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   The Politics of Low Attendance

THE OBSERVATION POST:

The Politics of Low Attendance

by J. Russell Tyldesley

Americans have an amazing ability to shrug off hypocrisy. Even when they are shown what is behind the curtain, they are anxious to return to the fantasy world.
There was a lecture and discussion held Sunday, Oct. 3 at the First Unitarian Church on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore. The subject was “From ‘War on Drugs’ to ‘War on Terrorism,’ to Military Quagmire.” The subtitle was “Our failed drug war in Columbia, South America.” The presenter was Sanho Tree, who works at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C.

The event was advertised in the Baltimore Sun, yet the turnout was 17 people. Of the 17, there were six from the two sponsoring organizations. Of the remaining 11 people, two were Towson University students who frequently attend events sponsored by these groups; 4 were nearby residents who walked in off the street because the door was open; and two were Maryland Institute College of Art students who just happened to be walking by and were admiring one of our members’ bumper stickers, and were coaxed inside to check things out. Some of the remaining five were elderly retired progressives of the sort we see at such events—and there was one person who actually said he was there as a result of the Sun Community calendar. This, despite the Sun’s circulation in the hundreds of thousands and postings in most of the public libraries.

I am told that this level of attendance is not unusual. Yet the subject is one that ought to have some currency in Baltimore, as the city struggles to control drug addiction and the associated crime wave. The preceding week, Congress authorized an additional aid package worth $98 million to assist the Columbia military fight its “war“ against the drug economy as it also fights against a 30-year rebel insurgency group, F.A.R.C. American troops will be on the ground assisting the Columbian Army, and American-made Sikorski helicopters will be provided to Columbia. You would think the public might be interested in gaining insight into, perhaps, the next “Vietnam.”

Well, the truth is that citizens don’t seem very motivated to learn how their tax dollars are being spent, and why we are not winning any of these wars against nouns that we have named over the past 35 years, starting in 1967 when Bobby Kennedy announced the lofty goal of a war on poverty.

The lecture itself was excellent, participation was energetic, and everyone had questions and comments.

With no attempt to do justice to the wealth of information and insights provided by Sanho Tree, suffice it to say that our so-called war on drugs, insofar as Columbia is concerned, is a disaster. It is, in fact, a lie, and is having the effect (unintentional or not) of making the supply of drugs greater, the cost less, and the potency (quality) higher. The truth, according to Tree, is that we cannot defeat drug addiction, and a military paradigm is all wrong. We cannot restrict the supply. The product is too easy to grow, and the profits are too great to be ignored, especially in a country where one-third of the people are unemployed and two-thirds of the people live on less than $2 a day. Tree’s thesis is that we can only hope to control drugs, but our “prohibition economy,” as he dubbed it, will not provide rational solutions. Tree’s conclusion was that the only “war” that makes sense is against the three evils: poverty, desperation, and alienation.

Rather than report on the substance of Tree’s talk here, I want to examine the issue of why there is no apparent interest in this subject in a City where “BELIEVE” is emblazoned on buildings and billboards, exhorting people, I suppose, to believe that there are answers to the dilemma of drugs. Such observations that I make here might well apply to many other areas of apparent citizen apathy.

US Principle to Live By:
You Won’t See Trouble If You Don’t Look For It

It seems to me that the vast majority of citizens do not look for and do not see malevolent forces at work in their day-to-day lives. If bad things seem to happen at times, they are inclined to think that they are random events, or, perhaps, the result of some personal failure.

People are not inclined, by and large, to doubt most of what they read and hear. Many of their basic assumptions are formed by listening to a lifetime of propaganda, half truths, and outright lies. Nonetheless, it is disconcerting for most people to be confronted with the falsity of their preconceived notions and theirr belief system. They will fight hard to hold to their prejudices and myths.

