Stuck in the Past

While I was out yesterday I came across four people performing road work.  They had halted all the motor cars at the four way stop and were taping to the pavement what appeared to me to be an extension cord, with duct tape.  One worker held a stop sign; one worker taped; two workers watched the man tape.  As one can imagine this was a slow and inefficient process.  This is not an indictment of road workers, who as far as I can tell, work slower than any group of humans has ever worked and this case proved no different.  Much like these road workers, our society runs in much the same way.  As we sit in our cars we realize that there are many inefficiencies in our system.  We can see that three people could be taping down the cord or that two of those people are not even needed but yet this method of work persists.  Why?

Foucault talks about historical epistemes.  These are large periods of time that are linked by a gradual progression of events.  Occasionally there is a large shift that shatters the current episteme and begins a new one.  We are located in a period of time and what we can know about anything is determined by that particular episteme.  Further still, these sorts of knowledge are so ingrained, so fundamental to our episteme that they seemingly become invisible.  This applies to all sorts of things we discuss often.  Take taxes for instance.  How many people know every tax?  Every tax rule change?  Is it likely that there are a number of taxes that make no sense?  Is it likely that there are taxes that are too high or don’t need to exist at all?  Yes.  We can see that there could be change there that would benefit everyone but we are unable to make that change.  We talk about it, hem and haw about it.  Promises are made by leaders that there will be a correction, reduction, increase, overhaul, whatever you want to call it but the system seems to remain the same.  Minor changes here or there but we are still left with four guys watching one guy do the all work.

It is not a lack of intelligence or ability on anyone’s part to change any particular system.  We are immersed in the past and the past is up to a certain point, part of our episteme.  The past is what we know about the why and the how of how we do what we do.  History has written the play, set the stage and announced the start time.  We get to play our roles and move the props around but we fail to ever change the play.  In fact, we often don’t know why we continue to play the roles we play.  Why do we cling to the past like a baby to blanket?  It is safe.  And it works.  Two reasons that should not be ignored.  It may be possible to revise the tax system but it would be new and new does not always work.  What it more frightening is that these new problems may not be the problems we have dealt with for ages and therefore would cause great consternation.  What we have may not be perfect but it works (at least in theory) and we have figured out to to side step or ignore the problems associated with our current system nicely.

Further proof of just how powerful the past is our esteemed third president Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson believed during Washington’s administration that Hamilton (and by association, Washington) were attempting to establish a government similar to England’s while ousting the freshly earned freedom for which Washington had fought.  Jefferson resigns from Secretary of State because he cannot stand Hamilton or the polices of the administration all the while slandering Washington.  Jefferson believes that the executive branch has too much power and is consequently at odds with the spirit of ’76.  Fast forward a few years; Jefferson is president and buys land from Napoleon on the cheap doubling the size of the U.S; a huge display of power from the executive branch.  It seems obvious that Jefferson should never have sought the presidency thereby boycotting the system which he thought betrayed the principles he had written about.  Instead, he becomes part of the system and adds to the very framework he did not like.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t progress.  There is.  Things change, progress, advance but only within the bounds of what we as a people, as a society, can accept.  We understand that things could change radically thereby altering the very foundation of the systems that govern our lives but we can not accept such a change.  Julius Caesar did this very thing by putting an end to a 500 year old Roman Republic.  Then all his senator buddies got together and stabbed him to death.  It may be obvious that the Republic needed to end or that it only takes two people to tape a cord to the road but unless your willing to die to accomplish that sort of radical change, chances are you’ll be sitting at that intersection watching an inefficient system at work.

Governed by Small People

While my post title is not a movie currently in production, I think now that it is out in the universe Hollywood executives will be kicking it around for a summer buddy comedy.  Perhaps Danny DeVito and Kevin Hart will boss around Arnold and the Rock.  The little guys can ride the big guys around the mall or some shit.

The small people I really had in mind are our leaders.  Those who choose to serve and pride themselves on said service.  Service by its nature is a noble, selfless feat.  To put others before yourself whether it be waiting tables or in the halls of congress should be admired.  And we agree as a culture that service, especially good service, should be rewarded.  No one begrudges the waiter who gets a great tip for a job well done and that is what makes our leadership so problematic.

