Episode Three: Political Realities

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The fact that we have a word for politics is itself a triumph for our world.

We all know about the times of pharaohs and kings. For a citizen to feel entitled to express an opinion about the way things should be, shows that we have come a long way.

But the fact that we keep having the same arguments, and the ways we so often conduct these arguments, shows us that something in our methods or understanding is lacking.

Part of the problem is that we can sometimes fall into the simplistic thinking that if my value is true and leads to a conclusion, any other value that would lead to a different conclusion, must be wrong.

But values are not light switches. They are complicated dials, and every policy changes the setting on all of the related values. There is no one best way, or one best answer.

Cultural truths can only be an expression of the shared values of the people at that moment.

For example, a society where everyone contributes a large amount of their income to be spent by the elected officials for the benefit of their community will work just fine, if that's what everyone in that society thinks is best. Who would challenge it? It's what they all believe, and so they all do what they can to make that policy work.

A society where people honor personal achievement and recognition that competition will bring out the best, most innovative solutions for a society, will work just fine, if that's what everyone thinks is best.

Either of these systems, when conducted honestly, for the interests of the community, for the well-being of the people, can thrive.

Either system, also, can be taken over by people who want to to abuse the rules. The fact that others in the society are encouraged to follow the rules, when they are willing to break them, gives them and advantage.

We often find ourselves discussing which economic or social or government structure will promote the most good for society. But if we only consider the balances and interactions, the give and take that would occur when that form is operating at it's theoretical optimum, and if we ignore that all of them can be corrupted by con-men and truth hackers, then we're really only arguing about what kind of trap we want to live in.

How much should a person earn for an hour of labor?

I can do a simple survey of the cost of living in a city to determine how much is needed for a family's most basic food, taxes, shelter, clothing, transportation, gas, health care, and other needs. If we agree that forty hours per week is an appropriate standard, then when I divide the monthly expenses by one hundred and sixty hours, I get a value below which won't meet basic expenses.

While we might discuss the definition of basic and necessities, at some point we might find a per hour wage that meets those expenses.

That's math. That's fact. I win!

But then someone says that labor, like any other commodity, will change, based on the supply and demand of workers at different skill levels, and that any attempt to price-fix labor costs interrupts the efficiencies of the free market, and could end up locking in a rate that appears to be humane, but would actually allow companies to pay far less than they would in a competitive employment market.

That's economic fact. I win!

So as we jostle each other to stand closer to some imagined truth, we can get frustrated. Someone might say,

Clearly I have shown you the truth, but you just don't want to see it.

Oh I see it just fine. You're arguing for the benefit of the companies at the expense of the people. You're not as good a person as I am. I care about people. You care about profit. I'm the better person. And I have math. I win!

And then we climb the hill of righteousness, grab the flag of truth and we wave it proudly.

If we're locked into a battle to grab the flag of truth, and we know that our truth is correct, then how could anyone else's truth be valid?

There can only be one truth. That's what truth is!

And that, unfortunately, is just not true. The truth is they're both true.

Both policies are an expression of value. When when we hold certain values fixed and let other values fluctuate, we end up with a policy that emphasizes the values that we choose as more important than the others. It's not a right versus wrong. Values and truth are not light switches. Other people are not wrong, just because you are right.

We're all fiddling with the dials, and that's OK. That's necessary for a society to evolve. And so we're not arguing about which is more true. We may think that's what we are doing, but actually, we're arguing about which values should our society emphasize, and which should we understate, and by that exercise, we wish to set that particular combination of values as the norm.

We have physical reality. The basic behavior of matter and energy, but above that our truths become flexible. Some more than others.

Monday, for example, is very solid. But jumping from Monday back into Saturday, as appealing as that sounds, probably won't really work if you try it.

One way to understand cultural truth is to imagine it on line graph. At one end is science, all of the laws of the universe that we can discover through observation and experimentation, and at the other end would be the realm of delusions and fantasies.

