Before segments like the Past is Present or My POV will make sense we have to examine the building blocks of society, its institutions. By my definition, an institution is like a paradigm but supported by laws, policies, traditions, most of which may be unwritten or uncodified. A standard definition is “a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, as marriage: any established law, custom, etc. any familiar, long-established person, thing, or practice; fixture. “[Dictionary.com]
We keep institutions at the fore to remind us where we stand in our world view, perspective, narrative, opinion, in our culture and current situation. Whether in the grocery store or in our marriage, we find ourselves ensconced in institutions. A myth we will look at under Narrative is that of the individual standing alone, a precious trope of Libertarians. That trope is held by most Americans – that of the Marlboro Man – exemplified in the photo of Barry Goldwater on horseback holding a Winchester. Eddie Murphy did a nice piece on that – and this foreshadows my bit on Presentism, to be defined – when he plays a modern day young Black man loud talking about how if he had been a slave how he would have put ol’ Massa in his place….. and then the whip cracks and he yells, “Where you want this bale of cotton, Massa?” Reality intrudes on narrative but institutions give narratives a warm nest it’s hard to pry them out of.
As with most of these topics, I like to insert a personal experience. A major institution in our exchange in the grouplet has been what we label racism – to be defined. But it is complicated. Here is an example:
My wife and I took our kids to Sears back in the late 70s for a family photo shoot. The teenage photographer was so taken with this beautiful family and perhaps intrigued by the interracial composition of it that she asked if she could get permission to put our portrait in the window as an attractor. We were delighted but she came back from requesting this of her manager quite crestfallen. Her request had been denied. Now what was going on here? My wife and I picked up a brochure at Costco the other day and there was a Black/White family on the cover and it reminded my wife of this incident, and we marveled at the change in customs.
Now, was this a big deal for us? Not unless you add it on to all such slights suffered over the years……. and there have been a lot. Before we declare it emblematic of America or dismiss it as trivial, let’s reflect on it. Was it due to race? We thought at the time it was because of the young girls’ embarrassment and discomfort, her obvious reluctance to tell us why the reversal of her decision to showcase us. But no overt statement of that kind was made. Was the manager correct in his sense that customers would react negatively and was he correct in assuming who customers would be? Should we have pursued the matter? Would some sort of complaint on our part have pushed racial justice forward or just embittered the manager? And what should the young girl employee have done? Was she complicit in a possibly racist act? And the manager – was he acting on Sears policy or on his own? What if we had gone to a Black photographer and the same thing had happened? Was my daughter disappointed that her photograph was not going to be in the display window? Was this all a figment of our imagination and the problem was that the manager had already had a display in mind?
Just a note here on writing style: I’ve noticed that some people take as significant the amount of space or time a writer devotes to a topic. That is wrong and immature reading. This incident with the photograph demands space for consideration, not because it is the centerpiece of the essay. So read henceforth in a mature manner.
Some institutions become overbearing. The Catholic Church at one time divided the world between Spain and Portugal. Ironically – and this colonial past will become a big point of discussion – neither Spain nor Portugal are big players, but their colonies – Brazil and Mexico – are. Just this week I finished a book by David Lightfoot titled The Development of Language, a bit above my pay grade but the parts I followed were fascinating and he compares the possibility of predicting language change with what historians of evolution and political institutions can predict. The answer is: not much. All of these areas of research are too contingent, i.e. too many factors come into the field and impinge in chaotic ways on the structures. He uses the varying interpretations of the English Civil War as the historian example. But hold on! We might find elements of some predictive value in all of this hot mess. Here I switch to Fukuyama and the process he labels capture by elites. The elites leverage their resources to restrict access. When this happens to the military, you get hollow armies as we saw in the Arab-Israeli wars; in the financial sector you get the phony and fragile economies of Greece and Italy; when you find it in government you get the break-down in services seen in some African countries. In religion, you get shifts like the Protestant Reformation. Right now the Reformistas are dismantling the American education system (interesting how few conservatives cry “Best system in the world” when they see investment opportunities in charters but yell it out when talking about health care because they want the insurance/pharmaceutical gravy train to keep flowing) in order to capture the vast education market. Watching the charter debacle, we can see in one area just how this works: you use money to buy legislative clout and to put out propaganda to disenchant the public with a system; then you step in as savior; then you milk the public money out of the system for yourselves and when only a shambles is left, you trumpet: “See, we were right – it is a disaster.”
Of great danger to the Republic is the emerging international class of financiers, people who no longer feel allegiance to a country. George Bush 41 got shot down over the Pacific and his son signed up for the National Guard during Viet Nam (I got the same offer and turned it down). As the ties to a nation weaken and the communication and transportation make interaction easy, the elites of the world collude in their own interests rather than in those of a single country. We are in rhetorical danger here as well because talk of international financial elites has been the bugaboo of the Right for well over a century, and the conspiracy theories usually target Jews. But Joel Kotkin wrote a book years ago called Tribes in which he identified a number of such international groupings, including the Anglo-American cabal.
