It is always interesting when your past meets up with your present. Chris has just resurfaced after many long travels. This isn’t the Chris who is struggling with a sense of personal honor in relation to identity. This is the Chris who found it, probably by losing himself through the shedding of prior definitions, then reconstituted in his own truer terms.
Anyone who has traveled and had the courage to step out of their protective cultural bubble is forever transformed in inexplicable ways. It is the difference between a traveler and a tourist. A tourist merely looks, from an abstract distance, at the animals in the zoo, while keeping themselves safely separated behind the glass walls that define them. On the other hand, the traveler jumps right in. The traveler may not be fearless, but no one can say that the traveler is not courageous. It is not easy, letting many of our internal definitions slip away. But it is the only way to truly understand other people, as any modern anthropologist will tell you. And in return, it really is the only way we can better understand ourselves.
It is said that through formal education people are also transformed. This is true, to varying degrees. Mathematics and the various sciences, through their rigidly narrow focus, provide some hint of transformation. But they are better equipped to provide logical obsessions to the reasoning area of the mind. And these obsessions can easily distract us from our own humanity, and the humanity of others. But there also exists within academia the study of Humanities. Nearly all science and business students groan at the prospect of having to take even a few Humanities courses as general university requirements. Because, if it were not for those educational requirements, they would rather not learn any more about humanity. After all, they are human, yes? What else is there to know? Just a bunch of crazy gobbly-gook?
What does it say about us, when we are unwilling to explore the incredible diversity inherent in humanity? In a culture where we are increasingly encouraged to find our small niche, or our well-defined cubicle, what place is there for humanity? Everything becomes oriented and limited to our function, rather than our experience of what it is, to be alive. In fact, if we happen to have flashes of self-insight, or question the function we have adopted and defined for ourself, many people are left in a near state of anxiety or panic. The study of Humanities does not exclude function. It embraces function. But Humanities takes it even further. Humanities embraces everything we can possibly conceive or experience, whether it appears reasonable or not. Humanities says, we’re all just human, and we’re all fundamentally different, and we’re all so very similar. Humanities says, sunshine, don’t worry (or do) — it’s okay. Let’s just look at this. Maybe we’ll learn something. And be better off for it.
It should be no surprise that as students increasingly devote their lives to business, humanities dwindle. Business and money are what draws people’s attention, while their their own nature as a human, and their fellow human beings, are less a concern. Of course you can rationalize that students enter into studying disciplines mostly devoid of humanity, with only the best intentions toward some indefinable humanity, and the positive role they might play, in the long run. Just remember that education is, indeed, transformational. Even business education.
Last month Chris Hedges wrote an excellent article called Higher Education Gone Wrong: Universities Are Turning into Corporate Drone Factories. Don’t let the somewhat cynical title put you off. It is worth a read. He is completely correct. I’ll take his piece a little further:
Academia is, indeed, still teaching critical thinking. However, critical thinking is no longer as much about truth as it is about “winning”. Even in the sciences, where truth remains mostly necessary, the motivation is more about the ego of the individual “winning” that truth, than it is about truth in and of itself. Students, and by degrees our society, are loosing the ability to think critically except within the terms that can somehow benefit themselves in some self-interested way.
This also is not very surprising, considering the enormous increase in corporate sponsorship of university schools and research. Public funding of universities and research comes with few strings attached, and as such, truth can be the primary concern. However, public funding of education has been drastically reduced, and in these economic conditions where even states are desperate for money, universities and education will only increasingly rely on private parties for their funding.
As I mentioned a few months ago in another piece related to education, there is a very small, yet interesting, trend happening in the humanities. Even as the number of people who devote themselves to the humanities declines, the number of people devoting themselves to philosophical inquiry is slowly, yet steadily increasing, though nothing as fast as business. Nevertheless, this is a hopeful sign. It means that more people are questioning the very foundations of their lives and their culture. It also means that more people are interested in what truly is right and wrong, independent of what any arbitrary religion or culture might espouse.
In philosophy, the study of what is right and wrong is called “ethics”. It is also no surprise that most students view philosophy students as freaks who are best at chasing their own tails. There is some truth in that preconception. But leaving it at that is a grave mistake. The study of philosophy is no simple task. It is as much about disciplining the mind with the clarity of reason than it is about any historical study of human thought. It is about applying reason to all things, not just the measurable. And to those people unaccustomed to reason truly being applied to their lives, the philosopher might come off looking like a lunatic, or an ass. But trust me, and you will have to, if you have not immersed yourself within philosophical inquiry — the clarity of reason applied to us, in all our many facets, causes most people to run away screaming in fear. Philosophy is the the root and foundation of all science. It is the root and foundation of our ability to understand ourselves and our world, even beyond the merely empirical. And when you apply this rigorous discipline to notions of right and wrong, through the study of ethics, even religion is left far behind in the dust and our lives, through our decisions, and the subsequent manifestation of a greater culture and society, are revealed in vividly naked splendor, both in its magnificence and its hideousness.
