FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Recovering decency

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Recovering decency

Sam Smith - One of the matters that rarely gets discussed these days is how power has replaced decency as a fundamental standard of our society. Thanks to the rise of corporatism, legal interpretation of social matters, media priorities and entertainment values, we have become obsessed with having more power than others, rather than healthily sharing our time on earth with them. 

Not surprisingly, our education system backs this up, preparing its students to compete far more than to coexist. I learned this years ago as head of a public school parents' association and coming to realize that it was only in sports, music and plays that the students actually learned to work with each other. 

The Trumpian and GOP disaster has brought this to the fore.  Add into this the rise of artificial intelligence and the decline of religion and there are increasing signs that what was once a culture valuing common goals and relationships has descended into an increasingly bitter fight to make it to the top.

There are signs all around us. Ethics are not high on the curriculum of our schools, We overwhelmingly attempt to solve inter-ethnic problems by passing laws rather than changing cultural habits. The media is obsessed with issues to be overcome but rarely points to rational solutions. And even this Seventh Day Agnostic can worry over the collapse of religion, not because of its theology, but because of the social values it encouraged. 

I moved from a lifetime in Washington, DC, to Maine in part because I needed a home where community and decency still mattered and where people struggled to moderate their ambitions with shared values. I like to say that you can't do business in Maine without an anecdote. . . because in Maine you need respect as well as influence. It's far from perfect, but even Susan Collins doesn't try to imitate Ted Cruz or Mitch McConnell. 

While in Washington - whatever was going on at the top - I was blessed to live in real communities. Back in the 1960s I started a community newspaper east of the Capitol and in the 1970s I was elected an elected member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a way DC found to give more power to the city's bottom.  What I learned from such experiences included a realization  that power and fairness were two different things. The neighborhoods had to constantly struggle just for normal human coexistence. 

Donald Trump has declared war on decency in favor of power his whole life.  When he first came to the fore, I couldn't believe so many would fall for him and tried to figure out why, for me,  his fraud was so obvious. What quickly came to mind was that as a boy I read lots of comic books, and when you did, you learned to stay away from those like Trump. Now we find ourselves in a time when kids learn from television screens that glorify success over formerly respected human values. We are all in a race to the top. 

There is no easy way around this. After all, power is powerful. But there have been times when the reasonable and decent successfully challenged it. When, for example, I think of the 1960s I think of the role that churches played. It was a time when about a half dozen of my activist friends were ministers or priests who never challenged my lack of theology and during which church spaces were repeatedly used to gather people on behalf of  a cause.

We could do it again. Church spaces, theaters, school auditoriums, and library centers could be loaned for decent leaders to gather and help others understand how we have dumped our ethical base and become tools of the most egregiously self-important. To discuss how we can build communities that truly value  decency and cooperation. To use these spaces we'd have to keep it non-political but the simply philosophical aspects of this discussion might be enough to get a larger movement going. 

We have been cursed by the narcissistic powerful but we don;t have to stay silent about it.