On Platforms & Achievements
Lakewood Public Library’s new building looms majestically above the avenue, like a distinguished paterfamilias watching over his protégés. The city’s school buildings have all been rebuilt and spruced up and technologized. Considered as mere buildings, however, these are no more important to us than vine-covered relics of ancient civilizations at Angkor Wat or in Mayan jungles. It is only their users the readers, the teachers and students - who give our buildings meaning and raise the question as to their ultimate importance. What thoughts, what knowledge, what insights, what wisdom, what dreams, what careers will issue from our Library and from our schools? These are meaningful achievements; the buildings are only platforms from which such achievements may spring.
A city is not bricks and mortar; a city is its people, and the spirit of the people determines its worth. Political systems, such as democracy, are also platforms. Democratic institutions are no guarantee that a society will be just, fair, peaceful, or prosperous. Iraq and Palestine are tragic examples of this. The fruits of democracy in our own country have certainly been happier than in the two cases just mentioned, but they are far from what we might desire. How well has our democracy dealt with long-range problems such as environmental degradation or fuel dependency? Or with basic policy issues such as immigration? Or with problems infecting the democratic process itself, such as the obscene importance of big money?
Indeed, how effective has our democracy been in selecting our national leaders? On this question, I will not belabor the obvious by dwelling on our current President or his predecessor(s), but let’s look at the list of contenders now running for the office from both parties. Can anyone really believe that this is a list of our country’s wisest and most competent leaders? The same holds for our much-revered Constitution; it is largely what we make of it. Where, for example, is it set in stone that regulation of interstate commerce includes the prohibition of child labor? Indeed, it is our ability to change the Constitution that is often its saving grace. For example, the Constitution once condoned slavery, then was amended to prohibit slavery. Later it was interpreted, in 1954, to prohibit municipalities from segregating students on the basis of race. More recently, in 2007, it was interpreted to prohibit municipalities from integrating students on the basis of race. Interpretation is all. The Constitution is a platform, and we use that platform as a point of departure to achieve a better or a worse society.
Our economic system – free-market capitalism – is also a platform. Our economic freedom is ours to use as we wish. It has rewarded us in many ways, but the record is not perfect. Have we used our choices wisely and justly? We have achieved prosperity, but for whom, and how responsibly? Is the nation’s prosperity widely shared? – It would seem not, for the gap between richest and poorest is widening. Do we consume with due regard for crucial resources? – Our nation consumes about five times the amount of energy-relative-to-population as the world average (25% of energy consumption vs. 5% of population).
So let’s be wary of false pride and complacency. Our platforms are not achievements. They are not cause for self-satisfaction, but rather challenges, bidding us to fulfill their promise. Our society and our city are always works in progress, and progress comes not with resting on the platforms given us, but on exercising the vision and the initiative to leap higher.
A Note on Gun-Play and Gun-Glorification
Certain conservatives are fond of riding the thesis that bad behavior, including criminality and other social ills (e.g. drug use, school dropout), is determined by bad culture (e.g. single-parenting), which in turn is influenced by government policy (e.g. welfare). We may be witnessing a confirmation of that thesis, though not in a way that conservatives can be proud of. We see an alarming increase in the number of Cleveland-area shootings recently, not merely by gangs or dedicated criminals but by apparently peaceful and law-abiding individuals. We also see the predominance of the gun culture. The NRA is riding high, and their toadies in the legislatures follow their bidding, while presidential candidates squirm to evade their denunciation. The Second Amendment is often presented, without challenge, as unequivocally guaranteeing the right of every citizen to use guns of every variety. As a consequence, some seem to believe that it is un-American, or at least un-manly, not to be ready to use a firearm whenever the occasion arises -- and their belief leads them to behave accordingly.
All this is encouraged by government policies and non-policies such as the right-to-carry law and the defeat of any kind of substantial gun control. Of course correlation doesn’t amount to causation (though this never seems to bother conservatives in their pronouncements about social decay), but in this case the correlation is quite suggestive. Guns have been glorified as every Americans’ birthright, and all too often the result is a death-rite.