Personal versus Collective 2010

February 28

Personal and Collective Rights

Another difference between progressives and conservatives is in their views of rights as being individual in nature, or pertaining to the collective. Conservatives tend to view rights as pertaining only to the individual -- privacy, freedom from prosecution without good cause, freedom of speech, and so forth. Progressives, in contrast, tend to view rights as the rights of the people as a collective. We have a right to public protection through a responsible police department, and fire department; public education that is free and fair for all; publicly supported health care, an idea which conservatives are currently fighting tooth and nail; and of course, economic justice for all.

These two world views can coexist, but they are different. Sometimes, individual and collective rights come into conflict. Does a person's right to privacy include being a public hazard, perhaps knowingly spreading the HIV virus, for example? Does freedom of speech include the right to drown out the voices of those who oppose us, as the Supreme Court would let the wealthiest among us do -- and is in reality, already being done to a large extent? As with freedom, rights are not absolute. I do not know whether the authors of the U.S. constitution thought of them as such, but it is clear that rights of different kinds can interfere with each other. Once again, we are left with a balancing act, with conservatives leaning to the individualistic right, and progressives leaning to the collectivist left.

Any sort of halfway rational comparison of nations reveals that the United States as a whole has leaned farther to the right than other democracies, at least, in terms of rights. (See note.) Once again, it seems to be our misplaced confidence in the "self-made man" which fuels this trend. Rather than continuing to "go it alone" and "buck the trend" of democratic socialism or anything involving increasing the power of the collective, it is high time that our government in the U.S. begins copying what works in other nations. Actually, we have many socialist institutions of long standing meant to aid people in their collective rights -- police, firepeople, public education, social security, welfare, unemployment benefits -- all of which are under assault by right-wing conservatives. We must continue to stand up for our collective rights, to ensure that they remain public, rather than being placed under the control of private corporations. We must insist that our taxes be used for such purposes, not for counterproductive empire building military purposes that serve no public good, and whose use as deterrents to aggression, if that ever was a valid excuse for having the foreign bases, has long since faded. And we must insist that there be sufficient taxes, especially upon those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the advantages of wealth, in order to pay for our public needs.

In short, it is time for us as a culture to evolve what author Jeremy Rifkin refers to as an empathic (or empathetic) mindset, one that there is increasing evidence is part of our nature, as I have written about before. Empathy must win out over selfishness. Unfortunately, for far too long, our economic and political system has followed a model of so-called "enlightened self-interest," and the social Darwinist idea that our essential nature is competitive with each other. In fact, were Darwin alive today, I believe that he would agree that our essential nature as humans is cooperative, not competitive, and that is what makes us so successful, in combination with our intelligence which makes sophisticated cooperation possible. In other words, our collective rights -- rights which require cooperation among people, rather than fostering competition -- are ultimately more important, and a more worthy result of our humaness, than our individual rights.

If we do not soon -- in historical terms -- develop an economic system which recognizes our mutual dependence and common human worth, the failure of our broken system to meet our reasonable expectations will lead to a revolution. If so, let us pray that it is a peaceful and successful one. Meanwhile, we must do all we can to encourage our politicians to engage in the true and meaningful economic and political reform which is our collective right as a people.

Note: In fact, a good argument could be made that collectivistic non-democracies, such as China, take an extremely collectivistic view of rights, to the point of largely excluding individual rights. We need not consider going this far in the collective rights direction, but at least we need a greater assurance of our collective rights to balance our personal rights. Otherwise, we may soon find ourselves in a society that is largely devoid of collective rights.

February 19

My laryngitis is improving. Now, I can speak pretty comfortably, but sound really "hoarse" (or is that Horse?). I just spoke with my father and my brother Bruce. I wanted to go over there, but they were against it in case we were still infectious. (Eunice is still coughing quite a bit.) Bruce said he taught while having laryngitis before, so he knows how difficult that is. He also said hopefully we can come and visit them next summer at Tahoe, just like last summer. I certainly hope so. Tahoe Trout, here I come!

Personal and Collective Responsibility

Last time, I wrote about personal and collective freedom. Now, I will extend the issue to that of responsibility. I have previously explained that the true price of freedom is that of taking responsibility for one's decisions, actions, and even one's mental state. Being afforded such freedom as we can garner, while never absolute, is embedded with an obligation to be equally responsible. A person of good conscience takes responsiblity for his or her personal conduct, and thus merits whatever freedom life affords that individual. Likewise, a society of good social conscience collectively takes responsibility for its own conduct, thus earning whatever freedom it enjoys.