The first problem is that those who choose to serve are first and foremost always concerned with their self interest first.  Let’s be clear: everyone is self interested.  We cannot survive without self interest but just as the waiter can put aside his own shit for a few hours to fill some drinks and pick up some plates, perhaps our leaders could stop worrying about their ability to stay in their job and instead, do their fucking job.  Daydream with me for a moment as we imagine our leaders concerned with the project of governance and not A: fundraising or pandering to keep their position or B: endlessly trying to fuck over the opposition.

I imagine that these leaders would argue that both A and B are part of their job, perhaps even the bulk of their job.  How much could they govern in a mere four or six year stint?  How better to serve all our citizens than by not cooperating with anyone in the same government, with the same overarching goals, in an effort to ensure that any political idea outside of their own ideology receives no consideration often leading to political gridlock?  I also imagine that these same leaders would argue that they are representing their constituency engaging in this irresponsible gridlock.  Unless these representatives received %100 of the vote, then they are representing those citizens who did not vote for them and likely agree with the opposition.  Which is great and is the point of a representative democracy but as the representative you don’t get to take a victory lap when you decide to act and blame the people who put you in office when you decide to pout in the corner because you don’t like the kids in your class.  Don’t put your inability to do your job on your constituents.

The inability to govern was the true purpose of this post.  Why is there such an inability to lead and why is it so pervasive?  Where are the philosopher kings of the Republic who rule with their eye always trained towards the Good?  What Plato does not tell us in the Republic is that philosopher kings are rare.  Our current leaders misunderstand great leadership.  This sort of leadership cannot be found on the safe path.  Self preservation doesn’t expand empires, forge new governments or resolve civil wars but rather only seeks to maintain the current state in which we already exist.  That is not to say that our current state is awful but can we not do more?  Can we not dream bigger?  We as citizens find ourselves governed by small people who believe that their wealth, influence and position makes them important; makes them fit to lead.  These people believe that because they serve they have a relationship with the Good and their actions as servants are therefore governed by the Good.  But there can be no relationship with the Good without Justice and these leaders are not Just.  Justice requires that they do their work; their work is to govern; they fail to govern; therefore they are not Just and without Justice, one cannot be guided by the Good.  We are all in the same boat and those tasked with charting the course are blind.  Where does that leave everyone else in the boat?


True inequality is not between the powerful and the weak; the rich or the poor; between the sexes or the races.  True inequality exists between those who have a greater understanding of their relationship with the Good and Justice, and those who do not.  The condition of your sex or race or class may change, nay will change, which makes finding that point at which we may be equals impossible.  These material particulars are not bench marks which reflect who we are, how we live our life nor do they provide us a measure of how we live among one another.

It is our relationship with the Good and the Just that these material particulars reflect.  Plato says that Justice is doing one’s own work.  If this is the case, the conditions immediately around us are our concern and what we should be concerning ourselves with.  When we concern ourselves with work that is not our own we commit injustice.  Injustice, just as Justice, is not an action but a relationship.  It requires more than one participant in order for it to be observed.  When your neighbor steals your garden hose he participating in the relation of injustice.  It is not injustice because he has done something morally wrong or against the law but rather because he is not doing his own work.

What guides us to Justice?  How do we know that the neighbor’s work isn’t to steal garden hoses?  Our relationship with the Good is what guides us to truth.  The Good and truth are inseparable.  Plato explains that when we leave the cave we are able to “see” the truth because the Good is the light that illuminates the world.  Our relationship with the Good directly affects our ability to understand what is Just and what is not.  We cannot speak of Justice without the Good because we must know what is true before we can do our own work.

Inequality is the condition that exists between those still strapped to their chairs in the cave and those who have ventured out of the cave into the light.  Those who amass power, wealth, fame and status from interpreting shadows on the wall are in fact equal to everyone else who is looking at the shadows on the cave wall.  Beware those stuck in the chair next to you, for despite their appearance they understand as little of the world as you do.  Welcome those who look to reenter the cave carrying with them the illuminating power of truth.