POLITICAL SOAPBOX

by James Grossmann

Although the words in these mini-essays are mine, and the ideas were arrived at independently, it would be absurd to call them original. Others must have thought of these ideas too, and formulated them much more completely and precisely.

There are no radical new political theories here; only statements of obvious points that the media seem to ignore.


contents

Conspiracy Theories: Too Optimistic

Anarchism

Down With Utopia!

Freedom

Responsibility

Capitalism

Reform

Socialism

Mutual Restraint

National Forces

Government Agencies

Change the Law

Down With Capital Punishment

Education

The Family

Questions About Violence

Wealth

Social Magic

Technology


CONSPIRACY THEORIES: TOO OPTIMISTIC

Informed people know that America's rich are getting richer, its poor are getting poorer, and that a wealthy few have inordinate influence on government. Is this pattern of oppression the conscious design of one or more powerful secret conspiracies? The conspiracy theorist’s affirmative answer has some obvious emotional motivations.

One is vanity. The conspiracy theorist claims something more than good political insight: he claims to have special knowledge that is vitally important, shared only by the world’s most powerful people, and hidden from the majority, who are obviously dupes. Most people appreciate the close kinship between conspiracy theories and delusions of grandeur.

Another motivation for conspiracy theories is less often discussed: comfort. The claim that a secret conspiracy is responsible for all of society’s ills implies that we have only to defeat this conspiracy to create a healthy society, if not utopia. Conspiracy theories are, metaphorically, disease models of social injustice. The conspiracies are viewed as pathogens waiting to be wiped out by cunning intervention or environmental change. We are only one revolution or one social collapse away from an end to oppression if conspiracy theories are true. This is the secret comfort hidden behind the conspiracy theorist’s outward alarm.

The fact that conspiracy theories are emotionally motivated does nothing to prove them wrong. All convictions are emotionally motivated. Fondness for the good old days inspires a lot of rank-and-file conservatism, but that has no bearing on whether government is really too big. Frustration with the status quo inspires most rank-and-file liberalism, but that has no bearing on whether government programs are effective. The need to drown out private insecurities in loud displays of self-righteous zeal motivates a lot of Communism, Fascism, and Fundamentalism, but insecurity is not what makes these movements harmful.

Every conviction, from the wildest cult creed to the most unassailable common sense, is held in the service of private desires ranging from egotism to comfort to fear. If a wholly disinterested search for truth and the common good were required to form defensible political opinions, the idea of government would be unknown to human beings.

Rather than diagnosing conspiracy theorists as emotionally unfit to have defensible political opinions, we should ask ourselves whether the patterns of oppression in the U.S.A. and other parts of the world require centralized control. If not, then the evils of the world fail as signs of an all-powerful cabal.

In fact, the perpetrators of most social evils, great and small, don't need ageless international bosses to coordinate their misdeeds. Let's start with the small-fry. Consider people who steal to support their heroin habits. As they move into a neighborhood, sober citizens notice that more television sets are being stolen. Yet none of this implies that all the junkies in the neighborhood secretly convened to designate TV sets as the preferred target of theft. The value of the sets and the cravings of the junkies obviate that theory. Also, we need not assume that the dealers involved wished to increase the number of burglaries in the neighborhood. The drug dealers wouldn't even need to monitor local crime; they can act in depraved indifference to it. The dealers are each morally responsible for their callous behavior, and the junkies are each morally responsible for their acts of theft, but this responsibility doesn't imply conspiracy.

The missing TV sets are symptoms of a systemic problem, resulting from pervasive behaviors consciously chosen by the individuals involved, but not consciously coordinated by a higher power. Unfortunately, this helps explain why the drug trade is so entrenched; the system that replaces old pushers with new ones can’t be arrested or assassinated.

Similar considerations apply to large-scale oppression. Corporations don't need to be told to break the power of labor; most of them do so on their own in order to lower costs. Lobbying for regressive tax structures doesn't require a national meeting of the rich; most plutocrats can find the relevant lobbying groups without help. A dominant class needs no secret evil genius to direct its abuse of human rights; the hand of tradition and the allure of privilege will suffice. Oppressors don't even need to perceive the effects of their misdeeds; they can act in depraved indifference to the misery and poverty they create. In short, when there's blood in the water, the sharks don't need to conspire, and the feeding frenzy requires neither foresight nor direction.

The absence of a conspiracy behind oppression in America is a horrifying truth that we all must face. We cannot create a more just political economy by identifying a few bad guys to vilify or kill. Our whole society is riddled with systemic corruption. Destroying our old tyrants merely creates opportunities for new ones to take their place.

This is legitimate grounds for pessimism. What worldwide religious conversion will help us reject the consumerism that fuels corporate irresponsibility, the apathy that allows us to poison our planet, and the war-ethic that has made genocide too commonplace for the front page? Heaven only knows.


ANARCHISM

The Pipe Dream: To most people, the term "anarchy" means social chaos, especially the chaos that would follow the collapse of a government. However, anarchists see their goal as a culture organized without an armed government, solely through voluntary cooperation and agreements. We should grant anarchists the right to define their own cause; the fact remains that their dream will never be realized. The state will not wither away, and even if an anarchy somehow arose, it would not last. Successful societies have stable political hierarchies.

Precedents: In all recorded history, across hundreds of diverse cultures, and through centuries of social change, Humanity has developed nothing resembling a classless society outside the most isolated and marginal social contexts. In fact, increased economic complexity and technological power have propelled civilization ever farther from the utopian ideal. The bigger the society, the more burdened it is with class structure, internal strife, and warlike tendencies. This has held true world-wide.

Prospects: It is pointless to argue that a classless society is possible simply because it has not yet been tried, when the history of large cultures both East and West reflects the relentless development of ever more sophisticated and powerful institutions of hierarchical authority. So it is legitimate to ask the advocates of classless society for an account of the circumstances under which it might arise. No credible account appears forthcoming.

Utopian Communes: According to capitalist mythology, the demise of most of America's nineteenth century utopian communes was due to naive and defective socialist economics. Actually, many of these experimental economic systems worked just fine; the utopian towns typically disbanded because of other factors. Some, like the Shakers, instituted universal celibacy. Some were assimilated as the isolation of the frontier gave way to commerce with a burgeoning U.S. economy, and the consequent regulation and cultural contact.

However, the most common internal cause of dissolution in the communes was a lack of strong political institutions. Authoritarian communes with stable chains of command and rules of governance lasted the longest; some persist to the present day. The classless communes quickly disbanded.

Who Comes Out Ahead? Leaving aside the issue of whether classless societies could be instituted, we are left with the neglected question of whether they could compete with hierarchically organized states. History suggests a negative answer. A chain of command has characterized all successful imperial powers, from Ghengis Khan's empire to the U.S.A.

The Need for Defense: Some anarchists lament that classless and leaderless societies could exist if only organized powers would let them. This is as fatuous as saying that police work would be easier if criminals were more ethical. Economically advanced states covet resources. They need reasons to respect the boundaries of other nations. Flower power is not a reason. Organized defense is.

The Masses: Ultimately, the hope for a classless society is predicated on the assumption that the masses are better than their governments. This egregiously misguided idea has its roots in the reformist misperception of oppressed peoples. Upon hearing of the cruelties inflicted by oppressors, outraged reformists tend to make saints of the victims.

In reality, the ethical caliber of oppressed peoples and their liberated descendants is a matter of historical accident. Will the pursuit of a nation's dignity yield a Gandhi or a Hitler? Will the pursuit of socialism promote a new Allende or another Stalin? Ideology can't answer such questions; the relevant patterns of social and economic behavior remain harder to predict than the weather. However, it's worth noting that even nations savaged by tyranny can become tyrannical themselves. Witness the Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

These considerations do nothing to diminish the moral imperative to fight oppression. Those who imagine that only nice victims deserve justice can’t be said to have a concept of justice at all. As for torturers and tyrants, their strong psychological resemblance to the rest of Humanity does nothing to excuse their behavior.

But while Humanity's dubious moral character may not diminish the need for justice, it does cast doubt on the possibility of eliminating government. A classless society more than two weeks old would develop a criminal class within a month, and a consequent demand for strong government within two. Coercive control, like the knife, is too useful an invention to remain undiscovered.


DOWN WITH UTOPIA!

Utopian Dysfunction: Utopian thinking, applied on a large scale in modern states, has engendered some of the worst abuses of power in history. Most erstwhile creators of state utopia behave like dangerously immature parents. They expect their charges to accept all their ideas. They see their charges as embodiments of noble innocence, only to turn violent against the little people who fail to conform to this starry-eyed expectation. And when the paternalistic anger is finally spent, it degenerates into cynical neglect.

The Commies: Some Communist governments have fit this description. The dictatorships in Cambodia and Rumania abused whole nations in the name creating a classless society. Any extent to which other Communist regimes have resisted or avoided such destructive leadership has been due to the efforts of their most practical and heterodox statesmen.

Capitalists: Although capitalist ideologies usually amount to little more than mealy-mouthed rationalizations for cynical power politics in the service of corporate greed, frustrated utopianism can stain the history of free-market countries too. Witness the American eugenics movement before World War Two. In theory, the movement proposed to humanely rid future generations of a host of mental defects. In practice, American eugenics was an excuse for reproductive vivisection that foreshadowed the similarly racist and classist sterilization campaigns of Nazi Germany.

Starry-Eyed Leftists: The leftist tendency to frame reform in terms of the quest for a non-exploitative political order has provided modern countries with a perverse excuse to maintain their morally degenerate foreign policies and strategically unnecessary wars. Confronted with U.S. mistreatment of small foreign countries, apologists for our empire can point to the utopian strain that runs through much of our reformist thinking, with the hope of associating meaningful reform with the impossibility of utopia.

This dishonest argument is not adequately answered by radicals such as Noam Chomsky. Chomsky's criticisms of U.S. political immorality are incisive, but his libertarian syndicalist alternative to contemporary hell is the secular equivalent of heavenly pie-in-the-sky.

