Pundits, Refugees Politicians and the Future: A view of dysfunctional democracy

Pundits, Refugees, Politicians and the Future: a view of dysfunctional democracy

In the recent past, the nation’s most respected media “wise men” were expected to provide guidance and advice based on logic and basic principles. When they took positions, it was expected that they were reasoned and based on facts. The reputation of a “pundit” depended upon how his “peers” (other pundits, academics, and a relatively-well-informed following) viewed not only his (or her—I use “him” for convenience and I realize that there are now many “wise” women) relevance and “track record.”

Today’s pundits are more likely to focus on events and their political consequences rather than to comment objectively on them. An example is George Will, considered by a shrinking group of followers as intelligent, fair-minded and reasonable. This was, of course, never true. I recall in the 1970s when the Washington Star decided not to keep Will’s column. A local high school teacher wrote the editor that he deeply regretted this, saying he was disappointed that he could no longer depend on this source of a well-written essay, but one that always contained at least one fallacy.
Will has lost much of his reputation since his defection from rationality to party loyalty—developed at the shrine of Ronald Reagan and succeeding right-wing political dogmatists. Nevertheless, he continues to appear on TV and write; media habits die-hard. His latest is a screed against unions, fulminating against his typical “straw man” illustration that people must be free from constraint even after a democratic process in which they participated and agreed to is found not to be defective.
If Will were as logical as he pretends to be, he would then also conclude that after every election in which the winner has been certified and his leadership affirmed, voters could “opt out” if they wished by appealing to “another authority” that denies the power of the one to which the voter agreed. He is a remnant of a generation of “pundits” who did try to provide both sides of important issues rather than “take sides.” Perhaps what they do is a symptom of a desire to avoid facing the consequences of a declining electorate, a vulgarized political process and a corrupted government.

What might these so-called “wise persons” address with some detachment and intelligent analysis? What are some of the social issues that, not as-yet fully resolved, damage the country that calls itself “the World’s greatest democracy?” Why has our “political discourse” become so fascinating to them, some might say so “fascinatingly coarse and dishonest?” Of course, American politics of the past two centuries was often worse, and sometimes resulted in serious damage to the nation, including a Civil War that cost a half-million American lives. But have we not learned from the past? When did vituperation, crudeness, anger and contempt ever achieve progress? Perhaps these politicians represent the views of the public; but perhaps our “wise men” (and women, now) are merely feeding off it, stoking it? But why? It seems that the general coarseness that has developed in the media may be a cause. But there are other reasons as well.

The desire of individuals to “opt out” of accepting reasonable rules and respect long-held traditions of the national cultures of others is a major issue in the widespread movement of populations in today’s world of easy transit and entry into other nations. In addition, polarization of regional and ethnic groups has resulted in challenges to long-accepted rules and customs ranging from Muslim face coverings and robes for women to demands for time to pray during paid working hours, special foods for prisoners, and other demands. No other religion has so vehemently demanded that their beliefs be made part of another culture’s traditions. The “ghettoes” that new arrivals live in spawn resentment and retaliation from both sides–the Paris killings were planned in Muslim communities, by not only newcomers but long-time residents who objected to restraints on their demands. The conflict will continue until both sides realize their unwillingness to accommodate or accept each others’ basic cultural limits must be more flexible.

In the US, some in the religious right assert the right to refuse to accept now-legal “gay marriage,” and equal rights for transvestites to use public restrooms, among other limits on religious dogma. States are finding it difficult to manage the conflicts this generates. Though this has resulted in some positive results—many establishments are changing restrooms to permit use by all–custom will continue the “separate but equal” status of many public facilities. The bigger issue here is that society is now changing, and the changes are sometimes resented. How else can these disputes have been dealt with? How will this play out? Conflicting religious beliefs are a “flash point” for much community conflict, especially in multi-cultural societies.

The refugee issue, now mainly in Europe, but now reaching the US, is a more immediately dangerous example: In nations with populations with few minority groups, changes are usually accepted and minorities must choose to accept them—like it or not. In countries where minorities have political or social power—the US is the paramount example, but others like Canada, Australia, the UK, and even France and Germany—conflicts continue even beyond initial generational events.
This problem is true today for not only voluntary migrants but especially for the refugees and others fleeing for their lives and security from places like the Mid-East, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Immigrants of past generations would more or less willingly accept the duties of citizenship in a new nation. However, most would also recognize that they could, if they wished to be accepted and provided with opportunities to succeed, themselves “agree to assimilate into the majority” insofar as possible.

