Sunday, June 28, 2015

#215 June 28, 2015- Truth, Justice and the American Way

We live in a world filled with contradictions, conflict and confusion. We are constantly facing challenges and making decisions in an environment that is changing and dynamic. This is part of who we are as a species, as parts of groups and as individuals living in the world. While we may strive for stability and long for consistency, we also continually find ourselves acting in ways that create, or add to the chaotic climate of our lives. Change and conflict are a part of the fabric of our lives, as well as a vital part of our continuing development and growth. One of my favorite Frederick Douglass quotes reflects this well when he states, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

Yet, with all of this complexity and challenge, there is also a constant undercurrent of simplicity. When we strip away all of the extraneous and sometimes irrelevant "noise" around us, we often find that the most simple choices are the ones that lead us in the most constructive direction. Too often we allow ourselves to be distracted from what is really important. We also allow ourselves to be mislead, or find ways to mislead ourselves and justify ideas or actions that we know to be untrue or simply wrong. As Arthur Conan Doyle's famous character Sherlock Holmes said on multiple occasions, "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth."

We can't forget that truth is a tricky concept. Too often those who claim to speak "truth" are the ones who would lead us further away from goals of social justice and the promise that was made to all citizens at the founding of the United States. We mix the concepts of truth with morality and justice on a regular basis, and this blending of very different terms causes us a significant amount of difficulty. This idea that we can continually strive for, to quote from Superman, "The never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way," implies that these three concepts are inextricably linked. Yet we know that America is a nation built by humans, with all of the flaws and problems that this entails.

When trying to uncover the "truth" it is a good idea to gather facts to help us further our investigation. In this case I turned to Merriam-Webster to give me the basic definitions of the words truth and justice. These definitions shine some light on the reasons for our ongoing confusion about these concepts. Truth is defined as, "The real facts about something: the things that are true," which seems straightforward enough until a later part of the definition states that it is "A statement or idea that is true or accepted as true."  This means that truth can be a fact like 2+2=4, or a something like this. . .

How can Ann Coulter and so many others in the Republican Party support the Confederate battle flag while also claiming to have a monopoly on patriotism?

Truth now becomes something potentially different from fact, "Something that truly exists or happens: something that has actual existence, or a true piece of information." Truth defined this ways isn't a universally accepted fact, in other words, my truth can be different from your truth. This becomes clear when we hear people discuss current events and make statements according to their perceptions of reality and their interpretations of what should, or shouldn't happen. It is in this context that statements about any controversial issue can be so divergent and contradictory. This becomes confusing as our society grapples with such opposite ways of defining the truth about any issue.

Because we struggle to define truth we turn to the second part of the Superman quote, Justice. Justice is linked to truth in that it exists in (once again turning to Merriam-Webster) "conformity to truth, fact or reason." So we recognize that justice has a basis in truth, but can't ignore the fact that truth is now a shakier foundation than one might hope for. Further exploration of the concept of justice leads us into more confusion and new terminology. Justice is defined as, "The maintenance of administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments." It is also, "The quality of being just, impartial, or fair." Even if we rely on the safety of the rule of law we must also deal with the concept of equity, as justice is "The establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity."   

We find ourselves in a troubling situation, and one that leads us back to our ongoing struggle as individuals, communities and a nation to collectively identify what exactly is promised to us by the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the legacy of rhetoric around truth, justice, freedom, opportunity, equity, and the idea that America is a place where all of these grand ideas are available, accessible and even guaranteed to every one of us on an equal basis. This is the "American Way" part of the Superman saying. There are some who would cling to the idea that this is a concept that is clearly defined and absolute throughout our nation's history, and one that should continue on without change or significant modification into our future. This idea that we need to interpret all our current actions through the lens of an elite group of males from the 1700's is one that finds it's champions in the current extreme conservative movement.

The case is "one more nail in the coffin of originalism."

The U.S. Supreme Court's legalizing of same-sex marriages nationwide comes as longtime opponent Scott Walker prepares to officially launch his campaign for president.|By Channel 3000

