perpetrated, and the weak are exploited all because too many of us have not embraced the fundamental law we were taught to follow as children.  The application of the Golden Rule would not so much be a fix as it would simply bring about a cessation of all the pressures that plague us as people.  Our problems would be solved because the roots of those problems would cease to exist.

You may wish to dismiss my idea as childish or naive, but I would urge you to take a moment to look at the world around you, examine our collective predicament, and explain to me how a little adherence to the Golden Rule wouldn’t make all the difference.  Would thousands be foreclosed on and forced from their homes if banks treated each customer as they would their own family?  Would schools, deprived of finances, be crumbling if our elected officials saw each student as their own?  Would we be slaughtering innocent men, women and children in foreign lands with our machines of death if we took the time to recognize our shared humanity?  Would there be enough jobs if executives finally came to see that their bonus wasn’t quite as important as the salaries of a few more employees?  Would children, all over the world, be going hungry if each one of us had a better understanding of the difference between a luxury and a need?

All of the obstacles we face are the product of a world ruled by greed, excess, expediency and the never ending thirst for power.  All of us are capable of falling victim to those selfish motivations, but it only happens when we depress our normal human urge for empathy and dehumanize those who reap the consequences of our egocentric acts.  Minorities are mistreated because bigots fail to see them as equals.  The environment is destroyed because those responsible live far away from the destruction.  Programs that promote the social welfare are cut because the victims remain faceless to those in power.  Bombs are dropped because Presidents and Generals put uneven values on various human lives.  The Golden Rule is a standard that forces us to confer equal worth to every other person on the planet.  The major problems that human beings face are all created by those who are unwilling to acknowledge that equality.

The downfall of the Golden Rule is that we have a tendency to think about it and embrace it only on a micro or personal level.  Mention the Golden Rule to someone and they’re likely to get images in their head of holding open doors and allowing fellow drivers to merge on the highway.  Although those simple, everyday applications of the Golden Rule are incredibly important, why can’t we insist that we employ it on a grander scale?  The Golden Rule can’t just be the standard that guides our interactions with strangers out in public.  It needs to be the broad foundation of our whole society in general.  It should guide our foreign policy and inform our economic priorities.  It should be top of mind for every lawmaker, councilman, CEO, police officer, teacher, clergyman and leader throughout the world.  The Golden Rule should be engraved in giant letters on the entrance of every public institution in the country.  It should be the foundation of every corporate charter and printed on a plaque in every boardroom.  Every sermon, every oath, every bill, every merger, every deal and every judgment should have as its backbone a firm comprehension of the Golden Rule and all that it entails.

The most brilliant aspect of the Golden Rule is its universality.  The Golden Rule could be put into practice in all walks of life and almost no one should feel offended.  This wouldn’t be like placing the Ten Commandments in a courthouse at the expense of non-Christians.  The Golden Rule is a precept that can be found in one form or another in ALL of the world’s major religions and a whole handful of the minor ones as well.  Listed below is an example from each of the five most prominent sets of beliefs:

CHRISTIANITY:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”–Matthew 7:12 (NIV)

JUDAISM:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman.  This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.”–Talmud, Shabbat 3id

ISLAM:

“None of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”–An Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 13

BUDDHISM:

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”–Udana-Varga 5:18

HINDUISM:

“This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”–Mahabharata 5:1517

One cannot be accused of imposing their beliefs when it is a belief that is supposedly shared by all.  On what grounds would one be able to object?  And it goes beyond just the five listed above.  Mohism, Taoism, Platonism, Sikhism, Quakerism, Jainism, Humanism, Confucianism, Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Ancient Egyptian beliefs, Native American Spirituality, Shinto, Sufism, Unitarian, Wicca and even Scientology all advance and embrace The Golden Rule in some iteration.

Doesn’t it speak to the truth and the power of an idea if it can be found in such a myriad of forms?  If the solution that I’m pushing is to be dismissed, wouldn’t it require a dismissal of thousands of years of common human development and thought?  The fact that the Golden Rule has a home in so many cultures says something meaningful about its place as an objective truth.  Systems of society and belief have come and gone but the Golden Rule remains.  The major questions of religion…Why are we here?  Who shall we worship?  How shall we behave?…produce multitudes of answers across the globe and throughout time.  But yet humans, from all corners and all walks of life have somehow all agreed that “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” always sounds like a pretty good idea.

We supposedly live during incredibly fractious times.  Our population and our leaders are split on how to solve all of the largest issues of our day.  No common ground can be found on taxation, education, civil liberties, health care, energy production, environmental conservation, public spending, government debt and every single other issue that lies somewhere in between.  But I believe these divisions are entirely unnecessary and wholly a fabrication.  We can’t find common solutions because we fail to embrace the common moral code that binds us all together in the first place.  The universal nature and well-founded history of The Golden Rule proves that there is indeed a common moral thread woven throughout all of humanity that has the power to bring us together.  Solving the problems of our day does not have to be fraught with political divisions.  If as a people we could find the ability to let The Golden Rule be the beacon that guides our decisions, we would soon discover that we aren’t nearly as divided as we may have once believed.

Many don’t need to find that ability.  Many in this world are already well aware of the power of putting others’ needs on an even field with those of their own.  Unfortunately, the voices of those compassionate souls are often ignored by those in power.  Active practice of The Golden Rule is much easier to find on our own streets than in the halls of Congress or in the boardrooms of corporate America.  It should be the mission of all who realize the unifying power of The Golden Rule to see to it that this message of kindness be pushed onto those in power.  Instead, we allow the forces of division and greed to constrain and diffuse our message.  People and organizations and movements of all stripes have The Golden Rule as a pillar of their agenda, but those who live in the world of selfishness conspire to keep any thought of shared prosperity or sacrifice out of the halls of power.  Those who know better must never allow themselves to grow weary of advancing their message of hope, and they must not allow the common bonds of compassion to be torn apart by the petty cultural divisions of the day.

