Democratic Underground

Improving American Society
October 25, 2001
by Paul S. Hardersen

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The past month or so has caused many people to reevaluate how they look at the world, other people, other cultures and the messy geopolitical situation that seems to have enveloped most of the world by now. Attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are now being followed by attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan, our so-called leaders in America are promoting legislative efforts that may unnecessarily infringe on our civil liberties and the major media outlets are fulfilling their traditional role as an outlet for the voice of the powerful and the wealthy.

With so many thousands needlessly dead, so many people mourning the losses of loved ones, and so many people not knowing what to do, now is the time to develop a real response to terrorism and ways to improve the current state of the world for all people. The response must be long-term, it must be inclusive, it must be genuine and it must have the needs of all Americans - and hopefully - all of the citizens of the world in mind.

After all, our goal should be to promote a global society in which freedom is real; where all people have a real chance to live in safety, peace and prosperity; and all people truly have a voice and a real stake in the actions of their government and society.

Sadly, that is not the case today, not even in the United States. So, the question is posed: What steps can be taken to improve our society in a way that will involve and uplift all of our citizens? I submit that if we strive to promote the values of diversity; egalitarianism and equality; a genuine desire for education; and a real effort at populist government, then we will go a long way towards achieving the American ideals that we so often assume that we already possess.

Today, unfortunately, our society is not inclusive and it openly marginalizes many groups. Today, and in the entire history of our nation, the policies of our government have most often been used by the rich and the powerful to satisfy their desires without giving thought to the rest of the population. Today, our education system is sadly inadequate to instill critical thinking capabilities into our citizens and to give them the tools necessary to engage the issues in our civil society. Today, too many people think that politics does not make a difference and they tend to not get involved at all.

The state of our nation is one in which most people are kept undereducated, underinformed, and/or misinformed by corporate and government interests to which they so often readily accept as authoritative and true statements. I ask again - what can we do to improve our society and the global society that would hopefully inaugurate a long-term era of peace and prosperity for everyone?

Diversity and tolerance are ideas that should be accepted by everyone in all societies. It should be accepted in a religious, cultural and ideological sense and should be promoted in a way that will allow all peaceful people to happily and safely live in the community of their choosing. Ideological conflicts will likely never cease as long as human beings exist, but the acceptance of the values of tolerance and diversity must be ingrained into our society because it will promote the peaceful coexistence of very different people with very different views on existence.

Promoting diversity will also hopefully erode the tendency of people to segregate themselves into isolated cultural and religious groups. There is safety among people like yourself, but there is much to be gained in experiencing and understanding people who are different from you.

It also does not mean that you have to change your views in order to value other people. To this end, I address groups of people that are typically marginalized by the mainstream in American society: atheists, agnostics, non-religious people, minor or obscure religious groups, transgender individuals, ethnic minorities and, likely, many other types of people.

People who are in the 'majority' in a society must not continue to make it their life goals to change people who are not like them. A good example of this is religious proselytizing and conversion. Debating ideas is certainly to be promoted in the public sphere, but it is unacceptable for religious groups to try to change people through coercion and through the use of the government.

There is a dangerous trend in American society where religious groups are clamoring to feed from the trough of government money. After all, religious organizations are private groups and they should rightly live or die on their own. There is a danger, of significant magnitude at present, of turning the American governmental system into a semi-theocratic state that will, almost by definition, limit or restrict the freedoms that we currently enjoy.

We can never let one group with any agenda control the government because that will limit the freedoms, ultimately, of all of our citizens. Federal, state and local governments shuld not show any favoritism towards any groups and should work for the benefit of all of their citizens.

The current trend (going on since the 1950s) of the Christianization of our government is wrong because it does not promote diversity and tolerance and it does not allow the government to do one of its most important jobs -- represents ALL citizens. Therefore, for the sake of all of our citizens, the ideals of true diversity and tolerance should be promoted while ending the rampant favoritism towards some societal groups that is taking place in American society.

Also, we live in a society that has historically worked to promote the goals of the rich and the powerful and that is a trend that is continuing today. Actually, it is getting worse. The ideas of equality and egalitarianism should be aggressively promoted in many ways in our society. Economically, unfettered capitalism is in danger of succumbing to its greatest weakness - that of the creation of gross disparities in income and wealth in the societies in which it operates.