The struggle to define the "American Way" is the true heart of our growth and change as a society and as a nation. We may frame it in glowing terms like freedom and justice, but its essence is one that we share with all other cultures, nations and groups throughout history and around the globe. America's struggles to fulfill the promise made to all citizens is grounded in the ongoing struggle for power and wealth that motivates us as individuals and groups. In order to achieve the lofty pledge made to all of us as American citizens we must struggle for, utilize and maintain our individual and collective power. The rest of the Frederick Douglass quote sums this up clearly:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The measure of our success in this struggle becomes the way that we as a collective whole define the "American Way", and how we define the terms like equity, justice, truth, fairness, etc. In this context freedom becomes a vitally important concept and something that must be guaranteed and protected with vigilance. The power to coerce will always find its primary resting place in the hands of those at the top of a society's hierarchy. The power to resist and move our nation forward is contained in our ability to express ideas, organize and work to address inequities where they exist. While this freedom, expressly laid out in the 1st Amendment, is one that we must defend, it is also a freedom that allows for all sides to express their ideas. This constant tension between divergent ways of thinking is troubling in some ways, but incredibly healthy in others. It is only through free and honest debate that we can arrive at any lasting resolutions to the challenges we face around equity, justice and eventually leads us to an "American Way" that resonates with our modern reality.
While it is true that there are many ways that truth, justice and the American Way have been, and are, defined, this isn't to imply that all of these definitions are equal. One of the dangers of a society where free speech is considered a right, is the fact that this allows for all opinions to be given consideration in a debate. This is especially true in the modern age where communication is quick, easy and ideas are spread widely. This is why an educated population is as important, or even more so, for the ongoing growth of our nation. We need to be able to find our way through the barrage of ideas and arrive at ones that are well reasoned, morally derived and sustainable in nature.

It is clear that we face an ongoing challenge in convincing the general public of the value of a liberal education and the absolute necessity of some form of truly public education.

Social dysfunction can be traced to the abandonment of reason

State Rep. Nancy VanderMeer, R-Tomah, wrote a guest column claiming that the proposed state budget will help Wisconsin students (June 15 Tribune).|By Kathryn Mayer, Anita Jagodzinski, Liza Collins Holmen

Under him, Wisconsin’s public school students have endured the biggest cuts to public education in our state’s history.|By Scot Ross

School is out for the summer, and kids are overjoyed. But across the country, the future of public education is in serious jeopardy.

There is a growing anti-intellectual dumbing down of our culture

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These tensions and struggles are always with us, but become heightened at times. The times that we are currently living in are one of those periods where the conflict between ideas and beliefs are magnified. We've seen all aspects of the struggle clearly these past few weeks with horrific violence directed at members of an African-American church and the opposite occurring when the Supreme Court made its ruling on Marriage Equality. The comments and dialog around these events clearly show the divergence that exists in our society, the misunderstandings around our past, and the need for continued struggle to move our nation forward.  They provide an exclamation mark and a reality check for those of us struggling in places like Wisconsin where we see a concerted effort to change the way that truth, justice and the American Way are defined and reverse any progress that has been made towards a more socially just society. 

We need to debate and dialog about what our society's truth is, and what justice really means for all of us. But, we also must recognize some absolutes and things that are "non-negotiable." We can no longer, nor could we ever, interpret the words that guide our society's progress through a lens created in the 1700's by people who were limited by their own experience and who crafted documents that were political in nature. Our founding documents were forged in a crucible of change, struggle and revolution that required compromise in many areas for survival's sake. To question our nation's past isn't to reject our values, but rather to enhance them. In many ways this is similar to our quest for truth in science. We build on the experiences, knowledge and efforts of the past, but always with an eye on moving towards a greater understanding of the world around us. 

Justice Anthony Kennedy praises marriage—and same-sex marriage.

In order to do this we must be honest with ourselves and be willing to let go of some lines of thinking while opening ourselves to new ways of looking at the society we live in.  We have to be ready to sort through the maze of contradictory information, be prepared for ideas that don't conform to our way of thinking and be willing to accept or reject the reasoning of others in our effort to move towards a more equitable and just society. Yet we also must stay true to our ideals and recognize where we see inconsistency and/or hypocrisy in our own, and others', reasoning. We also have to be ready to see the weaknesses in our thinking and recognize when we are compromising our core values for the sake of expediency and convenience.

While flexibility and open-mindedness are crucial to growing as individuals and as a collective whole, we can't allow this to be at the expense of our core values that we need to define on a societal basis. These values must include an ongoing effort to increase access to opportunities for all people, protect the rights of all citizens and to develop a society that is not only tolerant of diversity, but seeks to actively promote and engage a diversity in beliefs and ideas. For this to occur we must maximize the ability of all people to engage in meaningful discussion about important issues, provide equitable access to decision making processes, and find the balance between protecting the freedoms and rights of all people and at the same time promoting the greater good.  

