If, I say

If, as they say, wisdom — or at least practical wisdom or prudence — demands that we seek to control those things within our province and ignore those things we cannot possibly change, if, I say, that is what wisdom demands, then we need to ask a few questions. To begin with, we need to be able to recognize those things within our province. What things are within reach, as it were? What things CAN we control? Please note that this demands not only self-awareness, but knowledge of the world around us.

We are faced with many very large problems, nationally and globally. There is not much we can do about many of those problems except to elect leaders who seem to mean what they say and hope they are not simply lying in order to be elected. They may have the power and position to do something about, say, nuclear disarmament. We do not. Based on the historical record, however, we should not be too optimistic on that account.

Let’s stay a bit closer to home. Take global warming. Again, this is a huge problem and we can only hope that those we elect to public office realize the problem and are willing to risk their careers to take on the corporations that are determined to deny the problem in the name of larger and larger profits. Radical change requires a major commitment on the part of governments and those who support governments. But there are things we can do as well.

We can recycle; avoid plastics whenever possible; turn the heat down in the winter and put on a sweater; turn the air conditioning up in the Summer; drive economical cars or, better yet, walk or ride a bicycle; replace inefficient heating and lighting systems with more efficient and economical ones. You know, small things that matter. We can become engaged in movements to save the planet if we determine that those movements show promise. We can support them financially and, better still, become involved personally. And there are other things of this sort that we can determine are “within our province” — if we are serious about addressing the problem.

But closer than that to home are the folks around us who are homeless and without food. Those of us who can help with donations to worthy causes can do that; those who are in position to do so can help out at food kitchens and participate in drives to raise money for food and clothing for those around us who suffer. It appears that there are many in this country who do genuinely care and who grab their checkbooks when they read or hear that there are those in need. There are some who belittle this effort, saying that it is the easy way out. But for many this is the only option if they are to help at all. And it is something that helps those who need help.

And we can love those around us, family and friends, who need our support and who support us in our hour of need. There are many things we can do to “be there” for those close to us. This sounds trite, but it is a step toward the wisdom we seek, the wisdom that eventually leads to happiness.

 

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Change

Presumably liberals are, by definition, progressive in that they push for the new and regard change in and of itself a good thing. So I’ve been told. I must conclude, then, that I am not a liberal, since I do not think change is a good thing, necessarily, and am not “progressive” in my thinking. Rather, I am “old-fashioned.” I am more Tory than Whig on many topics, especially education and child-rearing. Not so much on social and political issues, however. My conservatism, if such it is, does not extend to wealth and power, which I regard as something to be divided rather than hoarded. I have always thought people were more important than profits. I worry that ethics get lost in the frenzy to make more profit.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that progress in medicine has prolonged life and, indeed, made my so-far long life possible. I have had a number of surgeries in my lifetime and am currently dealing with several medical complaints. Years ago I would be dead by now.

But aside from that, I can’t think of any changes in my lifetime that suggest progress, which is to say, movement forward, an improvement in the hurly burly of everyday life. Instead I see around me people in a tizzy, lost in their electronic world pushing buttons and ignoring the real world around them which, if they looked up, they would realize can be quite stunning. The artists among us, and there are still a few, keep reminding us; but increasingly their pleas fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.

The steam engine found itself squarely in the middle of the garden during the industrial revolution, and the noise it made drowned out the sound of the birds and the gentle stream at our feet. Our ears can no longer pick up the soft sounds of the real world that surrounds us. Then came “progress,” and now we wallow in noise and confusion, dizzy and disoriented. The steam engine has run amok.

But, one of the most insidious factors in the brave new world in which we live is the entertainment industry. I have come to fault that industry, among others, for many of the ills of present-day society. It creates a make-believe world that invites people to escape from reality which, generally speaking, they have a weak hold upon to begin with. And that hold weakens as time goes by. This has allowed so many people to buy into a flawed presidential candidate who promised them the power they feel when they play video games, folks who feel a deep need to build up their tottering self-esteem as they admire a president they can identify with and attend occasional religious ceremonies that assure them they are really good people.

But, ignoring for the moment the deluded state of such people, think about it. Things happen faster these days and so many us fail to see what’s going on around us. We don’t even look around. Moreover, we are convinced bigger and faster are good things when, in fact, slower and smaller are often to be preferred. I am fond of quoting a passage from one of George Eliot’s novels in which she says she sometimes prefers when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

That pretty much sums it up. We simply assume that the new is better and that progress inevitably follows upon change of any sort. This is surely not the case. At times we need to stop and look around and think about the “crumbling, picturesque inefficiency” we have lost sight of in our hurry to get somewhere else.

I am fully aware that “the good old days” were full of pain and suffering. But, then, so are the good new days. And the really sad truth is that we are now much more aware of the sufferings of others, not to mention the planet itself, and we simply look away because we are too self-involved to care. It is not a formula for happiness.