The Golden Rule has its advocates and it’s message rings true for millions across the globe, but despite this fact, problems still remain.  Our world is still awash in despair.  Too many fail to live up to this most elementary of standards.  Humans are a deeply flawed species and even though the concept of the rule is simple, it’s implementation can be incredibly complex.  Regardless of how attractive my solution may appear, even the most hopeful of believers must concede the enormity of the task.  So where does that leave us?  How can we convince a global population of 7 billion people to leave aside their own selfish desires and come to realize that the only way to bring about a sustained peace and harmony is by ensuring that it is equally achieved by all?

I argued earlier that The Golden Rule needs to be embraced on a large, macro-scale, but it can’t materialize on that scale overnight.  Those of us who wish to see a world where all are treated well have only their own individual acts at their disposal.  If we want a world where The Golden Rule becomes the law of the land,  if we want corporations to freely decide to put people over profits,  if we want the entire globe to universally embrace the idea that others’ needs supersede personal greed, then the only thing we can control is how we each choose to lead our own lives.  The only way for The Golden Rule to succeed on a grand scale is for individuals to take it upon themselves personally to give it a simple spark.  It’s power can be exponential.  How each of us choose to live our lives can affect all those with whom we interact.  If we desire to see the human species reach its universal utopian potential, we must first dedicate ourselves to making the change within our own sphere of influence.  Every time we choose to treat another human being with kindness and compassion we can inspire others to do the same.  The bonds and interconnectedness we create with this kind of behavior will expand and strengthen if our adherence remains true.   Anger, division, resentment and greed can all be marginalized if individuals decide to have faith not only in their own ability, but also in the ability of all of their neighbors to embrace The Golden Rule and let it act as the true agent of harmony that nature intended it to be.

If we allow The Golden Rule to be the solution to the problems we face in our own personal lives, it has the potential to become the solution to the problems we face collectively.  Our questions may be complex, but the answer is quite simple…Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.


WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?–Why Governor Snyder’s Actions Should Come As No Surprise

April 22, 2011

Corporate CEO Snyder vs. Governor Snyder...can you tell the difference?

Congratulations, voters of Michigan.  You’ve been duped.  You’ve allowed a con-man with deep pockets and a slick marketing campaign to put one over on you and get elected Governor of your state.  And now that he’s in power, his ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’ veneer has been removed and his true money-loving, conservative colors are boldly shining through.

In a matter of mere months, Governor Rick Snyder has gone from the supposed “non-traditional political outsider” that he claimed to be in his campaign, to nothing more than another right-wing ideologue hell-bent on consolidating power, destroying unions, erasing the social safety net and transferring wealth into the hands of the few at the expense of the many.  And somehow, amazingly, hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters never saw it coming.  But for every angry protestor rallying in Lansing, for every Democrat who stayed home on election day, for every independent voter who decided to give Snyder a shot, for every moderate Republican outraged by his abuses, I have only one question…what did you expect?

Rick Snyder was elected Governor last November by easily besting the Democratic candidate, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.  Greater finances, nationwide anti-democratic fervor, an off-beat marketing strategy, liberal-voter apathy and Michigan’s displeasure with Jennifer Granholm’s previous eight years can all be claimed as reasons for his victory.  Since he had no previous experience in politics, he was able to position himself as an outsider who could clearly navigate Michigan’s problems with a fresh perspective.  He avoided focusing on traditional cultural wedge issues such as abortion, and by doing so, was able to pass himself off as a new kind of Republican.  Success in the business world was his claim to fame and he was able to translate his resume into proof of his ability to revitalize Michigan’s struggling economy.  All of this converged in a way that convinced thousands of independent and even democratic voters to completely lose their senses and cast a ballot for someone who never had their best interests in mind.

Since his inauguration, Governor Snyder has quickly set to work implementing his skewed vision for Michigan.  These measures include creating new corporate tax breaks, slashing basic services, raising taxes on the poor and the elderly, cutting funding for education and most ominous of all, passing his “Emergency Financial Manager Law” which has the power to completely remove the voters’ rights to have a say over their own future.  With an obedient Republican-controlled legislature at his command, enactment of these measures has been swift.  But angry reactions from both those who opposed him and those who voted for him has been equally abrupt.  Whatever popularity he may have once enjoyed has drastically begun to wane.  The tide has turned in our State in a very short period of time and many are faced with feelings of ‘buyer’s remorse’.  They thought they were getting a non-ideological decision maker with clever commercials.  Instead, people all around Michigan have come to realize that what they got was a typical profit-driven corporatist with little concern for the welfare of his struggling constituents.

But why are we so surprised?  Everything we needed to know about Rick Snyder was right there in front of us.  Everything he represents, everything he believes and everything he desires was staring each person who voted for him right in the face and they were either too ignorant or too blissfully oblivious to see it.  We elected a millionaire nincompoop who made his money running a giant, soul-crushing corporation to be the Chief Executive of our State.  I’ll ask it again…what did you expect??

Rick Snyder sent his children to private school…did you really think he was going to be a big supporter of public education?  Governor Snyder is an extremely wealthy man…did you really think he would have the ability to empathize with those who aren’t?  While Rick Snyder was at Gateway, the company sent thousands of jobs overseas as a way to cut costs…did you really think he would be an advocate for Michigan’s working class?  This is a man who made his name and made his fortune in a corporate culture where profits and bottom lines are the only things that matter…can you honestly say that you would expect him to run our State any differently?

Our Governor comes from a world where taxes are always too high, social services only encourage laziness, unions are the enemy and no one’s interests are more important than those of big business.  It’s the same world that ALL Republican politicians come from whether they spend their time preaching about ‘family values’ or not.  It’s a magical world where success is only determined by one’s own subjective drive and ambition and is in no way is ever influenced by the objective forces that exist around them.  Michigan voters allowed this capitalist stooge to pose as a normal working-class citizen and completely ignored the world from which he hailed and the moral abyss that defines it.  Men like Rick Snyder do not get to where they are without displaying the proper fealty to wealth and all the power that it represents.  His actions thus far while in office are merely the inevitable outcome of a career spent seeking new ways to quench a thirst for profit.