It certainly appears that there is an effort from some of those currently in power to negatively impact all of these efforts and goals. They have employed a divide and conquer approach that has been incredibly effective in places like Wisconsin, where the message of freedom, equity and justice sold to the public is in direct contradiction to the reality of the policies and legislation that is enacted.  Essentially, we've been sold a package of "reforms" packaged in a combination of fear, untruths, and the rhetoric of the American Way that have moved us in a direction completely opposite of the one that most Wisconsinites appear to desire.    

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On a national scale we've seen this message of fear and division play out in the violence directed at African-Americans by angry whites who act out of fear. Fear that is promoted and directed by those who would manipulate others for the sake of maintaining power, and fear that generates hatred, anger and violence. This is a historical and current reality. When we look at the social structures around race and other demographic characteristics we see both overt and covert efforts to divide the populations that should be acting cooperatively to improve their status in society. Look at the rank and file members of the Confederate Army which was made up of poorer, often non-slave owners (by the start of the war about 75% of Southerners did not own slaves) fighting to defend a way of life and economy that was decaying rapidly. These men had been indoctrinated in a way of thinking that belittled and dehumanized the slaves while failing to acknowledge the significant similarities in social and economic power that they shared with these people who they considered "lesser." Nothing excuses the entrenched prejudices and biases that exist in our society, but efforts to make positive change happen must be supported on all levels.  

Calling Wednesday’s shootings in Charleston a “tragedy” makes this explosion of murderous violence seem like an accident. It isn’t.|By Stephen Kantrowitz

"We utterly condemn Roof's despicable killings, but they do not detract from the legitimacy of some of the positions he has expressed."

This effort to divide and conquer the majority of citizens has continued into the present day. The debate over the Confederate flag flying over South Carolina's capitol has returned it to the national spotlight. Yet, the reality and results of racism are evident in all parts of our nation. We face a lasting legacy of hatred and fear that will take all of our concerted effort, and significant amounts of time to overcome.

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It is clear that hate begets hate and creates a climate of fear, anger and division.

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While we work to change the future of our nation in terms of relations between the diverse populations that make up our country we can see how those in power work to help perpetuate the divisions. Once again looking at education, the emphasis on a skills based, benchmarked and standardized curriculum restricts our conversations about social justice issues, and limits students' exposure to important topics around issues of equity, race, gender, etc.

Common Core pressures make it difficult to educate students about social justice

It is good to see that there is significant resistance to the excessive testing, but we must also recognize that those who profit from this system will seek to defend it using any tactics available. One of these is the reliance on data to drive decision making, even at the expense of professional expertise, community input and un-measurable factors that influence and measure a student's growth and progress.

Seven percent of Madison students opted out of the test, compared to 2.2 percent of students statewide.|By Molly Beck | Wisconsin State Journal

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While charts and graphics can help us visualize large amounts of data, they can also greatly misinform if not presented correctly.

Our national ideals of freedom and opportunity has been co-opted by the rhetoric of individualism, the marketplace and capitalism. It is interesting to me how often we hear about the values of America in terms of a combination of capitalism and Christianity. These are two concepts that almost seem mutually exclusive, and have given rise to a host of policies, reforms and social constructs that actively contradict each other. We find it difficult to be a nation built on individual effort and "rugged individualism" while still displaying the values that are espoused in Christian teachings. This emphasis on individualism has an impact beyond the religious and/or philosophical as well.

Is it because the idea of the collective good has given way to ‘individualization’? Whatever happened to e pluribus unum?|By Thomas B. Edsall

This overemphasizing of the role of individuals over the work of a collective group has been on display in the attacks on labor unions, both public and private sector.
Unions have the ability to provide a collective voice for those who lack the power to influence the system. They also provide structures that can help alleviate fear based on demographics. A well negotiated collective bargaining agreement provides a structure that works to eliminate overt and covert discrimination in the workplace. Union have been an integral part of our nation's progress towards equity and social justice throughout history.

Women and men in unions will continue to lead the way, fighting for rights and protections for all workers. The more workers who join us, the stronger we are, and the better off we all will be.

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In the end we begin to realize that the grand ideas of "Truth, Justice and The American Way of Life," are difficult to define and quantify. In many ways we know them when we see them, but struggle to describe them. In fact, we may not need to identify them, define them, or attempt to lay out a plan to achieve these ideals. Instead we need to take a closer look at what our founding documents say, and apply them to modern America. The blueprint for a socially just society is contained in our national dialog around rights, freedoms and justice. What needs to happen is for the general citizenry of our nation to unite and work towards equitable implementations and equitable applications of the contents of these documents. An organized, engaged and informed population is what it takes to overcome the errors of our past, to equitably define the "American Way" and to fulfill the promises made to all citizens.









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