Friday, July 22, 2011

Illusions of Empowerment

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? Psalms 2:1
Why do the news enrage me? My best teachers have taught me that if I do—experience rage—I must look within, and in a hurry—thus not outside at the supposed outer triggers of that low emotion. Rage is a sign of not being grown up. At 75? Exactly. Time to look within.

The cause of rage, undoubtedly, is a sense of my own impotence. But if I feel impotence then surely I’m identified with a group in government. I am projected. I’m permitting myself to enjoy an illusory sort of power, and my rage comes because “my” power is not being wielded as “I” think that it should be.

To withdraw these projections is to face reality. Reality is always sobering, indeed boring, quite banal, quite pedestrian. It is that I’ve no effective power to shape public life at all—not in the sense that I attach to the verb “shaping.” I’m shaping this log post, not that out there. The illusion arises from the very structure of news reporting. I can follow almost hour to hour what plans are ripening—or not—in a city about 1,000 miles from here. The huge machinery that brings this news suggests that it is “important.” It might be, for all I know, but is it important for me? The suggestion of such phrases as “the people’s right to know” is that I need to know because…? Because knowing things, and being well-informed, I can act appropriately. But here is where impotence begins to show itself. My one and only future act will be to vote, 15 months from now, for maximally 1 of 3 presidential candidates, one representative, and one senator. I live in a district gerrymandered so that it is overwhelmingly democratic; the Democrat will win. Therefore the vote is predetermined as I sit here—shaping this post. That election-outcome is not mine to shape.

The structure of our political life has lost its organic rootings. It is now the function of the fluidity of money, of communications, and of huge numbers. They produce a kind of delusional effect. The news produces a consciousness that what I’m reading is important, but in any realistic sense “important” can only mean that I can actually do something about unfolding events. In effect, and this is the lesson of the huge numbers, I actually cannot.

All of my actions, to be sure contribute to what are public outcomes. But any personal act is so tiny that it does not actually matter at the public scale. My spending produces jobs, GDP, affects the value of the dollar. My vote elects some of those on TV. To influence my infinitesimally tiny contribution a tsunami of communications difficult to avoid discharges its relentless waves over me. They cause a feeling of empowerment (knowledge is power), but while I have huge knowledge, I have no power at all. Not really. Therefore my expenditures of emotion are just wasteful. To be effectively informed, a monthly summary, if done well, would be more than enough. “Done well” would mean factual reporting of actual outcomes augmented by statistical reporting on the consequences of past actions.

News function in two ways. One of these is as education of a sort: here is humanity in its collective form. The other is as entertainment. Watch your heroes and villains. Experience the ecstasy of victory, the shame of defeat. But it’s rather poorly written fiction.

Organic forms of political organization would develop from the local level. The local would in turn be mirrored on ever higher levels in much the same way. The citizenry would only ever elect local officials, local officials the county officials, county the state, and so on. Money would have to be taken out of it. Keep it personal in order to maximize responsibility. The current system, which appears like bad fiction on the media, actually is a fiction based on abstract principles. It is the fiction that all people aged 18 and over are qualified to elect officials at every level of government. This system only works because money enables power seekers to reach the public by means of communications at essentially the emotional level only. Fluidity of money, of communications, huge numbers. Illusions of power. Chaos. Rage.

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