Marx: Karl Marx gave Humanity an excellent and underrated system of historical analysis: one that recognizes the reality of class struggle, and the absurdity of supposing that kings and tycoons build cities all by their little selves. Marx has been criticized for failing to predict the middle class prosperity that has prevented his worker's revolution, but this criticism is premature. America's middle class is sinking, and the global economy is still young.

Be that as it may, Marx's idea that history will inevitably yield a classless society is nonsense. The materialism that Marx invokes to make his predictions sound scientific is as speculative and unprovable as any other metaphysical doctrine. The Marxist argument that capitalism can't last forever does nothing to imply the coming of socialism, let alone a classless society.

Marx's prediction of an inevitable communist utopia may reflect the unacknowledged influence of Christian millenarianism. The Fall and the first class conflict subsequent to the division of labor both mark the beginning of history. The Tribulation and the World Revolution both mark history's climax. Although the inevitable Classless Society that the workers inherit is not quite the same as the Earthly Paradise that is waiting for the meek, it comes darn close.

The parallels between Marxism and State Christianity have been as strong in practice as they are in theory. Like medieval churches, Marxist governments feared and persecuted heterodoxy, often resorting to intimidation and violence. Furthermore, the demand for ideological conformity common to both State Christian and Marxist governments often stifled academic freedom, among many other worthwhile ideals.

Perfectionism: All forms of perfectionism are destructive in some way, and the quest for a classless society is disastrously so. Instead of treating inequities as diseases to be cured, we should regard them as side-effects of the much-needed medicine of hierarchical organization: side-effects that we should do a better job of controlling.


FREEDOM

We Need a Bill of Rights: In a modern industrial society, the preservation of certain individual rights is of paramount importance. This point seems to have been lost on certain people who believe that "too much emphasis on individual rights" has allowed too many criminals to go unpunished. Most reasonable people would agree that our legal system could use some reform. However, those who suggest that we should weaken the Bill of Rights in order to protect society from criminals and terrorists have forgotten one of history's most important lessons, namely that the delinquency of individuals vanishes to insignificance in comparison to the delinquency that governments are capable of. While murderers like Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and John Gacy deserve all the infamy they get, the fact remains that their victims are reckoned by mere dozens. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed by the tens of millions.

It makes little sense to propose weakening the Bill of Rights in an era when unfettered state power has horribly killed tens of millions of people, but the idea that totalitarianism could never happen in this country is a common delusion. Our government's physical domination of Third World countries from Latin America to Viet Nam, its willingness to befriend the most vicious dictatorships on behalf of corporate power, its continued efforts to subject lawfully assembled dissident groups to arbitrary surveillance and harassment, its sponsorship of harmful experiments with irradiation and drugs on unwitting human subjects, and its historical reluctance to correct injustices perpetrated against unpopular minorities--all these facts are obfuscated and under-publicized in today's less-than-liberal media. But the truth remains, and suggests all too clearly that America without a Bill of Rights would be the richest and most powerful totalitarian horror that the world has ever seen. Individual liberties are among the most important facilitators of the common good ever invented; their value as restraints on government power can't be denied.

In Some Ways, We Are Too Free: However, most people value freedom for reasons that go beyond the preceding considerations. Most Americans believe that personal freedom is an intrinsic good, and that the freedom of each should be limited only as much necessary to preserve the freedom of all; that we should be free to do as we please as long as our choices don't harm others. This libertarian principle is sound, but often misinterpreted in a manner that permits too much freedom.

Some people interpret our principle as the freedom to as we please provided that we take no direct and intentional steps to harm anyone else. What makes this idea so chowder-headed is the fact that, as people become more dependent on one another, many forms of license become harmful regardless of how indirect or unintentional they are.

In a nation of hermits, who would each have to travel for three days to see their nearest neighbor for periodic trade and procreation, forms of license that could harm a civilization would be harmless personal liberties. If the hermits were promiscuous, the chances of epidemic venereal disease would be negligible. If the hermits raised amoral and sociopathic children, no one else would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on prisons and help for the victims. If the hermits threw waste on their front lawns, no one else would have to pick it up to control the inevitable diseases and vermin. Since hermits would be unaware of any dangers to their fellows, they would have no obligation to help out. Best of all, the hermits would live debt-free, since each would provide for his own needs. However, our nation of hermits is a fantasy. In the real world, we harm others if we don't follow many regulations that are needed to preserve and promote the common good.

Yet corporations, individuals, and even our legal system often discount the idea of social responsibility, and do so in the name of freedom. This evasion is not consistent, but applied to specific circumstances in the most self-serving ways. In the name of liberty, a savings and loan company can be freed from regulation to squander its assets on bad investments, and parasitize taxpayers for the bailout. Other kinds of companies have enjoyed similar freedom from the evils of regulation. Witness industrial polluters that killed an inland sea and allowed a river to catch fire before regulation reversed the trend; car companies that knowingly constructed rolling bombs for the masses to drive in; housing developers who build on toxic waste sites; pharmaceutical companies that gouge their customers; and deregulated airlines that make the skies more dangerous for the sake of profits. All this in the name of freedom.

Let's not forget individual freedoms: the freedom of biological parents to take babies away from the only Moms and Dads that they have ever known; the freedom that all parents have to deny their children medical treatment in the name of God; the freedom to refuse therapy for compulsive intoxication, and let the family, police, or health care system clean up the consequences; the freedom to leave one's spouse and family destitute after a divorce; the freedom to charge arbitrarily high rent for any broken-down hovel you happen to own; and the freedom to buy a gun on impulse so you can shoot your toes, your children, and your unfaithful lover when the mood strikes you.

We need to give up the dream of being as free as eighteenth century mountain men. Obedience to pro-social regulation is a public imperative. In forming opinions about any freedom that the laws might grant to each individual, we citizens should ask ourselves--honestly--which will cost the people more: the freedom in question, or the enforcement of the laws that would end it.

In Other Ways, We Are Not Free Enough: One can only hope that the leaders of the future will have the wisdom to know which abridgments of freedom are truly necessary. Even mediocre deliberation on this issue would represent an improvement over the accidental evolution of traditional prohibitions that contribute little or nothing to the common good. In societies around the globe, the freedoms of belief and self-expression have been cruelly abridged to the benefit of no one but a few despots. In many Communist societies, the severe and indiscriminate prohibitions against private businesses resulted in rampant underground economic activity and the eventual collapse of oppressive and monopolistic states. In some countries, religiously sanctioned misogyny condemns women to sexual mutilation and virtual slavery.

America imposes pointless prohibitions too. In the absence of any evidence that homosexuality undermines the family, destroys civilizations, or engenders any widespread harm, states prohibit homosexual acts between consenting adults, and forbid homosexuals to marry. In the face of solid evidence that advertised intoxicants kill ten times as many people as all the illegal drugs combined, we continue to clog the courts with small-time drug users, while better targets for prohibition sit undisturbed on magazine pages and billboards. While protecting tobacco and liquor advertisements as "free speech," we ban or severely restrict the distribution of so-called "obscene" material if it lacks hypocritical pretensions of literary or social value. All this, chiefly because sucking up to public fears and traditional hypocrisies is a time-honored way for unproductive officials to get re-elected.

The concept of obscenity should be banished from the law. The manufacture, distribution, and ownership of child pornography should remain illegal because the kiddie porn trade harms children, not because it offends adults. Prostitution should remain illegal because it spreads disease, not because it offends community standards. All forms of sexual exploitation can be forbidden for the victims' sake, without invoking the absurd notion that any sufficiently frank, titillating, or immature depiction of sexuality or violence somehow injures society as a whole.

Yes, there is a moral decline in this country. Quid pro quo and C.Y.A. are the only ethical concepts that many of our citizens know. But this decline springs from the love of money, not from a failure to protect the sensibilities of society's reactionaries and prudes. Still, we cling to our illiberal laws, much as ancient Scandinavians clung to human sacrifice, as if to placate an angry god who tolerates no impurity in his children. We need to grow up. With so many people and organizations running amok, we can't afford to waste resources by limiting freedoms arbitrarily in the name of traditions that should have died out long ago.


RESPONSIBILITY

Here's an apocryphal story for you: Some time ago, I read a business advice column in which a manager complained about his workers. During the five years after the manager took over, his widget factory had degenerated into a theater of embezzlement, drug use, suicide, sabotage, assaults on floor supervisors, and several attempts to murder the boss. The manager couldn't fathom why his workers behaved so badly, since he maintained strict company discipline, usually with the following methods:

"Why are my workers so unruly?" the manager asked in his letter. The advice columnist replied that, although the workers were responsible for their bad behavior, and should be disciplined or dismissed, the manager could expect no progress until he changed his system of factory government.

The manager, being a neo-conservative, wrote back to scold the columnist for implying that his workers possessed no capacity for free choice. After all, regardless of his methods of correction, the workers could have just said no to behaving like animals. Mindless robots enslaved to their programming might have reacted predictably to the boss's abuse, but the workers were possessed of free will. Clearly, this made nonsense of the claim that the manager had even the smallest responsibility for his workers’ misdeeds. Clearly, punishing the workers was the only necessary response.

With arguments every bit as laughable as this, some modern right-wingers promote individual responsibility as a substitute for institutional reform. Though impulsive same-day gun purchases can lead to impulsive same-day killing, the right wing insists that self-control is the only gun control we need. Though our country has too many premature parents, the right wing just says no to sex education. Though prisons are dens of violence and schools of crime, the right wing advocates responsibility only for criminals -- never for their keepers. Though choosing menial work over welfare can result in the loss of medical benefits, the right wing would rather carp about lower class sloth than advocate universal health care coverage. The only institutional reforms that the right wing seems interested in are those that grant big businesses freedom from social responsibility.