Change

I don’t pay much attention to polls. I especially tend to ignore pre-election polls. But a recent poll regarding the incumbent President’s chances to win in November and the “fact” that single women may win him the White House, while it suggests that single women may be the smartest segment of the voting public, raises some interesting issues that have nothing to do with polls. A recent story tells us that

In 2008, Republican Senator John McCain beat Obama 52%-47% among married voters, according to exit polls, while the Democrat [Obama} thumped him 65%-33% among unmarried people. That suggests that Obama has lost ground among married voters and unmarried voters alike. A drop would hardly be a surprise: Americans are unhappy about the sour economy three and a half years after the president took office vowing to fix it.

To begin with, Obama is being hoist by his own petard, having embraced the notion of “change” in his candidacy four years ago. He was going to be the President of Change and turn things around. Every political candidate promises this, of course. But he made it the focal point of his campaign. Big Mistake. The remarkable thing is that we still believe these people — after repeated failures to deliver on campaign promises. Further, Americans want what they want when they want it. We are an impatient people and if we grant the President three years to turn the economy around and he hasn’t done it we want someone else in there who will.

The problem is, of course, Obama was trying to get things done with a Republican Congress that refused to cooperate at every turn. He used up all his chips on health care, and he didn’t have many to begin with. We are now so deeply entrenched in party politics and there isn’t a man or woman alive who could effect meaningful change trying to work with people who are ideologically opposed to them in the Congress. It is naive to suppose that even if this man did everything he could to turn the economy around he could have done it alone. It’s not clear that a Republican President could have done it. The economy is in the toilet and no one seems to know what the magic formula is to pull it out (though I would suggest cuts in “defense,” increasing taxes on the wealthy, closing corporate loop-holes, shifting tax subsidies from Big Oil to clean energy thereby creating more jobs and helping to save the planet — for a start. But what do I know?).

Political promises are made to be broken. We simply should accept that fact going in. Furthermore, change takes time — years in the case of complex problems that have no simple solutions and where the infamous 1% seem to be in charge. This group as we know includes many members of Congress and as a whole they don’t really want radical change: they are doing just fine with things as they are, thank you very much.  Change may indeed come. But it will be very slow in coming and it may not be for the better.

Effecting Change

Generally speaking, radical change, if it occurs at all, comes from the top down. It is rare that those at the bottom of the food chain are able to effect meaningful change. There are exceptions, of course, as in the case of revolutions. But after their revolution,  the French would probably point out that the rascals who take over often exhibit the same qualities as the rascals who have been chased out. Lord Acton was right: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It doesn’t seem to matter who holds the reins of power, they tend to choke those at the other end.

My good friend Dana Yost made an excellent suggestion recently about how to change the mess that is college football, where corruption is absolute and greed is the name of the game. He suggested that the NCAA be scrapped and that limits be placed on coaches’ salaries — at least in the public schools. This would be an excellent start, but unfortunately this won’t happen. And it won’t happen because the only people who can effect real change in this situation are those in power and they don’t want to cut off their noses to spite their faces. Or the change could be mandated by government. But that won’t happen either, because elected officials owe their place on the public dole to the wealthy power-brokers who will resist change. The NCAA has considerable political clout. And in this case politicians are smart enough (barely) to know you don’t mess with sports in this country. It’s tantamount to messing with religion.

Solutions are sometimes so easy to see, not only in the case of collegiate football, but also in the case of the mess in our public schools, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions. It is quite clear that radical change is in order — elimination of the education bureaucracy that has a choke-hold on the system, among other things. But that won’t happen, either. The problem, again, is that those in power are not about to give it up. And only those in power can mandate change. It must come in this case from the top down. The idea that real change can be effected in the schools by reducing teachers’ salaries is positively stupid. Teachers are already underpaid, and that’s a big part of the problem. But while change in the schools is needed is also obvious, it won’t happen, either. The education establishment would have to be eliminated, or greatly reduced, and the only people in a position to do that are the members of the education establishment themselves. One might as well ask the local school superintendent to reduce the number of administrators in his school, or state university boards to reduce their own numbers instead of cutting academic programs. It isn’t going to happen if left up to the people in charge: it diminishes their control. Or, again, we could appeal to the politicians to make change. But the education establishment is powerful enough to exert considerable influence in political circles and politicians are smart enough (barely) to know which hand feeds them.

So, in the end, one must peck away at the fringes and hope that a sufficient number of people become disgusted enough to exert influence on those in power to counter the effects of those with big money who hold the reins. But, short of a revolution, it will take a huge effort to effect any of these changes, if it happens at all. And to make matters worse, there is no guarantee that change, if it comes, will be for the better. Often it is not — as the French will attest, and as we ourselves learned in the 1960s when we saw radical change initiated by the counterculture destroy civility in this country.