While capitalism is currently the most successful economic system that has yet been invented, its negative side effects continue to be ignored - and ignored at the perils of the societies in which it operates. This writer thinks it is axiomatic to say that the needs of the many outweight the needs of the few. The bad news is that just the opposite has been occurring throughout the history of our nation.

How can we ameliorate the negative side effects of capitalism while allowing this economic system to continue to operate? It will likely not be easy and it may not even be possible. However, a strong desire to want to address the basic welfare and needs of all citizens posits the following suggestions.

Would it not be constructive to provide for the most basic needs of the citizens of a society that will then allow them to pursue their dreams and goals knowing that that basic necessities of their existence are almost guaranteed? Those necessities would include adequate and nutritious food, good housing, accessible and universal health care, clothing, education - with likely other items that could be added to this list.

However, the goal is for the basic necessities of all of our citizens to be provided for them. Yes, they should be free. Yes, they should be paid for by the government. Yes, this will cause major changes and cause some temporary problems. However, implicit in these actions will be the desire to create a society that is not driven solely by the desire to accumulate more and more money. We should all have the desire to want all of our citizens to live in comfort, safety, and in happiness.

Capitalism has caused our current dilemma in which many people are permanently poor, more people are subject to the cyclic whims of the economy, and more people are working jobs only for the money and not for the pleasure of their chosen occupation. Money, far from being a liberator, are the chains that limit and prevent the achievement of a full, rich life. These chains must be duly broken and discarded if we really want to give all citizens the ability to pursue their dreams and goals in life.

Along with basic necessities, the wage and salary structure in America must simply change to allow upward mobility to become a reality for many more of our citizens. More respect and responsibility needs to be given to the rank-and-file employees of all companies. The top-heavy salaries of CEOs and the upper management levels of companies need to be trimmed and redistributed to the bulk of the lower-paid employees. The common notion that huge salaries need to be given to CEOs to ensure their success is very dubious and there is scant evidence to support that notion.

In fact, although some people would object mightily, maybe we should impose not only a minimum wage but also a maximum wage. A starting wage could be at ~$10/hour (prorated for part-time work) for everyone and a maximum salary cap could be, say, $200,000. After all, why should anyone live with excessive wealth and luxury when even one person is struggling with substandard housing and inadequate food?

Equality and egalitarianism also should be promoted in the social sphere much more than at present. Sure, many people give it lip service - equality for women, equality for minorities, etc. - but the action typically stops there. From my own personal experiences and by observing our society, women are often still treated as second class citizens and many women are oppressed and beaten down to where they simply just accept their position in society. Of course, this does not apply to all women and those women who aggressively promote a feminist viewpoint should be applauded and encoruaged.

However, the reach of women's groups only goes so far. Changing social mores and norms will continue to be more difficult than taking other action because it is often very difficult to change people's ingrained behaviors. However, the patriarchal nature of our society must be replaced by an egalitarian systems that treats the views, ideas and thoughts of women on a par with those of men.

In the same way, ethnic and racial minorities who have been suppressed, oppressed and mistreated in centuries past should at least have the atrocities of their ancestors acknowledged by our present government. There will certainly be much resistance in America to the thought of reparations for the living survivors of the Africans, Native Americans, Chinese and other racial and ethnic groups who have been brutally exploited and even eliminated in centuries past - often simply for wealth.

However, it would be an extremely honorable action by our government to do just that. We cannot erase our bloody history - in America and around the world - but we can begin to put it behind us by adopting values and goals that acknowledge all groups in society.

To have an informed populace requires an educated populace. The United States often boasts of how well its citizens are educated. However, current evidence shows that - even for many college graduates - people are woefully undereducated in many subject areas. This lack of knowledge prevents people from being able to grasp the important issues of the day and causes them to run the risk of jumping to conclusions based on limited or skewed information.