The central flaw in the right-wing concept of responsibility is the supposition that freedom of choice implies potential immunity to every influence short of torture. Radical reformers should proceed on different assumptions, namely that making choices and assuming responsibility are habits learned within the family, and that larger institutions can encourage or discourage these habits. Too many American institutions discourage responsibility. Our retail community supports impulsive spending to the detriment of individual fiscal self-control. Our media cheerfully grant exposure to the most anti-social role-models, from homicidal rappers to treasonous colonels, while uttering not a word to shame them. Our criminal justice system inspires defendants to minimize, rationalize, or buy their way out of trouble, no matter how heinous the crime.

America's institutions also discourage responsibility by setting irresponsible examples. The cause of organizational irresponsibility is no mystery. America's institutions, both public and private, are less accountable for their actions than individuals are. When a man fails to pay child support, he is sanctioned by the courts. When Congress stops paying social security checks as part of a political ploy to coerce the president into signing a budget, it is praised for its integrity. An individual convicted of stealing $20,000.00 worth of goods goes to prison for years. A giant corporation caught defrauding its investors for countless millions of dollars gets fined for an infinitesimal fraction of its assets, and goes merrily back to business. A fiend convicted of dangerously irradiating his neighbors for sexual purposes might be sentenced to life in prison. A government agency that dangerously irradiates hundreds of unsuspecting citizens, just to see what would happen, faces no consequences whatsoever.

A number of factors reduce the accountability of big and important organizations. The organization's power and money reduce the likelihood that it will lose lawsuits. The leadership's tendency to blame the subordinates masks not only leaders' misdeeds, but also the organization's systemic problems. In addition, our society has yet to figure out how to hold an organization criminally responsible for its actions. Say an organization sets up a chemical factory whose mismanagement eventually leads to an accident that kills thousands of people. A lawsuit ensues; the company pays the blood money; business as usual continues. Are there better ways to hold organizations responsible for their misdeeds?

Maybe the answer lies in holding the heads of organizations personally and criminally responsible for organizational crimes such as mass manslaughter and mass fraud. If the company or agency is a killer, the top brass should spend the rest of their days in concrete cubicles. Leaders would be exempt from such prosecution if the crime were irrelevant to or inconsistent with the organization's interests. Otherwise, leaders would be automatically responsible for crimes committed by their organizations, even if they claimed ignorance of their subordinates’ actions. This might not seem fair, but it would provide leaders with an incentive to keep the system cleaner.

Since organizations and individuals must all behave responsibly, it is time to abandon the idiotic equation between blaming the system and letting the individual off the hook. The respective beliefs in institutional vs. individual responsibility may seem incompatible in the context of endless and dubiously meaningful debates about free will vs. determinism. No such conflict exists in practice, however. The world has enough resources to reform its institutions and punish individual criminals as well.

Heaven knows, criminals deserve their punishment. For every victim of social injustice or family abuse who chooses to commit crimes, ten other victims choose not to. Besides, not all criminals are victims. Mere opportunity inspires just as much crime as rage does. However, even if all crimes were symptoms of oppression, the causes of this sickness could be addressed only in the long run. People don't rob and murder in the long run. People rob and murder every day. Strong standards of individual responsibility are necessary, not only to help the majority bear up under the status quo, but to facilitate the level of public discipline necessary for meaningful systemic reforms.


CAPITALISM

Let's define capitalism as a political economy in which private businesses produce the bulk of the goods and services, and wealthy individuals own the bulk of the things needed for this production. Although civilized Humanity will always have businesses, capitalism as we've defined it here is doomed, for two reasons:

1....Capitalism gives supreme power to organizations that have no interest in the public welfare. Hence the danger that a frustrated underclass may incite social chaos or, worse, totalitarianism. Hence the persistence of many problems, including environmental pollution, which may eventually destroy our species.

2....Capitalist economies must grow. Our planet can't. With the technology of the foreseeable future, resources will not be harvested from space or the oceans in sufficient quantities to solve this problem. Some for-profit industries, such as the fisheries, are even now depleting the commodities they harvest, thereby dooming themselves. This doom will overtake more and more key industries until Earth's most powerful nations learn that efficiency and private ownership aren't everything.


REFORM

One way to start thinking about reform is to distinguish two types of organizations: those that depend on the well-being of the rank-and-file, and those for whom the rank-and-file are replaceable commodities. Whether we like it or not, military organizations and big businesses will always belong to the latter group. Cannon fodder and labor ye shall always have with you.

Unfortunately, in a country whose two greatest achievements are its big business and military, it's easy for our leaders to delude themselves into believing that citizens are mere replaceable commodities, and that social priorities -- education, medicine, justice, and relief -- are unimportant so long as the public produces enough bodies to use as soldiers and workers. If contemporary leaders keep deluding themselves in this way, they will continue to respond with slack-jawed bewilderment and senile indignation to violence, self-destruction, lack of good education, and the general erosion of middle class values in a nation whose middle class is being destroyed.

In reality, a society depends on the well-being of its members almost as much as a family or church. That's one reason why the chances of social chaos increase with the income gap between the rich few and the poor masses. Care and protection of the citizenry should be fundamental goals of government. The capitalist precept that society owes little to the individual can’t help but incite a widespread belief that the individual owes little to society. Rather the champion such beliefs with all their noxious social consequences, we should define a good society as one that facilitates the development of the greatest percentage of thriving human specimens without recourse to murder.

A philosophical definition of "thriving human specimen" won't be attempted here; truly useful definitions of thriving humanity are more likely to arise from the particulars provided by common sense and informed clinical judgment than from the experientially remote abstractions contemplated by philosophers.

(Incidentally, we should scrap the old ideal of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If the nineteenth century utilitarians had known about the drugs we moderns could put into the drinking water, they would have been more skeptical about the value of universal happiness.)

How does America measure up when it comes to producing a thriving citizenry? Well, we're not the best. The U.S. doesn't lead the world in low infant mortality, good health care for all, decent education for all, and government responsiveness to public needs. This means that better societies than ours exist in the here and now, and that reform is possible. Reform will start when we put the raw sewage of current corporate ethics through an adequate treatment facility. Let's hope that revolution, with all its chaos and thuggery, won't be necessary.


SOCIALISM

This family of economic schemes has borne a lot of bogus criticisms over the years. Magazines gloat about the economic woes of countries like Sweden, as if promoting private profits at the expense of the middle and lower classes made ours the better nation. Our radio commentators lie outright about the degree of dissatisfaction with socialized health care in countries like Canada. Our newspapers run stories featuring crudely misinterpreted suicide statistics for democratic countries more socialized than the U.S.A. Most of all, Americans hold this truth to be self-evident, that socialism is incompatible with human nature. Patriotic critics of socialism would have us believe that it's against human nature to seek security and long for a clean and orderly nation whose institutions serve the common good. These same critics tell us that socialism can't work because it's more natural to work for oneself than for others. America must be a very unnatural country, since most of us work for other people at fixed wages or salaries, and pay a big chunk of our incomes to the government besides.

All this notwithstanding, modern socialist states have had their problems. Some have collapsed, or bolstered their decaying command economies with free market industries. Economic and military competition with the U.S.A. and other capitalist powers may explain some of this decline, but I believe that many socialist societies have aided in their own destruction through a number of mistakes, to wit:

1....Socialist countries have tried too hard to duplicate capitalist successes. This is a hopeless task for a socialist economy. Different political economies have different strengths and weaknesses, and history has proven capitalism the supreme creator of ever greater quantities of goods and services to satisfy every conceivable individual whim. Capitalist manufacturers have consistently buried their socialist counterparts under an international avalanche of consumer goods. Capitalist farms always disgorge more food than socialized ones; some free market farmers even have to be paid to stop producing more. There is no way for the finite human intellect to plan an economy that provides a potential infinity of goods for each and every possible individual desire. So we should not be surprised that the Eastern Bloc stands in monetary ruins, having pursued a standard of prosperity all too similar to America's, complete with big cities, private automobiles, and highways.

Socialist economies work best when the variety of goods is limited, and people live in materially streamlined groups like communes, summer camps, or military stations. In view of the environmental, social, and spiritual destructiveness of American consumerism, the widespread adoption of such living arrangements might not be so bad.

Such a change wouldn't necessarily presuppose the end of modern manufacturing. We should question the idea that socialist industry is inherently incapable of producing quality goods. In America, some religious communes make goods that are generally recognized as superior: everything from furniture to confections to devices that help the handicapped. The secret of this superiority lies in inspiring the workers with a strong creed and honest leadership, rather than alienating the workers with tanks, troops, and secret police.

Be that as it may, a society that seeks great quantity and variety in its goods and services must have some free market industries. Whether private companies should be free to buy every legislator in the country is a separate issue.

2....Modern socialist regimes have disregarded the need for intangible incentives. Too often, Leftists assume that people work only for goods and services, and that money is the only fair compensation for work. Strangely enough, this axiom is contradicted even in America, where money shapes our character more than any religion. High school athletes work hard for coaches, glory, physical vanity, and other intangibles. Communal religious groups from the Hutterites to the Amish work hard for God. Some police officers work hard for loyalty or power. Researchers work hard for recognition and intellectual vanity. Artists live for self-expression. Fire fighters make regular visits to literal burning hells, just to do something important.

Money is the primary motivator in America. Capitalist mythology explains this by positing that most people strive to achieve affluence through self-improvement and hard work. In fact, this is true only of a small and lucky minority. Most denizens of capitalist countries earn no more than their parents, and work for someone else in order to avoid poverty.

In another society where full employment was possible, where laws made government relief was comprehensive and reliable, and where laws made the gap between the rich and poor narrow enough to eliminate the sting of poverty, the monetary incentive as Americans know it would be weak. People who never worried about mortgages, college tuition, or serious illnesses would need new reasons to work hard.

Religion is a good motivator, but theocracies don't generate much new knowledge, and this puts them at the mercy of more innovative cultures. In America, theocratic groups such as the Amish like to think of themselves as independent of the outside world. In fact, they exist at the whim of the more inventive society that surrounds them. In this century of invention, not even the Himalayas could protect Tibet from China. When it comes to worker incentives, a society relies on treasures in heaven at its own peril.