It is no wonder that corporate and money interests, and in turn, most students, de-emphasize the importance of philosophical inquiry. It is dismissed as impractical, at least when they are feeling nice. And it is dismissed as subversive, when they are feeling threatened.
Philosophical inquiry is the process of bringing truth, which is often obscured or hidden, out into the light of day. But truth threatens many people. One of the most effective ways of achieving any selfish end is through hiding truth. And in a culture which idolizes the self and the self’s greatness above all else, much truth must be hidden. Then, when lies are revealed or deceptions are unmasked, the perpetrator usually will not confront the truth or even admit any wrongdoing. They just simply, and predictably, attempt to obscure and hide the truth further, a little like a bug trying to hide in plain sight by hoping the colors of its shell blends well enough with the background noise. And, if cornered, the bug attacks.
So, you might ask, why have we given all this money to the people who have just taken all our jobs and money and homes? And who, exactly, are these people? And why does our government have to funnel money through AIG before it reaches the banks, rather than giving the money directly to the banks? And why are these banks, who are receiving our money, not lending the money back to us, but are instead, buying up smaller banks? And why is Obama disregarding the law by not taking these banks from their owners and restructuring them? And why is our Treasury Secretary Geithner saying that banks will need several trillion dollars more before the “toxic” mortgage problem is fixed, when we could just as easily pay off the bad mortgages so that people can remain in a home, and hence eliminate the toxic items?
Selling homes that have been repossessed is a booming business right now, if you have the money to buy them. Banks are selling people’s houses left and right, and the bottom feeder realtors are in a frenzy. Just recently I was asked to do a programming job for a small realty company that sought a better way to make repossessed homes more easily searchable, while at the same time, making people think that those repossessed homes were available only through that realty company. Thankfully the computer store owner who brought me the job, lied about the terms the contract while trying to lock me into other terms, and I could gracefully back out. But I was going to do the work for these carrion eaters, because the owner of the computer store was giving me a gift, and I liked him. And as such, I could rationalize helping these bottom feeders. But my rationalizations were weak, and I knew it. Yet I was going to do it anyway. It is a strange thing being happy that someone you like has lied to you.
Just as I was willing to do, too much evil is assisted and committed by people who rationalize that they are “just doing their job”, or who say “it’s just business”. Neither one of those statements satisfies even the most basic ethical criteria. Such sayings really mean, I know what I am doing is wrong, but I am going to do it anyway, only with a candy coating. Mathematics doesn’t cover this. Business school doesn’t cover this, except as to further business. The humanities do. And philosophy, in particular, covers it completely. That entire enterprise, from the bottom feeders and those who assist them, up to the original instigators, is a giant wad of ethical evil, where a great number of people continue to suffer while a very few people reap the benefits from this suffering, and all the while, the carrion eaters circle to grab what pieces of flesh they can, falling from the carnage. I was so happy when Zane told me he purposefully stayed away from repossessed properties when he bought his house, so many months ago. When I asked him, I expected him to answer that he did buy a repo. He didn’t. Cheers for Zane!
The same weak rationalizations are also used by people to invade other countries. Here, the carrion feeders are the military service industry and the reconstruction industry, both of which, involve Cheney in a prominent position — just like Geithner held a prominent financial position in the banking industry, as did his predecessor, Paulson. We see this, and we are aware of this. Yet somehow, we lack any outrage. We expect that our government will give our money to the bankers. We carrier to noise ratioexpect that our government will claim that we have no money left to help normal people. The essence here is, there is a massive shift of wealth heading up, yet again, to even a smaller few people, and our government is doing all that it can to make certain those few people remain in tact, even though, economically, there is no reason to do so, and every reason to destroy this “too big to fail” mentality.
If we can employ critical thinking, we can see our situation more clearly. Unfortunately, critical thinking is no longer considered useful, or even desirable by many, including universities. For the most part, universities teach facts and methodologies oriented toward specific purposes that align with business. Even in science. Without an ability to critically think and form questions, people are vulnerable to spin and hyperbole. And that is precisely all we get from what few corporate news sources that are left to us. Journalism is dead in the corporate media. What remains is merely propaganda, in the service of the very people who continue to take all they can, in whatever way they can, without a concern for ethics, and often without even a concern for law. And after propaganda comes sensationalism. This is our current American society, even with the harbinger of change in place.
