Caution: Hot

I just finished watching Hot Coffee, an HBO Documentary about the limitations on civil liberties brought about by “tort reform.” In a familiar story, corporations spend millions of dollars getting the judicial, legislative, and executive branches (at the state and federal level) into their pockets at the expense of the American citizen.

I did not even realize the extent of my disgust, disappointment, and hopelessness with my country and with the world until I lost it minutes later. Telling my mom and her new boyfriend Paul that the movie was depressing, Paul began to ask probing questions: “How do the corporations exercise so much power?” and “What’s the alternative: socialism?” He quickly turned my disenchantment with the human race into a political debate, demanding practical, well-articulated answers to an issue I had thus far only addressed with newly-formed raw emotions.

Inherent in the socialism question was the deeply-seated American aversion to just the word itself, despite our multitude of socialist programs. I was turned off by his desire to corner me into a solution, a solution that of course he would counter with a new set of problems brought on by socialism. I was torn between not wanting to reject socialism unilaterally and a reluctance to suggest it as a solution, merely because I hadn’t even thought that far ahead.

Frustrated by Paul’s solution-oriented rhetoric, I erupted into tears and found myself inarticulate. After a short argument, I went upstairs to my room and burst out crying on my bed. I was overwhelmed with a crushing sadness for humankind. Why aren’t all people good?*

Over the past few months more than ever, I care about making the world better. It’s devastating that people care more about money than they do about other people and that money equals power. This July 4th I’m supposed to be proud of my country for providing people with so many opportunities, so many hard-won opportunities, and now I’m confronted with stories suggesting a regression in that regard. Everyone over 18 can vote and serve in a jury, but legislators have decided that those juries’ decisions (in civil cases) can be tempered, and judges often don’t deem that unconstitutional.

I remember when, a few months ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing businesses to donate any amount to a political campaign. “That’s unfortunate,” I thought, “but I guess it would be unconstitutional to continue capping the amount.” After seeing Hot Coffee, I don’t see that Supreme Court ruling in a vacuum; I see it as the most recent play by corporations, the same reason the CEOs of bailed-out banks have fat paychecks, the same machine that propelled Bush-whisperer Karl Rove.

I’m sure there are good arguments on both sides for the constitutionality of laws that either directly or indirectly favor corporations over the individual. I’m not versed in law so I don’t know all the intricacies of that. But the law does not always take into account ethics.

I want to live a world where everyone is ethical, where our codes of ethics are more or less the same, where people understand responsibility, culpability, and integrity. Where money is an incentive that doesn’t come at the expense of basic human rights.

Are we any further along than we ever once were? Is it significant now that we have a concept of “racism” as being “wrong”? Are loopholes and backdoor deals preferable to lynchings or are they the same human instinct expressed through a more restrictive system? Is the system in fact more restrictive and therefore protective, or has it just become more protective in some areas and less protective in others?

In other words: is progress a real concept or just an illusion?

I aspire to live an ethical life and I aspire to make change. I don’t yet know exactly how I’ll do that. I really should become a vegetarian, for one, or at least significantly cut down on my meat consumption. But as far as changing the world, I’m really just waiting for my next big idea. I have purchased my *eco-friendly* lightbulb and one day I’ll illuminate it.

Post Script: What ways are there to incentivize ethical behavior that also promote a healthy economy? If only those jerks on Wall Street and on the Hill cared about that more than they cared about making money, we might have more answers.

*Clearly, it was because he had glossed over what was really upsetting me (bad people) in favor of engaging in some type of solution-focused political dialogue, that I was rendered unprepared and betrayed. Why was I made to feel inept because I couldn’t answer his questions? But wait, how could he make it about something so small when the implications of the film are world-wide?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Caution: Hot

  1. You hit the nail on the head, and I seem to go down that train of thought daily regarding human nature.

    Another important thing to note is that a lot of the rhetoric lately has been turning corporations more and more into an idea, something the Citizens United opinion didn’t help. Corporations (especially in the sense discussed in documentaries like this one) are a bunch of rich people in a room–I try not to lose sight of that. “Corporate Interests” are those rich peoples’ interests, and nothing else.

    You really brought up a bunch of good points here. Let’s talk soon at length!!! I also have some books you should read…

  2. Chelsea

    [CAUTION: LONG POST]
    I have not watched this film, but I have received emails about it from Texas Watch, and so from those emails and your description, I get a sense of what it’s about. Time permitting, I would like to reply with my thoughts on those specific subjects, as I do have quite a few, but my “burning” (i.e. “hot”) thoughts at the fore of my mind are in response to your experience with your mother’s boyfriend.