Today’s migrants, and to a greater extent Mid-East refugees, have no such mind set. A recent interview with a long-time migrant to Germany from Turkey said, about the new wave of immigrants now inundating Europe, that “these people who come now think that they will be able to just settle and go back to the way the lived, acted and behaved in their home countries.” The context of the interview was the disrespectful and criminal treatment of women in Germany and other nations by Muslim men, and the public backlash against them. Clearly, this is not a temporary problem. Muslims men who expect to be able to treat ALL women as they treat their own will find themselves in serious trouble. And, can a society accept this “double standard” for treatment of women.

But this is not the only issue. The “mindset” of immigrants who come must the that they need to (1) give up some of what they believe and how they act, (2) and change their customs when they conflict with, offend the social order, or break the laws of their new country. If not, they need to seek “asylum” and help elsewhere; and if unable to, will have to accept the consequences. The “rights” of immigrants have never been that an accepting nation must agree to the violating its own social norms; only invaders and conquerors should be able to do that.

The news reports that the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Mid-East to Europe were welcomed or at least accepted, by some nations and prevented from entering by others. The final resolution of this mass migration—the refugees did NOT willingly, for the most part, leave their homelands—is far from clear. Many would go home immediately if it were safe. But in the meantime, what can be, and is being, done?

But rather than a rational analysis, most of today’s media pundits define the issue for political and social advantage. Applying George Will’s criteria, the refugees should have the right to demand that their customs–whether the are offensive, inconvenient or illegal–be accepted without question by the nations into which they have entered, regardless of the accepted rules, laws, customs and expectations of those who have (more or less democratically) accepted the will (no pun intended) of the majority.

The generation-long demand for “exemptions” from certain responsibilities by “special interests” in the US, and other voting “democracies” have distorted the meaning of the concept of individual responsibility to the “social environment.” The concept in the US, that “a corporation” is a ‘person’ and has most of the rights of living persons is the illogical outcome when “special interests” can control an otherwise democratic society.

There is no special exemption for those nations that cannot adjust their “democratic traditions” to maintain a reasonable balance between the rights of individuals and the demands of “special interests,” whether religious, economic, social or political. Foolish wars, unnecessary social conflict, pandering to wealth and position, and a coarsening of public dialog through an often irresponsible media have developed.

The expansion of technology into commerce has made many traditional professions and occupations into mere “jobs,” while new banking processes to accommodate the accumulation of wealth is more and more the function of manipulators of financial regulations. In business, the ownership of ephemeral “intellectual property,” has taken over much of the control of capital, from media, communication, social media, and films, to patent protections for not only biological and chemical processes, computer software but also for the production of food, livestock, medicines, “designer” live organisms, plants and even human the processing of human DNA embryos, Can we look forward to future citizens as stronger, smarter but more docile and willing to obey their “inventors?”

Our accommodation of these fundamental changes in how people live and work and socialize has not kept pace with the rate of the changes. In many nations, technology, economics and political discourse has been corrupted and used in the service of purposes unworthy of a democracy. Developing nations, where many have never experienced true freedom, may never do so. China, India, Africa and the Middle East can no longer look to many stable, prosperous and free Western nations as models. The problems of a teeming mass of over-informed and under-educated humanity transcends current ideology and personal preference. Their efforts, well-meaning or at any cost, to live stable, orderly, safe and comfortable lives is in no way a certainty that science and technology alone can provide. The inevitable dependence upon “bigger than life” conceptions of the future on scientific advances is producing societies that are being impeded by greed.

It is becoming clear that a few powerful groups or individuals in various nations are accumulating wealth and resources at a rate that threatens the survival needs of an increasing world population. In some nations, that is already happening. When those needs cannot be met, turmoil results. It is not a coincidence that in the US, a small number of very wealthy have agreed that their fortunes will be use3d for the benefit of others.
Many more, though, are ignoring the problem In addition, “power elites” in nations that have never known freedom, e.g. Russia, China, India, and the Mid-East, continue to exploit the human and natural resources and the “international financial systems of the West.

The world has many nations whose social, economic and political leaders are unwilling to understand the impact of technology on societies that cannot accommodate continued mass poverty in the face of social and mass media presentation of their inequality, lack of opportunity for self and family,loss of individuality and freedom. The reasonable exercise of democratic decision-making requires an educated electorate supported by a social media that can inform truthfully the people of a society.

In a dangerous world–one in which the consequences of an event, military, environmental or social, are felt thousands of miles from where they occur–life as we know it must change from competitive to cooperative. The struggle for power and wealth is a basic function of what the United States and other Western nations have: corporate, economic, capitalist, democracy. This will change; whether peacefully or in conflict. What results may be a better society, but that outcome is not guaranteed.