Without an ability to critically reason, our population is left with two choices. Believe what is said through the media outlets, or simply ignore any larger concerns. The majority seems to ignore larger concerns. But either way, those who lack the ability to critically reason will focus almost exclusively upon immediate tasks which are in their own self-interest. From the perspective of the “power elite”, who possess a sea of people lacking the capacity to critically think, and who are well-trained in narrow skills, this is a harvest boon. They can easily hide from anyone those things they do not wish known, while offering up rationales and distractions to keep their machinations hidden. As was mentioned in the previous business ethics pieces, this behavior is similarly and readily adopted by even small business owners. Our culture is no longer an ethical one. It is all about who can get what for themselves. In other words, we have a hard time blaming the bad guys, because more than likely we’re bad ourselves.
But change is here now, right? We should not be looking at what was done in the past, but should instead stay positive and look toward the future. These are even Obama’s words. They are also the words of any business person, or person in power, who wishes to get away with something, and carry on business as usual. Unfailingly. It is a simple, yet effective, semantic trick. After all, who doesn’t want to be positive? Only assholes and crazy people, of course. Well, there you have it. Don’t look. Just keep going. Don’t rock the boat, and don’t be an ass.
As we lose more and more of the incalculable benefits of the Humanities, we find ourselves growing into an increasingly mechanistic lifestyle. This is also excellent news for the corporate state, for we are a vast army of well-trained cogs, gearing up for the battlefield of the newest millennium: the global economy. The war is between the US, Southeast Asia and soon the European Union. We are becoming a world of multiple poles. The Middle East is a strategic resource. Wars of one type or another are always necessary to keep power in place. Of course, we must keep the military/industrial complex happy as well, so really, killing wars will not entirely end.
It is also no surprise that with the blurring between government and business, private military armies are on the rise. Even in the Obama administration. Corporate armies have no allegiance to countries. They have an allegiance to money. And they have the added benefit that they are not bound by a country’s military laws or treaties, which also means that private armies can be deployed on US soil.
It is perfectly clear to even the non-critical observer that our government no longer functions in the interests of its citizenry. Obama has made no real change. He has strengthened our occupation of Afghanistan, he is taking military action within the boarders of Pakistan, he completely supports the suspension of habeus corpus for anyone he deems a terrorists or “enemy combatant”, he continues the Bush Administration’s declaration of a national emergency which grants his office sweeping powers and clouds of secrecy (with Congress’ blessings), he refuses to investigate or prosecute our country’s torturers, nor will he investigate or prosecute the CIA people who illegally destroyed the torture videos in their possession, and he is doing absolutely nothing to prosecute, investigate, or even bring to light any of the wrongdoings committed by the previous administration. He has, however, invited a boatload of celebrity performers to the White House, including a special performance by Stevie Wonder, who was the reason, he says, that he and his wife were married.
Meanwhile, because some cultures on the planet are not quite as brain and heart-dead as our own, rioting is on the rise. The few media outlets who cover this, label it “class wars”. But the class wars were already fought. The poor and middle-class lost. Now, with their bottomless hunger still unsatisfied, the dominant players in world finance continue to squeeze for more, as people from all classes, except the very few at the top, become even poorer. This is why you see such large police forces in every city, wearing riot gear, and an increase in training academies for them, and consistent technical advances in non-lethal weaponry for crowd control, and body protection for these forces. It is well known that rioting will continue to increase. It is planned for.
But only as a last resort. Until people start rioting, we can expect things like the re-branding of issues that make us furious. After all, for people who don’t think critically, a re-branding will just slide right in unnoticed into happy land. For example, the private military contractor Blackwater has changed their name to Xe. Obama has renamed the war on terror to “overseas contingency operations”. He’s also changed the economic crisis into the bank stabilization plan, while making toxic assets into “legacy” assets — in word, at least, a thing of the past. Let’s just keep positive and look to the future, instead of the past. Never mind who’s getting the money for those “legacy” assets, or why those assets even exist. Never mind that the banks get payments for those mortgages from we people, and they get the properties from us when we can’t pay, and they get the money from selling those properties again with even more mortgages, and they get the bailout money from us, because they over-valued all those houses and assets to begin with, and are now insolvent as a result. Oh, and never mind that the Obama administration is breaking the law by not forcibly restructuring these banks. And yes, those banks are using the money to buy up all the smaller banks that might one day compete with them, and who would benefit from their demise. Change we can believe in. Riots in London at the G20 economic conference. 30,000 protesters in Europe near the German-French border at the recent NATO meeting, with three burning buildings left behind and almost 400 people jailed. Nearly all of Greece in turmoil, near the breaking point. And don’t forget the pirates! Mmm. Pirates.