    I’d like to preface this with the thought that this is just me sharing my similar experience, hopefully it gives good perspective to the conversation, but of course you can pick and choose what you will 🙂

    First of all, I think a lot of us don’t like to fight. When I was a child, I hated confrontation. I could deal with confrontation to a certain extent, but when it felt like I was being ganged up on, I would run off the playground in tears when I felt that someone was being, or doing something to me, that I considered [in high-pitch, childhood voice] “not FAIR!!!” Even as a younger adult, I remember fighting back tears when I would be confronted by someone, not only from something unjust, but maybe just a fight for which I was unprepared.

    Admittedly, when I walked into the group of friends that includes your sister, I was extremely intimidated by the level of education and intelligence in front of me. I was stunned into silence as they partook in conversations of which I felt to possess nothing close in ability or expertise of which to hang.

    However, people, like your sister, were there to encourage me and helped to boost my confidence over the last couple of years. When she was helping me with a problem I was having with my dentist (a situation that would most definitely bring up those tears of injustice), I did my homework and prepared for this fight, and I don’t think I can quite express how exhilarating and empowering it was to hold my own, and actually win that argument. Since then, I have found that knowing what I am talking about, and feeling that confidence, has done wonders for my ability to fight the good fight.

    Fight – I hate the word, really. Who wants to fight? But do you think that those who say to “rise above” the fight, end up accomplishing much? Unfortunately, I haven’t found this to be the case. And so people like me forge ahead, in intellectual debates, in pursuit of public service, whatever struggles lie ahead. If it was easy, we would probably be there already.

    To go back to what happened with your mother’s boyfriend specifically, I was not there, so I definitely cannot speak for that conversation, but it reminded me of something. The thought that came to my mind is that there seems to have developed is a false dilemma of reform. You are either a socialist (italics being used to invoke the recent stigmatic nature of this term*), or you love America (you get the idea). I think this is perpetuated by our current levels of divisive partisan politics, stories fueled by media bias.

    What keeps me from getting discouraged is knowing that this is not the case. I mean, certainly there are more extreme cases than we have ever had, as we can see in the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. When I asked my older mentor at work if I am naïve to believe that this is the worst partisan divisions we have had, he acknowledged that it hasn’t been this bad since Vietnam, and seems to be getting worse. However, here are a few heartening examples to consider (that are rarely reported on):

    1) State Department: They have been wonderfully receptive to suggestions of aid reform. Secretary Clinton has prioritized development, attempting to raise it to a level equal to that of diplomacy and defense. Her office has been very cooperative with thought leaders in the field of international development.
    2) World Bank/IMF: I have heard from a few people that there are young movers-and-shakers within the system, moving up within the ranks to create reform from the inside.
    3) Federal workers: Similar stuff- in DC papers they would report how, despite terrible reports regarding the millennial generation, we are proving to be much more effective in reducing waste and creating initiatives to improve efficiency within the bureaucratic system. I know a Democrat and a Republican who occupied the same position, and they agreed on probably 85-90% of the cuts made. That was a wonderful thing to hear because it made me feel that there is work to be done, progress to be had, outside the political realm.

    So, given examples like these, I wouldn’t want to let myself get caught in the idea that we have this potentially false dilemma when it comes to reform. Below the surface, there appears to be a ranging spectrum of options. Being in support of deregulation, campaign finance reform, and limiting the power of lobbyists does not make one a socialist! European friends would agree with me emphatically on that point. In my view, laws should be there to keep our self-interests bound to the point where they are not at the expense of another (“Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose”). I wouldn’t say that all the people on the Hill are in it for money; I have met many in time there that have a real feeling of a call to public service. I think of it more in terms of an entrenched system, where there are faulty assumptions made that “that’s just the way it is”, when actually – there is just a lot of work to be done.

    *If you haven’t read it, George Orwell has a wonderful essay, “Politics and the English Language”, that discusses our timeless tradition of assigning vitriolic rage to a chosen word, to be used as a political weapon: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

  3. throwinginthetowel

    I’m not really going to address what either of you said except to add that there is another side to my post – it’s not always rich people who are unethical; poor people can be unethical, too. I think the difference is that *usually* the rich have more power behind them, and so their indecency carries more weight. They also more often get caught in a system in which they are so far removed from the bad stuff that either they don’t realize it’s going on or it’s just easy for them to overlook it.

  4. Jon

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding Daniel, but I think you’re missing the big picture if you say that “corporations… are a bunch of rich people in a room.” Yes, that’s what their boards look like, but who owns them? It tends to be more middle class, dominated by pension funds and large numbers of smaller individual investors. IMHO it’s hard to build a strong “us vs. them” story around these issues.

    • throwinginthetowel

      Arfa, i think what you’re saying is also skewing the truth. The majority of shareholders are uninvolved or uneducated about their finances, and just because they’re middle class doesnt mean they havent adopted an upper class mentality towards finances. Its not unheard of for poor ppl to support a policy that isnt actually in their favor.

  5. Pingback: Haters, they gonna hate | Throwing in the Towel

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