Monday, March 23, 2015

"To Help Us Serve You Better ...." (27 Oct. 2013)

Always have people on the street more radical than you are.
"Sheep have input into the decision-making process of the shepherd."

            There was a time ca. 1967-70 when young people were out on the streets in much of the industrialized world and times of long, hot summers when Black Americans were out in significant numbers, with a number of respectable-size riots. Those were good times for moderate-Lefty activists.

            As we know now, looking back, the "wave of the future" ca. 1970 wasn't with young radicals on the street, but with the Donald Rumsfeld's and Dick Cheney's, the Karl Roves, Newt Gingrich's and Lee Atwater's: the Young Americans for Freedom sorts who were quietly reinforcing the Backlash that started by 1968 and has been with us unto this day.

            We had an inkling of the building backlash in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. To start with, there was that Man on the Street who formulated the issue as, "What it's all about is 'Who's in charge?'" — and in the couple decades to come Who's In Charge sure wasn't going to be Students for a Democratic Society or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A stronger hint came from the lady in the Urbana bank who bemoaned the fact that only four demonstrators had been killed at Kent State U in Ohio. Less sensationally, but more to the point here, I had one hell of a strong inkling of things to come when I had to address a demonstration on the U of I quadrangle, put on a tie, and then go inside the Illini Union building negotiate: We didn't have enough radicals to fill out a "demo" haranguers program, so I had to fill in as a ringer.

            Fortunately, however, most journalists are borderline innumerate and their bosses thoroughly cynical: "No blood, no news" was a real line from a Chicago TV exec from the period, and with exceptions in the more conservative media, few reporters worked through the numbers on how many students were demonstrating and what their geography and demographics were; ditto for Black people. More fortunately (if one was a moderate-Lib-Leftist activist — and I was), more fortunately, many academic and state-level politicians could get border-line paranoid and come to believe our propaganda and their own about incipient coalitions of radical students, Blacks, and young workers: various officials came to believe that they'd have to work with moderates or face the mob.

            So it was a good time to be a moderate-Lefty activist, 'cause there were radicals on the streets the authorities feared enough to offer to negotiate (even if I was hardly the only one who had to double as one of those radicals on the street).

            So rule number one here, or "Back to Basics #56": Always have people on the street more radical than you are — even if you have to get your ass out onto the street yourself.

            The Powers that Be, however, may get paranoid and panic easily, but you can't count on their being stupid or ignorant of their history. Back in the Time of the Troubles — when the pressure was on to negotiate — what they offered us was "input into the decision-making process." Savor that phrase, since it's better than you're going to get nowadays; savor it, and then repeat over and over, like a mantra, "Sheep have input into the decision-making process of the shepherd."
            I'm stealing that insight, if not the exact formulation, from B. F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948; ch. 25, I believe), except that Skinner believes that sheep with input is the correct order of things.
Even as engine noises must be taken into account by mechanics and aviators, even as sheep in their noises and behavior have input into decision-making by shepherds, even so the residents, not citizens, of Walden Two have input — through surveys, say, and suggestions — into the decision-making by the Managers and Planners who run the community.

            Now all of us some of the time, many of us much of the time, and some of us all the time would just as soon other people made our decisions for us. I for one enjoy travelling when I'm on the plane or train and the biggest decision I have to make is, on a train, what to have for lunch (in this instance, I like being powerless and without responsibility especially since if we crash, no one will blame me [some people worry about death; I worry more about screwing up]).

            Still, however occasional nice vacations into Lotus Land might be, we should keep in mind that shepherd's take care of sheep in order to fleece them — or make them into lamb chops or mutton. Even if we are in the care and control of The Good Shepherd, a being beyond the economics of real sheep-raising — even as a fat and well-protected sheep, there are problems. It's "species-ist" to say so, but sheep are pretty stupid, and humans should aspire to more control over our lives than exercised by a domesticated sheep. For another slogan: Today's frisking lamb is tomorrow's castrated wether.

            Humans should not aspire to "input" but to clout: having your ideas, opinions, desires, and interests taken seriously.

            Since the Thatcher/Reagan Era, however (ca. 1975 f.), the question of "Who's in charge" has had the answer that, The Powers That Be be fully in charge — and, for now anyway, the best you will get is not effective citizenship but "input."

            And that "input" is becoming increasingly low grade as unions have declined and "collegiate governance" and "employee participation" have become quaint theories of a thoroughly by-gone era. Nowadays you get "input" through surveys and data-mining: today's Managers and Planners' caring about your desires and concerns as necessary to manage your behavior and manipulate your consumption.

            The Great Wheel of Politics turns, though, always. I fear the next turn will bring fascistic mass movements, but perhaps the Idiocracy will not be decisive. Perhaps, just perhaps — possibly — there will be a magic moment when the right blend of radicals on the street will force the Powers That Be into serious negotiations, perhaps, just perhaps, The Powers That Be will have to cede some decent moderate Lefties just a bit of clout.

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