So now, finally, everyone is starting to see Governor Snyder for who he really is.  All across the State, angry citizens are busying themselves painting witty protest signs to bring to the Capitol and inventing new chants designed to whip rallying crowds into a frenzy.  Some have even gone so far as to begin work to recall the Governor.  Apparently voters in Michigan are just completely shocked that a Republican corporatist would come to power and do exactly the kinds of things that Republican corporatists always do.  But what I’m curious to know, is where was all of this liberal civic engagement last year during the campaign?  If everyone is so concerned about funding education, and taxing the rich and preserving the rights of unions, then why did Rick Snyder win so easily in November?  The thousands that have continued to gather in Lansing to make their voices heard had plenty of opportunities to rally for their issues before the election.  Snyder’s competition, Virg Bernero was perfectly clear about where he stood on all of the issues that are bothering everyone so much today.  I find it hard to believe that everyone of these angry voters did all they could to make sure that Rick Snyder didn’t succeed.

Political winners like to boast that ‘elections have consequences’.  It’s a way of saying, “We won, now we can do whatever we want”.  It’s a dismissive and generalist argument, but unfortunately, it also happens to be kinda true.  Governor Snyder won fair and square, so did all of his fellow Republicans in the legislature.  Consequently, they are entitled to follow through on what they believe to be right.  His plans for Michigan have justifiably raised the ire of citizens all across the state, but the time to do something about it was BEFORE he was elected.  Recall campaigns are no doubt a valuable tool in the democratic process, but so are elections.  Where was this dedication and passion from the left side of the political spectrum last November?  Michigan voters were asleep at the wheel and now they are learning that indeed, elections DO have consequences.

Rick Snyder has not betrayed us.  He is merely acting on the only ideology that exists in his small, selfish mind.  We have betrayed ourselves.  It is our own sloth, our own ignorance and our own fascination with all things shiny and new that put us in this predicament.  What Governor Snyder has done and will continue to do should have been recognizable to all of us from the very beginning of his candidacy.  Anyone who cares about public education, anyone who cares about the rights of workers, anyone who cares about putting corporate power in check and anyone who cares about helping those who lack the ability to help themselves should have been able to see the consequences of electing this man to be our Governor.  As voters, we are too quick to forget the lessons of the past and we are too easily distracted to perceive the obvious warnings of what might happen in the future.

It is right and noble and admirable to cry out in protest over what Governor Snyder has planned for Michigan.  But those voices should’ve been thundering all throughout the campaign and those voices should continue to thunder long after Rick Snyder has gone.  People who believe in putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the privileged few cannot allow themselves to be fooled by politicians who quite plainly advocate for the opposite.  Our frustration with Rick Snyder can only go so far.  Our frustration needs to lie with the apathetic citizens who fail to get out and vote.  Our frustration needs to lie with Democrats who allow their conviction and support to waiver.  Our frustration needs to lie with independent voters who are too easily swayed by soundbytes and marketing.  And our frustration needs to lie with Republicans who blindly vote while neglecting their own interests and needs.  All of these people are responsible for what Rick Snyder is doing today.  And if any of them are angry or frustrated or displeased with the results, I’m only left to ask…what did you expect?


THE EXPENDABLE CONSUMER: Why Are the Biggest Companies So Willing to Treat Us So Bad?

January 10, 2011

What, you still thought the customer was always right?

The old adage says that you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  However, the sharp-tongued individual is always quick to respond that even more flies will come your way with bullshit rather than honey.  Our corporate masters, those who offer up their services and sell us their junk, most certainly embrace the latter.  Anyone who has made a purchase, set foot in a big-box store, attempted to call customer service or been involved in any kind of transaction involving a Fortune 500 company in the last few years will most certainly attest to that notion.

Whether its your bank, your cable provider, your grocery store or your least favorite restaurant chain, you undoubtedly have a horror story about some kind of consumer-related atrocity that was committed at your expense.  We’ve all been wronged, and yet we all, sometimes without choice, begrudgingly line up for more.  Those tales of marketplace malfeasance are cataloged on a fascinating website I recently discovered located at www.consumerist.com.  Consumers like you from all across the country have gathered at The Consumerist to form a kind of support group where people share their accounts of how huge multi-national corporations have robbed, humiliated and generally taken advantage of them usually without any remorse or reservation.

The Consumerist has provided me with endless hours of reading enjoyment.  Some stories I can relate to while others cause me to shake my head in disbelief.  You can search their archives by the topic of the transgression.  Had trouble with a car dealer?  Been screwed on a return?  There’s sure to be someone with a similar story.  Or perhaps your beef is with one company in particular?  Feel free to scroll through The Consumerist’s list of corporate offenders.  Who’s the object of your ire?  WalmartBank of AmericaUnited HealthcareMicrosoft?  They’re all there…and it’s a bad-business-buffet…a veritable who’s who of goonish, profit-thirsty corporate jackasses.

No matter the topic, no matter the company at-fault, they all have something in common.  They all treat their customers like crap.  Each and every last one of them regards each and every last one of us as no better than that fly they’re hoping to attract with their giant, stinking bowl of BS.  The stories that people have posted on this site are horrific.  Here’s one about a girl who died while waiting for CIGNA to decide if she qualified for a liver transplant or not.  Here’s one about an old woman who bled to death because  Comcast’s Operator couldn’t connect her 911 call to the police dispatch properly.  And here’s a famous one where JP Morgan Chase sent an employee to change the locks on a house they thought was in foreclosure, except it wasn’t and the owner was at home while they broke in.

