Note: Reading previous posts is advised. Content warning: includes personal disclosures about childhood sexual abuse. This content was originally composed in January 2020.
It is a largely unquestioned assumption in American culture that the United States was founded with the most advanced governmental model ever devised. Our Constitution, we’re taught, ensures that every citizen has rights and protections that prevent tyrannical applications of power by our leaders. People of color, women, immigrants, children, indigenous people, and others were excluded from such rights and protections from the beginning and have always been aware that the USA is not, and has never been, the true bastion of universal democracy it claims to be. Rebellions, protests, strikes, and other forms of activism provide evidence that large groups of people have been left out since day one.
Even among those explicitly included- white men who were born in the US- there are discontents who distrust our government and believe that revolution is imminent and much needed. Fringe groups of all varieties have formed online and in person- many with the stated objective of “burning it all down” and starting over. In his 2019 book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, Andrew Marantz chronicles his 3-year investigation of the alt-right movement in the United States. His reporting makes clear that there are a lot more people seeking and actively promoting the destruction of our Democratic Republic than we know. Authoritarianism and fascism are on the rise throughout the world, with “strongmen” heading the governments of Russia, Syria, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and others.
Recent polling in the US suggests that there is a growing sentiment that strong leadership is more important that democracy and that the separation of powers within our government is unnecessary and inefficient. Trump supporters seem completely unbothered by the corruption and criminality that have been exposed within the President’s businesses, family, campaign team, and administration. If anything, his “above the law” persona has strengthened his base’s support. These are extremely ominous trends, demonstrating major flaws in the design of our system of government. We can argue all we want about the merits or deficits of the Electoral College, the proper voting age, gerrymandering of election districts, voter purges, money in politics, and the like, but we need to address the overall design problem inherent to any governmental model that is based on our civilizational worldview. It’s the hierarchy, dammit!
To be fair, there are also examples of progressive leadership rising in parts of the world, including the United States. I am encouraged, to some extent, by the recent elections in New Zealand, Finland, and Costa Rica, where 30-something politicians, Jacinda Ardern, Alverado Quesada, and Sanna Marin, respectively, have become heads of state. Each has come to power with platforms focused on human well-being and sustainability. Realistically, however, they are each leading small countries and are up against the same structural challenges faced by any leader in a hierarchical system. It is important that their ideas are popular within their societies and that they have a world stage upon which to promote their priorities but their influence will, inevitably, be limited by the parameters of civilizational hierarchy.
In virtually all civilized cultures, our children are held up as our primary focus- with childcare, healthcare, housing, environmental protections, and education being necessities for their development. When it comes to where tax dollars are allocated, however, our actual priorities are clear- military might, industrial growth, and increased shareholder value for the already most privileged classes. The apparent contradictions are difficult to reconcile because they are fundamentally irreconcilable. Most of us don’t even bother to question the preeminence of the so-called “military-industrial complex” at this stage- perhaps because there have been so many failed attempts to challenge the status quo. The counterculture revolution efforts of the past, most notably the Hippies’ movement in the 1960s, resulted in a reversion to the dominant culture with backlash against any hint of progressive or revolutionary thought.
My parents considered themselves part of the movement but seemed only to have an interest in the free love, drug use, and lack of responsibility parts of the scene. They were not involved in protests or demonstrations against the War in Vietnam or American hegemony in the world, in general, but had long hair and smoked/sold a lot of pot and other drugs. Within 15 years of the end of the 60s, they were full-on capitalists, owning businesses and profiting from the labor of others with no noticeable qualms, whatsoever. My memories of early childhood include a lot of tribal elements- various other hippies around- getting high, making art, playing music, and discussing all manner of philosophical questions. My sisters didn’t seem very interested but I absorbed a great deal from listening to them. They reflected a communal, non-materialistic, creative, and possibility-laden worldview that I was inspired by as a kid and remain so to this day. It was not without problems, of course. We were poor- but we always ate and had housing and clothing (even though mom made many of our garments from second-hand Indian print bedspreads that were atrocious even by 1970s standards!) My sisters and I were less supervised and more unstructured than many of our peers and that led to a quite a few unsafe situations and traumatic experiences. As the folks are fond of saying, though, we “turned out alright.”
I would argue that there were things that happened to me, as a child, that should never happen to anyone. I was sexually abused by a neighbor who took advantage of my age and vulnerability but that could certainly have happened regardless of my parents’ lifestyle choices. As an adult, I’ve learned that the majority of people have experienced some form of sexual exploitation and/or abuse prior to their 18th birthday, so clearly it is not because my parents were hippies that I was abused. I am one of millions of survivors who have been made vulnerable to mistreatment more so by structural flaws in our society than by individual parenting choices. Learning that has been both liberating and infuriating. How can we accept this? I can’t. I won’t. I will fight against the normalization of oppression, abuse, exploitation, and other harmful byproducts of civilization until my last breath.
The best way I know to do this is by presenting viable alternatives to the model, itself. In writing this, I hope to reach a wider audience but I have trained and taught hundreds of young people skills and practices to build community- based on essentially tribal principles- for much of my adult life and that is where my focus will remain. I believe strongly that relationship-building, critical thinking, and tangible opportunities to create alternative, meaningful ways of making a living are the keys to solving our seemingly intractable social and political issues. It isn’t quick- which is frustrating given the devastating impacts we have already experienced and are seeing accelerate in recent years- but I am convinced that it’s the only way to truly transform our culture.