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Happy Fourth of July!  The United States of America turns 242 years old this year (2018).  People always talk about how new our nation is, but 242 is pretty venerable by any reasonable standard.  When the founding fathers declared independence, France was under the Ancien Régime, China was ruled by the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the Ottoman Sultanate was a great world power.  Russia was expanding under the enlightened reign of…Catherine the Great!  The nascent United States had the idealistic strength of purpose to break from the forms of monarchy and autocracy which held sway around the world and to revisit the ancient, dangerous ideal of democracy–rule by the people for the people (although, admittedly, it was a pretty limited and flawed democracy in those early days…and maybe in these days too).  Democracies have always turned upon themselves and blown apart, so the founders were brave/brash to mint a new one in the era of absolutism, but it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams (except maybe for Alexander Hamilton…that guy was a maniac).

I love my country for its dangerous democracy and vibrant idealism, although weighing everyone’s opinions and forging them into a consensus can sometimes be a slow and painful process.   I also love America’s enlightened rule of law, its technological savvy, and, above all, its diverse population of people from all sorts of different backgrounds united by shared ideals.  Lately though, we have reached a sort of crossroads where the population is fundamentally at odds over two different divergent views of America’s strength, ideals, and purpose.  For the present, we are the Divided States of America: a recherche red nation of obedience, hierarchy, bravery, loyalty, & honor; and a libertine blue nation of shifting identities and ideas, ceaseless change, and unnerving new possibilities. Until one nation gains political ascendancy so overwhelming that the other side acknowledges it, the whole nation stumbles along deadlocked, incapacitated, and unable to adapt to a world where our adversaries and competitors are refining seductive new forms of autocracy (and goodness knows what else).

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After World War II, the world lay in shattered ruins.  The United States was at an apogee of power, victory and success.  Yet America rebuilt our adversaries in the belief that prosperous powerful, happy nations would be better allies and would become amazing friends.  We chose to remake the world not only with our vast power (not that we have been altogether reticent about wielding that double-edged sword) but with concepts, contracts, commerce, and compassion.  Germany, Japan, and Italy are our dearest friends—esteemed equals in the great work of civilization and progress. The Pax Americana has not been a perfect success, but it has been very good to the world and very good to us.  Turning our back on the world we built (and all of the advantages we built into the system for ourselves and our point of view) is rank folly.  When we had everything and were the only super power, we failed to reach out to the former Soviet Union with the same big-hearted elan…and look where that got us.

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We have made terrible mistakes in the past and we are making a lot of new ones lately (and revisiting some of the golden oldies which have plagued us and destroyed other great nations).  Everyone talks about the “shattering of norms” (which makes me think of the drunken everyman from “Cheers” falling from his barstool and exploding into shards like peanut brittle).   Reforms are inevitable and necessary if a nation wishes to stay dynamic and powerful.  Some norms will have to be shattered so that these much-needed reforms can take place.  The dance of reaction versus progress is so much harder in the real world than it looks on the pages of the history books though, and for the first time since the Cold War ended, I am truly afraid for America’s future.  If we cannot control ourselves, our bright dreams of space colonies, next generation biotech, super AIs, and enlightened ecological conservation will vanish… so will a lot of other things we esteem and so will some very fundamental things we have always taken for granted.

I live in bluest Brooklyn, and I don’t suppose it is a mystery where my political sympathies lie.  But it wasn’t always so.  I am a West Virginian too, with a red heart and a (perhaps overweening?) sense of our special place in the world.  This is a holiday and it isn’t time for more rancor right now, but I am going to write more about politics as the elections come up.  We need to look back 242 years and forwards 242 years too (like the founders did) if we hope to get out of this serious crisis of our democracy.

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The greatest Chinese political epic begins with the lines “Nations long divided must unite; nations long united must divide.”  We are being tested by that adage and so far, we are failing the test.  Have a happy Fourth of July!  But stay ever-mindful that we have serious painful work due on our representative government. This time the heavy lifting won’t be done by heroic half-imagined people of long ago with funny clothes, muskets, fifes, paddlewheels, and telegraphs.  It is up to us…you and me and all the people we care about with all of our dumb phones, anxieties, loudmouth ideas, and hare-brained schemes. We need to respect one another and strike new compromises, or government by the people for the people will perish here and the world will have to look to South Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, and India to find its paragons of liberty.

Ceziqy3WIAMnCkF   What in the hell  is this supposed to be?

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It is May Day! This weekend I was thinking about whether to celebrate the ancient pagan festivals and rituals associated with this holiday of seasonal rebirth or whether to instead write about the international day honoring workers. This latter manifestation of May Day came about in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a response to the excesses of the industrial revolution and the undemocratic forms of power manifested by the cartels and monopolies which sprang up with the railroad, the mills, the mines, and the oilfields. I was sitting in my yard looking at the spring blossoms when the issue was decided for me. Sirens and chants of “The only SOLUTION is COMMUNIST revolution!” filled up the garden. I ran out to the street and a parade of communists was marching up Flatbush in Brooklyn. They were waving blood red flags and waving placards. Most were wearing red shirts and some were riding in a huge old flatbed lorry which looked like it came out of 1960s Cuba.
Although I can respect the socialism of Jaures and I am fascinated by the social democracy of modern forward-thinking northern European countries like Holland and Denmark, I have trouble uncoupling communism per se from the ghastly totalitarian abuses of Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot et al. (plus I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War) so I stared at the communists in shock—as though medieval monks or Sumerian charioteers were riding through. A number of people in the crowd joined them or eagerly grabbed their manifestos though. Evidently the communist message was not as outside of time as I thought.

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A lot of these recherche movements have been springing up lately. There are communists, confederates, tea partiers, celibate terrorists (?), and syndicalists popping up all over the place. There are even confused ultramontanists angry that they can’t understand the current pope sufficiently to treat him as an emperor.

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The oligarchs who reap the greatest benefits of globalized capitalism have not been sharing the benefits of global commerce, nor reinvesting in next generation technology, nor even buying epochal flounder-themed art (although there is always time, great masters!) Moneyed interests are not even hiding the extent to which they are manipulating the American political system, except maybe with some awkward metaphors about how the financial system is like blood. They are breaking the system to exploit it and weirdness, old and new, is seeping into the cracks.
Our democracy and our fundamental economic system are having serious troubles. It is unclear if these are growing pains, or if they are the onset of the sort of changes which felled Athens or undid the Roman Republic. The ossification of our system has combined with rapid social and economic change to completely undo one political party (albeit through mechanisms which would look more familiar to Tiberius & Gaius Gracchus and Huey Long, than to Ayn Rand or William Buckley Junior).

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But back to the communists in Brooklyn—who were, after all, surrounded by police (to a disquieting degree, actually) and drew far more chuckles and eye rolls from the Flatbush crowds than they got converts. It is a reminder that we all need to laugh less at the dysfunction in Washington. Fascist totalitarians are cropping up on the left as well as the right. We need to have some serious conversations about democratic reforms and how to reestablish useful and helpful mechanisms and norms to deal with the changes in the world. Otherwise unexpected weirdos will make those choices for us and instead of a comic stunted Mussolini with porn stars and Russian business ties we might end up with a high theocrat or a tribunal of the people. Things are moving fast: let’s talk more and think more clearly!

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