Friday, May 29, 2015

The Challenge Of Our Complaints

Americans love to complain.  And after so many years of polished experience, we do it so very well.  Our forbearers complained about the Church of England – which was itself a response to complaints about the Roman Catholic Church – and came to America in diverse droves to practice their alternatives.  English colonists complained about being taxed without a voice in the decision, and won a revolution enabling a new radically alternative government.  American settlers in the southwest complained about Mexican rule, and similarly fought a revolution that created the independent Republic of Texas, only to subsequently subsume itself into the structure of the United States.  Southern Americans complained about interference by the federal government in their affairs and decisions, and fought another revolution for a return to a “confederation” style of government; they lost that bid, and the nation survived shaky but intact.  The list of or complaints and their results has continued steadily through our history.  Americans complain, and action ultimately follows.

Our ability to complain comes partly from its enshrinement in our Constitutional guarantee of free speech.  But it is also part of our cultural DNA from our ownership of our governments, to our stock ownership of our corporate economy, and the free choices of our purchasing dollar in the marketplace.   When we feel our interests are not being served, or “people” (both human and now corporate) misbehave, or the world does not look and act like what we think it should, we collectively believe it is not just our right but our obligation to speak up.  And then we expect action to follow.

And that is what is different about American complaining today: the lack of action steps.  We complain as well as ever.  But today, virtually nothing then follows.  Our complaints go into a black hole of indifference and stagnation.  Complaining for the sake of complaining, with no movement to show for it.  We have become content with listening to the voice of our unhappiness, and then walking away into self-fulfilling hopelessness for meaningful change.  Hence we are drowning in a sea of political and social inertia, thwarted by political and social “leaders” who have become highly adept at feigning interest in our concerns and then avoiding taking any steps to address those concerns.  All the while blaming it on “the other guy” as the reason nothing gets done.

Certainly there is much worthy of complaining about today.  The failure to hold any of the architects of the 2008 economic collapse accountable; bailing out the big corporations while middle American homeowners and small business owners were left dangling.  The increasing denigrating and suspicion of any person getting a government check that is seen as a “handout” – while a corporation getting a “purchasing contract,” or a tax or special legislation advantage,  is seen as generating an economic stimulation.  Very rich people paying less of an income tax rate than average-to-low income people.  The continual attempt to turn one group’s moral or religious opinions into national legislation encumbering everyone.  The pursuit of political power for its own sake for the benefit of the very few at the expense of power used for the overall public good.

We do not help alleviate this paralysis of inaction when we stop listening to our fellow citizens with differing views.  As long as we believe “we’re right and you’re wrong,” then we’re wrong.  Because there is some grain of truth in every argument (paid charlatans of self-interest notwithstanding), even if no other reason than leaving each other alone to find our own pursuit of happiness in our own way.  “Live and let live” used to carry us a long way.  “Live how I live” stops us dead in our collective tracks.

One of the more distinguished components of the American Character has always been our “can-do-ness.”  Our ability to convert Complaint into Challenge and then into Solution.  The belief that, as John F. Kennedy once said, as individuals or a collective culture “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” to overcome the challenges we face.  We have met many such challenges over the years, to the deserved admiration of the world.  That is the real meaning of leadership: action and results, not just of words.  The cliché “If you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem” has always been an American social and entrepreneurial truism.  That truism is now lost in a forest of special interest groups and an array of lobbyists with vested power and a financial interest in maintaining our division and lack of progress.  Keeping us fighting against each other rather than helping us to work together.

The reality is that not all wealthy people are self-centered narcissists focused on their own well-being and accumulating more fortune.  Not all poor people are immoral takers looking for a free ride at other people’s expense.  Not all corporations are looking to increase profits by making shoddy dangerous products in an unsafe working environment.  Not all employees are looking to do a poor job and take advantage of their employers.  Not every government regulation is killing our economy.  Not every intrusion into a wilderness area is destroying the planet.  Not every difference in lifestyle is dooming us to hell.

When we stop complaining and start listening, then in that quiet we have a chance to find our ethical compass once again.  To do the right thing for the many.  Left unfettered, that compass always points to the middle.  The big middle where there is room enough to embrace almost everyone.  It is a little harder to make that climb to the middle of the peak that sits on the top of the mountain of aspiration.  It is far easier to sit in place at the bottom in our many separate campsites, each invisible to one another.  But when we make the climb together from our separate starting points, following our individual trails, we discover that all of us necessarily arrive together on the same sharp peak of our shared mountain.  And from that peak, the view is exhilarating.

©  2015   Randy Bell