The most useful incentives in a socialist society might be those pursued by soldiers and academics: rank, credit, prestige, status, authority, group affiliation, and the rights to do certain work and have access to certain resources. Even people with menial jobs could be motivated in these ways, provided that such work could be invested with dignity, either by distributing time on menial jobs throughout society, or by having menial workers learn many jobs, until at last they became venerable jacks-of-all-trades.

Group affiliation and peer pressure would be needed to maintain intangible incentives. Socialist governments would have to permit the existence of many unions, which would have to be as cliquish as most police departments in order to be effective. In fact, socialism in general would have to depend on many active and autonomous local organizations in order to harness the feelings of group loyalty necessary to make people work for cheerfully for others.

Since totalitarianism depends on undivided loyalty to the state, it stifles socialism by eroding local group camaraderie. Yet, without totalitarian socialist rule, private business would always remain vital, except in small communes, or under the cruelest conditions of scarcity or strife. So there will never be a purely socialist society. But, in this writer’s opinion, there could be a society with a strong socialist sector in which private businesses were accountable to government, rather than the other way around.

3....Too many socialist governments have over-centralized economic and political power. Some of them even make the state the sole employer. This arrangement leaves the individual at least as alienated and powerless as Americans living under a government that serves corporations first and people second.

In America, companies can uproot their employees at will, and create what we euphemistically call our mobile society; a society without extended families and without neighborhoods, and hence without stable memberships for its associations, churches, unions, and effective grass roots political groups through which individuals can defend their interests. The typical workers' paradise deals with associations, churches, unions, and grass roots political groups in a more straightforward manner: it uses a national police force to persecute them.

Socialist regimes should do the opposite: encourage and empower local non-profit groups whose existence depends on the well-being of their members. Rather than form collectives, the socialist state should give tax breaks and advice to local groups that decide to form co-ops. Rather than persecute the churches, the socialist state should lend its ears to these groups, and encourage church-owned non-profit business. Rather than banning unions, the socialist state should make their existence a constitutional right, and encourage them to form employee owned-and-run businesses.

If the economy is to serve the people, rather than the other way around, public ownership can’t be defined solely as ownership by the state. Socialists should expand the definition of public ownership to include ownership by non-profit groups independent of the government, and formed by and for the rank-and-file: neighborhood associations, unions, churches, political parties, or federations thereof.

4....Modern socialist states have frequently trampled on individual rights to the detriment of political stability. Though civil rights are overrated as a means of empowering individuals, they remain underrated as a means of preserving the state. The weakness of states with weak civil rights should be no mystery. Poverty along with armed suppression of all dissenting thought is more alienating than poverty alone. Armed suppression of dissent creates martyrs and underground movements. It alienates the intelligentsia, making it easy for a hostile power to organize a brain drain. It makes state institutions immune to scrutiny, hence more corrupt, and hence more ineffectual. The corporate domination of American media and government may prove that civil rights are not sufficient to liberate the people, but the history of countries like Cambodia and Rumania prove that they are necessary.

5....Too many socialists make the promotion of a welfare state their primary agenda. Socialism should entail production by and for the people. Most social programs, collectively referred to as the welfare state, produce nothing. But without instituting people's production, such as public works projects and employee-owned business, the welfare state is not socialist, but instead remains a mere adjunct to private industry's tendency to do some of its work at taxpayer expense.

Private industry likes to represent itself as the enemy of taxation, but actually supports any amount of taxation that will yield government contracts, convention centers, new highways and airports, and other instruments of profit.

The welfare state gives taxation another function: relieving big business of social responsibility. If too many people are laid off, welfare feeds them just enough to prevent a workers' rebellion. If business despoils the environment, government agencies facilitate the clean-up. If the poor keep getting poorer, the government can set up programs for everything from chemical dependency to family breakup, and thereby throw just enough bones at disenfranchised citizens to help them make it through the day.

A welfare state without production by and for the people helps to perpetuate the status quo. It softens the impact of systemic exploitation, but does nothing to diminish the exploitation itself. In America, corporations are horses; the welfare state is the clown with a shovel. The size and expense of a welfare state is a measure, not of social progress, but of private industry's inability to meet public needs. For now, welfare is a necessary evil. Yes, the Left should push to make this social first-aid more adequate and equitable. But the Left should remember that, in the country they should be working to create, most social remedies would be jobs.


MUTUAL RESTRAINT

Rules that facilitate mutual restraint among parties with potentially conflicting interests can make institutions fairer, more stable, and better able to persuade their members to do that which promotes the group goals. Internationally, we see our principle in the unfairly maligned policy of Mutual Assured Destruction. The acronym may have been unfortunate, but the policy worked; it prevented Humanity's extinction. At the national level, this principle is embodied by the U.S. Constitution's separation of powers, which significantly curbs our government's totalitarian impulses, domestically if not in matters of foreign policy.

Unfortunately, our constitutional scheme for separation of powers, conceived as it was before the full flower of modern industry, fails to prevent rich corporations from buying too much influence over the government and the press. It is useless to hope that regulations will restrain this influence, when the politicians who would institute these regulations are bought and paid for by the very companies that need regulating. Communism is no answer; Leninist regimes have demonstrated that substituting state for corporate power only exacerbates the problems associated with concentrating resources in the hands of too few.

Some nation or other is going to have to pioneer a separation of economic powers. One way to do this is to enable certain parts of the government to make goods and services, and so grant the public sector some measure of economic power that it could exercise in addition to its regulatory authority. A government's use of socialized businesses should reflect a judicious recognition of the respective strengths and weaknesses of socialized vs. private enterprise.

1....Socialized enterprise tends to be inefficient and slow to respond to demand. However, it can keep most people employed, and provide services that meet public needs; everything from education to limited varieties of rationed goods.

2....Private enterprise tends to be efficient and quick to respond to demand. However, it is a fickle provider of jobs, and the glut of goods and services it produces are often irrelevant to solving social problems.


NATIONAL FORCES

The military already provides a livelihood for many young people; however, too large a military is both inflationary and anti-social, since it neither produces consumer goods nor provides social services. Why not create national forces that do both?

Though riddled with many flaws, our military generally achieves its goals. It performs well enough to make me wonder how Republicans can get away with saying that public programs never work. In some ways, the military would be a great model for socialized organization if its goals -- like blowing people to smithereens -- were not so specialized. By way of building a strong socialist sector, perhaps we should consider an alternative to pork projects: namely national forces in addition to the military that perform functions other than -- or in addition to -- waging war.

National forces would recruit from among our nation's youth, and be organized like the military: with an up-or-out promotion scheme, mandatory minimum terms of service for all members, strict chains of command that transmit legally binding orders, and rewards that represented modest material gains and significant intangible gains such as status, recognition, power, and responsibility.

Military Force: Only one such national force should be designed to wage war. Naturally, the armed force would have specialized sub-divisions: naval forces, ground forces, special forces, spy forces, and so-on. However, all these sub-divisions would answer to one set of leaders.

Land Force: Another armed national force should be devoted to enforcing land-use regulations, guarding the wilderness, and creating and maintaining major portions of the transportation and communication infrastructure. With pollution rapidly undermining Earth’s habitability, the idea of empowering this force to kill in defense of the environment hardly seems unreasonable. The Land Force could also double as a militia.

Commie Force: Another national force should be devoted to running socialized businesses. The Commie Force could all wear red uniforms, and perform a number of economic functions:

American Mounted Police: Yes, we should have a national police force: one that consolidates the functions of the FBI, ATF, INS, and highway patrols. As things stand, too many police agencies fail to share information, and too many jurisdictions both hinder the capture of mobile criminals and create needless duplication of resources. Many people see a national police force as an inherent evil, but in my opinion, such a force would only be as bad as the due process laws.

Research Force: Finally, we should have a national force devoted to basic research in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, cybernetics, and behavior. Basic research is necessary for scientific progress, yet frequently unprofitable. Small wonder that corporations shy away from funding basic research. Applied research programs are like savings bonds; the economic payoff is inevitable. Basic research is more like real estate speculation; only an idiot would guarantee results. Nonetheless, the big breakthroughs come from basic research. A science that abandoned basic research would soon consist of eulogizing the genius of its past.

In connection with research, we should remember the history of China. Centuries before Europe could read or write, the Central Kingdom was the most advanced civilization in the world. When China lost its technical edge by the nineteenth century, she was drawn and quartered by European empires. In this century, China is formidable again, thanks to technology that owes its existence to basic research.

A military-style national force might be an excellent setting for basic research. When it comes hard sciences, the young usually outperform the old. Up-or-out promotion policies could work like the publish-or-perish rules that keep research competitive at universities. Also, the military emphasis on team work might ultimately produce more truth than a system that encourages some scientists to hide their findings to make sure that no one else gets credit for them.

Money: Who would pay for such forces? The same people who currently pay for Star Wars, land-based missiles, our useless and destructive C.I.A., billion dollar bombers that become obsolete before their first takeoff, Army and Navy air forces for a country that already has an Air Force, and a hundred other billion-dollar scams perpetrated by our bloated, pork-ridden military-industrial complex, whose main function is converting tax revenues into profit for companies like General Dynamics. Why not let national forces give something back to the taxpayers for a change?


GOVERNMENT AGENCIES

Conservatives think we should promote efficiency by privatizing government services, but this proposal leaves some questions unanswered. What kind of private collection agencies should collect our taxes? Which commercial outfit should be entrusted with the regulation of commerce? How can anyone make a profit by distributing welfare? Who would teach the least talented students in an educational system consisting only of competing private schools? To what depths of depravity would a business have to sink in order to make big bucks in child protection services?

People who liked the deregulation of the savings and loan industry would love the privatization of government services. The rest of us are entitled to prefer public inefficiency over private greed. However, this preference forces an important question: What reforms could make government agencies more effective? Here's a partial wish-list. My big brother, Gary, who works for a state agency, suggested the first two items.

1....Each government agency should have only one political appointee; its head. All other personnel in a government agency should be hired according to their qualifications by the agency's human resource office. The head of a government agency would have all appropriate authority to make decisions and direct subordinates, but would have no authority to make or influence hiring decisions. Such policies would limit the practice of glutting the ranks of upper management with political cronies who lack both the expertise and experience necessary to direct an agency intelligently.