How does a society take responsibility for its actions?

1. It provides comfort and aid to those it has treated unfairly.

2. It exacts appropriate punishment and lessons upon bad actors, the perpetrators of bad treatment.

3. Its citizens, leaders, and media admit to collective misbehavior and respond with a sense of guilt, shame and desire to compensate for such misbehavior. (For example, to the credit of Germany and Japan, we still see this acceptance of responsibility to some degree for their roles in creating the tragedy that we call World War II, although I think this acceptance of responsibility was somewhat forced upon them by their losing of the war.)

4. It freely examines its shortcomings and searches openly for solutions.

5. In short, this is about social responsibility on a collective level. The citizens of a society take collective responsibility when they work together to ensure good, fair and just treatment of all its citizens. This is primarily accomplished through political means such as good law and its application, but can also be accomplished through charity or even socially responsible business practices.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between progressives and conservatives is the emphasis upon individualism versus collectivism. Conservatives generally think individualistically -- a "me society" orientation. Progressives, in contrast, generally think of the collective good -- a "we society" orientation. Thus, conservatives, just as they emphasize personal, behavioral freedom --most typically economic freedom -- also emphasize individual responsibility over collective responsibility. That is why the idea of "compassionate conservatism" never caught on with the public; it is too easy for people to see through that ploy, when really, so-called compassionate conservatives are really about making individuals take responsibility for their actions. In wanting individuals to be responsible for their actions, conservatives are well-intentioned and essentially correct. I don't think anyone is against this in principle, anymore than anyone, regardless of political orientation, is against valuing family or in favor of unwanted pregnancies, for example. This is something that progressives and conservatives can agree upon.

Where the two sides disagree is on the relative importance of the individual and the collective. I think that even conservatives concede that there is merit to being concerned with the collective good of society, but they see that as subordinate to individual good, and furthermore, seem to have convinced themselves that the best way to achieve collective good is through the individual's unrestrained pursuit of glory -- the fallacy of "enlightened self-interest." Progressives, however, see individual self-interest as subordinate to the interests of the collective, while still maintaining that the interests of individuals are important. The pursuit of individual interests just need to occur within reasonable parameters made necessary by the predominant goal of the collective good, according to progressives such as myself. Thus, just as progressives empasize the collective freedom of a culture, and see individual freedom as a good but inherently limited entity, progressives believe that social responsibility is a greater force than that of individual responsibility. We can accomplish together that which can never be accomplished individually, no matter how responsible the individuals are. This compassionate orientation is exactly what is advocated by psychologist Carol Gilligan as the higher form of emotional morality. She connects the emotional approach to morality with female socialization, while the concept of individual justice is linked to male socialization, which I believe explains why conservatism is generally much more common in men, and progressivism, in women.

There is also a link between collective and personal responsibility. In contrast to the viewpoint of conservatives, the best way to maximize responsible behavior in individuals is to have a collectively responsible society, much as the use of collective freedom to create conditions conducive to personal growth, is the best way to ensure individual freedoms. Once again, conservatives have got things backwards. When society treats its citizens responsibly, it is easy and natural for them as individuals to behave responsibly. When society treats its citizens irresponsibly -- a so-called "dog-eat-dog" culture -- it is difficult to behave responsibly. People feel they have to "look out for number one" in order to survive, and thus, as much as they would like to be, personally responsible behavior goes "out the window." Life becomes an ultracompetitive struggle in a game with no rules. Such a lifestyle is certainly not conducive of freedom, either. The very fact that such idioms are so common among us, and that we can relate so well to these sayings, shows that culture in the United States has gone much too far in the direction of ignoring collective responsiblity, while still espousing individual responsibility despite making it difficult. Our nation's current difficulties clearly relate to a lack of collective responsibility, and its consequence of people in powerful positions being lacking in personal responsibility. We need to develop a strong sense of collective responsibility if we are to ultimately succeed. People are much happier, more productive, more progressive, and more free in a society where a sense of social responsibility and fairness prevails.

Next time, I will discuss personal and collective rights.

February 8

Personal and Collective Freedom

It has happened again. A couple of nights ago, shortly after going to bed, I had another realization of a political/social sort. I realized that it is not only individuals who have freedom, but societies as well.

