How Do We Form a More Perfect Union?

I am very disillusioned with the state of our country right now.  Ever since the election, I have been trying to figure out how people could elect those that don’t have the well being of the average citizen in mind.  Instead of stewing over the loss, I tried to educate myself.  My intuition told me to start with slavery and the Civil War, as this is a period of American history that is still affecting how we think today in terms of our regional and cultural divides.

While I was thinking about all of this I had the opportunity to go to Australia.  I want to share some facts with you about Australia:

1.  By law they get 28 days of paid time off each year.

2.  Healthcare, although it is slightly more complicated than this, is basically free.

3.  Minimum wage is 17 dollars an hour.

4.  If someone is without a job or homeless they get a stipend.  It’s like unemployment that never runs out.

5.  They have clean and plentiful public transportation.

Those are all facts.  However, here are some personal observations that I made:

1.  The cities that I was in were very clean.

2.  The people were almost all friendly and helpful.

3.  Most of the people looked in relatively good shape.

4.  I saw no large-scale poverty.  In fact, while walking many days through a city twice the size of Austin, I never saw one homeless person.  (I’m not saying that they don’t exist, only that they exist in much lower numbers than they do in American cities.)

5.  The cities that I saw were vibrant and modern.

I know that Australia has its problems.  Right now they are having immigration issues for instance.  However, they seem to do a much better job at taking care of their citizens than we do.  I can imagine that just having 28 paid days off each year while living in a nice climate would alone make life more livable.

So how is it that a country that was started partially by criminals can be doing things so much better than a so-called Christian nation?  To answer this would require a book.  Although I intend to come back to this question, I am not going to answer it here.

The whole time I was there I was again reading about slavery and the Civil War.  What I found troubling was that so many of the arguments that were used to protect slavery are still used today to protect powerful economic interests.  Often progress in this country is stopped by arguments over states rights, religion, and economics.  We can’t pass a certain law that would benefit people because it would:

A. Infringe upon states rights
B. Would force people to go against their religion
C. It would hurt the economy

These are the same kinds of things that again were used to protect slavery.  In cases A. and B. these are the exact same arguments.  Although there were many people that were anti-slavery from a religious standpoint, there were also many that used religion to justify slavery.

During slavery education on average in the South was far behind the North.  In the present economic power is doing what it can to strip critical thinking from education.  This is not a North/South thing, although there is some of that going on if you look at recent election results.  However, I can take you to places that are backwards in my home state of Pennsylvania, while my current home of Austin is quite progressive in a lot of ways.

It’s just that as I dig deeper and deeper into the well I find myself more discouraged at the state of our country, not less.  Especially when you look at someplace like Australia in comparison, you realize that there is no reason that we couldn’t be doing a better job of helping the less fortunate.  It’s out there in the world, being done, right now as we speak.

***

Often when I have looked at the war in Afghanistan I see it as almost science fiction.  It’s like people from the present are fighting people from the past.  That is not to say that I believe we are right to still be there, only that if you look at the technology and education of the United States against somewhere like the mountains of Afghanistan, which are still tribal, I think it is a fair way to look at things.

After visiting Australia and reading about our history I can’t wonder if our own country is still fighting culturally outside of space and time.  Are there not places that still have the mentality of the 1950’s arguing against people from the present?

All of this raises more questions than answers.  But that is where I’m at.  How did we get to where we are at and how can we make it better?  Can we make it better with entrenched economic powers that need to keep people ignorant to achieve their goals?

In one sense there has been a lot of progress in our country.  I don’t think anyone but the Ku Klux Klan wants to go back to the days of slavery or Reconstruction.  However, we are not where we need to be.  We need to stop thinking that we’re number one at everything and realize that there are other places out there that have some of the answers.  We have to confront our history so that we can recognize the problems of the present.  There is no shame in realizing you can do better then you are, getting up, and trying again.  Shame is only for those that quit.  When and where do we start?

The Past is Not Past

I spent most of the day either at rehearsal or learning about Stonewall Jackson.  S.C. Gwynne has written another captivating book.  I’m not far enough into it to feel that I can talk about it, but there is no question that Jackson was a “unique” individual.  Today was one of those days that slipped through my grasp.  One minute I’m drinking coffee and the next the sun is going down.

After this recent election, which seems to defy reason, I have been looking for answers about our current political climate in our history and culture.  How did we arrive at this moment in time?  Take climate change for instance, something for which Obama just made a great step forward with his deal with China.  (I am still reading up on our deal with China for more specifics.)  The fact that climate change is occurring is scientific fact.  There is some uncertainty as to the exact outcome, but don’t get confused by the word uncertainty.  Think about if a large rainstorm came in.  You know that the ground will be soaked, but you can’t say for certain if the big oak tree out front is going to fall over.  That however, doesn’t mean it is not raining.  Anyway, so science and all reason point to climate change happening, yet not only does a portion of the populace not believe it is real, but we have elected officials that are not scientists, that claim they know more than scientists, going to be in charge of parts of our environmental policy.