2....Professional standards for administration should dictate that at least 80% of any given worker's time would be spent delivering services according to his or her training. One might hope that this would cut down on pointless meetings.

3....Professional standards for administrators should dictate that all monitoring schemes be subject to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, and that any monitoring program proven to be more costly than the misconduct it was designed to prevent would be scrapped. This could reduce excessive documentation and micromanagement.

4....If the heads of government agencies, along with those who answer directly to them, are convicted of malfeasance, they should be barred for life from working as administrators, managers, or consultants in any organization, public or private. Furthermore, any leader so punished should be compelled to deliver a thirty minute televised speech about his absolute unworthiness as a human being, while wearing only a burlap robe and a tall pointed cap.


CHANGE THE LAW

Our prisons are crowded, our courts are clogged, and our nation has lost more people to violent crime than it has to war. There's so much murder in America's streets, foreign terrorists despair of competing with our own citizens. The criminal justice system needs to be reformed, from the criminal codes to the police to the courts.

1....If a person is injured during his or her commission of a violent crime, that person should be barred from suing anyone for that injury.

2....The laws against drug possession should be scrapped. Our courts are overloaded with defendants whose crimes are morally indistinguishable from alcohol abuse in all its pristine legality. Drugs now illicit should be legalized. However, since legal intoxicants kill ten times as many people as their illegal cousins, the state should discourage drug-use with measures such as these:

3....Most non-violent offenders should be kept out of prison. This policy would facilitate longer sentences for violent criminals by easing prison population pressures. Also, the issue of justice must be considered. If white collar criminals get only two years in a minimum security facility for defrauding people out of six figures or more, why should even car theft merit any prison time at all? Electronically monitored curfew and weekend house arrest, automatic restitution by garnishing wages, and heavy fines and jail time for even attempting to violate these terms of freedom should suffice to punish thieves and frauds.

4....The elimination of two major sources of prison overcrowding, namely our drug laws and incarceration for most non-violent offenders, would allow longer sentences for violent criminals. Life imprisonment upon the third conviction should apply chiefly to violent crimes. Some violent crimes should merit life imprisonment on the first conviction, including armed robbery, rape, premeditated murder, war crimes, and mass manslaughter committed by organizations, whose leaders would take the punishment.

5....The laws should reflect the fact that juveniles commit the same crimes that adults do. The juvenile court's jurisdiction should extend only to status crimes, such as intoxication or running away. All other juvenile crimes should be handled by adult courts, no matter how young the defendant. The juvenile's maturity and ability to act with criminal intent should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by prosecutors deciding whether to press charges, or during the course of a trial. Furthermore, the practice of sealing juvenile criminal records should cease.

6....Parole should be abolished. It has no rationale other than the discredited notion that prisons can rehabilitate their charges. It makes a mockery of sentencing, especially life sentences. Worst of all, it discriminates against convicts who are too stupid to fool a parole board. The prospect of parole may inspire some people to behave better while in prison, but it erodes the single most important deterrent to crime, namely the certainty of punishment. If punishment is to be perceived as more than a legal crap shoot, then five years must mean five years and life must mean life.

7....In sentencing criminals, judges should be categorically forbidden to consider remorse as a mitigating factor. Too many criminals are experts at feigning regret. Too many more have genuine regrets, but lack the will to act on them. The idea that a court can measure the vitality of anyone’s conscience is a fatuous judicial conceit. Judging remorse should be left to prison chaplains.

8....Prisons should be more like monasteries. All prisoners should work an eight hour day. Recreation should be restricted reading, writing, drawing, exercise, and playing games at certain times. Education should be mandatory for all inmates.


DOWN WITH CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Capital punishment should be abolished, for a number of reasons.

1....No historical evidence supports the contention that the death penalty deters crime. Consider that the U.S.A. stands alone among first world countries in the severity of its punishments, its use of the death penalty, the percentage of its citizens in prison, and, most importantly, its high murder rate.

2....The death penalty has never been administered fairly; disproportionate numbers of criminals executed are either poor or belong to despised minorities.

3....Some death row inmates want to be executed. For these, capital punishment is too kind.

4....Some death row inmates are innocent. For these, capital punishment represents the least correctable form of official injustice.

5....In America, the death penalty brings out the bloodlust in law-abiding citizens. Witness the ghoulish pep-rallies outside prison walls, where crowds have been celebrating executions since the demise of Ted Bundy. Even the executioners are more decent and humane about their business. Justice should be an expression of reason. It should not serve the family's understandable desire for revenge, and should certainly not serve the public's desire to salve its fear of crime with human sacrifice.

6....We are killing people who should be kept alive for study. Students of the mind need to find out why America has too many murderers. The psychiatric community should be given carte blanche to study our worst murderers, without the time limits imposed by executions.

7....Death is a more severe punishment than many cruel and unusual surgical procedures. Consider surgical blinding. In the confined and regimented environment of prison, memory could do the work of vision even more easily than in the outside world, so blindness wouldn't be that big a handicap for inmates. However, humane surgery to induce total blindness would limit an inmate's ability to commit violent crime. So would severing enough nerves and muscles to leave the inmate able to walk and pick things up, but just barely. If surgically disabled criminals were suspected of inciting their friends to commit violent acts on their behalf, brain surgery could correct the problem.

While incapacitating drugs could be administered more easily than the surgeries just described, too many inmates would find such drugs desirable. Furthermore, except in hard-to-handle cases, surgery would leave the mind intact, and allow the inmate to contemplate the error of his ways with clarity and rectitude.

The idea that such punishments would be as bad or worse than death is disproven by disabled people, most of whom have excellent reasons to love life. With this in mind, one can only marvel at the tortured logic that labels human vivisection as cruel and unusual while praising execution as condign.

8....The state shouldn't kill when it doesn't have to. Killing murderers might be necessary in cultures that lack the resources to build prisons. However, America is a rich industrial power, and too few criminals are executed to relieve prison overcrowding. So why, exactly, do we have to kill criminals? To make the victim's family feel better? To serve an archaic standard of Old Testament justice? To bring murder victims back to life? Capital punishment does nothing good; it's high time we face that.


EDUCATION

American educational institutions have many problems that might be addressed by reforming public administration in general. Unfortunately, our educational institutions have other problems too.

Underfunding: Education is underfunded. Attracting more and better teachers means paying them higher salaries. Having them work for more days per year will also entail paying them more.

Educational Fads: Teachers are not taught to think critically about the philosophies, theories, and research that guides their profession. Educational psychology courses often teach fashionable learning theories as fact, or a variety of learning theories without any treatment of the evidence for or against each one. Small wonder that hair-brained fads like New Math and Whole Language were embraced by the very people who should have laughed them out of the classroom. Thanks to educational fads, our schools have unwittingly hindered the learning of reading, writing, and math; subjects whose basic precepts are so exact that teaching them ought to be a difficult process to screw up.

Discipline Problems: Modern schools are often intimidated by parents spoiling for legal fights when they attempt to discipline students. Threatened with parent-initiated lawsuits that underfunded school districts can't afford to fight, some school administrators refuse to take an active role in maintaining student discipline. This ensures that parental complaints about discipline can be directed solely against the classroom teacher.

Some administrators make excuses for this practice by telling classroom teachers that sending students to the office or otherwise removing them from class is a sign of failure and incompetence. This ploy prompts some teachers to avoid censure by allowing even the most disruptive and disrespectful students to remain in class. This dynamic leaves students with the impression that demands for good behavior are instructor idiosyncrasies rather than manifestations of a strong and legitimate authority. The students behave accordingly.

Fortunately, other administrators take a different approach; they help administer uniform school-wide disciplinary practices, and stand by the school code even in the face of frivolous law suits. This strategy should become universal. Furthermore, school codes should be strict enough to be taken seriously.

At present, schools are reluctant to mete out punishments that might have lasting effects on a student's life. This attitude may be appropriate when it comes to discipline up to the third or fourth grade, but older students should be subject to stricter penalties for their misdeeds. Students who commit criminal acts on school property should be handed over to the police and expelled upon conviction. Students who show up at school intoxicated should be taken to detox, and suspended until they can medically document six months of abstinence. Students who fail to complete their course work should be flunked. Students who do not meet graduation requirements should not graduate. Children who are old enough to adopt an anti-social or passive-aggressive stance toward the educational system are old enough to take the same kinds of consequences for such behavior that adults take on the job. Laws should be reformed to make it tougher for parents to sue schools for imposing reasonable discipline.

Instant Expertise: Although community input is crucial to the development of school policy at the local level, the community should be forbidden to burden the public schools with curricula that are unsound, unfair, or unconstitutional. To this end, all school funding should be mandatory, rather than supported by levies. Furthermore, curricula should be chosen by organizations of teachers, rather than by amateurs on school boards. Most people would seldom presume to tell a doctor how to perform surgery, a psychologist how to counsel, or a plumber how to fix a pipe. Yet, when it comes to education, current practice allows everyone to play the expert.

That's how conservative political pundits get away with advocating corporal punishment in our schools, even though the educational and psychiatric communities have discredited the practice. Corporal punishment discriminates against students each according to his tolerance for pain, and each according to his teacher's temper. It models violence, and ignores the obvious reality that children grow larger and stronger while adults merely grow older. Instances in which attempts at corporal punishment have met the legal standard of abuse are too numerous to mention. Under properly reformed laws, teachers would be just as free ignore community calls for corporal punishment as doctors are to reject a patient's demand for faith healing.

This last comparison is by no means incredible in the face of right-wing Christianity's undue influence on the teaching of science. Publishing biologists who question the theory that life evolved are about as plentiful as working physicists who question the law of gravity, yet school boards still discuss equal time for the works of creationist cranks. Community influence on public school curricula has become so arbitrary that even textbook makers soft-pedal the treatment of evolution in their texts in order to placate the public, to the detriment of the average American's scientific literacy. Would it be so wrong to let science teachers choose science textbooks? Shouldn't such choices be professional rather than political?

