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Altered States: Do Not Be Reasonable - Boundaries and the New America

image Missouri river at Franklin Island...where Lewis and Clark camped heading west in 1805..., by Tim "Shitao" Williams

The boundaries of acceptable ideas are what determine compromises. After the last election, these boundaries are more important than ever for things like education, health care, climate change, and drug policy.

It all came to a head with the 2012 election. We are now indeed in a new world and the idea of transformation is finally front and center.

Right now, I am listening to spiraling electronic choral music tied together by Mark Isham's simple, long note trumpet melodies. The music inspires awe, hope, and a sense of majestic wonder, but it also carries with it pain, the sorrow of finally saying goodbye to that old world, and the trepidation we should all feel now that we're here. It's time to do something. We need vision and we need to understand moving forward actually means putting our foot on the gas. We need new clothing, tools, forts, peacekeepers, wizards, and wise women. This is going to be a great movie. Just listen to the music.

Maps and Scripts

If these new vistas of transformation are real (and I'm sure you could argue I'm full of shit here), more than anything the boundaries of change need to be pushed forward hard now. During 2012, President Obama talked a good game about investing in education. He is also the first President to stand tall and affirm same sex marriage. And he has been unrelenting about getting people to pay more in taxes when they earn over $250,000 a year (maybe this number goes up if the Republicans have any sense and learn how to compromise instead of keep their heads in the sand). And, finally, right there at the end of the campaign, Mother Nature reminded us all just how imperative it is for this nation to get serious about climate change.

These boundaries cannot be set by Barrack Obama alone. They need to be set by all of us. The failures of this country over the last 30 years or so all stem from people who believe in change not doing enough to bring that change about. It was almost as if the progressive and left-leaning generation from the 1960s and 1970s just curled themselves up on the couch after Ronald Reagan was elected, to watch our national political life unfold on TV. Even those who were active were largely ineffectual at pushing boundaries. We have been too conciliatory and nice to those who opposed us. Rocking the boat in America (something that is our most patriotic duty) became a bad idea. "You don't want to offend people." The thing is, people need to be offended.

The boundary issue shifted for a little while when Occupy Wall Street settled in during the fall of 2011. Occupiers are still out there doing a lot, but we all need to do more. We don't need a revolution, we just need push.

Being reasonable and compromising is all well and good, but if the edges aren't properly defined, we're not going to see real lasting transformation. For instance, take education. Students are graduating from college and graduate school sometimes with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Inner city schools can't hire enough teachers and don't even have enough money for books and desks. 

Imagine a country where every worthy high school student is guaranteed that their college education will be paid for. Imagine those worthy students coming through college and then getting their masters degrees covered in exchange for full-time teaching gigs in schools throughout the country. Imagine, too, that those young, worthy students begin their teaching careers with real salaries starting around $45,000 a year, and that the goal we all have is to see them succeed and fall in love with helping educate the next generation of worthy students.

The alternative, of course, is life-crushing debt, a sustained culture of dis-education (especially in the inner city), and a continuing spiral downwards for all of us in this society.

How can you fund something like this, you ask? You know the answer: we need to pay more in taxes. I'd gladly pay a little more into the kitty if I knew that my sons could get quality educations without going into debt. How that's done is an open question. But that question won't get answered if we don't push the boundaries. Here in Philadelphia, for example, I think it's pretty clear we can't change things on our own as a city. We need support from state and federal coffers. That very likely means that we need advocacy groups willing to brow beat and demand solutions. The alternative is just not acceptable. In fact, it's criminal.

Your vision, your ideals, are the boundaries I'm talking about. If you see them as simply impractical and hard to achieve, and stay curled up on your couch in your living room, they won't be boundaries, they'll be jokes. Me, I firmly believe that every elementary school needs a student-teacher ratio of 12:1. Right now, in North Philadelphia, my oldest son is teaching a 2nd grade class of 27 kids all by himself. That is unacceptable. I also believe our government should invest in every worthy student's education.

Boundaries and Visions

This same issue of boundaries needs to continue with climate change and healthcare issues. Democrats and Republicans alike have eschewed a carbon tax on petroleum fuels for the past decade. And the idea of single-payer, universal health coverage has been consistently held off the table by both sides of the aisle, and both Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Are we just pussies? If we want solutions to these problems, we need to push options all the way to the edge, and keep them there until real solutions arise. Obamacare was seen as a reasonable compromise to the health insurance turmoil. But as soon as it was passed, Republicans reversed themselves and tried to rescind it. Why? Because they had nothing to fear. The progressive side of the equation was back watching TV; a relatively "reasonable" compromise had been reached. Few people with any volume in the public discourse were standing up to continue pushing for something more equitable and fair. The lack of push to a further edge allowed Republicans to claim that Obamacare was a left-wing conspiracy when it wasn't at all.

The same is true for climate change. The compromise position of a carbon market solution is brought to committees, bills begin to get written, but the Republican leadership just cuts people's heads off and stymies everything with denial and obstinance. They have nothing to fear. The true solution of forcing each of us to pay for the external costs of a petroleum-based economy through a direct carbon tax has never been seriously brought to the table.

Being Unreasonable

I may sound like I'm encouraging people to get more militant. I suppose I am. But I'm also really just trying to point out that this militancy is coming one way or another, whether you like it or not. Occupy Wall Street was only the beginning. The dust is going to settle for the rest of this fall and winter. Come March and April, I predict the boundaries on a whole host of issues are going to push out into the frontiers of acceptability in a big way.

One area the media did not pay much attention to during 2012 is the issue of nationally legalizing marijuana and psychedelic drugs. There's been a bit of movement on state levels, but a national approach to these issues is the only way to resolve them. We all know the arguments for legalization — black markets are lost revenues (for both the public and private sectors), and the costs of crime prevention, court systems, and incarceration have become insane, not to mention drug wars in Central and South America. We also know that we're missing out on profound psychological healing opportunities, and a huge set of promising health research options. It's only a matter of time before the Boomer Generation realizes they need what was once a source of recreation and play to get through the last stages of life fighting cancer, fear of death, and numerous other infirmities.

More to the point, the issue of legalizing mind altering drugs, even just for research and healing, opens up the question of Reality as we know it.

Will any of this change be easy? Will boundary pushing mean that issues get clearer and that the overwhelming complexity of Life in America becomes simpler and easier to manage? Hell no. The future is finally here, but it's more fractured and bizarre than ever. Change demands that we all read more and develop the ability to truly think independently (part of this means turning your pathetic TV off). But it also means that, perhaps, we need to see being unreasonable as a good thing now. Maybe we just need to be proud of our visions, and push harder and louder for things to change.

You may want to try what I'm doing here as I write. It's very weird to listen to movie soundtrack music like, say, Thomas Newman's theme for American Beauty, or Michael Brooks' original score for Into the Wild. Music inspires wonder and calls on us to search for the connection between the imagination and our concern for the human spirit. Sometimes, it seems to me, we watch movies so we have images to look at when we're listening to music that conjures up powerful emotions and ideas.

These days, everything I'm listening to makes me feel like we're standing on a hill overlooking a rich and verdant river valley full of cities and towns and buildings and lights and cars and trains and men, women and children going about their lives. The world I'm looking at is very much like the one I came from, but there's something different, too, something hopeful and promising, something as yet unseen and untried. Only time will tell what this world is really going to be like — time, and how much people really care about moving into the future together.




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