America is an undignified disaster. Black people needing to cry out that their lives matter too is a dignity issue. The opioid epidemic gutting the once-thriving blue-collar rust belt flows directly from the desire to escape from an undignified existence. Even the rise of White Nationalism and other hate groups stem, in part, from a quest for dignity. After all, those living in dignity have no need to carry a tiki torch and insist they will not be replaced?
Americas Undignified History
While some want to argue that a lack of dignity is a recent phenomenon, a blip on the historical radar, this is patently false. American was undignified long before the recent election of Donald Trump. Despite everything Democrats want to claim, Trump’s election was not an unexplainable or random.
Rather, it centered on Trump’s promise to restore dignity to those Hillary Clinton coined deplorable. People who watched their jobs move away as Bill Clinton signed NAFTA and George W. Bush normalized trade relations with China. Many of these same people watched Obama bail out mortgage lenders even as they lost their homes. This is why Trump’s lowest approval rating came the day he signed his tax cuts into law.
Rather, the last four decades of American public policy decimated a once thriving White middle class that included many blue collar workers. They are people who, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, find themselves tasting a small bite of the dehumanizing treatment that others have known throughout American history.
Yes, America the undignified is part of America’s founding narrative. How could it not be? The Founding Fathers were wealthy land-owning men of European descent. They spent days keeping slaver owners at the table. In her conception, America is a male-dominated country built on stolen land by people stolen from their land. How could she not become an undignified disaster when the experience of so many is ignored?
There is Hope
At the same time, there is hope. We can embrace the equality of all people. The recognition of each other’s unalienable rights is possible. Dignity can come when we craft a society that offers liberty and justice for all. This promise of dignity is in America’s founding documents, we have just never lived up to them.
So how might America move beyond being an undignified disaster? How might we institute social structures, like the Levitical practice of gleaning, that create a society that demonstrates universal dignity?
The Basics of Dignity
Before we can answer this question, we need to agree on some dignity essentials. What is necessary for someone to experience a dignified life? How do we create an America that demonstrates universal dignity?
Last week’s exploration into Leviticus offered some foundational ideas, including access to food and shelter. But there is another element in the practice of gleaning that is important, work. Israelite landowners did not harvest their crops and give a percentage to the local food bank for distribution. Instead, the Law required to leave part of the harvest so those most in need could gather accordingly. This suggests that dignity is not just about the provision of essentials to sustain life. It is the opportunity to contribute to the provision as you are able.
Moreover, this work ideally happens in accordance with your talents. After all, the priests never worked in the fields. However, they ate portions of the sacrifices they made. Society deemed their work valuable and assured provision.
Work and Dignity
In theory, the need for humans to do meaningful work should be obvious. We first see it in children who, from a very early age, want to do things for themselves. Some want to pick out their clothes. Others want to prepare their food. Younger kids take great pride in doing their chores. This is a quest for dignity. Any good parenting manual or child psychologist will tell you that children need the empowerment of choice. Of course, those same chore-loving kids will eventually avoid their chores because autonomy is also part of dignity.
We also see this within feminism. Throughout America’s history, White women were largely been relegated to life at home. For some, this meant a life as a socialite and conforming to strict “Southern Belle” norms. For others it meant cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Either way, society on the whole objectified women and minimized their contributions. Simultaneously, society glorified what men did when they left the house and defined that as meaningful work. Second-wave feminists, in part, fought for the opportunity to participate in that work. It was a pursuit of dignity.
Where does this drive come from? The opening cosmological myth of Genesis reveals a God engaged with creation. God invites light to come forth and waters to recede. This deity invites all creation towards that which is very good. Genesis also says that you and I are made in the image of this God. If that is true, it only makes sense that provision and participation are integral aspects of dignity. So given this framework, where is America falling short? What keeps us an undignified disaster?
The System We Think We Have
Largely in response to the Vietnam War, America restructured itself around the ideas of neoliberalism. On the surface, this claims to be a kind of Libertarianism. There is a supposed laissez-faire approach to business and a belief in self-regulating markets that some even deem magical. Theoretically, these markets respond to human needs and naturally create a certain kind of equilibrium that allows for the dignity of all.