Even less, are they likely to believe that there is a deliberate ongoing conspiracy to deceive them and distort the information they receive. American literature is better at dealing forthrightly with the theme of America as a nation of horse thieves and con artists, as chronicled in some of the best works of authors such as William Faulkner and Mark Twain. More recently, similar themes are dealt with in such works as Catch 22 and Apocalypse Now, in a war setting.

Every commercial transaction ought to be prefaced by the query, “What’s your game, man?” The culture of the slick deal permeates the highest levels as we see corporate icons scam hundreds of millions from their faithful investors, and politicians maintain office despite scandalous and mercenary behaviors that don’t seem to shock anyone.

People are constantly in denial. They don’t want to accept this fractured picture because it does not comport with the official “American Dream.”

Americans have an amazing ability to shrug off hypocrisy. Even when they are shown what is behind the curtain, they are anxious to return to the fantasy world. I personally know of several people who would take all of their annual vacations at Disneyworld––it would suffice for a lifetime––the perfect metaphor for the artifice of life.

This tendency may account in part for the enduring fascination with Christmas and Santa Claus. It is a holiday that manages to transform the spirit of giving into something other than selflessness and sacrifice. It is now the season of high anxiety in which the suicide rate soars and retailers find out whether their business will live or die.

In the big picture, we don’t want to know what the government is doing in our name, and government is very accommodating in keeping the secret. This is the little conspiracy we share with our leaders.

Forced to be happy at this time of the year, it is an especially bad time to try the truth. Happy in the lie, there is a studied avoidance of the truth—in fact, because it might have to be acted on. It is easier to speed past the scene and avoid being a witness. In the big picture, we don’t want to know what the government is doing in our name, and government is very accommodating in keeping the secret. This is the little conspiracy we share with our leaders.

US Principle to Live By:
Expect to “Get Yours” Someday

Another factor at play is what you might refer to as the success factor. Success is always something to be sought after, something to be achieved. One can’t simply live successfully. Success is a goal and it is often modeled by someone else and, more often than not, defined in terms of money and power.

Americans have been conditioned to admire the rich, the talented, the super stars, and the leaders. It appears that most poor people identify with the rich, because they can always find someone poorer than they are and look down on them.

Even though the poor lack many of the basic necessities of life and all of the luxuries, they are led to believe that, if they had what it takes, they could be rich and powerful, too. They are generally ignorant of the institutionalized reasons that certain people get rich, others get very rich, and the vast majority stay poor or at the margins.

The idea is that everyone could be President, and the only thing preventing it is a lack of personal character, ambition, brainpower or good looks. They are willing to let the elites off the hook because they figure that if they were in their place, they would do exactly as they do—namely, live extravagantly. It is the same phenomenon that keeps the lowly foot soldiers subservient to the officers. They figure someday they will be on top if they put in their time, and then it will be their turn to abuse those below them. The thought of that possibility keeps them shining their officer’s boots and scrubbing latrines with a toothbrush––no humiliation too great if they can someday pass it on.

Hoop dreams keep the masses subdued and unquestioning. The American Dream may have been born of revolutionary thoughts, but the idea was co-opted by Madison Avenue long ago and now denotes only the latest bright new product in the world of consumption.

US Principle to Live By:
Keep Too Busy To Pay Attention To What Really Matters

People are kept entirely too busy and distracted. They have little conception of the necessity of constant learning and study throughout their lives in order to have any chance at all of keeping up with the proliferation of scams. It takes a lot of study just to unlearn the lies and half truths taught by the educational establishment right through the typical college experience.

In today’s culture, it is sufficient merely to do our jobs, shop at malls, and support our families with the latest gadgetry. The exhaustion inherent in all this (not to mention the mental stress of an increasingly artificial life devoid of real human interaction ) entitles us to use all the rest of our time in diversions and entertainment.

There is thus simply no time (nor apparent necessity) to bother with citizen responsibility, engagement and activism. This is for someone else to do who likes that sort of thing or is retired or looking to get into politics.

US Principle to Live By:
Make Sure Your Right Hand Doesn’t Even Know What Your Left Hand Is Doing

For practice, I frequently engage in conversations with business associates who are, for the most part, entirely happy with the status quo and are doing quite nicely, thank you.

