February 8, 2000
by Townsend L. Walker, Sr.
Few issues of our time speak with such immediacy to the utter degeneracy of the American political enterprise as the issue of health care. Few issues exemplify so forcefully the urgency of educating ourselves, on an unprecedentedly massive scale, to the need to refocus our social, political and economic institutions on the one real foundation of democracy’s durability -- the people. Few issues demonstrate so persuasively the imperative of our educating ourselves to the sobering reality that our educational institutions are made to serve the interests of the nation’s wealthy elite -- and that such piecemeal crumbs as are thrown to the rest of us (e.g., Medicare) are “hushpuppies” thrown to the dogs. In sum, our educational institutions have failed us, having been made the instrument by which we are blindsided to the nature of our predicament and made impotent to deal with it effectively.
This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Thycydides, credited with being “the first scientific historian,” observed 2400 years ago, during the writing of his justly famed The Peloponnesian War, that “the way most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike, as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever -- so little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of the truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.” He added: “I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”
Therefore, we but call to the attention of our readers the necessity of a free people, if they are to remain free, to heed the cautionary wisdom of a great Greek historian as reflected in the words of one nearer our own time: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” We do so mindful of Thucydides’ fear that “the absence of romance in [what we say] will detract somewhat from its interest -- or worse, deter the reader from contemplating the possibility of truth in our characterization of the American predicament. You may ask, “What do you mean by ‘absence of romance’?” And we answer by calling your attention to your local newspaper -- to the pablum that for most part fills its pages, and to the chauvinistic and ideological stance from which it is presented.
The education of ourselves to the dark side of our country, where the good that is there is held in abeyance so we may see and touch the dark side, is no easy and painless process. Like the patient dredging up horrendous revelatory secrets of the soul on the couch of the psychoanalyst, the student of the nation’s psyche stands to be traumatized by disenthralling disclosures from the past: cold-blooded genocide; slavery; the pillage of the natural wealth of a vast land; the subjection of every worthy instinct and ambition to the artificial law of the almighty dollar; the transformation of our softer, unifying instincts into the self-serving drives of American styled capitalism.
The ultimate revelation, however, may be that the twentieth century may prove to be the century in which the nation lost its soul -- the century in which titans of great wealth systematically indoctrinated us with the myth that capitalism is the end and purpose of history -- the century in which they lobotomized us to accept capitalism as a way of life, and the illusory pursuit of personal wealth as the greatest good. It is to the falsity of that proposition that the education of which we write must testify.
But let us not underestimate the enormity of such an undertaking -- of replacing a national imagery fabricated from fanciful glorifications of our past with one that avoids the ambiguities and hypocrisies of our present exalted status among nations. From Columbus’s ruthless slaughter of natives in his search for gold to our enslavement of dark-skinned people to the exploitation of the country’s women and children we must now be made to comprehend an awful truth: We live under the illusion we control the political process and, therefore, our destiny; but we don’t. They do. They have transmogrified truth into lies, and lies into truth. That is the near insurmountable obstacles we must hurdle to put an end to worries about health care, education, and the cultural impoverishment of the nation.
It no longer surprises me when readers express appreciation for what I write; nor that their appreciation is shot through with utopian idealism, suggesting that all that is needed is a little nudge here, a gentle push there to make this the best of all possible worlds. In the latter, they are wrong. I write of education that is revolutionary in scope and transformative in its intent. Nothing less will suffice.
Following are six theses, progressing logically from one to the other, which lead me inexorably to the conclusion that we must teach one another -- with the realization that even now the momentum of humanity’s present destructive course may be irreversible:
1. This year’s crop of nullities and oddities for the Presidency -- from Bradley and Gore to Bush and McCain to Buchanan and Trump -- exemplifies the depths to which the American political enterprise has sunk -- job insurance for babbling commentators and clever columnists, but tragedy for the nation.
2. The center of political power will remain in the hands of what G. Wright Mills fifty years ago called “the power elite” (with feet planted firmly in the camps of Democrats and Republicans and any “third” party that ventures forth) for as long as working class Americans permit it.