Sadly, this entire theory is pinned on a faulty Enlightenment anthropology that assumes people to be rational thinkers. It believes that unregulated people will work towards their own best interest which includes the common good. This view that sees our cerebral cortex as the dominant feature of our brain so our logic and analysis will prevail. The is quite simply, untrue.
We Are Not Rational Beings
In reality, using the cerebral cortex consumes huge amounts of valuable energy. Because energy is an evolutionary commodity, our natural impulse is one of conservation. But rational decisions are highly consumptive because they often counter the impulses of the far more efficient and reactive limbic brain.
This means that for our bodies, being logical, involves tremendous risk. Therefore, our bodies only allow our brains to do so much work a day. That is why will power fades as the day moves on and, if you want to live any kind of disciplined life, you need to take on the most challenging tasks of the day upon waking and spend the rest of your time in an environment crafted to make the healthiest choices the easiest ones.
But to keep us feeling empowered and logical, the body does allow the cerebral cortex to spend energy rationalizing the impulses and desires of the limbic brain. In other words, the vast majority of the time, we act on impulse and then justify it.
This is also why a CEO’s regular reject the truth that healthy and well-cared for employees will be best for a business in the long run. Instead, most of them rationalize justifications for lower wages and benefits that maximize short-term profits. It is all about the limbic brain’s desire for self-preservation and security at the moment.
America’s Actual System
That said, as any Libertarian will be happy to tell you (no need to ask, they will just tell you), America never really embraced this philosophy largely forwarded by economist Friedrich Hayek. Instead, America has always maintained a certain affinity for rival economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes wanted the government to, in varying ways, control the economy. Democrats do this through spending while both Republicans and Democrats manipulate the economy by facilitating corporate exploitation and war.
Note: If you want an entertaining introduction to Keynes and Hayek from a group biased towards Hayek, check out these rap battles produced before and after the Obama stimulus package: Fear the Boom and Bust – Keynes vs. Hayek – Hayek’s Gift
So what we end up within America is not a free market, but a market designed around the desires of business and the corporate class, even as that dishonors and dismisses the inherent dignity of the majority. Nixon started it, Reagan popularized it, and Bill Clinton brought about its full manifestation. Ultimately, it is recreation the social and economic conditions of the Industrial Revolution and the greed that brought about the Great Depression.
Why This System Fails
In this system, major programs like Obamacare fail, not because the goal of expanding access to healthcare is bad, but because any expansion needs to benefit corporations. With Obamacare, this means insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry. But what is profitable to business is not healthy and happy people embracing their dignity, but sickness management for the chronically ill and depressed.
This also explains why both Obama and Trump’s stimulus plans largely prioritized business and why Biden’s plan, which was more people-focused, often failed to deliver because the stripped-down bureaucracy of smaller government could not get money into the hands of people and the necessary service providers.
In the end, what honors human dignity is often oppositional to the business bottom line. Free markets are not magical, they are slaves to the often mysterious ways of our evolutionary brains. Markets guided for the well-being of business are nothing less that destructive. After all, what is most profitable are perpetually sick people desperate enough to work for starvation wages. There is little interest in dignity or human thriving because those things are not as profitable in the short term.
The System We Were In
So if what we have done for the past forty years has failed the vast majority of society in a way that makes the fallacy of meritocracy the only potential justification, was America’s self-organization in the previous decades any better?
Starting with the 1933 inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt through the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson modern liberalism guided American society. Here, following the philosophy of Keynes, the government invested heavily in public programs ranging from the FDR’s New Deal to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system to LBJ’s war on poverty and the space race. Here, rather simply seeking to maximize profits, the investment focused on creating a better society … for some.