Now there is no doubt that these people are for the most part bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.  You don’t have to be Columbo to deduce that.  You also don’t have to be Columbo to figure out that the regions with the most jobs in the fossil fuel industry are also the regions that are most against us doing anything about climate change.  Yet I don’t think it is as simple as a mere question of economics.

From the very beginning of our country there is an element that is against any kind of centralized authority.  Part of our country also puts faith above reason.  I just read in the Stonewall Jackson book last night that in 1850 Florida only had 85,000 inhabitants and half of them were slaves.  It is hard to imagine that modern Florida, with Disney World and Miami and the countless beach resorts, was created in 164 years, which is the lifespan of two humans.  Go to Miami and think about how two lives ago it was a desolate swamp.  As far as civilization goes our country is but a baby.

I am still thinking about all of this myself.  I wanted to ask those of you that read this a rhetorical question.  How does our unique American history and culture affect the way in which we think politically?  Places that were settled by different ethnic and religious groups often ended up quite different.  Places that had to subdue the land and keep people oppressed often ended up quite different than places that were booming with industry.  All of these things factor into who we are now.  How so?

The Fall of Man and Accidents of Birth

Every single day that I decide not to fashion a flute out of another human being’s femur bone is a small victory.  I know that I am a flawed human being that occasionally has an unreasonable temper.  I know that I can occasionally let my self-interest overcome the good of the group.  I, like most people, am neither a saint nor a sociopath.  Most human beings are complicated characters that are somewhere in between.  I am no different.

However, it is exactly because I am very consciously aware of these traits that I feel that we should be kind to other people when we can overcome our own chemicals and tribal biases.  As long as human behavior is not hurting others I believe it is the height of self-righteousness to try to control other people through the law.  There is a huge difference in my mind between stating your beliefs and trying to impose your will on others through the power of law.

In your personal life, again as long as you are not hurting others, you can be as ignorant as you wish, though I would advise against it.  But when people try to prevent others from experiencing their own journey towards happiness and meaning, it makes my head spin.  Most of us human beings, I’d say 99% of us, have our own shit to sort out and should be concerned with that before trying to impose our will on others.

Being gay doesn’t hurt anyone.  In fact being gay, being of a different race, being male or female, being from another country, are all accidents of birth.  Show me someone trying to ban gay marriage and I’ll show you a motherfucker with too much time on their hands that should be looking in the mirror first.  And if you don’t want to spend time looking in the mirror, go down to the local orphanage or something else that will be of some good to people.  If you believe that gay people shouldn’t have the right to marry, that women shouldn’t be in control of their own bodies, that new immigrants are somehow less deserving than the less recent immigrants of your ancestors, I may disagree with you, but that is your right.  However, again, actively campaigning to have these beliefs codified by law is exactly where I feel the line should be drawn.

Although I don’t believe in the Fall of Man as having actually happened, I love it as a story.  We are all flawed.  We are all on a daily struggle to overcome our chemical makeup and our imperfect knowledge and this strange ocean of absurd culture that we are born into.

There is only one place in life we should be trying to reach.  As the great Kurt Vonnegut said:  “Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Language, Red Necks, and Culture

If you go into a really conservative part of the Bible Belt, you will see that fear, guilt, and shame run rampant.  Of course I am painting with a wide brush, because no area is monolithic.   However, as a generalization, this rings pretty true.  These feelings that I listed are the results of years of religious and cultural repression. 

Have you ever played whack-a-mole?  It is the game where you hit moles that pop up with a mallet.  As soon as you hit that mole, another one is popping up somewhere else.  You can suppress some human emotions, but other ones will come out in their place.  When people in these regions are suppressed,  or oppressed,  because of various institutions, I believe it leads to a lot of the strange behavior that we see in this country.  They are so obsessed with people’s sexual orientation, because their own sex lives have been burdened with so much guilt and shame. 

That’s not to say there aren’t good people in these regions.  Often, these people are super generous and kind, even more than some liberals can be.  The problem is this generosity only usually extends to those that are part of their community or tribe. 

One of the great problems of the modern age is that we are in an increasingly interconnected world that faces global problems, but this local and tribal outlook still exists.  The world has become interconnected faster than societies can adapt. 

One of my favorite history books is Empire of the Summer Moon.  It is largely about the Comanche Indian Wars in Texas.  In the earlier days, before the six shooter was introduced, surviving as a Texas Ranger was almost like natural selection.  Only the toughest and best survived.  Why Am I talking about this?  Because the bravado that is so prevalent in Texas, I believe, comes out of this period.  At one point you had to bold and tough to survive. 

