Greedy Love & Winged Pigs

November 10, 2010

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Bob Dylan sang, “ . . . the time’s they are a-changin’”, and he was right despite the old saw: the more things change, the more they stay the same. In fact, times are changing so fast while staying the same I’m getting whiplash.

Looking around I see iPods and iPhones, life-zapping military drones and job-robbing robots which, in 1950 issues of Popular Science, suggested a future of leisure for the working class that would lead to more reality TV, less stress and not only the pursuit of happiness, but its certain capture and domestication. At the same time, though, I notice that the fundamental things that motivate homo sapiens are not much different today than those that motivated earlier eras — which (given the upped-ante of their global repercussions) has lead to far greater stress. What we still hoard and nurture –what gives us great continuity– are the age-old motivations of love and greed.

But every new generation likes to think it has an edge on uniqueness: Mine did. We expect change to be bouncing around in young minds, sometimes smashing furniture and busting plates. But change is a fascinating idea to the old as well; although the old have seen enough of it to know that change is ironically permanent.

Applied to politics, Elvin Lim of The Boston Globe says, “Change . . . is a lyrical and seductive tune.”

Why wouldn’t it be? When things head south, when a lousy status quo just won’t go, we feel the need to shake things up. This has happened now in two successive American elections. The first promised change and the latest promised to change change. Why? Because in the first we apparently wanted change, but in the second we apparently wanted to change change. It’s the way we are: thoughtless, fickle and sometimes impatient and arbitrary. It’s what happens when we go to those bedrock, fundamental places of love and greed: we want what’s good for our loved ones more than we want it for anyone else’s. 

This time around the ugliness of greedy-love showed up in a third party movement of frustration about change; not so much change itself, but the kind and pace of change. It was xenophobic (they’re stealing our jobs!), self-interested (don’t mess with my health insurance or my Medicare), ironic and hypocritical (socialism is of the Devil except for my Social Security and Medicare), myopically exclusive (anti-gay and, in large part, anti-any-religion-but-Christianity) and tinged with racism.  This new party is the party of blatant  me-first-you-later (if at all) change.   It’s a very free-market conception of change.

Everyone knows change can be a dangerous thing, which is why governments drag their feet when it comes to change. In the long (and prudent) run (unless you’re holding the wrong end of the status quo) this might not be a bad thing. As a matter of fact, the very thing we’ve been hating about our government — gridlock — is the very thing intended by our founders. Well, maybe not gridlock, but at least a deliberate, slug-paced procession. If the Constitution has anything to say about it, this past election will not bring about radical change any more that the last one did.

As Lim says, “To listen to the victory speeches delivered . . . last week, one might . . . believe that change is in the air again . . . But anyone counting on a radical transformation . . . should steel themselves for another round of heartbreak come January.”

Why, you ask? “Because,” says Lim, “our governmental system was designed to prevent seismic change from happening.”

Lim suggests our system favors incremental change by conscious design. He adds that “ 220 years of history, so far, suggest that that has been a very good thing indeed.”

What we have is an intentionally inefficient system of shared power that pits one branch against another to work against radical change. So we can curse or applaud Madison, Adams, Jefferson and the whole Constitutional Convention, depending upon the bias and intesity of our greedy-love. The system we have is the one they gave us. It’s based upon a fundamental document that operates against quick, fundamental change: one that works against the fickle passions of greedy-love.

But the fly in the ointment is Lim’s line that suggests 220 years of history has been a good thing . . . so far.  Maybe, but the bug in our founders’ program is that they never faced global warming, a deeply integrated and interdependent global economy, religious zealots with vest-bombs and access to nuclear states, predator drones, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and the lightning speed of global electronic communication in general. It’s the “so far” part that makes me flinch and wonder if a snail-paced, factionalized, us-first government representing a greedy-love constituency is up to the kind of change we all don’t really know if we want.

Considering government’s systemic foot-dragging, maybe a good place to focus on change is personally, in our fundamental inclination. What if we dropped the greed part of greedy-love, leaving us with fundamentally inclusive and positive disposition? Maybe a change like that would trickle up and unclog the sludge of government.

What if pigs had wings?

by Jim Culleny, 11/6/10
for The Shelburne Falls Independent

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