Worse yet, many people use the media as their main source of information. That is worse because the media outlets that reach most people (NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, major newspapers) cover the news in an extremely shallow manner that does not allow an understanding of the context and meaning of the day's events. Even worse is that news reports are often inaccurate, include factual errors, omit non-mainstream viewpoints and offer lopsided commentary. This is present in local as well as national news outlets and shows that the journalistic industry in the United States is badly in need of repair.

This under-education of our citizenry is taking place due to the lack of emphasis given to the acquisition of a strong, broad education (in spite of much talking) and the commonly held notion that the main purpose of an education is simply to get a good job. There is much to be said for our citizens having a strong, broad and well-rounded education that will allow them to grasp, understand, contemplate and analyze many of the complicated issues that we face today. Our population is essentially scientifically illiterate with the vast majority of citizens lacking the most basic of information - which also allows them to be susceptible to con-artists, swindlers and accepting appeals to believe the efficacy of such things as religion, astrology and many other questionable topics. It makes one think that there might be a deliberate effort to keep people underinformed and undereducated.

This may or may not be true, but it is something that must be addressed - all the way from kindergarten through a graduate level education. Teachers need to be better trained and better qualified, science and the scientific method needs to be emphasized and taught better than at present, education should be promoted as a goal in and of itself, and students should be encouraged to think creatively, independently and without arbitrary limits imposed by teachers, schools, or society.

It is also necessary to stop any censorship that is taking place, stop the teaching of blindly patriotic versions of American history, and retell history as it was and how it is. Kids can handle the truth and they shouldn't be given versions of events that are fundamentally in error.

And that leads us to our federal government. Originally constructed and formulated by a group of wealthy, landed individuals who helped America break with the British Empire in many ways for their own good, our government sadly has a track record of being very unresponsive to most of its citizens.

A tiny example from the present - this author wrote letters to Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer in late January/early February 2001. It took until August to receive a reply from these elected representatives - and the reply from Senator Clinton consisted of a form letter sent via email. Am I supposed to feel gratitude that they actually got around to sending me a reply? I think not.

If our elected representatives are not responsive in a reasonable fashion, then they should be called to task for their tardiness and duly criticized. Beyond that example, it is even more disturbing how only wealthy people can usually run for office today. This effectively limits the pool of potential candidates and limits the political discourse that should take place during election time.

It is even more disturbing that the Republicans and Democrats are often very close to being the same party while those people considered 'liberal' Democrats are rather cast aside, ignored, and often treated as radicals. As far as elections go, it is very advisable to invest the money to make a uniform voting system nationwide to eliminate the problems of the last election.

It would also be advisable to eliminate the Electoral College and make federal elections truly popular in nature and design. In national elections, we should not view our nation as made of 50 states, but instead view ourselves as a whole nation. After all, they are national elections and not local elections.

And there is one other idea for elections: eliminate all donations to candidates and simply have publicly financed elections. Doing this will eliminate the advantage of money that so often decides who will be a candidate for political office. It will open up the process to more people and more ideas and that will hopefully invigorate the discussions that take place during elections - instead of the mindless horse race mentality and the non-discussion of issues that currently characterizes election campaigns. The need to make political office-holding accessible to all citizens is more important than the desire for a citizen to want to donate money to their favorite candidate. Money has caused many of the problems that now beset our political system and it must be removed from the process.

With all of this said, how likely is it that any of what I have said above will happen? Well, it won't happen tomorrow, but it can happen. It will be a long, difficult struggle to fundamentally change our society in a way that will uplift and improve the lives of all of our citizens. Hopefully, by accomplishing the above, the United States of America will actually begin to live up to its mythos that is currently nothing but wishful thinking.

If more people are truly committed to the notions of life, liberty and happiness for everyone - in America and the world -- then it is our duty and obligation to make fundamental changes in our society to accomplish these goals.

If we decided to do nothing, then the real danger exists that America will erode and wither from within. Nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers and vast piles of money may be able to forestall change abroad and at home for a while, but it cannot last forever. Fundamental and systemic changes are needed and the people will increasingly begin calling for these changes as time goes on.

If we prefer to aspire to improve our society, then we must act and we must act now. If we do not, then the decay will continue and patriotism, flag waving and cheering will only be temporary reprieves until our demise.