Monday, July 12

Hanging Together

Benjamin Franklin made the famous comment about hanging together or hanging separately, and he wasn't joking around about it. The American Revolution succeeded because this advice, or at least the sentiment, really sunk in among the colonists. Is the world so different today that his advice doesn't matter?

Sean Gonsalves writes in Alternet about how people strike it rich that would indicate otherwise:

...The report profiles prosperous people honest enough to acknowledge that their wealth, in large part, is owed to things beyond their individual control, which is obvious to any objective observer but studiously ignored by those with a cut-social-spending political agenda.

I like how Jim Sherblom, former chief financial officer for Genzyme Corp., puts it: "We are all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. The opportunities to create wealth are all taking advantage of public goods – like roads, transportation, markets – and public investments. None of us can claim it was all personal initiative. A piece of it was built upon this infrastructure that we all have this inherent moral obligation to keep intact." ...

So, maybe we owe a lot to society as a whole, but surely the idea that success requires help is overblown? In an article responding to Bill Cosby's recent criticisms of black culture, Gonsalves offers advice to struggling students that could apply to many walks of life:

...Here's something that might actually help a black student, instead of paralyzing them with more guilt and condemnation. It wasn't until after I got my G.E.D. and started taking community college courses that I realized that the students who get "good" grades usually get help. Lots of it. They study in groups. They tutor one another.

That may seem obvious but I'll tell you why I never did that. I had internalized the neo-white supremacist idea (being peddled, perhaps unwittingly, by columnists like Sowell) that black people are intellectually inferior. To my young, naive, indoctrinated mind, I didn't equate getting good grades with "acting white." I equated asking for help with an admission of intellectual inferiority!

The real problem, as I see it, is that too often black youth try to mimic the visible values perceived as being "(white) mainstream." But if you don't know about the informal social networks and even government programs like the GI Bill that white brothers and sisters have disproportionately benefited from, and you combine that with the Horatio Alger myth of "rugged individualism," you have a recipe for black failure and white scapegoating. ...

Interestingly, popular culture's biggest cheerleaders of rugged individualism don't even practice it themselves. No one helps each other like Republicans, who run a political party so unified and determined to stick up for each other that it leads to some bizarre situations. Currently, John McCain is campaigning for Bush, but how many people remember what happened when he faced Bush in the 2000 Republican primary:

...It didn't take much research to turn up a seemingly innocuous fact about the McCains: John and his wife, Cindy, have an adopted daughter named Bridget. Cindy found Bridget at Mother Theresa's orphanage in Bangladesh, brought her to the United States for medical treatment, and the family ultimately adopted her. Bridget has dark skin.

Anonymous opponents used "push polling" to suggest that McCain's Bangladeshi born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child. In push polling, a voter gets a call, ostensibly from a polling company, asking which candidate the voter supports. In this case, if the "pollster" determined that the person was a McCain supporter, he made statements designed to create doubt about the senator.

Thus, the "pollsters" asked McCain supporters if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black. In the conservative, race-conscious South, that's not a minor charge. We had no idea who made the phone calls, who paid for them, or how many calls were made. Effective and anonymous: the perfect smear campaign. ...

Anonymous, but McCain only had one opponent at the time, and his middle initial was Dubya. Between a unified commitment to stay on message, their persistent efforts to get each other jobs, and a willingness to put their group project above even fear of incarceration, the Republican party has managed to achieve a staggering hold on our government. I don't like what they're doing with it one bit, but you really have to admire the persistence and strategy.

Maybe it's time for the Democratic party to start thinking in that direction. There must be a middle ground between having a herd of cats on one hand, and a group of talking point recyclers marching in lockstep on the other. The party used to be united around a grand vision which everybody (even people who disagreed) clearly understood, and which party members worked towards (even when they disagreed about how to get there.) Prometheus 6 finds an excellent article by Rick Perlstein on the long-term thinking that ties separate issues into a clear strategy and generates unity of purpose. As a bonus for Washington State residents, Perlstein explains it in terms of how Airbus managed to trounce Boeing by using Boeing's own discarded strategies.

The most sobering point of Perlstein's analysis is that when polled on ideology, a good majority of Americans agree with liberal and progressive issues, especially economic concerns. This is even the case in solidly 'red' states, with many issues cutting across partisan lines. It's like being a salesman who can't find a market for water in the desert. After a while, not even the salesman can blame the water.


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