3. The working class will permit it as long as there is not within it a collective understanding of the dynamic of power that denies health care, quality education and other necessities of survival and a good life to a substantial portion of the nation’s people.
4. A collective understanding of that dynamic will not be handed to the working class on a silver platter, for such an understanding would be seen by the ruling class as a threat to their privileged status, which it truly is.
5. To achieve a collective understanding of the dynamic of power that allows the few to control the many, the latter must devise a strategy for overcoming an ignorance so profound that the very act will be seen by many of the working class as an attack on “American values” and treasonous.
6. The strategy for shifting the center of political power to the people must be national in scope, under a leadership of moral and physical courage rarely seen, and hardly at all since the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Such is the path our reasoning has taken, and our experience reinforced, in concluding that political power, until now appropriated by a self-chosen few for their own advantage, must be made to embrace the informed many. Informing (educating) the many to this end is therefore the key to addressing the substantive problems of health care, education, ecology, etc. Nothing less than a “transvaluation of values” -- a replacement of sclerotic capitalist edicts with a political and economic philosophy that serves the common good -- will suffice. The big questions are: who is there to shape the strategy? and, do we have it within ourselves to give it birth and nourish it to fruition?
If for no other reason than to hang on to our sanity, we have to punctuate our questions with “yes”; there is, out there somewhere, some one, or ones, with courage and wisdom sufficient to lead us in teaching one another. The organizations within which the strategy for educating for political action are in place and awaiting them. But where is the collective will to unite that Person and those Organizations for the task at hand -- the humanization of our collective existence? How appropriate, at this time, are these prophetic lines from William Butler Yates’ 1920 poem, The Second Coming, which hangs on the wall at my elbow as I write:
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand,
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
The darkness drops again; but now I know
The twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come around at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
From what desert sands and from what centuries of stony sleep will that rough beast come to awaken a whole nation to its peril? What man or woman, vexed to nightmare, will step forward and teach us to teach one another of the deceptions we’ve labored under for so long, and of the indwelling power of the collective many to control their lives and the environments in which they live? Will it be, perhaps, some enterprising working class individual who sees labor unions as the place to start a nationwide self-education movement aimed at rescuing the political process from the influence of money? Will it be some brave soul from the community of million of retirees disenchanted with the failure of bureaucratic leadership to get to the root of their health care problems -- someone capable of starting an institutional revolution from below? Or could it be someone from communities of religious faith with a vision that resonates with that of “founding fathers”?
Whoever it may be, they will know that overcoming the effects of a century of indoctrination and intimidation by corporate and financial powers will be a daunting task. And those who engage in an activity that cuts against the grain of long established prejudices will be challenged and sometimes blasphemed by the very ones most in need of the benefits that come from enlightened self-interest.
But enough of this babbling of education and platitudes in the abstract. Let’s consider education in the concrete -- the nuts and bolts of organizing for self-education in terms of a model and subject content.
We don’t have to look far for a proven model. Over fifty years ago the Great Books Foundation of Chicago started a program that very quickly caught on all over the country. I have participated in the Huntsville program for some twenty years and have set up discussion groups myself. I know firsthand how intellectually challenging and rewarding it can be for a group of twelve or fifteen people to sit around a table and talk about a selection written by some literary great, from Plato to John Dewey, from William James to Sigmund Freud, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, from Virginia Woolf to William Faulkner, from the Bible to Karl Marx. I know how such a program contributes to a wholesome spirit of camaraderie and an enduring bond of solidarity.
The Foundation’s recently issued 50th Anniversary Series of some nine volumes of essays, philosophy, history, short stories and poetry testifies to the lasting qualities of the program and the hold it has on those who participate in it. This milestone should signal to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that here is a technique available to strengthen and advance any worthy endeavor. One need look no further than this paradigm of group reading and discussion for the ultimate weapon against powers of darkness. One need look no further than the nation’s labor unions, its environmentalists and ecologists, its human rights activist and reformers of every stripe, its enlightened religionists, to find the key potential wielders of this powerful weapon in the interests of the common good. Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est - - KNOWLEDGE ITSELF IS POWER! (Francis Bacon, 1561-1626, Religious Meditation. Of Heresies).