But the most amazing part of all of these stories is that no matter how obscene the offense, these companies suffer minimal damage and are able to return to raking in gobs and gobs of our money.  Now certainly, as consumers we are sometimes left with minimal options when it comes to refusing to do business with these corporations.  People will continue to eat at McDonald’s because their prices are low.  I’ll continue to get my cable from Comcast because they’re the only provider at my address.  My wife and I wanted to do business with a local bank, but that bank ended up selling our mortgage to Bank of America whether we liked it or not.  They’ve got the game rigged and they know they can essentially treat you as badly as they like and you’re sure to come crawling back for more.  And even if you’re fortunate enough to be able to put an end to this abusive relationship, they know there is another sucker standing right behind you who doesn’t have that same kind of luck.

So the American Consumer is bent over a barrel and our corporate masters are free to treat us like crap.  But the logical question that follows is “why would they WANT to?”  Obviously, companies have made the determination that it’s not a big deal to lose a customer because plenty of current and future customers are there to take his or her place.  But isn’t it the goal of business to attract and KEEP as many customers as possible?  Let’s say you own a business and you have 10 customers.  You’ve pissed two of them off and they’re going elsewhere, but you’re not worried because you have three new ones lined up as replacements.  So you say, “I can afford to lose those two because I’ve got three new ones coming in.  I used to have 10 customers, but now I have 11.”  That all sounds well and good, but am I the only one who thinks the most sensible plan of action would’ve been to not piss-off those first two customers, keep your original 10, still add 3 and end up with 13 instead of 11?  I can’t for the life of me figure out how this willing and seemingly intentional purging of customers makes the slightest bit of business sense.

Why are we so expendable?  I know they all already make truckloads of money, but greed is the only language these bastards speak, so why aren’t they willing to make two truckloads instead of just the one?  My wife and I hate Walmart and we refuse to shop there.  Doesn’t that bother them?  Shouldn’t they covet our money?  Why are these corporations so willing to do so many things that drive all of us up the wall?  I could be a happy Verizon customer if their contracts weren’t so unreasonable.  I’d still have a Chase credit card if they didn’t randomly jack-up their rates.  Take a second and think about how many companies you’ve become so frustrated with that you promised yourself to never again buy their junk.  Doesn’t that mean anything to them?  I understand that Subway isn’t going to go bankrupt if I stop buying their subs, but shouldn’t they still want to try to keep me nonetheless?

There’s obviously some kind of cost/benefit algorithm that they’ve concocted that justifies this.  But that’s absolutely crazy.  That means we live in a culture that has decided it is actually more beneficial and profitable to screw your customers than to treat them well.  Our largest corporations have made the calculus that making terrible products and offering pathetic service is a better business model than doing things right.  So it obviously doesn’t matter how angry it might make you that HP or Motorola has their customer service center somewhere in India.  You may fuss and fume after spending hours on the phone with someone who barely speaks english and vow to never buy their crap again, but it doesn’t matter.  That customer-service center that ruined your day saves them enough money that your patronage is expendable.  We can only deduce that they have come to the conclusion that making a quality product or offering professional customer service is a loser, no matter how many of us promise to leave.

These companies have become so large and powerful that they no longer need to worry about losing customers.  They feel complete freedom to employ whatever money-saving tactic they desire.  Those tactics are set into motion at our expense and yet their profits will still continue to grow.  Take a look at The Consumerist’s list for “The Worst Company in America” competition.  This is a list of the worst offenders in the country.   They each have their own unique and repulsive track record of giving their customers the shaft and putting their profits over their customer’s happiness.  But here’s the amazing thing…all of those companies are all WILDLY SUCCESSFUL!  They’ve taken a dump on millions of American consumers and they’re getting rich while doing it.

So what’s the solution?  The most obvious answer is to say that we, the angry customers, haven’t been diligent enough about withholding our business.  Millions of us may have been wronged, but unfortunately, the thousands who have fought back haven’t been able to make a big enough dent.  But such is the nature of a free-market system.  For as long as people continue to buy from these companies, they’ll continue to survive.  To see these barbarians of business brought to their knees, we need to be unwavering in our resolve.  We need to be organized and determined to prove to those who have trespassed against us that their actions will have consequences.  We, the consumers, ultimately decide how profitable or successful these companies will be.  Our power to make that determination is only as strong as our willingness to present a unified front of opposition.

Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against us.  Our idealized “free-market economy” isn’t nearly as free as we would like to believe.  Not everyone possesses the freedom of choice necessary to avoid these corporate crooks.  “Mom & Pop” stores are losing the battle and alternatives to Big Box Stores are hard to find.  The financial world is centralized between a small handful of companies and any effort to work with a local bank can often be an illusion.  We may choose to avoid fast-food restaurants, but we still unknowingly buy our food from the companies that supply them.  For every instance where we can choose to abstain, another instance will arise where we cannot without incurring a hardship.  All of that is intentional.  Competition is the hallmark of a free-market society, but in the corporate world, competition is something to be dismantled over time.  These companies spend their profits in Washington with the explicit purpose of limiting our options.  Every dollar we give them is a dollar they’ll use to ensure that we have no choice but to come back again.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely prefer honey over both vinegar and bullshit.  But too many of us flies are allowing ourselves to be captured by that ever-growing mountain of BS.  If we want the sweet stuff, we’re going to have to start demanding it.


“CLASSIC” FOR A REASON–Why The Scholastic Headaches of My Past Are The Treasures Of Today

October 5, 2010

It took me WAY too long to realize that some things are called "classic" for a reason

I believe I owe my high school english teachers an apology.

They sought to broaden my mind with some of the finest pieces of literature ever written.  In return, I sought to find new and imaginative ways out of having to actually read them.