Unfortunately, New Deal programs including the GI Bill disproportionately benefited White Americans. Red Lining prevented Black Americans from partaking in the suburban housing boom, denying them the generation-changing equity of homeownership. And it was not just that Black Americans were denied these dignity-affirming programs, they were also denied civil rights legislation throughout much of this era, not seeing it passed until the mid-1960s.
Then, just as America began to engage in the work needed to amend for centuries of open racism, the nation entered Vietnam and the resources needed at home were shifted overseas. Covering the costs of the Cold War and later the war on terror replaced public investments at home and brought about the end of liberalism and the birth of neoliberalism.
The System America Needs
So where do we go from here if we want a society that demonstrates dignity to all?
With the end of the Afghanistan war and an opportunity to move on from the interventionist foreign policy that has dominated since Eisenhower, one solution might be to bring war money back home with a return to modern liberalism. The one caveat, it would have to be done with a distribution that benefits all and seeks to repair centuries of mistreatment towards people of color, including but not limited to descendants of chattel slavery and indigenous Americans.
When it comes to universal programs, this could include health care for all, a large investment in physical infrastructure, accelerating the transition to sustainable energy, and urban development that sees housing as a human right. It could also mean a living minimum wage or a federal jobs guarantee that promises anyone willing to work the opportunity to make a dignified living.
We Need More Than Modern Liberalism
But while there is plenty of work to be done for a season, there are two significant problems that need consideration. First, thanks to the globalization of neoliberalism, America no longer knows how to build things. The industrial infrastructure that once led the world, now largely sits empty. The Covid pandemic made it clear that we are now dependent upon industrial Asia for everything from superconductors to medical swabs. We have transitioned from an industrial to an information society.
Moreover, as highlighted by the presidential campaign of Andrew Yang, automation has largely overtaken what industry we do have. When you add in the reality that artificial intelligence is rapidly changing many aspects of the service industry and self-driving vehicles will soon transform the transportation and trucking industries, there are legitimate questions about the number of roles available for people out to make dignifying contributions to society.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I feel this quandary as I work a customer service job that is well within my ability but in no way maximizes my talents. Abundance Reconstructed on the other hand taps into my talents but does not provide the income needed to sustain life for my son and me. A piece of Yang’s solution is a universal basic income that assures basic provision, and then allows the pursuit of work in accordance with passion and creativity.
One way or another, we stand at a social transition point not seen since the Vietnam War. The pandemic revealed just how undignified our modern society is, but instead of stepping into something new, recovery attempts to date have largely focused on reinforcing the old house of cards. We missed that chance to bring about systemic change, but that does not mean it is too late to embrace a better path forward. The question is, will we embrace it?
More importantly, are we going to dare to ask how we can step into the aspiration of our founding documents and, for the first time, make America dignified?
Video: A Problem With Healthcare Politics by Irami Osi-Frimpong
Even if health care is universally accessible with no out of pocket expenses, it is not free. Therefore, if we want to receive care, we should work for it. Here’s The Funky Academic’s take.
Podcast: Congressional Dish with Jen Briney
Jen is a nerd in a league all her own, but she’s an entertaining nerd who lays out essential information. For the past 10 years, she’s devoted her life to reading actual legislation and listening to congressional hearings, and then reporting what she finds with the most details footnotes you can imagine. You don’t really want to know what congress is up to because it is really disturbing, but it is essential if you really want to understand the America we live in.
Book: Goliath by Matt Stoller
This is not the most exciting read, but if you want to understand the economic shifts between modern liberalism and neoliberalism, it is essential.
Book: Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith
The first section in this book goes in depth on human anthropology. While Smith wrote it to defend and promote formative liturgies, the application to broader society is undeniable.
Video: I Am Not Willing to Accept The Country We Are Leaving For Our Children with Andrew Yang
I do not endorse Andrew Yang, and there are aspects of his policy and how he ran his New York mayoral campaign that concern me, but he makes points that we should to consider.
Pick one of the resources above and check it out. How does it encourage you? How does it challenge you?
Given that this piece is so long and getting out so late, I am going to take this weekend off. I will be back next week with more on those most needing restorative justice in our society.