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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ill Fares The Land

I just finished reading Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt. I know I and many of the folks I talk to constantly wonder how we got into the state we're in. The country that is. Judt has done a great job of explaining that it was perhaps inevitable that we would wind up here. Our country was founded on suspicion of government - it has just taken a completely sinister turn from mere suspicion to downright hostility in the last couple of decades.

As for what to do...that he doesn't do such a good job at explaining. He talks about how we need to have discussions - but the trick is how to do that when the words we normally would use have all become demonized and distorted and discredited.

Take the word socialism for example. This word is now a desccriptor of evil incarnate - at least according to the far right wing. The issue is that we already have socialism in this country. Every country does. It is how the country, state, or community does things that no single individual could possibly do on their own. Think freeways, fire departments, police, airports, water and sewer systems, and so on. Socialism is how individuals join together to do projects FOR THE COMMON GOOD.

Of course, common good has become another of those demonized terms. Judt discusses the phenomenon of gated communities where the residents feel they are enclosed in safety, completely self-sufficient and not really part of the larger community in which they are located. However, the gated community is not any safer than the open community - in fact, if something happens, the private security personnel must often call upon the official police department or sheriff's office to actually deal with crime. If a home catches fire - the 'outside' fire department will respond. The roads on which they drive in and out of the gates are paid for by all of the rest of us too - and they get to use them. Their water comes from the same place as the rest of ours, and their sewage winds up in the same place.

One point Judt makes about our society is worth considering seriously, and that is the idea that people want their government to make moral choices. This is not the same as religious values. The idea that people should not kill or rob each other is not a religious value, it is a common moral value. The same applies to government. Moral choices, like the one to provide some sort of assistance to people unable to work, are not necessarily cost effective in an economic sense. But Judt argues that economic efficiency is not always the best choice.

Judt uses the example of railroads (passenger) to demonstrate that although they usually are never profitable, there are clearly high values of a non-monetary sort to be gained by the government subsidizing trains as a means of transportation surely, but even more importantly, as a link between more rural and poor areas with the rest of the country. This link is important for building a sense of community - and even though in the US we prize individuality above all else, we cannot survive without our communities supportiing us. There are really almost no persons in this society that are completely self-sufficient. And the supports often come from the government whether we want to admit it or not.

I highly recommend that everyone read this book - it is a really good starting point for a conversation. And we really need to start having this conversation - even if we have to make up new, untainted words to describe what we want!

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