I am older now and I suppose a bit wiser as well.  And a portion of that wisdom can be directly attributed to letting go of my educationally evasive ways and finally giving the classics the chance they deserve.  The five novels shown above;  “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, “1984” by George Orwell, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair have all captured and held my imagination in ways that I never previously thought possible.  After trying so hard to avoid them, who knew that 15 years later these books would turn out to be my absolute favorites?

I hate to say it, but my english teachers were right and I was most certainly wrong.

But even if I had sucked it up and read everything that was assigned to me in high school, I don’t think I would’ve been properly equipped to truly appreciate them anyways.  My teenage mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of girls and basketball for there to be any room for classical literature.  I lacked the necessary depth and cultural awareness required to understand the messages woven into these books.  And therein lies the real shame, because these books offer to readers timeless lessons that are as true and as applicable today as they were when they were written.  I am fortunate enough to have been compelled to give them a second chance, but for others, novels like these remain in an educational graveyard never to be thought of again.  These books have the ability to illuminate our understanding of the world around us and it’s truly regrettable that for so many, they exist only as the relics of a long-forgotten youthful curriculum.

So if these books are currently gathering dust on your shelf, here’s a brief explanation of why each of them has something valuable to say about the world we live in today.

THE GREAT GATSBY–takes a long look at wealth, ambition and moral decay as they relate to the American Experience.  The book’s title character, Jay Gatsby, is a true example of the self-made man.  But for all of his accomplishments and materials possessions, he is still unable to attain his true desires.  He is forever chasing happiness in the form of Daisy, the object of his affection.  Gatsby’s earnestness and virtuous plight is contrasted by the hollowness and indifference of the society into which he has been elevated.  Those who surround him care only for themselves and the wealthy lifestyles that define them.  Gatsby ultimately falls short of his dream in tragic fashion.

Our world today is set up to condition us to believe as Gatsby did.  We are led to believe that success and happiness can be achieved through self-determination and a relentless pursuit of wealth.  The individualistic ethos pushed by the far-right and the corporatist class has produced a culture brainwashed to worship consumerism and to reject the value of the common good.  Our world fills us with desires to be rich, while those who are, have lost all concern for those below them.  Fitzgerald’s descriptions of a society filled with inequality in the 1920’s has incredible parallels to the wealth gap and decay that exists today.  Fitzgerald wrote, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.  In our materialistic world of bail-outs and selfish ambition no truer words could be spoken.  The Great Gatsby provides a brilliant illustration of what happens when a world, such as ours, has truly lost their way.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT–quite simply, gives full voice to the horrors of war.  The book follows the experiences of a group friends in the German Army during World War I.  Not a single line of the book is wasted on romantic notions of heroism or glory, instead we are given an honest portrayal of the brutality, pointlessness and long-term effects of war.  The book describes in grisly detail the way soldiers are robbed of their humanity and become either fresh-meat for the unstoppable war machine or numb, lifeless relics unable to re-enter normal society.  The author focuses on the empty value of nationalism and how citizens are conned into believing that war has purpose.  We also get to see the brotherhood that grows between soldiers after all other forms of human emotion and interaction are stripped from them by the blood-thirsty leaders that have betrayed them.

American men and women are currently engaged in conflict all over the globe.  Our media and government urge us ad nauseum to ‘support the troops’, but we live in a world where it is deemed cowardly and unacceptable to insist that these men and women might be shown true support by being spared of the horror and brutality of war.  We send young boys and girls to die in foreign lands without being asked to sacrifice ourselves.  All Quiet On The Western Front should be read by any person who blindly advocates for war without considering the true cost on the lives of those who fight it.  Militarism has become the religion of the United States and our society has become callous to its effects.  This book is a striking reminder that the violence of war not only kills and maims, but also has a deteriorative fallout on the country that supports it.

1984–is a bleak glimpse of life under an omnipresent totalitarian government.  Every aspect of life, including work, language, home, sex and recreation all fall under the absolute power of The Party.  The book’s main character, Winston Smith toils under this oppressive regime and struggles not only to remember a brighter past, but also secretly fights against the power structure to regain merely a shred of his individualism and independence.  The novel exposes the methods that totalitarian regimes use to control their citizens.  These methods include psychological manipulation, constant propaganda, intrusive technology, and restrictive control over all information.  It is a world where The Party retains its power by imposing absolute limitations on its citizens’ ability to even conceive of an alternative state of being.

The dark and sinister world portrayed in 1984 could easily be dismissed as a hyperbolic expression of government power.  But just because our world can’t match the same level of manipulation and despair, does not mean that many of these totalitarian devices don’t already exist.  Our oppressor is not a singular entity such as The Party, instead it is a collection of government agencies and huge corporations that strive to develop complete control over our finances, our thoughts, our beliefs, our consumer habits and our ability to act autonomously.  We live under a government that is rapidly expanding its ability to eavesdrop on its citizens and that same government is masterful in the way it uses propaganda to spread fear and animosity towards foreign enemies as a way to wage war.  Our information is controlled by a corporate-owned media that has no real regard for facts or the truth.  Our politicians and leaders are allowed to express dishonest and contradictory statements without being held to account.  We’re led to believe that capitalism allows us freedom of choice, but those choices are always dictated by a small list of companies whose only motivation is profit at our expense.  The connections between our world and the world in 1984 are subtle and are intentionally obscured from our minds, but they exist and are constantly growing nonetheless.  1984 offers a wake-up call to readers and urges them to examine and scrutinize those that wield power over them.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH–is a novel highlighting the struggle between rich and poor, landowner and tenant.  The author contends that the misery and misfortune of the one is directly caused by the inhumanity of the other.  The book tells the historical tale of families from the dust bowls of the midwest who were pushed off their land and forced to head west in search of work, land and a sliver of hope for the future.  Their journey is a combination of blind optimism and enduring hardship and despair.  Once in California, the family joins the ranks of thousands of other dispossessed families and realizes that their visions of a brighter future were all an illusion.  The trend of exploitation continues as the landowners of California seek to protect their own power by treating the migrants like animals, using their desperation as a weapon against them and ultimately turning them on each other.  The novel is a study of the hardships of class warfare, but also a contemplation of the value of family and the bonds that are formed by those who retain the value of humanity in the face of insurmountable sorrow.