Teachers have the power to exercise common sense, but lack the power to protect their curricula from the influence of arrogant demagogues and self-appointed philosopher kings in public office. This must change. Even waiters are allowed to work without having their methods second-guessed and altered by popular vote or political mandate. Society should grant educators at least that much authority.

Too Many Functions: Schools are not equipped to function as combination drug-rehabilitation centers, schools for the disabled, immigration offices, violent wards, counseling services, clinics, and surrogate parents. Yet such expectations are routinely foisted on the schools by state officials who ought to know better. I have personally heard one state education official tell an auditorium full of teachers that schools must become comprehensive neighborhood social service agencies to meet the demands of the twenty-first century.

This gentleman's favorable bias toward top-heavy administration became evident when he mentioned that, someday, every school building would require two principals. However, even allowing our bureaucrat the purest motives, the idea that neighborhood schools can remedy the problems that accompany economic and familial breakdown seems absurd on its face. The starvation funding of education's rank-and-file staff leaves them barely able to buy adequate texts and classroom supplies, let alone heal our sick society. For as long as local school budgets remain lean, schools should provide education, and leave other social concerns to other agencies.

Teaching Students to Lose: Our grading systems and curricula needlessly alienate slow students. In schools whose coaches would never force frail weaklings to compete with strapping giants, the grading curve pits even the slowest students against the brightest, and defines slow students as failures. This leaves the unsuccessful student three choices: devaluing himself, devaluing education, or doing both. Some schools respond to these facts of life by encouraging slow students to excel at sports, but such excellence is seldom relevant to acquiring even a menial job, let alone a career. More often, schools make good grades more available by dumbing down the curriculum. This nightmare cure for low self-esteem has already compromised America's work force.

There is nothing wrong with making the curriculum difficult enough to make slow students face the fact that academics are not their fort鮠 However, two widespread educational practices are tantamount to child abuse: punishing students for being in the presence of their intellectual betters, and teaching students that academic performance constitutes the measure of a mind.

First: The practice of grading on a curve should end. It's absurd to suggest that high academic standards can’t be maintained unless each student's grades are mathematically contingent on those of his or her classmates. Teachers should be able to decide what their students ought to know, and what constitutes excellence, without using a bell curve as a substitute for serious thought about these issues. The measurement of learning should be criterion-referenced. If necessary, the criteria for failure, adequacy, and excellence over a broad range of school subjects could be set by a national professional organization of teachers. However, even if criteria were inconsistent across schools, establishing such academic equivalents to finish-lines would still be better than grading on the curve. Adding a genius to the classroom should never lower grades, and the decline of recreational reading should never inflate them.

Second: The public school curriculum should be expanded to include more non-academic subjects that are useful in adult life. This is not to say that every public school should contain state-of-the-art vocational education facilities; the cost of keeping the necessary equipment up-to-date might be prohibitive. However, certain skills that universities do not teach will always be in demand at the work place and at home. Public primary and secondary schools should do a better job of teaching these skills.

1....The schools teach students to sell with occasional candy drives; no one has considered that teaching sales with rigor might reveal a strong sales talent in students who are otherwise slow or mediocre.

2....The schools teach students to work with younger children in sporadic and half-hearted peer tutoring programs; no one has considered the needs of those C-students who might make excellent preschool directors, daycare providers, or--for that matter--parents and homemakers. Working with young children should be taught systematically from the higher elementary grades onward.

3....The schools teach public speaking as an occasional elective in a world whose public servants and business people give presentations to groups even over the phone. Public speaking should be a requirement, not an elective. Every student should graduate from high school with the ability to devise and deliver a presentation that involves at least five minutes of talking in front of a group.

4....The schools teach children how to be football stars when they could be teaching children how to physically train themselves and others for a lifetime. Let the sports stars of the future turn out for community-based, business-supported sports programs. Public school physical education should be training for adult health maintenance.

5....In modern schools, teaching art often amounts to grading innate talent and self-taught skill. Future commercial artists have nothing to learn in high school. Neither do students who are learning to make birdhouses when they should be learning to fix walls, cars, and kitchen sinks. This must change.

In America's schools, students fail or succeed chiefly according to one measure, academics. The world of work and home is more egalitarian; all can succeed and all can fail according to many measures of weakness and strength. This is why non-academic success in public schools has to be more meaningful than cheerleading or other forms of high-school stardom. Heaven knows, some academically talented people could use a more well-rounded education. As for mediocre students, many shine at many jobs when they grow up. In the future, this should happen because of the schools, not in spite of them.

Classes are Too Big: Of course, all students must learn to read, write, and calculate adequately, so improved education for slow students must entail more than encouraging excellence in useful non-academic pursuits. Fortunately, there is a conceptually simple reform that will allow ALL students, however slow or gifted, to become more literate and numerate. This reform is increased practice time. Give the students longer essays to write and more equations to solve, and just about all of them will write and calculate better. This reform necessitates another reform: smaller class sizes, which will give the teachers time to correct larger amounts of student output.

Nowadays, in order to get enough practice in a given discipline, students have to have one of two types of teachers: a) geniuses who can correct hundreds of papers in seconds, or b) workaholic strangers to their families. Such teachers are rare, since successful psychotherapy propels the geniuses into higher-paying jobs, and lack of psychotherapy drives the workaholics to suicide, assuming that their families don’t kill them first. Teachers who can give long assignments and still have private lives should be the norm, not the exception. Only smaller class sizes can make this possible.

Quiz question: How many studies about the effectiveness of teaching in classes of various sizes even take teacher work-load into account?

Special Education: Certain deficits in thinking, communication, movement, sensation, and self-control have significant effects on a child's chances for success in school. It makes sense to have teams of professionals working in the schools to provide on-site habilitative and rehabilitative services. The current laws, which mandate a free and appropriate education to all disabled students in the least restrictive environment (i.e. with as much mainstreaming as possible), provide for such teams. These laws are an improvement over America's historical special education practices: namely warehousing retarded people, deaf students, pregnant teenagers, and children who seem a bit odd to neighbors and pediatricians. However, the laws and practices that govern current special education leave much to be desired.

Like most of the educational system, special education is underfunded at the level of the rank-and-file. However, current law mandates that special services be provided for all disabled students, regardless of the scarcity of school district resources. The law forbids waiting lists or any other method of prioritizing special service delivery to students according to the severity of their problems. Furthermore, the law permits school districts to save money on staff by keeping caseloads high. No legal obstacle currently prevents administrators from assigning monstrous caseloads to inexperienced staff with the object of insuring high turn over, and thus allowing districts to keep hiring cheap inexperience. The law should be changed either to mandate funding sufficient to control caseload size, or to allow helping professionals in the schools to treat a fixed number of students chosen according to the severity of their problems.

Too much money is spent in attempts to teach students who have no realistic chance of being educated in any meaningful sense of the term. I personally know of an instance in which a child still functioning in literal intellectual infancy was placed in the fourth grade. Since the child was multi-handicapped, the costs for his special education were enormous, and incurred at the expense of dozens of other more able students.

Yes, retarded people make greater gains when they are mainstreamed than they do when they are warehoused in institutions. Even people who suffer from moderate retardation benefit from school programs. However, placing severe and profoundly retarded students in the elementary grades is an idiotic sham. Severely to profoundly retarded students belong in specialized settings that provide humane and stimulating therapeutic care--not in the public schools.

Teaching Ethics: Love is better than hate. Tolerance is better than bigotry. Respect is better than cruelty. Honesty is better than deceit. Tact is better than condescension. Industry is better than sloth. Reason is better than superstition. Rigor is better than carelessness. Fairness is better than inequity. Even the worst of us have rights. Most rules exist for good reasons, and should be followed. All rebels must have at least one cause, and that cause had better be humane.

I defy anyone to identify even one good reason to refrain from teaching these principles in the public schools. Ethics are not as relative as some misguided pluralists like to think. Just as all individuals have similar needs that they satisfy in similar ways, all human societies have similar needs that their constituent individuals must satisfy by conforming to broadly similar sets of rules. When it comes to the most important rules of conduct, the idea that U.S. schools minimize the teaching of morality out of respect for cultural diversity is a cowardly canard.

In reality, our schools' reluctance to teach morality stems from timidity in the face of special interest groups who are holding ethical education hostage to promote their own agendas. Most notorious among these groups are churches that self-servingly promote the idea that all morals worthy of the name are religious in nature. On this pretext, these churches would make teaching ethics contingent upon school sponsorship of religion, and upon curricula that teach sexual abstinence through fear-mongering, creationist superstition along with evolutionary theory, and intolerance of sexual minorities. It does not help matters that so many liberal educators, who seem to confuse moral nihilism with broad-mindedness, offer neutrality about morals as the only alternative to demands for right-wing Christian hegemony.

There are better alternatives. Just as we recognize professional ethics that govern professionals of all faiths, so we should recognize civic ethics, which apply to citizens of all faiths. Public schools should teach such ethics starting in the elementary grades. Useful and generally accepted principles of conduct should not only be studied and illustrated with examples, but insisted upon in real life. By high school, students should be able to discuss ethical dilemmas. (e.g. Should I join the resistance, or care for my sick mother?) No legitimate religious imperative precludes such training.

School Sports: Enough Already: In an era when chronic underfunding leaves teachers and students to work in substandard buildings with outdated textbooks, there is no justification for sports programs in the schools. Money spent on bleachers and uniforms would be better spent on academic programs and supplies. The usual rationales for including sports in the schools don't hold water. Sports do not build character. If they did, fewer professional athletes would brawl, and college recruiters would consistently fail to bribe their targets. Sports do not facilitate physical education curriculum; those who have farthest to go when it comes to physical conditioning and skill can’t make the team. Sports do grant some academic failures a feeling of achievement. However, these achievements are irrelevant to academics and later careers for all but a tiny minority of psychomotor geniuses. The cultivation of such unusual and specialized talent need not be delegated to the public schools at a cost of countless thousands of dollars and person-hours. Parents and businesses should be the sole fund-raisers and organizers of community sports programs. The schools have more important things to do than teach our young to take mere games too seriously.

