January 07, 2024

The hidden power of us

 Sam Smith – Last May I wrote about a discovery that deer in the field behind our house had made for me:

We live next to a Maine field that is periodically used by up to a dozen deer. Watching them and thinking about their lives has taught me something about my own: namely humans are the only animal species on earth that allows fellow creatures outside of their close environment to tell them what to do.  Name another species of over 300 million beings that permits a president and a congress to make major decisions for them. The absence of a good answer may help to explain why things aren’t working better these days.  Meanwhile, 30 million other deer in North America have no idea or authority about what the deer in our field are up to.

Of course, there are no deer that build houses, plant fields, provide schools, or deal with cancer. But at the same time there is no Fox News that lies to foxes. And as George Orwell noted, “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.”

The problem is that we are taught, and come to accept and admire, the achievements of humans without adequate discussion and analysis of the price we pay for them. In other words, living into one’s 70s or 80s with cable TV is wonderful, but having Trump-like creatures abuse our time is far the other way.

There’s another price we pay for it, namely a decline in the very institutions that keep us human despite the failures of nations, corporations, media and artificial intelligence. These include families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, gatherings and communities. 

Thus, for example, in our discussions of how  to deal with Trump we rely in affecting the large institutions that largely control us as opposed to the less obvious powers we possess as humans living with other humans. If, however, you look at examples of positive change, they often come not from manipulating the huge but by alliances of the weak.  Consider the civil rights movement, women’s rights or ecological reform. In each case it was community action that got things going, not the reform of the grand.

Yet we increasingly rely on institutional America, despite the fact that these grand formations typically lack the values and standards that you find in these antiquated places called communities. Consider, for example, how we increasingly rely on legal institutions to establish our moral requirements, replacing churches, schools, families and neighborhoods.

There was once another important factor: community alliances built on goals, not ethnicity, religion or other things that still divide us. For example, in DC for over four decades there was a black majority in the city yet strong cross ethnic alliances were formed to take on  issues like freeways, urban planning, home rule and statehood.

But that was almost six decades ago and these days action is assumed to be grand – just like the government or corporations that fail us. We forget that a huge amount of change in the past has come from the bottom up.

When I moved to Maine full time fourteen years ago, I was interviewed by a local journalist, to whom I described a part of my motivation:

Since he’s been back, Smith said he’s seen things in Maine that have perhaps made him less cynical. A few years ago, when a Freeport lobsterman was injured in an accident, he said, “Within a few days, all the lobstermen had removed his traps. It was a combination of good for the lobsterman, good for the other lobstermen and good for the lobsters. A combination of competition and cooperation —it’s the way a good economy works.”  At another meeting about the restoration of a historic barn, Smith was heartened to hear a local contractor tell a Connecticut executive that, “When I build a house, I don’t just have to worry about whether the owner thinks I have done a good job. I have to worry about what people will say to my parents.”

Nothing since has changed my view. As I wrote a few months ago:

When I think about my own past, I can’t think of a single large corporation, institution or association that led me down the course I chose to follow. It was individuals, my Quaker high school, working on a farm, organizing in my ‘hood and my city, being friends with the wise and the kind, serving on a small Coast Guard cutter, joining local groups, playing in bands  and enjoying my family.

There is no haven for liars in my Maine town and about the only bullshit you’ll find is on farm fields and in barns. People are too close to reality and its effects to try to talk their way out of it. 

The institutional takeover of our society began in the 19th century and now, with artificial intelligence and modern media, it threatens the human in all of us. So as you puzzle what to do in this era of Trumpism and the lies, lousy logic and narcissism paraded as social change but threaten our country, bear in mind that an important part of the answer may lie in communities like yours. Don’t just complain; organize things that will make your community work better, especially ones that attract a cross-cultural alliance.  And find matters that challenge at a local level the lies that someone like Trump is stewing.