When we think of freedom, we are conditioned to think of it as individual freedom. In particular, we are conditioned to think of freedom as behavioral freedom, the freedom to do what one wants to. The only exception to that may be when we think of "freedom of expression" or "free speech," but even those are behaviors, albeit behaviors which reflect our thoughts and feelings. When I wrote about freedom before, I wrote about behavioral freedom and mental freedom, the freedom to think one's own thoughts and feel one's own feelings. I argued that the mental freedoms were more fundamental than behavioral freedom; without mental freedom, there is no point to having behavioral freedom. I also argued that the mental freedoms are more difficult for others to take away, but at the same time, more subject to subtle restraint.

However, societies have freedom too. That is what democracy -- true democracy, at least -- is all about. People collectively can choose the direction their society takes in a free society. In a not-so-free society, the direction the culture takes is chosen for its citizens, not by its citizens. In a functional democracy, the government is responsive to the collective will of the people. Of course, some people will inevitably disagree with the will of the majority, and sometimes, the majority will make a bad choice; democracy is messy. There also need to be legal limits to the choices which the majority can make; they cannot suddenly decide to execute all gay people, deport all persons of Mexican ancestry, etc. Minorities have rights, too. Ultimately, however, progress will be made. In a non-democracy, those in charge of government decide policy unilaterally, with no chance it will lead to their "firing" by having other leaders chosen in an election.

When I think of the so-called "Tea Baggers," it seems to me just another anti-government counter-revolution being perpetrated by libertarian-minded conservatives. They are against oversized, monopolistic business for sure, but mostly, they are against "big government," especially since the guy they voted against, Barack Obama, is leading that government. Basically, they are against Obama. They are so consumed with fear and loathing, that they fail to think through the ramifications of what they are advocating. They want a society of maximum personal freedom, with minimal government or corporatocracy. However, the only way that is possible, is for each of them, or at most each family, to live on their own little islands. I guess John Donne was wrong when he wrote that "No man is an island," at least according to the Tea Baggers. Thus, we are presented with 3 possibilities. The first is that we break up into a bunch of tiny "island" units, and lose the collective entirely. That is what the Tea Baggers functionally want, as ludicrous as that seems. There aren't enough "islands" in the world for that to happen. The second is that big business runs the show, and effectively uses its money to influence people and pull political strings, using politicians like puppets. That is essentially what our society has currently come to. The third, is that we can recognize that we have a large society with a large population, that needs a large and effective government in order to do the collective will of the people (collective freedom). This is what we should be striving for -- good government which has divested the influence of big money and big business, and through regulation has limited corporations to their proper role as producers of goods and services which enhance people's quality of life, while providing a decent living for all of their employees. As I pointed out in Big Government Versus Big Corporations, the choice in a large society is not between individual freedom and government; rather, it is between corporate control of the collective aspects of society, versus government control of those collective aspects of society. Considering the Tea Bagger movement, their blatant opposition to anything progressive that the Obama administration is trying to accomplish, unwittingly favors the corporate control scenario, which is exactly what the corporatocracy who already controls much of our society wants -- further corporate control.

There is also a relation between collective freedom and individual freedom. In this case, it is the collective freedom which is the more fundamental of the two, in the sense that it is the collective which can best ensure personal freedoms. It is through collective processes that guarantees of personal freedom were written into the Constitution of the United States, for example. We have a tendency to forget that. Societies have representatives get together to enact laws which give citizens rights, that is, personal freedoms. Also, having a civil society with reasonable regulations -- which only good government can provide us -- gives people the freedom from distressing situations, needed to pursue individual freedoms and self-actualization. However, when corporations are pulling the strings behind the scenes to enact the will of the corporate elite, we have only a shadow of a democracy. Actually, what we have currently in the United States is something approaching fascism -- the merging of corporations and state. We now face the prospect of our society becoming even more overtly fascist with the recent Supreme Court decision which allows corporations to openly spend as much money as they want, for political causes. The will of the people is not being carried out if it conflicts with the interests of big business. Even worse, big business is using its influence to propagandize people, influencing their thoughts and feelings so that people's mental freedoms are being limited, without them even being aware of that. However, there is a weakness built into the insidiousness of corporate propagandizing efforts; it only works when people don't realize what is going on. Those of us who are aware of the propagandizing are able to rebel against it. Things can turn around in a hurry in our society, and sooner of later, they will when enough of us realize how we are being manipulated and unduly influenced by corporations who threaten both our collective and individual freedoms. Let us do all we can to make it sooner! I think that is something even the Tea Baggers can appreciate, once they find their wits.

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