The way to introduce progressive ideas is presented by the stock meltdown and the daily revelations of corporate fraud and conflicts of interest. A couple days ago while waiting for the frost to melt off the greens at a local golf course, we sat around in the clubhouse drinking coffee. I asked if my partners (both employees of a major insurance company, had read the news that morning of the fact that Citigroup had loaned Bernie Ebbers, of Worldcom fame, some $680 million to a subsidiary of Worldcom that he personally controlled, and he used the money primarily to buy up 480,000 acres of land in four States). The loan was secured by Worldcom stock and it was important to Citigroup that the value of the stock stayed strong, or they might have a bad loan on their hands. The fact that they controlled Solomon Smith Barney, a subsidiary, that put out the “strong buy” ratings on Worldcom stock (their former analyst, Mr. Grubman, is now under investigation and no longer working) certainly was the major factor in keeping the stock buoyed up.

What my friends did not know was that the loan to Ebbers was not made by Citibank, but by their own company (Travelers). Their mouths dropped open, and after saying, “ No, you have got to be making this up,” they looked at each other and said, “We don’t do loans, do we?”

The fact is that the Gramm, Leach, Bliley Act, passed by Congress few years ago after heavy lobbying by Sandy Weil, CEO of the combined companies, reversed 70 years of law supporting the doctrine of not allowing banks and insurance companies under common ownership.

We are beginning to see the real agenda was something more than the “synergies” of combining all financial utilities under one banner and giving our U.S. companies the ability to be competitive in the world. Well, it is hard to know how much more help Citigroup needs after posting net earnings of $4 billion yesterday, which is possibly the largest net income ever reported by a corporation and almost single-handedly lifted the entire stock market 5%.

But my point is that the usual response you get to truth cleverly disguised within a conversation purportedly about such a non-political subject as the stock market is blank stares. Even very intelligent, high-earning business people are not able to process this information because they have no background in the structural fallacies of the system that supports business as usual. All their experience is “on the job.” There is no training given in challenging the system, despite the fact that, in this case, they are underwriters. Their main job is to discriminate among applicants in order to give large capacity and low rates to the corporations that are already extremely successful, and deny coverage to the poor and weak. It is social Darwinism at its best and drives all business enterprises, not just insurance.

So, we are finally complicit in our own slavery, and support a system that routinely and dispassionately exploits us. Read press releases on the latest corporate downsizing (how about that for a euphemism?) and see the creative genius that goes into making it seem positively enlightened policy in the strategic docking of, say, 150,000 employees. Corporations are the true recipients of welfare, and the poor are increasingly being taxed so that money can be re-distributed to the rich in a sort of Alice in Wonderland reversal of the true premise of government for the people.

I guess this is why people don’t show up at lectures and discussions. An elaborately decorated lie looks and feels a lot better than the unclothed, naked truth.


J. Russell Tyldesley, of Catonsville, MD, is himself a successful businessperson, but somewhere along the line he woke up and started looking beyond spreadsheets.


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This story was published on November 9, 2002.
  
NOVEMBER 2002
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·Can God Bless America? Only if We Repent
· An Open Letter to America from a New Zealander
·Open Letter to Mayor Martin O'Malley and the Baltimore City Council
· Open Letter to The Economist Magazine
· Open-Ended Ballot Questions Deserve Defeat
· Why your vote won't matter
·The New Black Codes
· Muslims First, Citizens Second
·The Silent End of Memorials?
·US & Iraq: Who's Deterring Whom?
·Words of Wisdom from Arundhati Roy
·BATCH #4: Responses to the “Open Letter to America from a Canadian”
·The Politics of Low Attendance
·Guns! Guns! Guns!
·Nonprofits Sponsor Roundtable on Religious Persecution and Refugees
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·A Free Press, but for Whom?
·Times, NPR Change Their Take on DC Protests
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