The class struggle of The Grapes of Wrath is true for all societies throughout history, but it is especially germane to our recession-ravaged lives today.  We may not be forced to live in camps and asked to toil for merely pennies per day, but workers everywhere still feel the pressures of exploitation from the ruling classes in a variety of ways.  Our world today still lacks the altruism and kindness that is required so that everyone can enjoy a happy life.  The families in the book are perplexed at the notion that able-bodied humans who want to work and eat and live are somehow denied that opportunity.  Our country is currently filled with unemployed and dispossessed people who are still perplexed by that very situation.  The desperation of the characters in the book is also matched by an underlying anger.  That same anger exists today.  The Grapes of Wrath is a fantastic handbook for how and towards whom that anger should be directed.  This book is a wonderful reminder that family, love and people should always come first.

THE JUNGLE–is often incorrectly thought of as merely an expose of the turn-of-the-century meat packing industry.  It is more appropriately described as an expose on the failings of the entire capitalist system.  The novel features the lives and trials of an immigrant family that settles near Chicago as they optimistically pursue their vision of the American dream.  Over time, that dream is shattered by the realities of the cold-hearted and ruthless nature of capitalism.  The family is exploited, chewed-up and spit out by the profit-hungry machine.  Their belief that hard work and honesty will eventually bring happiness is dashed by a never-ending cycle of abuse and debasement at the hands of not only those who reign over them but also by those who are competing alongside of them as well.  The novel is a critique of capitalism and takes the position that despair among the working class is an unavoidable product of the system’s ultimately selfish goals.

Although our country has progressed past the era of 14 hour work days and the sale of contaminated meat, capitalism still exacts its toll on those who labor under it.  The Jungle is a terrific illustration of just how far we have come, but it is also a reminder of how much misery still remains.  The merciless extraction of labor from those with no other options still exists in this world, if not here in America, then in other countries where social advancement has yet to take hold.  Products, especially food products, are still made not so much for the benefits they offer the consumer, but for the cost-effective benefits they offer to those who sell them.  We’re still taught to believe in American Dream.  We’re still taught to believe that all you need to thrive is the will and determination to make that dream a reality.  The Jungle presents to us in unrelenting fashion, the abundance of holes that are forever woven into the fabric of that capitalist dream.

There is no way that all of these lessons could have carried the same significance if I had experienced them as a teenager rather than as an adult.  I feel silly for at one time being so adverse to the world of reading and classic literature, but at the same time my tardiness has afforded me new insight.  I could have given these books the chance they deserved in high school, but that chance would have forever classified these enduring works as nothing more than annoying stepping stones of my educational past.  My high school english teachers were indeed right, the value of these books is immeasurable.  But I am glad I resisted.  Instead of being musty tales of times long-forgotten, these books are now an important part of who I am and what I believe.  They’ve broadened my horizons and shaped my understanding of the world.  And if I’m not mistaken, that seems to be the whole reason why they’re assigned to us in the first place.  I should still get credit for figuring it out, albeit fifteen years too late.


WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE: Reclaiming the Purpose of Labor Day

September 2, 2010

Labor Day meant something to them...what does it mean to you?

Monday is Labor Day.  It’s a day set aside for sun and surf, picnics and parties and plenty of burgers, brats and beer.  We gather with friends and family, fight the endless stream of holiday traffic and blow a final kiss good-bye to summer.  But how many of us give even a passing thought to the original purpose and meaning of Labor Day?  On Memorial Day we salute veterans, on Independence Day we hear patriotic music, on Thanksgiving we say prayers for our blessings and on Christmas we exchange gifts.  No matter how much any one of those holidays may stray from their original intent, there are always a few remaining traditions which continue to honor the grander purpose.  The same really can’t be said for Labor Day.  We all appreciate the break from work and a long weekend, but none of the frivolities we engage in on the first Monday of September do a thing to celebrate our brotherhood as workers or magnify the common dreams and struggles which unite us.

The very first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 in New York City.  Congress officially made Labor Day a National Holiday in 1894, six days after the end of the Pullman Railroad Strike.  The Pullman Railroad Strike was a conflict over wage reductions and other exploitative treatment inflicted on members of the American Railway Union at the hands of the Pullman Palace Car Company.  The New York Times described the conflict as “a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital”, it involved some 250,000 workers in 27 states at its peak.  The strike launched labor organizer and activist Eugene Debs to national prominence.  Debs was a persistent agitator for the rights of all workers and made his life work to bring about the end of the inequality that exists between the ruling and working classes.  Of this conflict, Debs said, “Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most–that is, those who work the hardest, and at the most difficult and menial tasks, have the least”.

It may be tempting and easy for us to dismiss this significant historical event as the relic of a past age.  We may think of it as merely the product of a time long gone during America’s early industrial beginnings.  After all, the workers have won, right?  American children no longer labor in sweatshops, we secured the eight-hour workday and the forty-hour work week, all workers must be paid a minimum wage…what have we got to complain about?  That was then and this is now.  But as the old adage quite adeptly puts it, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.  Regardless of whatever concessions have been won over the years through the tireless efforts of true patriots like Eugene Debs, American workers still toil under the oppressive fist and watchful eye of a callous and profit-thirsty ruling class.

How many of you are out of work?  How many of you know someone who can’t find work?  How many have had their benefits cut, or have been asked to take furlough days, or have been asked to work extra hours without overtime compensation?  How many of you have not seen their wages increase in correlation to the actual cost-of-living?  We’ve been brainwashed as a population to believe that these are just the unlucky factors that we are forced to accept during troubling economic times.  We’re in a recession, everyone needs to suck it up, right?  That seems like a reasonable enough notion until you’re forced to reconcile it with the fact that the profits of Fortune 500 companies have already rebounded back to historical levels.  In 2009, the earnings of Fortune 500 companies were up 335% from just a year before.  The $391 billion that these companies earned in 2009 is the second largest amount in the 56 year history of the Fortune 500 list.  Exactly how much ‘sucking it up’ do you and I have to do before we’re allowed to ask for a raise?