What institutions are set up then to protect the non-elites? Good question. The hollowing out of the Middle Class, the devastation in our rural communities mentioned above, the rootlessness of our youth, all make us long for the good old days and a whole industry is devoted to such nostalgia.
An institution that looms over us all is the media. The media provides the narrative, the sound track. As we turn to that narrative, I will cite an example of how institutions submerged by circumstances may resurface. As our country thrived coming out of the New Deal and WW II, the White South found its institutions under attack and fought back, first by switching party allegiance to the Republicans (something many Blacks like Tony Brown have urged Blacks to do) and then using their political clout in the slave states to enact anti-union laws, anti-gay ordinances, and, after SCOTUS’ retreat from civil rights, voter restrictions, the last a throwback to the worst practices of the unreconstructed White South. All this without any threats from the federal government charged under “the general welfare” to protect the rights of all citizens to withdraw federal funds from these states. The slave states take far more from the government than they give in taxes. They are vulnerable but remain unmolested in their pursuit of former glory: the Old South, about which more soon and the institution of institutional and structural racism.
Fukuyama states: China was the first world civilization to create a modern state. But it created a modern state that was not restrained by a rule of law or by institutions of accountability to limit the power of the sovereign. The only accountability in the Chinese system was moral. A strong state without rule of law or accountability amounts to dictatorship, and the more modern and institutionalized that state is, the more effective its dictatorship will be. Applied to the U.S. we see how the moral force did not exist due to beliefs in the dominant culture about the place of Blacks, what we call a caste system, i.e. the rule of law or any other method of accountability did not apply to them. In my world view, as Jim would say, I interpret or frame the actions of SOME POLICE OFFICERS and those who support them as a relic of that lack of accountability deriving from Blacks’ lack of status, although a destructive relic. Prosecutors and other officers of the government are forced by changes in society since the 60s (thus the hatred of the 60s) to put up a pretense of accountability, as in the Ferguson case. The avoidance of outright racial appeals and epithets are called Political Correctness. Lopez outlines this as I show, the strategy of colorblindness. What Trump has done is throw the strategy overboard to make outright racial appeals – rather, racist appeals.
The economic institution of free market capitalism enjoys strong support, even among Liberals like myself and Progressives despite criticism and calls for regulation. Fukuyama points out that “Even in today’s mobile, entrepreneurial capitalist economy, rigid defenders of property rights often forget that the existing distribution of wealth doesn’t always reflect the superior virtue of the wealthy and that markets aren’t always efficient.” – p. 142 As Fukuyama says, the elites have a way of presenting what is good for them as universal truths and moral imperatives, often via religion. He says the elites talk of liberty but settle for privilege.
Political, economic and social institutions work in combination but not in lock-step. Fukuyama points out that social modernization, i.e. the breakdown of kin-based relationships, may or may not happen in concert with political modernization like bureaucracy or centralization of authority nor with the economic modernization accompanying technological progress. The Chinese built modern fleets and circled the globe in the 15th century but then retreated from the world stage while the Europeans set out in their tiny ships – really tiny! – and took over the world. Many countries nowadays undergo social modernization without concomitant political modernization and social organization is still kin-based. Thus sorting all this out is tricky and not given to glib formulations.
The power of free enterprise and free markets is amply shown by the examples from the Soviet Union where 4% of the land under private ownership produced one quarter of the food! In China, once Deng Xiaoping disbanded the collective farms, output doubled in four years. Liberals know this and support this. conservatives who oppose any government regulation, and that’s most at least in the economic sphere, try to smear Liberals with the label of socialist, communist, leftist, and so on, not because it’s true but because they want to frighten voters into supporting conservatives who will gut minimum protections. Now that that has happened and millions lost their homes, we revert to race-baiting about Mexicans and about Blacks getting free stuff (Fox News) paid for with White people’s tax money. (All this is well documented and undercuts Jim’s claim that he has never heard anyone say these things).
Outright lies bruited about currently are: Obama is not an American and does not understand America; Obama got his education due to affirmative action; Obama has dictatorially issued more executive orders than any other President; Obama; Obama is letting illegal aliens into the country when he has actually deported more than any other President; that job growth is the lowest ever; that Obama is responsible for the Recession; that taxes are higher under Obama than at any other time; that our position in foreign relations has been weakened to the point of destroying our role in the world; that we have enabled Iran to go nuclear; and more. These things are believed, mutatis mutandis, by about one third of the American public and around half of Republicans. They are variously voiced by public figures like Rush Limbaugh, the Breitbart crew, Glen Beck, Fox News, and others. My wife’s cousin listens to this and believes it all. We love her to death but her family thinks she’s crazy, seeing the connection between Right wing views and racial oppression. My question is: what does this distortion of reality do to our country’s ability to solve problems like the growing income gap, continuing poverty, problems in education, foreign policy issues like terrorism, domestic policy issues like terrorism (cf. Bundy ranch stand-off), a mess of a tax code, reform of election financing, the voter issues like access to the ballot and masses of illegals streaming across the border through the deadly Arizona desert just to fraudulently vote for our country commissioners, OK, I’m getting ridiculous but so are these lies.