The kind of democracy the United States has had for 200 years works well when ONLY when there is “more than enough:” More more opportunities than people who can take advantage of them, more resources than needs, more food, clothing and shelter than persons who have access to them.
In short, a democracy is a society that has ample resources, a capable population, a stable environment, technical and economic capacity, and a government that can provide its population with the infrastructure, health resources, stability, safety, social and technical education and training to continue its progress and existence. That means providing the NEXT generation of its PEOPLE to be as good or better at doing what has been successful as the PRESENT one.

For much of the past two centuries, the United States grew and prospered because it had abundant natural resources, a plentiful supply of land, and most important, an increasing population from BOTH a high birthrate and uncontrolled immigration. It also had the advantage of two major barriers–the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the successful outcome of a Civil War that developed the productive capacities of the most populated parts of the country. the War also alienated its “less productive” (after cotton lost its value) agricultural area. The South did not welcome outsiders gladly, and industrialization occurred largely in the East and North.

Immigration has continued, but expansion ended after WWII, and America changed from “the Arsenal of Democracy” to the world’s economic master. By the 1970’s the rest of the world had recovered and the generosity of the US (and its economic self-interest) developed a world in which military parity of the world’s alliances prevented a third World War and allowed relatively peaceful economic and political development. The United Nations was helpful, but the early illusion of an at least “pseudo” world government was soon dispelled by a 50-year “Cold War.”
The Soviet Union’s separation in 1989, largely peaceful, created unrest and anxiety, but the world has so far been spared a major conflict. The existence of nuclear weapons has been a mixed blessing; the “MAD” (mutually-assured destruction) standoff among major nuclear powers prevailed; but nuclear capabilities are proliferating among nations and are a major issue in foreign policy. At any time, a disaster of worldwide effect could be triggered by the radiation from a major atomic weapon; in addition, the retaliation, which is almost inevitable, would at least double the environmental damage. Even now, peaceful nuclear radiation has damaged environments and killed many.

We are now living in a world that seems to become increasingly politically unstable. It is only because of the forbearance of the major nations that the numerous small military actions, civil wars, revolutions, terrorist activities, invasions, and religious conflicts have not escalated. For now, these local conflicts serve the purposes of the major nations
The potential ultimate villain is technology. As science advances, the “secret” processes of biological, chemical and nuclear warfare become more easily accessed by individuals who believe that they can change their circumstances or “fix” a problem that will not be addressed to their satisfaction. The most dangerous of these is the religious conflict in the Mid-East, but Asia and Africa, too, have conflicts that could flare up with disastrous consequences.

Where are our “wise men” now? There are few in politics, either in office or seeking it. A Republican Party with 17 candidates is being severely damaged by three “non-politicians” who lead 7 former or sitting State Governors in polls before any voting has occurred. The GOP’s “establishment” candidates are losing badly, so far. The Democratic Party has three candidates, two Senators and a former Governor. The contest seems to be between a “progressive” socialist and a female with both executive and government experience–the governor is trailing badly. The “wise men” (and now women) seem either seriously partisan or at a loss. Some say, “I don’t think I will vote in this election.” Others fulminate over a Congress that has failed to produce much other than deficit budgets, rancor, lobbyists, and divisive rhetoric.

Where are the Walter Lippmans who people read and listened to? Where are our cadre of good reporters who gave us the facts without omissions for “special interests” sake”? Where are the honest editors, for that matter where are the newspapers they worked for? Perhaps we are “scapegoating” here. Broadcast media has “subsumed” print reporting for 30-second sound bites, and it seems to be true–most newspapers are failing. Still, some trees are being saved–for print advertising, mailings?

If I were a “wise man” or a pundit, what would or could I do? Could “wise advice” help? Would anyone pay attention? Perhaps the social evolution of media has been inevitable, and it just reflects what is happening to our society, our people, our country and its institutions. And has our education system “failed,” as we hear from all sides, as politicians rush to repair the latest “failure” with accusations, promises and “another fix?”
Maybe it’s our whole society that is failing? To know that with some certainty we need people who observe objectively for a long time, and who know enough about what NOT to say as well as what should be said. That we, as a people, are failing, and so we have already failed the next generation? Is that what is being ignored, or not being noted, by our “pundits?” That’s a real possibility.

Finally, maybe blogging is actually another way of writing a letter to the editor. And it might reach more people than most of the letters we send to newspapers. That might be progress. On the other hand, I wish we had a few “wise men” we could trust who might help us find some reasonable answers to the big problems the media tell us about or may help to cause, themselves.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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