“No tree has branches so foolish as to fight among themselves.”Native American proverb
We are failing each other. Not just a run-of-the-mill, oops, sorry, kind of failure, but a spectacular, gory, unprecedented, worst-in-most-every-way kind of failure. The same way the body keeps score when you eat or drink too much, give it insufficient rest, or immerse it for too long in a toxic environment, so does democracy keep score when you ignore its needs. We have been ignoring each other’s needs and hence, democracy’s needs for years now, and in stunning show of collateral damage, the planet is dying a tumultuous, quaky, flood, fire and brimstone kind of death — all because we’d rather be right than get along.
What now seems like lifetimes ago, I began a journey writing my way through the Twelve Virtues of the Merchant Priests from the book, Sacred Commerce, by Ayman Sawaf and Rowan Gabrielle, a book that celebrates “global citizenship and stewardship.” I was very taken with this book and of the authors’ suggestion to practice each of the virtues for one month at a time until the reader got through all twelve. I started on January 1, 2018 in my consideration of them. My delay in finishing reminds me of a meme I once saw: “Slackers give 100%, just not all at once.
So far, I’ve written on honor, loyalty, nobility, virtue, grace, trust, courage, and courtesy. I got hung up for a very long time on gallantry, a practically extinct behavior in the modern day world, but finally pushed through. Left are authority, service and humility, and so I begin again with Authority, something with which many of us often have trouble and which is at the heart of our democracy woes today.
The dictionary defines authority (the first of eight definitions) as:
noun1 he had absolute authority over his subordinates | a rebellion against those in authority: power, jurisdiction, command, control, mastery, charge, dominance, dominion, rule, sovereignty, ascendancy, supremacy, domination; influence, sway, the upper hand, leverage, hold, grip; informal clout, pull, muscle, teeth.
The rest of the definitions go on to describe authority in all its various iterations of power and might: the unflappable pundit, the master, the cognoscenti, etc. Oh how a little authority can change someone, muddling their thinking processes and often creating a creature immune from reproach — much like many individuals tasked with running our country today — resulting in a widespread diaspora of ill-intention across the nation, perhaps even the world.
Today, ill-advised authority has reached a fever-pitch and the flip-flopping, mindless drivel that often runs from the mouths of some of the most influential people in our country — the decision to lie, cheat, and steal in an effort to hold onto power; the reinvention of oneself whenever it is politically expedient; the repetition of false or misleading information to sow hatred and confusion and undermine various levels of government — has left the citizens of the U.S. heartbroken and sick. We are so out of touch, we don’t even realize that our own words and actions have brought this chaos to our doorsteps.
When did mistrust get the most honored seat at the table, and how do we learn to speak to each other in civil tones again?
We are programmed to live from the top down, taking our cue from our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our friends, adopting their thoughts as our own, especially when we haven’t yet formed critical-thinking skills, and retaining them in perpetuity because they have now become a habit. It’s no surprise that children will mimic the sentiments of their parents; spend enough time with someone and your thoughts are likely to mirror theirs. So the authority in place when you were born has likely made a great impact on your view of the world.
But here’s the thing: you don’t have to keep looking out that window if you no longer like the view.
A couple years ago I went to Ellis Island for the first time. Wandering through the museum, I wasn’t surprised to see the xenophobia on display in newspaper articles, posters and other renderings that were part of the museum collection. Immigrants of all stripes, but especially Italian and Irish were routinely referred to as lesser than riff-raff who should go back to where they came from. With the help of museum staff, I found an entry for my Greek grandfather, showing an arrival in 1901, but ran out of time to look for my remaining grandparents arrival dates, all immigrants to America, the land of opportunity.
After decades of backbreaking work and impoverished living, scads of immigrants managed to claw their way up to middle class, working two and three jobs so their kids could be better off than they were, achieving the American dream that was not available to them in the countries from which they came. At that time, it was possible. Today, 20th years after the 9/11 attacks, it is harder than ever to achieve that dream, especially in an off-balanced America that looks at itself askew each day and asks, “can I trust that guy?”
The proliferation of guns, forever wars, conspiracy theories, and alternative facts has lead to a failure for us to agree on a narrative, even for the most mundane and universally accepted things things such as whether the earth is round or flat, all which would have been unheard of before 9/11. Instead of learning from the 9/11 attacks, we are still seeking revenge. Maybe it’s because we couldn’t call out and conquer the enemy that we turned our collective gimlet eye inward and started looking around at our neighbors. America, the melting pot, the greatest democratic experiment in history, the one that would have worked if it wasn’t for all those dang foreigners, is teetering on the weight of its own hyperbole. What if we had worked for reconciliation after 9/11 rather than revenge? Where would be be now? Less isolated, perhaps?
Claims of voter fraud despite the lack of evidence, a pandemic that has now taken the lives of 1 out of every 500 Americans, and an ongoing false narrative have worked to erode trust in our government’s authority to all-time lows. The headwinds on this level of distrust are fierce and sinking us farther into despair and isolation as we resort to tribalism, abandon reason and the rule of law, and choose instead to wallow in hatred and disillusionment, all to the benefit of a few in power and the detriment of the country as a whole. And that, friends, is how totalitarianism gets a toehold. The bitch of it all is that the peddlers of disinformation aren’t even hiding it anymore.
For example, the abortion ban in Texas simultaneously strips women of their constitutional rights and encourages vigilantism. Nice job, Authority! The pro-life faction thinks this is a win for their side, but they are wrong: it’s loss for us all because the bigger story is loss of a woman’s civil rights — an ultra vires exercise in authority — and once your civil rights have been eroded, they are hard to shore back up.
Today, 122 million women around the world want access to birth control but can’t get it. Just imagine how those women could contribute to society if they had access to family planning tools. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to even talk much about abortion anymore. Yet it’s not just poor women who are going to suffer by this rollback of our constitutional rights, but all of society, because, ultimately, society bears the burden and the cost of that which we ignore. And if you think this isn’t a haves and have-nots issue, don’t delude yourself: rich women in Texas will still figure out a way to get an abortion if they need one.
Was Margaret Atwood right? Is this only the beginning? Will patriarchal society devolve to the level of the Handmaid’s Tale, taking full control of women and their bodies, all enforced by the authority of the patriarchy? I pray it doesn’t go that far, but such an authoritative trampling of our human rights is in direct contradiction of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, itself a revolutionary concept — equal treatment for everyone — and one authoritative ruling bodies everywhere despise. Let’s not forget where we came from, and why We the People enacted that amendment in the first place.
We live in a world where the microcosm reflects the macrocosm back to itself. We envisioned a better life, one with a benevolent authority to guide us — not control us, nor dictate to us, and certainly not to devour us — and to help us build for the future as we deal with life’s thornier issues, but without a rule of law that we can all agree on, society is destined to fail.
Each of us is our own authority, but we must live within the construct of certain rules, otherwise we will trample each other and the planet to death. What do you want, not what does your congressman or senator or city councilman or PTO board member want. Only you. Orient yourself to your own lodestar, the one that lives in your heart, and see where it takes you. I bet it will be to a place of peace, not anger, a place of tolerance for the other guy’s views as well as for your own, a democratic place where everyone gets a say, because that’s the real American dream.
We can do this, people, but our desire to get along with each other needs to outweigh our desire to be right.
It’s a laudable goal.
pam lazos — 9.19.21