However, we are not suggesting that unionists et al. use the reading menu of GBF. What we are suggesting is that they give the highest priority to creating a massive self-education program that appropriates GBF format but focuses on reading materials that will (1) bring their respective peoples to an understanding of who and what we really are as a nation, warts and all, and (2) with that understanding, and the passion it arouses, take charge of the political process through the ballet box and make our country truly worthy of the respect and admiration which now we falsely claim for ourselves.
Three hard facts confront the leaderships of the masses with the necessity of reassessing their function (and that of the people they lead) in a democratic society: the potential of today’s human and planetary predicament for catastrophic disaster; the inherent nature of capitalism to increase profit; and the proven disinclination of vested interest to exercise self- control for the common good. These hard facts virtually dictate that the subject content of our model must be in response to the conclusion reached by Harold Evans in his important book The American Century: “The question for the next century is whether capitalism can triumph over its own contradictions.”
The world of typical America is awash in the opinions of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Disneyland, and other corporate media giants. In the early 1900s the flowering of the National Civic Federation set the stage for the ruling class’s indoctrination of the American mind against what other nations recognized long ago as enlightened self-interest. Futile attempts over the century to adopt a universal health care system still stand as a reminder of the power of corporate giants to possess lawmakers as their very own, and to persuade voters that this is democracy. On a scale hard to grasp, these giants have indoctrinated the American mind against any progressive movements or idea perceived as a threat to their “right” to exploit the nation’s human and natural resources. In time they were able to fashion a succession of events into an open-and-shut case for maintaining the status quo. Cleverly, they fashioned an ideology of their own, brainwashed us to accept it as the “American way,” and moved on to the present age of mergers, “free trade,” instant wealth, and “the end of history.” It did not just happen. Perhaps it was like this:
First, they branded compulsory health insurance as the “Prussianization of America,” at a time when the U.S. had entered World War I against Germany.
Second, they seized on the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian czar, under Lenin and Trotsky, to further stigmatize as “socialized medicine” the idea of health care as a universal right -- without regard to what is obvious in the year 2000, that the evidence, divorced from the ideology of either the right or left, overwhelmingly supports the logic of a universal health care system.
Third, they used the diabolical reign of Joseph Stalin to paint a false picture of socialism, deliberately and erroneously identifying socialism, and Lenin’s aim in staging the revolution, with the horrendous misdeed of Stalin’s reign of terror. (Pushed into obscurity, of course, was the one datum that exposed the lie of this fabrication: Trotsky died with a pickaxe in his brain, planted there on Stalin’s order.)
Fourth, they trusted Pavlov’s conditioned-reflex discovery to apply as much to humans as to Pavlov’s dogs, and we did not disappoint them. In time, the ruling class’s cries of “Socialism!” cast a pall over progressive thinking, putting a damper on strong support for strategies and policies inimical to the interests of the ruling class.
Fifth, by the end of the twentieth century the ambition of the National Civic Federation, defunct since the 1940s, has been realized. The reactionary philosophy motivating the NCF has been etched into the national consciousness so deeply that the current presidential “debates reflect no understanding of what has happened to American politics. The frame of reference determining their content was drawn long ago. Presidential candidates are its slaves.
In any society whose intellectual and cultural roots must contend with the effects of a century of poisonous indoctrination, the path to knowledge and understanding is a difficult one to travel. It can be a lonely path, which travelers will be tempted to abandon when others falter. It is therefore important for the individual to walk the walk with significant others where and whenever possible. Otherwise, the social pressures and the dangers of isolation threatening those who walk alone will be too great for some adventurers to bear.
