Education and a Compelling Message from the Past

by Lanny Goodman on May 26, 2011

I’ve been engaged in a meaningful dialogue on Donna Fenn’s Facebook about Peter Thiel’s foundation gift of $100,000 each for college students to drop out and start businesses.  Personally, I’m appalled, but if you want to read my comments about that, you can find them at Donna’s page.

In my last blog post, I explored the question, where does the pursuit of individual freedom cross the line into sociopathic behavior? Later I found a quote that really helped clarify the points I raised by Geoffrey James which I posted in the comments and I’ll repeat it here:

“…corporations are natural sociopaths that can, must and will take advantage of society at large if not restrained by laws and regulations.”

James made the comment in describing why Atlas Shrugged was one of the seven most overrated business books of all time along with many other of my “this sold 20 million copies?” faves like The One Minute Manager and Who Moved My Cheese. Please.

But I digress.

James stated baldly what, in my last blog post, I had not quite wrapped my brain around, that corporations are “natural sociopaths”. Like true sociopaths, they are masters of disguise. They are like the likable Joe next door who turns out to have kept his kids chained in the basement for twenty years. They are likable because the collectively spend billions on the best perception manipulation talent in the world, fabricating memes that infect the collective consciousness, that BP cares about the environment, that DuPont really gives us “Better Living Through Chemistry”, or that Monsanto really cares about feeding the hungry of the world.

In my argument on Facebook, I quoted Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, surely one of the most powerful and concise speeches ever made. It is something, I think everyone should reread at least once a year, if not once a month, particularly after just having perused the morning news. I present it here for you in toto:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln was wrong.

Relatively few people today know what happened at Gettysburg or why. But his words ring down through history with as much power as ever.

And, they are just as relevant today as they were in 1863.

The Civil War was about economics. The South’s economic structure was built on the foundation of the cheap labor of slavery and they did not want to be forced to develop a different model. The morality of slavery was not at issue for the South. Slavery was an economic sociopathy which was institutionalized into the culture of the South.

It was the same battle that we fight every day in this country: the freedom for business to innovate and grow versus the legitimate interests of society as a whole. Those who assert that there should be no constraints on business appear to have no historical perspective from which to extrapolate the future such lack of constraints would produce: even more massive accumulation of power in wealth in ever fewer hands, the demise of the middle class, the elimination of social safety nets, the demise of democracy as the legislative process is overwhelmed by a flood of money from corporations like AT&T whose $46 million in lobbying costs is so much petty cash. It is a Dickensonian vision of life “nasty, brutal and short”, a throwback to a hundred years ago.

By the way, did you ever meet a poor Libertarian?

We have created a legal structure where corporations are living entities with the rights and privileges thereof, but with few of the responsibilities. We have a death penalty for murderers, but no death penalty for corporations who by cutting corners cause widespread death and destruction (see my blog post on corporate death penalty).

This struggle, I suspect, has to do with the “divine right of capital” that seems to cut across all cultures. Capital is intrinsically amoral, like a virus, only wanting to create more of itself. Capitalism and the institutions to which it gives rise appear to be at best only thinly veneered with concern for employees, communities or the environment. At least no more than absolutely necessary to further the creation of still more capital.

We have seen in Egypt that once power is firmly consolidated, an entire nation may have to take to the streets to unseat that power and redistribute it more equitably.

One of the problems with the intrinsic amorality of capital is that it attracts that spectrum of the population who find it easy to surrender any personal moral qualms (assuming they have any to begin with, since not everyone does) to the internal cultural pressures of the institutions in which they participate.

Those people with a greater social conscience often are people who find confrontation to be an anathema and who are intrinsically suspicious of concentrations of power and therefore reluctant to wield it.

As a nation struggling to free itself from a hostile takeover by corporate interests (what constraints have we actually managed to put on the banks over the past two years and why is a consumer protection agency such a bad thing?) it is incumbent on us to explore these issues. Is capitalism the be all and end all? Socialism and communism have failed. They aren’t the answer. There is a major variable in play now which effects all of humanity which was never on the table during the industrial revolution or when Ayn Rand engineered her meme of endless expansion and “progress” and that is the fragile state of the global ecosystem.

When I say fragile, let’s be clear. “Save the Planet” is nonsense. We do not have the ability to destroy the planet. Oh we can make a serious dent in it, but in a few million years life will irrepressibly spring up in a plethora of new ways. “Save the Species” is what we should be worrying about. GW Bush’s quip about global warming, “We’ll adapt” reflects a profound ignorance of how astonishingly narrow the temperature fluctuations on the planet are and how even narrower those must be for human survival and how delicate the ecological balance is to maintain that narrow temperature spread.

The stakes on the table now are our survival as a species. Stand back far enough and it’s easy to say that if we fail to survive as a species then we have only ourselves to blame and good riddance. Stand a bit closer and the level of human suffering accumulated on the way to extinction is overwhelming. Stand still closer and we’re talking about our families and their families.

To bring this exploration full circle, an educated populace is essential to begin to understand much less grapple successfully with these issues. Even here we have a conundrum. Business complains that they can’t find employees who can read and write. The reality is that business wants people who are good soldiers who will take and follow orders. The model is hopelessly obsolete, but most companies haven’t figured that out yet (see my Manifesto for the Propagation of a New Discipline of Self-Management). Politicians certainly have no interest in an educated populace with the critical thinking skills to be able to see through their half-truths and distortions.

Is the education system perfect? Hardly. Primary and secondary education is a throwback to the industrial revolution and plagued with administrators who want to be sure that nothing new happens that might effect their tenure. Teachers have unioned up to protect themselves from society’s willingness to pay athletes eight-figure salaries and not pay teachers of our children a living wage. The post secondary system has become out of control expensive and the very objectivity of science itself and the attention of professors to students has been compromised by the lure of corporate consulting contracts. But with all that, luring young minds away from education is not the answer.

We the people need to be educated and support education for our children and grand children as an intrinsic value of life so that we can collectively insure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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