Those obscene profits exist because you and I have been saddled with the burden.  We’re slowly being conditioned to believe that a 10% unemployment rate is just the new paradigm that our society is going to have to learn to accept.  “Recession” is merely an excuse by the top economic class to skin a few more hides off of the very workers that labor to produce the wealth they enjoy.  Sure, we’re not being forced to work 16 hour days in a textile factory making 25 cents per hour like they were in 1894, but the exploitation continues nonetheless.  The sacrifices that we make in the form of furlough days, salary cuts, and benefits reductions are fueling the profits of the largest corporations that run our country.  We sacrifice, they benefit.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So Monday’s Labor Day festivities will come and go without much of a thought from large swaths of our country’s workers.  For millions who are still out of work, Labor Day will be truly meaningless, just another Monday passing by in which they are bereft of the opportunity to provide for their family.  But the saddest part of this is not that another Labor Day will pass without recognition, it is the fact that deep undertones of anger and frustration exist within our culture but they are not being directed toward those who are the real cause of the pain.  The economic misfortune being felt by millions across this country is indeed causing great protest and stirring up deep feelings of resentment, but instead of that emotion being channeled into grand worker demonstrations and protests as it was in 1894, it’s being misplaced on various sideshows and other nefarious boogeymen.  Instead of blaming Wall Street, we blame minorities who did nothing more than seek to become homeowners.  Instead of lashing out against corporate crime and malfeasance, we cower over the impending crimes of dangerous terrorists.  Instead of questioning the ethics of a government run by lobbyists, we question our President’s birth certificate.

The strong undercurrents of anger and resentment that exist throughout our society could be channeled into meaningful causes if we were able to see that we all share a common predicament.  But just as the powers that be convince us that sacrifice is a necessity, they also are skillful at obscuring from our eyes the ties that bind us together.  Our media and our culture give no credence to the lines that exist between classes, instead they convince us to focus on fabricated divisions such as the imaginary gap between Democrats and Republicans.  The growth of the tea-parties is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  These angry rubes are led to believe that they have more in common with billionaire CEO’s who share their anti-tax ethos than with the left-leaning Obama-voter who stands next to them in the unemployment line.  Millions of these tea-baggers, who are rightfully frustrated by the economic circumstances that are thrust upon them, are led like lemmings to the cliff by nincompoop mouthpieces like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  They see their world crumbling and are made to think that the proper recipients of the blame are some gay men in California and some Muslims in New York who want a new community center.  Some zealots on the left aren’t much better.  They seek to position all right-leaning citizens as aberrant curiosities meant to be gawked at and mocked instead of seeking to bridge their ideological gaps with a common shared purpose.  They would rather defend a President who lied and sold them out for the interests of corporate donors than join the chorus of those who are justifiably leveling criticism his way.

Everywhere you look, a new and totally misplaced scapegoat takes the spot where a CEO or a Wall Street jackass should stand.  Illegal immigrants, welfare queens, abortion doctors, Hollywood actors, radio talk-show hosts, gays, Muslims, blacks, terrorists…everyone has someone to blame.  But no matter our race or religious beliefs, we all have something in common.  We are all members of the same class.  We are all part of the group that produces the goods and the services on which our society and the profits of ruling class depend.  We need to see past the fabricated issues of division that prevent us, the laboring class, from truly recognizing our full potential.  Our beef is not with each other, but with those who stand behind the curtains of power manipulating us and exploiting us to their heart’s content.  Eugene Debs understood this concept when he said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal class, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”.

On the surface, this may appear to be nothing more than silly idealism.  It would be easy for a well-employed, middle-aged person living in suburbia while making a comfortable 80K a year to look at a desperate Walmart employee scraping by on minimum wage and not recognize that person as a member of their same class.  But its not a question of how much you make, how many cars you have or how big your home may be, the question revolves around the level of control that you have over your own life.  That person making 80K a year could just as easily find themselves as another victim of downsizing, and depending on their levels of debt and savings, could very quickly find out what it’s like to be at the mercy of creditors and collectors.  It is not just the poor who are forced to face the harsh realities of oppression.  A consumer culture driven by easy credit and materialism has sunk their tentacles into all rungs of society.  Families that like to consider themselves as firmly middle-class can be just as close to the precipice of bankruptcy and despair as anyone else already struggling to get by.  It does not matter who you are, if there is a way for someone to make more money at your expense, you could be a victim too.

So our allegiances should not lie strictly with those to whom we can identify.  Our allegiances should transcend the boundaries of age and race and creed.  Our friends and allies are not merely those who make a similar salary or those who vote along the same political lines.  Our desire to categorize and stratify ourselves only serves to strengthen the chains that hold us down.  The decision-makers in Washington and on Wall Street and in the boardrooms want us to fight amongst ourselves.  They want their selfish and unsustainable actions to remain obscured from our eyes.  They want Labor Day to be just another day where you head out and spend more of your money on more of their junk.  They want your anger to continue to be directed anywhere but where it rightly belongs.

Labor Day in America needs to be redefined.  It should not just exist as an ‘extra day off’ on the first weekend in September.  The way we celebrate and commemorate Labor Day should be more significant than firing up the grill or dragging the family off to the beach.  Labor Day should be a day that reminds us of everything we have in common with the entire population of workers.  Just as we all feel compelled to act a little bit nicer on Christmas, we should all feel compelled on Labor Day to look past our differences and join as one to fight the injustices that we all experience.  Just as Independence Day ignites feelings of patriotism, Labor Day should ignite feelings of brotherhood and of renewal of purpose in a struggle against a mutual enemy.  The most dire problems our society faces are all class-related.  Poverty, foreclosures, unemployment, personal debt, illegal wars, imprisonment; these are all the consequences of a ruling class that has taken advantage of our inaction for far too long.  If we want to live in a just and civil society where those problems are a thing of the past, then we need to recapture the unified sense of purpose that propelled the epic labor struggles of the past.