From the standpoint of eventually achieving a political payoff in terms of shifting political power to the working classes, there is no group of greater significance today than unionized workers -- in spite of setbacks in recent years and perpetual calumny from all directions. Though others will certainly make substantial contributions, they do not have the organizational infrastructure, nor generally the solidarity of purpose, that labor unions have and from which a massive program of enlightenment can be launched. For that reason, we construct our proposal for mutually assisted self-learning around the favorable conditions of the national labor movement. (There is no reason why favorably inclined organizations of a different kind could not use the same paradigm. We think immediately of organized retirees and elderly citizens where health care is an issue of paramount immediate importance, and communities of faith where strong ethical concerns are a significant fact in community life.)
First, I will set forth a few tentative guidelines, or suggestions, for starting a reading and discussion program. (I emphasize the word “tentative,” recognizing that others of greater knowledge and experience may have more suitable ideas.)
(A) Begin by trying to find a dozen prospective participants with qualities for participating in a program that will make intellectual demands of them (serious reading, rational discussion, objectivity, hopefully an open mind).
(B) At the first meeting, make sure that everyone understands the ultimate goal: to be involved with similar groups seeking to transfer political power from the controlling elite to the people, beginning with their own local, state, and Congressional districts. Be prepared to convince them of the urgency of the project by citing such crucial factors as the costs and difficulties increasingly encountered in obtaining health care, deterioration of the public school system and the impact on working/middle class families who cannot afford expensive private schools. Make it clear this is a life-and-death struggle for the whole planet -- that environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, world population, the limits of its sustainability, and not only the inability of the capitalist dynamic to cope with problems of its own making but the contradiction within it to create new problems.
(C) Let them know that they are the vanguard of a movement to change the conditions under which we live; that on them, and others like them, hangs the future.
And second, what shall we read and discuss and argue about that will enhance our understanding of the perilous conditions under which we live, and motivate us to stay the course -- to place political power in the hands of an informed people? I will make a few suggestions. (From my own experience these readings will produce the guidelines and establish the cognitive framework within which the project for transfer of political power should proceed.)
(1) A firm understanding of how the ruling class rules and simultaneously maintains the illusion of Democracy among the rest of us is absolutely imperative for removing the blinders from our eyes. G. William Domhoff has taught psychology and sociology at the University of California (Santa Cruz) for many years. In addition, he has written widely on the subject of political and social power -- writings that did more than anything else to open my eyes in a really seeing way. I think you will find his short essay “Who Rules America?” (only about twenty-six pages, including a helpful bibliography) provides as speedy an entry into the company of those who already understand as anything around. The essay is included in a book titled Social Problems by Calhoun & Ritzer and published in 1993 by McGraw-Hill, Inc. However, if you will send me two dollars in postage stamps (or cash if you prefer) to cover mailing cost, I will send you a copy made at my expense. After absorbing and exhausting the possibilities of this essay, you will find Domhoff’s book Who Rules America?: Power and Politics in the Year 2000 a strengthening and broadening experience.
(2) A firm understanding of how the American media support the rule of the ruling class, perpetuate the myth of American democracy, and reinforce our delusions of American grandeur, is also crucial to comprehending the importance of breaking their choke-hold on the working/middle class intellect. You will find Robert W. McChesney’s recently published book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy (University of Illinois Press) extremely helpful in arriving at this understanding. Again, send me a stamped, self-addressed envelope and I will send you a preview of McChesney’s thinking, in the form of a recent article by him in the November 29 issue of The Nation.
(3) Since in pursuing this self-teaching you will be called all manner of deprecating and derogatory names (with “socialist,” “communist,” “Marxist” probably heading the list), it will be well for your self-teaching group to discover what these terms really mean for those whom the terms fit, in contrast with what corporate elites want you to think. For starters you will find it edifying to read Albert Einstein’s 1949 essay, “Why Socialism?” and John Bellamy Foster’s introduction to Ernst Fischer’s book How to Read Karl Marx (Monthly Review Press, 1996).
Townsend Walker, Sr. of Huntsville, Alabama has been active for universal health care since his retirement twenty-three years ago, and now edits New Vision/New Voices on that connection. Address all correspondence to Townsend Walker, Sr., P.O. Box 4474, Huntsville, AL 35815-4474