Thursday, July 14, 2011

The People Versus their Rulers

Two readers of yesterday’s blog asked me to expand on it.  When I say that leaders agree, I don’t mean they too are angry, I mean they agree on the need to keep their respective peoples in check, even if they disagree about everything else.  And the reason why ‘the people’ need to be kept in check is because just about everywhere, greed has been given free reign, and the leaders’ job is to give it unconditional support.

But why greed?  I’m reading a book by Peter Corning called ‘The Fair Society’, which looks at the biological origins of ethics - and hence greed.  Corning’s thesis is that we are wired both for altruism and greed and it is culture that keeps these biological traits in balance. When a culture degenerates, limits are lost with those at the top best able to benefit.

When those at the bottom feel that unfairness has reached the breaking point, they revolt.  It’s always been that way, but now a myriad of new tools and weapons have created an unprecedented situation: we have a worldwide financial system but no world governance to regulate it; the world food system is impacted by the world financial system and world climate, with shortages producing refugees from both famine and war. Recently, the overall lack of fairness in the world has been recognized by one of the largest groups on the planet - the Muslim world - until now isolated by stringent cultural norms.

The veritable domino effect of the Arab Spring has turned to an Arab Summer, and is likely to become a Muslim decade.  Europe must face its population imbalance vis a vis Africa, only a few hundred miles away, which is turning it inexorably from colonizer to colonized.

As for America, never has a president been confronted with an array of challenges faced by Obama. They drive him to use previously condemned weapons, such as surveillance at home and renditions abroad.  His armies are valiant - but also mindlessly brutal - hence his diplomacy must both intimidate and cajole.  He needs bases in failed states such as Somalia or Yemen. The rhetoric of American excep-tionalism dictates he voice support for each group of rebels without knowing what their aspirations are.  Do cries for ‘freedom’, inspired by a century of American propaganda, mean the same thing to the fighters in Misrata as they do to Wall Street? By listening attentively to reports from the ground we can discover that for a plurality of both secular and religious Muslims ‘freedom’ is about fairness, which Corning describes as equity, equality and reciprocity.

For early Americans ‘liberty’ was a battle cry for self-rule, Once delivered from the British yoke, it became ‘freedom’, defined as the individual right to do as one chooses, on condition of not impinging on the Other’s equal right. Gradually, the condition was dropped, leaving unlimited freedom, a degradation of the principle of fairness upon which civil concord relies.

There is no going back: the arrow of time is irreversible and the system is racing toward a bifurcation. We can only buckle our seat belts and try to influence the outcome.  To do that we need to see the big picture.  All politics is no longer local and it’s no longer Americans versus our enemies, but ‘us’ - the people of the world - versus our rulers.


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