So this Monday, while you’re out enjoying yourself, remember that this day off was secured for a reason.  Look past the colors and creeds and political affiliations of your fellow beach-goers and raise a glass to them and to the common predicament that you both share.  And if you look out on the water and see a huge yacht racing across the horizon, get everyone on the beach to raise a middle finger and reclaim Labor Day as your own.


The Unquenchable Appetite for MORE

July 7, 2010

There’s an old adage that  implores us to “never hit a man when he’s down”.  The moneyed interests that run this country think that old adage is for fools.  From where you and I might stand, things are looking rather bleak economically.  The unemployment rate continues to hover near 10%, State and Local Governments face disastrous budget shortfalls and a solution to the foreclosure crisis has yet to be found.  In the adage, we, the working public are most certainly in the role of the man who is down.  And even though now might seem like a good time for a helping hand, brace yourselves, because the oligarchs are winding up for one swift kick to the teeth.

If you pay attention to the news, I’m sure you’ve heard at least one story about the importance of addressing the federal deficit. The time for financial stimulus, health-care reform and bailouts has come and gone, and now it’s time for a little bit of belt-tightening.  This sounds reasonable enough at first blush.  We like to think of our national and global economic situation in the same terms that most would think of their household economic situation.  Times are tough?  Then it’s time to cutback on dining out, it’s time to shut off the cable or it’s time to cancel that summer vacation.  Unfortunately, comparing the economic policies of nations with the economic policies of households is wrong.  The methods you use to balance your checkbook have nothing to do with the methods used for addressing our country’s financial situation. But this is not what the powers that be want you to believe.  They want you to believe that the only thing to do right now is to cutback…and you had better believe that they aren’t the ones who plan to be participating in any sort of sacrifice.  That will be up to you and me.  The proverbial ‘man who is down’.

The plan to convince us all of the need for belt-tightening has been charged to President Obama’s recently formed “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform”. One of the Commission’s stated purposes’ is to “propose recommendations that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending.” For those not versed in the linguistic styling of Washington bureaucrats, that quite simply means “finding ways to CUT Social Security and Medicare.” That’s right, cut the most popular, successful, efficient and possibly two most important programs in our country.  Wall St. gets its bailout, there’s endless money for endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurance and pharmaceutical companies receive sweet deals during health reform and the Bush tax cuts for the ultra-rich that are set to expire, might just stick around. Apparently, there’s money for all of that, but everyone out there skating by on Social Security and Medicare are just going to have to ‘suck it up’.

There’s two problems with this theory;  first, millions of American’s already living on the edge of poverty and despair will be shoved a little closer to the precipice, and second, reforming or cutting entitlement programs is an ineffective and wrong-headed strategy for trimming the federal deficit.  An explanation of this second point can be found in the testimony of economist James K. Galbraith when he appeared before Obama’s Fiscal Commission on June 30, 2010:

http://www.newdeal20.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/deficitcommissionrv.pdf

Professor Galbraith’s testimony essentially explains that entitlement programs like Social Security are transfer programs that function on a ‘money-in-money-out’ basis and are consequently irrelevant to deficit economics.  He goes on to highlight the true cause of the deficit (the financial downturn) and to explain that the call for deficit reduction is a political one, not one being demanded by the markets.  His testimony should be read in full by anyone with even a passing interest in this topic.

What all this illustrates is just the latest chapter in the ongoing class war being waged upon millions of Americans by wealthy who have, as the title of this post describes, “An Unquenchable Appetite for MORE”.  Entitlement programs represent to them an unearned handout to those who have demonstrated neither the talent or the willingness to succeed in life.  In their eyes, Social Security isn’t a necessary safety net or a means by which we show that societies who thrive are the ones that support and take care of the least of those among them.  To them, Social Security is a wasteful enterprise that encourages slothful behavior and rewards inadequacy.  But on top of that callous sentiment, entitlement programs represent to them a huge untapped resource of money that they ache to get their hands on.  That’s what the failed ‘privatization’ scheme of George W. Bush tried to accomplish.  It was not a benevolent new way to restructure a popular program; it was a money grab.  The powers that be wanted our Social Security funds to be invested on Wall St.  All of the talk about deficits and insolvency are nothing more than lies created to move money that is currently in the hands of the public trust into the hands of bankers and financiers who want to start laying it out on the craps table in a new effort to further line their already fat pockets.

The whole situation reminds me of the scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life” where George Bailey gets the opportunity to give Mr. Potter an earful about his greedy ways. George says, “I know very well what you’re talking about…you’re talking about something you can’t get your fingers on…and it’s galling you!”  The fact that Social Security and Medicare still exist today is galling the financial elites.  It galls them that they don’t control it and it galls them that people in worse situations than they actually get to enjoy the spoils of it.  It doesn’t matter that there is a Democrat in the White House, either.  This ‘Fiscal Commission’ represents just the latest attempt by the oligarchs to put an end to something that’s been galling them for roughly eighty years.

You don’t have to look far to see the results of the economic recession.  Even if your life has found a way to carry on relatively unscathed, you undoubtedly know of someone else who hasn’t been so lucky.  All of us are merely scheming to find a way to persevere.  But while we’re fighting for our lives, the rich and powerful are scheming for new ways to squeeze out a few more drops.  So the next time you hear a politician or a banker on TV talking about the necessity of trimming the deficit, just remember that they don’t have the slightest pause when it comes to hitting a man when he’s down.