Back to Basics Means Dumber Students: The idea that education, research, and study should always be subordinated to practical aims, such as the preparation of students for the job market, is lunacy. The so-called "back to basics" movement promotes education as a preparation for independent life at the expense of education's other primary purpose, namely the cultivation of an informed perception of the world.

If research, study, and education should exist only for practical purposes, then we should stop teaching much of the scientific, historical, and literary information that we routinely include in school curricula. There are no practical reasons to know that dinosaurs walked the Earth; that the nearest star is four light years away; that people used to hide in caves to avoid predators; that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Israelites have profoundly influenced our culture; or that Manifest Destiny was one of our national rationalizations for destroying Native American societies. All such information is imparted in the service of the quaint, old-fashioned belief that the average person's mental picture of the world should reflect the consensus of our best authorities in various disciplines.

Even if a student never goes to college, never pursues a career that requires academic training, or never has to decide which expert to believe, he or she should have a world view more informed than those provided by hucksters for Fundamentalism, the New Age, and other crackpot creeds. When it comes to achieving this goal, our school systems have failed most egregiously in three areas: history, language, and religion.

1....Our colleges do a decent job of teaching history; our elementary and secondary schools do not. The history taught in our high schools and grade schools relies too much on inadequate textbooks. These texts rarely include more than a token amount of source material, and often promote the most absurdly naive patriotism by sacrificing accuracy in matters of fact and integrity in matters of interpretation. Come to think of it, most people graduate from high school without knowing what historical interpretation is. This leaves many people unable to think critically about the interpretations of history offered by our politicians. Maybe that's the idea, but it shouldn't be.

2....At present, only college linguistics departments do a decent job of teaching students about the nature of language. Though such knowledge is not necessary for literacy, it is necessary for an informed perception of the world. If it's important for students to know that there are nine planets in the solar system, then it's important for them to know that literate English speakers use twenty-six letters to transcribe over forty sounds, and that "correct" English is "correct" for historical reasons, not logical ones.

Much of what passes for grammar in the schools is inaccurate. For instance, traditional sentence diagrams are awkward and often vague when it comes to specifying the relationships among the elements of a sentence. Modern tree diagrams are much more elegant, and better reflect current theories of syntax.

To promote a better understanding of language, teachers need to realize that the masters of literature are not authorities on language, any more than concert pianists are authorities on the anatomy of the human hand. The authority of linguists has gone unrecognized for too long. We live in an era when even college professors of English don't know that generative grammar is not a dead fad. This must change.

3....Although public schools should refrain from promoting any particular faith, no one should graduate from high school without knowing the chief doctrines of the most influential religions. Students should also know something about how religious movements have shaped literature and history. Sadly, most teachers and administrators seem to be too unsophisticated to know the difference between describing a creed and promoting it, too timid to defend their curricula from parents who don't know this difference, or too ignorant of religions other than Christianity to write curricula concerning them. All this must change.

Higher Fraud: At present, the vitality of research and the competence of professors who do research at universities is ensured by the rule of publish or perish. No similarly effective mechanism ensures the quality of teaching in institutions of higher education. I have personally attended a college class taught--and I use this term loosely--by someone who could barely speak English. Such travesties must end. If universities can't attract researchers who are interested in teaching, they should hire additional teaching faculty. Otherwise, a professor's job should be contingent on his or her fluency in the dominant language of the campus and adequacy in basic public speaking.


THE FAMILY

Modern Families are New: Thanks to the efforts of brave and persistent feminists everywhere, civilized Americans rightly despise men who beat their wives and children. We have outgrown the notion that women and children should be treated as chattel. What is more, we have come to loathe men who take girls as young as 15 for love slaves. Though we still have far to go before women are fully emancipated and children are consistently cared for, our mores have progressed. We have forgotten that the enslavement and abuse of children and child-brides used to be family values rather than crimes. The equal partnership of husband and wife, along with the rights of children, are recent innovations that resulted from grass-roots political protest and changes in the law over the last couple of centuries.

The family as it exists today is not a timeless institution of yesteryear. Society and the state have had to change it to make it more humane. Consider the fact that spousal rape was only recently made illegal. The idea that the family should be further reformed is by no means far-fetched.

Gay Families: For one thing, homosexuals should be permitted to marry and adopt children. Not one shred of psychological, social, or historical evidence supports the belief that households run by homosexuals are in any way inferior to families with heterosexual parents or caregivers. Justice demands that the law be changed to reflect these facts. Justice demands that we eliminate laws that have no more basis in reality than the laws that once forbade the practice of witchcraft. Homophobia is a superstition. Our laws should be rewritten, not only on behalf of homosexuals, but on behalf of every human being who clings to the quaint, old-fashioned belief that our institutions should discourage superstition instead of promoting it.

Teen Sex: Also, we need to reconsider America's typical responses to teenage sexuality. The cultivation of sound families depends on young people waiting to marry before they reproduce. Since most people must wait until their mid-twenties before they are mature enough for marriage and independent enough to have children, discouraging procreation among the young is a social imperative. How do Americans discourage their babies from having babies? By telling teenagers not to be sexual for a decade or so, and expecting them to obey.

For many Americans, the development of sexual morality is a weird cycle fueled by adult hypocrisy. Before puberty, television exposes children to endless images of adult sexuality that depict its supreme importance. Then, when our children hit puberty, we tell them not to have sex. We also praise them for aspiring to look attractive. We also make fun of their virginity and sexual ignorance. We also disparage sexual inactivity in adults. We also react with varying degrees of denial, condescension, disapproval, and horror upon learning that our teens masturbate, thereby inspiring our young people to seek alternatives to their only risk-free outlet for the sex drive. Meanwhile, we grown-ups acquire boyfriends and girlfriends, whom we are unwilling to marry, but who have the run of the house because we grown-ups have "needs."

Then we react with astonishment and indignation when our teenagers start having sex. We blame the whole thing on a lack of Bible study, and upbraid our teens for their baseness and stupidity.

Meanwhile, teenage girls get pregnant. Before this happens, we remind our teenagers that having babies doesn't make adults out of adolescents. After the blessed event, we demand that these adolescents function as adults by requiring them to assume the responsibility of raising a family. The government even gives some teenage girls an income for attempting to raise their children outside the home.

Unsurprisingly, many teenagers prove to be pathetic parents. Denied a chance to develop adult identities at their own pace in a supportive environment, they resent their circumstances, and often their offspring. The pizza-fed babies are treated as burdens, and the consequent learning disabilities and emotional problems are blamed on our awful school system. Meanwhile, the teen parents are saddled with the triple demands of parenthood, work, and education. The latter is sacrificed most often, especially by single teen mothers, dooming the young family to poverty.

The teens become adults and the children become teens. The second generation of adults, all too familiar with the manner in which economic circumstances punish teen parents, preach chastity to their pubescent young. By this time, however, the young have already been exposed to endless images of adult sexuality that depict its supreme importance. The cycle continues: American age preaching chastity to youth from the bedroom.

While some teens avoid premature sex because of unusually good parental guidance, this happens in spite of our institutions, not because of them. American sexual mores are hypocritical, inconsistent with human nature, irrelevant to the promotion of responsible reproductive habits, and worthy of only the fiercest contempt among thinking human beings. Several reforms might improve this sorry state of affairs.

Sex-Ed: Course work on preventing premature parenthood, with equal emphasis on abstinence, contraception, and monogamy should be mandatory in the public schools. Parents who objected to such material could always home school, place their teens in private schools, or move to the North Pole.

No More Child-Parents: All children produced by couples whose youngest partners are below the age of twenty-one should be put up for adoption without exception. The law should reflect the fact that the youngest adults don't make good parents.

Primary Marriage: To encourage monogamy among the young, the state should recognize an institution of primary marriage, which could be entered from ages sixteen to twenty, and which would last until the youngest partner was twenty-one. Both homosexual and heterosexual unions would be recognized. The decision to marry would be made by mutual consent of the lovers. People in primary marriage could live away from home, but would not be allowed to keep their offspring. However, if a couple decided to stay together after primary marriage, they could enter into secondary marriage, during which they could raise children. Failing this, primary spouses would become single when the youngest partner turned twenty-one.

Secondary Marriage: The right to enter into a secondary marriage would begin at the age of twenty-one, or when one's younger primary spouse reached that age. As with primary marriage, lovers would chose their own partners. Lovers entering secondary marriage could chose their partners from primary marriage by mutual consent. Conversely, partners formerly united in primary marriage could each seek new spouses in secondary marriage. Also, if one former primary spouse decided to take a different husband or wife for secondary marriage, the other former primary spouse would have no say in the matter.

Two types of secondary marriage would be recognized: childless and child-raising. A childless secondary marriage would last until the youngest spouse retired from work. A child-raising marriage would last until the youngest child reached majority and/or independence. No legal obstacle would discourage childless couples from changing their minds and raising children.

Universal Adoption: Secondary spouses could raise their own offspring or other peoples' offspring. However, they would be required to adopt their children in either case. Adoption would be universal, and licensed by the state just as marriage is. The legalities of adoption would be as uncomplicated as those for marriage. The absence of either gross mental infirmity or a record of violent crime or sex offense would constitute sufficient evidence for parental fitness. Upon obtaining a license to adopt one's own and/or someone else's offspring, prospective parents would participate in a public ceremony in which their commitment to raise the child to maturity would be recognized by the family, the church (if any), and the state. Clergy or judges would preside over adoption ceremonies, as with weddings.

Couples with child could have anticipatory adoptions of their own offspring, and so be legally and morally bound to raise their child once it emerged from the womb. However, a couple could not seek an anticipatory adoption for anyone else's unborn offspring. Also, anticipatory adoption for one's own offspring would be optional. A woman who decided that she did not want her child could put it up for adoption as soon as it was born.

