Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Business of Dehumanization

Judging by the head-popping over at Kleinheider’s and in comments here, it seems I struck a nerve with my radical idea that capitalism is not, in fact, the answer to every problem.

How very un-American of me.

Mostly I was trying to point out that free insurance markets will create a whole new headache without actually reforming anything. Our problem isn’t lack of insurance. Our problem is a system that isn’t people-oriented but instead business-oriented.

Congress is asking how we can reform the business of healthcare to better serve people. That’s the wrong question. I’d rather ask how we can keep people healthy and get affordable healthcare to everyone at those inevitable times when we are not. Business may play a role in that but it shouldn’t be the overriding focus.

The business of healthcare should serve people. That it doesn’t is a failing of the modern capitalist religion, in which people are viewed as “consumers” first, human beings second (if at all). We’ve had this drilled into our psyche so thoroughly that we blithely accept such terms as “American consumers,” not recognizing the pejorative it so clearly is. Because when humans are reduced to mere “consumers,” their value is in their purchasing power. They are nothing more than wallets, checkbooks, bank accounts. Even, ominously, “credit scores.”

This leaves a whole bunch of people out of the equation (namely, the poor), and creates a social inequity in which the wealthy are deemed of greater value to society than the rest. Just look at the rhetoric from conservatives, who routinely disparage the poor as drains on society (Nashville’s own Phil Valentine recently referred to the poor as ”greedy grumblers” who are “sucking up the tax dollars of hard-working Americans by the trillions.”)

It’s dehumanizing, yes, but also entirely inevitable under a system that sees only wallets, not people.

It’s not just healthcare. I point readers to Mark Slouka’s riveting article in the September issue of Harper’s about education: “Dehumanized: When Math & Science Rule The School” (subscription required). Slouka highlights something I’ve long suspected but have been unable to articulate: our education system is one engineered to serve business interests at the expense of civic interests. The result, while good for capitalism, is bad for democracy.

Writes Slouka:
Like a single species taking over an ecosystem, like an elephant on a see-saw, the problem today is disequilibrium. Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one? In part, because we don’t have the language for it. Our focus is on the usual economic indicators. There are no corresponding “civic indicators,” no generally agreed-upon warning signs of political vulnerability, even though the inability of more than two thirds of our college graduates to read a text and draw rational inferences could be seen as the political equivalent of runaway inflation or soaring unemployment.

I would argue we saw those “warning signs of political vulnerability” at this summer’s Tea Party gatherings, where a population unsure of anything except their anger and powerlessness followed the orders of their corporate overlords and gathered at public squares to protest ... public squares?

There are plenty of other “civic indicators,” I might add: pathetically low voter turnout compared to other industrialized democracies; the focus on politics over substantive information on our national news; even the fact that we have a national business news anchor clueless about a program like Social Security. None of this bodes well for the Republic's civic health.

Why are the arguments for investing in education always capitalistic ones? To “make us competitive on the world stage,” of course. As Slouka notes, that’s a great way to create worker bees, not such a good way to create citizens. And it's implemented by emphasizing math and science education over those disciplines where it's more difficult to assign a dollar sign:

The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.

They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance.

Little wonder totalitarian regimes tend to keep tight control over things like art, music, literature, and history.

And finally:

Rein in the humanities effectively enough—whether through active repression, fiscal starvation, or linguistic marginalization—and you create a space, an opportunity. Dogma adores a vacuum.

Someone remind me, when did we stop teaching civics in public schools?

We’re out of balance as a society. We’ve accepted the idea that our value as human beings is in our purchasing power. That might serve IBM and Microsoft and Monsanto and Koch Industries well, but how well does it serve America?

Look around you. People, both right and left, are angry and disillusioned. Dehumanized. We look for solutions in electoral politics, and they are not there. We look for solutions in the marketplace--in boycotts--and they are not there.

Where is the solution?