But is re-branding bad? Looking at re-branding from an ethical standpoint requires that we look at more that just the act of re-branding, which is ethically neutral. We must ask, why is he re-branding? If it is an attempt to clarify issues, then it is ethically good. If it is an attempt to obfuscate issues, then it is ethically bad. If it is an attempt to disassociate himself from the previous administration’s policies, while still adhering to their core, that is simply a re-wrapping; an obfuscation, and that is bad. From an ethical perspective, this re-branding is a very bad thing, indeed.
All this amounts to one inevitable conclusion. Humanity is not as important as business. Is it surprising that students enroll far more in business than in the humanities?
Within the US right now, 1 out of 10 people are on food stamps. They need help from the government just to eat. More than double this number of people have no health insurance. This means that if you get sick, and could be treated, you will be left instead to die because you cannot pay (unless the illness is immediately life threatening). Even if you have money to pay a health insurance premium, but have even some small condition, it is very likely you will not be able to find a policy, unless you are working for a corporation that has an arrangement with a health care provider where they are required to accept you. And right now, we are also approaching 1 out of 10 people being unemployed. However, this is a little deceptive. The figure relies upon people who have been actively seeking employment. The real figure is between 30-40%. Yes, the math in these figures do not really make all that much sense. It’s best that way.
Perhaps our evolution into a corporate government is inevitable. After all, we provide details on all our friends and acquaintances on Facebook, and we even sign over the rights to everything we write, post or send through Facebook, to Facebook. Our personal statistics are analyzed, stored and marketed. We entrust all our personal and business email, and all our curiosities to Google, who similarly analyzes, stores and markets our identity. We allow our government to listen to all our telephone and email communications. And I assure you this is no joke, we even carry around our own government listening “bugs” with us at all times — our cell phone, which the government can turn on to listen at any time, as well as track our whereabouts. The FBI, even under FOIA will provide no details.
Technological developments such as cloud computing further centralize our information and dependence upon singular, larger corporations. Small agricultural farms are practically non-existent, while large, corporate farms grow our crops and livestock with close contractual ties to chemical and genetic companies like Monsanto who also control nearly all seeds. Public utilities such as power and water are being sold to private investment companies. So are our roads.
Many years ago, perhaps more than ten now, Battelle Memorial Institute did their best to convince me to join their ranks as an employee, rather than as contractor. I loved working with Battelle. Their slogan was, “Science in the service of humanity”, and for all that I saw, they meant it. For years they attempted to shed the label of being a “think tank”. They are a non-profit organization that offered a sort of refuge to some of the greatest minds in science, to come together, in a multi-disciplinary setting. However, they also we responsible for running a handful of our national laboratories, and relied heavily upon government funding. As such, before they would hire me, they wanted to sample my urine.
I had no real reason to keep my urine to myself, other than an ethical one. Should a company be able to sample our body’s makeup, or our genetic information, before hiring us? The question is not an easy one to answer. I leaned toward “no”. They ought not to be able to require me to pee for them. But I decided to leave it somewhat up to them. I told the director who wanted to hire me, and the director and staff of human resources that I would give them my pee, but only if they agreed to come out in the courtyard to watch me pee for them. If they could bring themselves to actually face what they were asking another to do, and the humiliation, then I would consider their job offer worthy enough to compromise myself. Needless to say, they would not agree, and I even received a couple unofficial apologies for the requirement. It is certain my life would be very different now, had I compromised my ethics at the time. I do not know how different it would be.
Ethics guides my life, in most respects. It is why I will not help some companies, or people, and it is why I will help others. It is why I try to be honest, even when honesty is not the easiest course. Adhering to ethics sometimes makes me seem like an ass. And sometimes it makes me seem like someone who just can’t leave well enough alone. And sometimes I fail. Other times, I manage to set an example. Almost always, I seem the lunatic.
Most people never bother to ask the foundational questions that arise from what they are confronted with. They simply do what will be best for them at the moment, in those given circumstances. Scientists like to believe they can think critically, but usually their perspective and the scope of their vision is severely curtailed by the edicts of natural law, which are wholly inadequate to critically engage the human and cultural condition. This is why I am encouraged by the slight rise in students pursuing the philosophical disciplines. These students will learn to think. They will learn to see. They will learn how and why and where they should question, and that is everywhere. And most of all, they will learn that few things are just givens, and rarely are things as they appear on the surface.
Ah, the games we play. The beliefs from which we cannot see beyond. And the mazes that contain us. Our hearts, that seek, feel and experience. This is the purview of the Humanities. This is what we must not forget. Because in the end, we always come back to it, if only in our quietest of times, when we are alone. But how much more majestic when we are together? How different would it be, exploring our humanity together, rather than just seeing who can manage to get what from whom? Humanity. Or who can get what from whom?
At the end of the day, our education is unavoidable, one way or another.