All adoptions would be final. Once the gene donors surrendered their offspring, their parental rights would be immediately and irrevocably terminated. Conversely, parents would face lengthy prison terms if they attempted to sell, disown, or otherwise transfer custody of their adopted minor children. However, secondary marriage and parental rights would be immediately and irrevocably terminated for anyone convicted of abusing their children.

The right to raise children would not be confined to participants in secondary marriage. People who have lost spouses to death or divorce, along with the innocent parties in annulments, would be allowed to raise their children. Also, single people of either sex could adopt, but only if they conformed to stricter criteria for parental fitness than adoptive couples.

Tertiary Marriage: The right to enter tertiary marriage would begin at the end of secondary marriage, or at retirement for singles. Partners could freely choose one another, as in primary and secondary marriages. Tertiary marriage would exist chiefly to encourage monogamy, companionship, and nice old times.

Divorce: A divorce could be initiated by one or both spouses. The lone spouse who did not want a divorce would have no say in the matter. Two forms of divorce would be recognized: corrective and elective.

In a corrective divorce, blame for marital breakdown would be assigned, but only if one or both spouses were guilty of certain specific misdeeds listed in the legal code, for example, infidelity, misdemeanor assault, refusal to seek treatment for addiction, or verbal abuse consistent and severe enough to meet a legal test for harassment. If the occurrence of such legal marital misconduct were not proven by the preponderance of the evidence, corrective divorce would be denied. If corrective divorce were granted, three-quarters of the marital assets would go to the plaintiff, along with sole custody of any children. Visitation rights to the non-custodial parent would be awarded at the court's discretion. If both spouses were proven guilty of marital misconduct, the judge would make all decisions concerning child custody and the division of marital assets. Spouses and lawyers would have no say.

In an elective divorce, the equal division of liquid marital assets would be foregone. The division of other assets would be negotiated by the couple, who would be sequestered for this purpose. Present during all negotiations would be a court-appointed attorney who would advise and mediate. Also present would be two bailiffs of normal size, or one very large and muscular bailiff, who would prevent or end verbal abuse, intimidation, and pointless repetitions of ideas. Bailiffs in these proceedings would be provided with loud noise-making devices to interrupt unproductive spousal interchanges. Failure to conclude the negotiations within a time specified by the court would result in the liquidation and equal division of the assets in dispute. The law would not recognize prenuptial agreements. The couple would have to pay all court and mediation costs, and also reimburse the families involved for the cost of the wedding.

Child custody decisions in an elective divorce would be made by the children. Court-appointed psychiatric advocates would represent the children in order to minimize parental intimidation and other undue adult influences. The psychiatric advocates would also decide on behalf of children too young to understand the divorce proceedings. The court advocate would contact the children periodically after the divorce so that they could change their custody decisions if they wanted to.

Child Support: For both corrective and elective divorces, the amount of child support would be set by the judge in strict accordance to an impartial court officer's findings on the cost of raising the child or children in question. For instance, child support costs would rise with the number of children involved, and with the expense of meeting the children's medical, psychiatric, or rehabilitative needs. Child support enforcement would be contingent on the equally vigorous enforcement of visitation rights.

Annulment: Irrevocable annulment of marriage would be mandated by the state in any case in which one spouse and/or any children involved were endangered by the other spouse’s felonious behavior. For example, in cases where the rape or beating of the spouse or children had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the marriage would be annulled. The victims would have no say in the matter; the perpetrator's spousal and parental rights would be immediately and irrevocably terminated. Conviction for rape or aggravated assault would result in the perpetrator's imprisonment for life as well.

In cases of spousal desertion proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the abandoned spouse would have the right to seek an optional annulment. This would entitle the abandoned spouse to all of the marital assets and sole custody of any children. All legal expenses would be paid by the state. Deserting a marriage would be a crime, for which deserters would spend time in prison when caught.

Parenthood: The institution of parenthood exists to nurture and protect children. Parents should have no right to deliberately thwart that mission. Medical practitioners should have the duty to provide any non-elective medical service that a child might need without parental consent. Parents who deny their children life-saving medical treatment on any grounds whatsoever should be imprisoned for life and irrevocably stripped of the right to parent anyone.


QUESTIONS ABOUT VIOLENCE

Why is it immoral to kill hundreds in a terrorist bombing, but moral to kill thousands in a carpet bombing?

Why is it immoral to kill people with horrible nerve gasses and deadly germs, but moral to kill them with the blast, heat, and radiation of a nuclear bomb?

If it’s okay to shoot someone who brandishes a knife at you, why isn’t it okay to shoot someone who threatens your life by tailgating you?

If it’s okay to shoot someone who is about to poison the water supply, why isn’t it okay to shoot people as they illegally dumping toxic waste?


WEALTH

Radical redefinition of wealth is not historically unprecedented. Few of today's capitalists require such ancient status symbols as vast granite temples, thousands of horses, or four thousand concubines. Someday, the consumption that currently prevails among America's power elite may be viewed in similar terms.


SOCIAL MAGIC

Although certain religious minorities, the Wiccans and Pagans to name a few, place as much faith in magical rituals as most Christians place in prayer, most Americans think of themselves as disbelievers in magic. The majority of us don’t stick pins in effigies of people we don’t like. We don’t make the sign of the evil eye at street beggars; we don’t try to summon demons by inscribing pentagrams on our living room floors; and we don’t try to fend off disease and danger by reciting nonsense words. Nonetheless, there is a kind of magic that many of us believe in, a kind which is too seldom recognized as such. This is social magic: the belief that certain social practices bring about certain social conditions in a manner that need never be explained in terms of causality or logic.

1....The promotion of religion as a means of combating ethical decline is one form of social magic. Religion itself need not entail magical thinking; people who submit themselves to the will of God don’t always do rituals with the hope of fulfilling their wishes. However, the idea that religious belief, in and of itself, can lower crime-rates and reform entire generations is magical thinking.

2....Belief in social magic is especially evident in Evangelical Christian opposition to homosexuality. Time and again, we hear claims from so-called “conservative” churches that homosexuality “undermines the family” and “threatens civilization.” Conversely, persecuting homosexuals is supposed to “support the family.” Never mind that adult homosexual couples do nothing to promote shallow commitment, economic pressures, infidelity, domestic violence, or anything else that damages heterosexual family life.

3....School uniforms have some logical rationales: they eliminate gang colors, and prevent rich children from disparaging the dress of their poorer peers. But when people claim that school uniforms, in and of themselves, make children more disciplined, we move from common sense to social magic.

4....Does anybody reading this remember the “WIN” (Whip Inflation Now) buttons promoted by Gerald Ford’s administration? I’m not sure how these buttons were supposed to control inflation; most likely by social magic.

5....Probably the most common form of social magic is the effort to promote decency by promoting conformity to morally insignificant rules. Before the social revolution of the nineteen sixties, decency was often equated with conformity to fashions governing grooming, dress, consumption, career choices, and even consensual sexual behavior. Although the cultural revolutionaries of the sixties promoted magical thinking that continues to thrive as the so-called New Age movement, they also demolished a lot of social magic. Thanks to the hippies, America learned that people can’t harm civilization merely by dressing, speaking, and living atypically. To date, our nation has survived men with long hair, women who don’t wear dresses, couples who don’t use the missionary position, and people who buy expensive possessions for enjoyment rather than status.

More needs to be done. The belief in social magic can be fought by subjecting it to common sense inquiry. HOW, exactly, does belief in the risen dead promote virtue? HOW, exactly, does homosexuality wreck heterosexual families? HOW, exactly, does criminalizing flag-burning improve the national welfare? Question by question, we can hack away at superstition, until, many decades from now, we become just as enlightened as we think we are now.


TECHNOLOGY

One of these days, we're going to have to be speak and think less pretentiously about technology. Decades ago, we invented a vacuum tube computer that took up several rooms and had less computing power than a modern scientific hand-calculator, and what did we call it? An "electronic brain." After struggling to arrange meetings between eggs and sperms in petri-dishes, we called the ultimate result "test tube babies," as if we had invented our own genome. Nowadays, we've devised clever glasses that project synthetic images. What do we call the computer technology that makes this possible? "Virtual Reality," a term that leaves sober observers wondering whether scientists can tell the difference between programming a pair of trick glasses and creating the universe.

Of course, now that Man has assembled brains, created life, and created a new universe, we are supposed to believe that our technology will remake human nature, and bring us to the next step in our evolution. That could happen. But, so far, we see no sign of New Humanity's advent. The current relationship between human nature and the rapid advancement of cybernetics and biotechnology can be summed up in two phrases: same bullshit, different technology. Though the science may be new, the wishes that we use it to fulfill have been around since ancient times.

Icarus flew a lot earlier than the Wright Brothers did, if only in mythology. Centuries before Pasteur, we used charms and potions to ward off disease. We dreamed of golems, and science fiction robots, long before inventing the robots themselves.

In the popular media, our best science fiction writers have sometimes been characterized as prophets; people who see into the future. If technology were a branch of physics that concerned new natural phenomina, then all the visions of Jules Verne, from the fighter plane to the fax machine, would truly qualify as prophecies. However, since science fiction and technology both have their ultimate roots in our desires and our fantasy lives, and since technology takes longer to develop than science fiction, the "prophecies" of Verne and his literary descendants are no mystery.

Here at the dawn of cybernetics and biotechnology, we can count on these sciences being used in the service of age-old visions. Our computers have long served as oracles, and may one day fulfill the dream of trapping a spirit within an inanimate object. Though cloning or genetically modifying humans to cultivate specific talents may be new technology, the idea of a caste system is a very old one, as is the idea of a demi-god.

As for the search for physical immortality, it's been going on for the last few millennia, and continues today.

Technology can realize our fantasies more effectively than magic. Much has been said about the fact that it does so imperfectly, with many unintended and disastrous side-effects. But what if the success of technology eventually does us in? Do you, reader, know any people who always get what they want? Consider how narcissistic, bored, infantile, and nihilistic such people can be. Now consider what would happen to our species if everyone's fantasies came true.


Home


copyright 1999