But the world changed so much in the last 150 odd years this trait, which was once a necessity for survival, is now an impediment to our country.  150 years ago isn’t that long ago.  It is my great grandparents.  In the late 1800’s people didn’t even know what existed at the north pole.  Now we can see into the farthest reaches of space.  The world has moved on, but a large part of our culture has not. 

If we are going to overcome the challenges of this century we need to change culturally.   This is not an easy thing to do.  Especially when people are struggling, they cling to their culture and identity as a way to keep their bearings. 

George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, wrote a critique of socialism.  However , he was a socialist.  He just realized that in order to get people interested in socialism you had to meet people where they were at.  He saw many on the left as being too academic, in the sense that they were talking about a belief he shared in ways that would never reach the average person who would benefit from these beliefs. 

In order to reach more people Democrats and liberals need to think about the language that is used.  Frank Luntz, a completely vile Republican pollster, has realized this.  For instance, people that were for the estate tax were much less likely to support the death tax, when they are the same exact thing.  But people were more willing to tax a rich person’s estate than to tax someone for dying.  Only the language had changed. 

Mark Twain once said that, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.”  The left needs to start with something as basic as language if there is any real hope for progress in the future. 

The reason I view Frank Luntz as vile is because he uses his talent to muddy the waters. He is only interested in his own financial interests and of keeping those in power who don’t have the best interest of people at heart. You can use language to either distort the truth or to shine a light on it. He does the former.

Would Jesus Want to See a Cross?

A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. You think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fucking cross? It’s like going up to Jackie Onassis wearing a rifle pendant.  - Bill Hicks

I’d be lying if I said I knew Hicks work that well, though I certainly have heard of him.  Mark, our saxophone player, tipped me off to this quote last night.  I have always thought it strange that many people’s symbol of hope is also a symbol of one of the most excruciating ways to die possible.  Do some reading on crucifixtions sometime, it’s horrible!  If you really wanted to follow Jesus wouldn’t it be better to wear some kind of symbol of love or peace or understanding?  That is why I find things like The Passion of the Christ so wrongheaded,  it dwells on all of the wrong things.  But then again, I guess most churches do the same….

My Land is Too Green Lyrics

My land is bogged down in religious tradition
We nod our heads in humble submission
One foot in the door a hand in your pocket
We export our problems for foreign solutions
My land is naive too scared of the devil
Holier than thou with eyes up to heaven
When nobody looks we tear strips off our neighbour
And to have a good laugh at it all in the end

Shrouded and mist the outlook’s appalling
Pressure is rising but temperature’s falling
Sunny spells and scattered showers
But still it rains for hours and hours
And as the floods rise we drown our sorrows
Tossing them back like there is no tomorrow
And in the end we’ll stick or stand
And piss it back to the bog holes of Ireland

My land is too full of incurable scheming
The promises given are nothing but dreaming
We all love a rogue we’ll make him our leader
And every four years it’s right back to zero
My land is still poor and underdeveloped
We talk round our problems for hours on end
And then we decide there’s two sides to the story
And have a good laugh at it all in the end

Shrouded in mist the outlook’s appalling
Pressure is rising but temperature’s falling
Sunny spells and scattered showers
And still it rains for hours and hours
And as the floods rise we drown our sorrows
Tossing them back like there is no tomorrow
And in the end we will sit or stand
And piss it back to the bog holes of Ireland

My Land is Too Green written by A. Hensey/Erik Visser.  The recording that I owned is performed by Mary Coughlan.  I was listening to Coughlan as I took a walk after having just written about her.  I had downloaded this song for my six hours of drive time yesterday to a gig in Conroe, but I never got around to listening to it till today as hardcore music was better at keeping me awake and focused.  As I was listening to it the first few lines, even though I knew in advance the song was about Ireland, struck me as very fitting for America.  In fact, change a few lines here and there and a few words, and the song could unfortunately translate well as an American political song.  Let me show you:

The whole first verse fits great with the continued rise of the religious right.  The only thing is, we don’t export our problems for foreign solutions.  We just export our problems.

The chorus would take the most work.   You should change the temperature falling to rising on account of our country’s terribly inadequate response to climate change .  You would also have to mess with the weather metaphors a bit depending on where you lived.  God, does our country get hogged on booze though.  That’s not just an Irish thing.  I have seen that shit with my own eyes.  I have taken part!  Obviously you would have to change the final line.

The second verse you wouldn’t have to change a line, although to be fair our land isn’t poor, it’s just that many of its inhabitants are poor due to the greed of the few.

So there you go.