Where a truth falls on that line can be thought of as proportional to the number of people who believe in it.

We all believe in Mondays. We recognize a particular day as the start of a new year. We have twelve months. We didn't always. It still bothers me that OCT-ober isn't the eighth month, and SEPT-ember isn't the seventh. People have even proposed a thirteen month year, with exactly four weeks each, which is three hundred and sixty four days, so we have an extra day that has to fall between Saturday and Sunday at the end of the year, which I think would be fine, but interferes with other more established truths about when Sunday has to happen.

We all count to ten the same way, but a base twelve number system actually makes a lot of sense. It divides evenly into two, three, or four parts. Our four fingers have three parts each, making it easy to count to twelve by counting with our thumb and touching one two three on our index finger, then four five six, etc. It's actually a better counting system, but it's not the truth.

What about the metric system? Is that the true way to measure things? Kilometers or miles? Meters or yards?

It doesn't really matter what, but a society does need to settle on something.

Unfortunately, the thirteen month year, or counting in base twelve don't have enough believers and so they're not the truth of time or numbers.

But they could be, and that's the point. We didn't always have daylight savings time, and maybe, some day we won't again. These are truths that, while quite fixed, are still flexible enough through legislation and then acceptance by everyone else.

We have all kinds of things that are true one day that shift and flex and change the next. On September 3, 1967, Sweden changed the side of the road they drove on.

On January first, 1863, thousands of slaves stopped being property and started being citizens.

Political truths ebb and flow, flex and bend. These are the kinds of realities that have become more like physical properties or less depending on how widely they are accepted.

Oh no!

Tinkerbell is dying. But there's hope. There is hope if we believe in fairies. Do you believe? Clap your hands. Don't let Tink Die. Everyone! Believe, and she will fly again.

Except it's not Tinkerbell, and it's not a story.

Do we live in a country of laws, liberty, freedom?

The answer is, only if we believe.

When we stop believing in freedom, justice, law. They die. They stop being true. What is today's reality can slip, so easily, into yesterday's history.

When we vote, or serve in office, the decisions that we make define our world, because how we govern can only be an expression of the values, both those that we hold sacred and those that we ignore.

And so, when we're arguing about the minimum wage or any political issue, it would be a mistake to think that we are fighting for a seat next to some intrinsic truth. All we can do is elevate some values over others, try to find the best fit within that equation, and then try to convince more people to accept our balance of values as the new reality.

What we miss when we go on truth crusades, is that being right isn't enough.

Values are very important, but they are all to often in conflict, and to choose one value is to lose another.

Abortion stops a beating heart. That's not in question. Honoring life and protecting the potential life of an unborn fetus is a reasonable value.

But to honor that value, we must necessarily devalue the status of the woman upon whose body the fetus relies. There was a time when a woman's body belonged not to herself, but to a man's husbandry, using her body for his pleasure or his progeny however and whenever he saw fit.

If we honor women in our society as equal, able to decide for themselves to which purpose their bodies will be used, then we must necessarily devalue the fetus, and recognize the differences between a potential life, and the life of a free individual.

The chattel status of a woman versus the life of a fetus is not an easy or trivial choice to make, but we can't pretend that only one is the truth and the other is a lie. We can only proceed honestly, as with any political issue, if we acknowledge the validity of both values, and take care to weigh what we would lose and what we would gain by these choices, and what other values are affected as well.

When we can stop fighting to be right, when we can stop seeing our chosen values as the only truth, we may be able to find new solutions and shared values. For this particular difficult issue, we can see that we don't need to sacrifice either of the two waring values if there are never unwanted, or unexpected pregnancies. But focusing on that value requires considering other values related to sex education, birth control, age of adulthood, medical concerns, and the list goes on. It is a complicated issue, and one that is not well served by pretending it's not.

If there is a solution to be found in the subtle adjustment of all the choices that we might make, I'm afraid we will never find it with one dial turned all the way right and other turned all the way left.

Political issues are difficult enough when representatives of the various values are acting honestly to the best of their ability to honor the values when we make these adjustments.

Unfortunately, it is just as easy to promote values for selfish reasons as for noble ones.

I can select the value of responsibility and self-determination in life. I can argue that too much government regulation can stifle innovation. After all, how can I build the house of the future if I am required to build only to the standards of the current building code? How can we move beyond racial division when we are required by law to count people by race and justify our hiring decisions?

Those sound reasonable. These sound like valid value statements. But if I use these statements to reduce government oversight so I can save money by dumping instead of processing my industrial waste, or so that I can implement my own racist hiring or lending policies, then we find ourselves back to the question of intent.

Is it influence? Honestly weighing the values and doing our best to encourage the most appropriate solution for our society from among all the alternatives? Or is it manipulation? Propaganda. More truth hacker sleight of hand disguised as a value?

We can't always know the difference. We can't always trust the people who make the decisions for our world.

We know that companies don't want only to make the best product. They want to make a good enough product that they can sell, and then make it obsolete so they can sell it to us again.

It's not about making a better mousetrap anymore. Why make a better mousetrap if you can just buy the better mousetrap company, fire their executives, put your people in there, use cheaper materials, move your factory to another country, and ride the profits until the company dies. Or worse, instead of spending money on innovation, spend that money on a mouse farm so you can set them loose in the city and double the price of your mousetraps.

It's not about making better laws anymore. It's about lobbying, advertising, using values that say one thing so you that can do another.

And it works!

It works because we are so often compelled by the values that we hold as sacred and by the reality that we know must be true, that we follow the voices that call to our sensibilities. If we don't understand that reality is fluid, that truth is a selection of values, then we can become so locked into our own realities, that it becomes all but impossible to even consider an alternate point of view.

If my truth is true, then your truth is a lie, and if you are lying to me, you are evil, and must be stopped.

This is a reality begging to be taken over and steered using false values, false truths, and false hope.

This is the recipe for dark magic on a massive scale.

Politics is an algorithm for maintaining control, and for owning reality.

That's not how it was supposed to be. This is the madness of kings, the divine right of the monarchy, dressed in suit and tie.

And yet, we need this. Without our culture, without our shared reality, without politics and laws and morals and expectations, we are animals in the wild.

We can't help but live in this human reality of language and law and understanding, because that's what we are.

We are beings of imagination, and it is this imagination that both defines and ensnares us. We don't live only in a world of rocks and trees and rivers. We live in a world of superstition, hope, truth, wonder, music, and magic.

We are, in our very essence, creatures of magic, because we are all truth makers. We are all world builders. We can only live in the dreams inside our own minds, and if we let someone else define the boundaries of our imagination, they become masters of our world.

This needs to be done with honor and with care.

Politics is the arena where we share our dreams, our hopes, and our truths, to help serve our societies. It is a necessary but an imprecise tool that is dulled even more when we don't quite know how to use it. We are taught to follow, to trust the reality into which we are born, because to reject reality is the definition of insanity.

But reality is fluid, and truth is proportional.

We know this. We live this. This is not new or unusual. We have all had those conversations about money, citizenship, guns, health care, taxation. We know that laws are written, then revised, and sometimes repealed. We know that our truth is manufactured from our values.

But still, we find ourselves drawn to champion different economic or social ideals. We can easily forget that power will use whatever tool is available. In a socialist system, power will become the government. In a capitalist system, power will become the corporations. In a theocracy, power will become the church.

And in America, power can choose all three.

It falls to us, the people, to carry this sacred responsibility, to do the best we can to sift out the peddlers of false views from those who - even if we disagree with them - are honestly trying to find the right path.

It falls to us to understand the most fundamental values of our society and to work honestly to uphold them. And at the same time, we must also work to understand the values that are important to others, because they are not wrong, just because we are right. It falls to us to allow our imagination to expand, so that we can walk on that right path together and we are all worthy of the triumph of politics.