Number 548 February 18, 2014

This Week: Corruption, Language, and Systems

"Quote" of the Week: Bills to pay, profits to make
Corruption, Language, and Systems Theory
Health, Race and Systems
Steinbeck Helps Us Go from Villains to Systems
A Little Obvious Propaganda


This is an extra-long edition of Nygaard Notes, I don't know what got into me. Part of it is the epilogue to the discussion in the last issue about corruption and systems. I've got a couple of other pieces about the U.S. role in the world as it appears in the Propaganda system, but they'll have to wait, because...

I'm going on vacation tomorrow! If you have any responses—and I hope you do—please send them along! I'll see them and get back to you when I return in ten days.




"Quote" of the Week: "Unintended, Unforeseen, and Completely Disastrous Consequences."

On January 16th the remarkable Nick Turse posted an article on the TomDispatch website called "The Special Ops Surge: America's Secret War in 134 Countries." Here are just a few excerpts:

"Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, from their numbers to their budget. Most telling, however, has been the exponential rise in special ops deployments globally. This presence—now, in nearly 70% of the world's nations—provides new evidence of the size and scope of a secret war being waged from Latin America to the backlands of Afghanistan, from training missions with African allies to information operations launched in cyberspace.

"In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe, according to Major Matthew Robert Bockholt of SOCOM Public Affairs. This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection. Conducted largely in the shadows by America's most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.

"In recent years ... the unintended consequences of U.S. military operations have helped to sow outrage and discontent, setting whole regions aflame. More than 10 years after America's 'mission accomplished' moment, seven years after its much-vaunted surge, the Iraq that America helped make is in flames. A country with no al-Qaeda presence before the U.S. invasion and a government opposed to America's enemies in Tehran now has a central government aligned with Iran and two cities flying al-Qaeda flags.

"Secret ops by secret forces have a nasty tendency to produce unintended, unforeseen, and completely disastrous consequences."

Read the entire article HERE.


Corruption, Language, and Systems Theory

If we want to build a movement that has any revolutionary potential—and it is revolutionary change that we need, make no mistake—then we need to understand the nature of the problem. That is, what is wrong, exactly? Why do we have so many have-nots in a world with so much wealth? Why are we destroying the air, water and land upon which we all depend for life? Why are so many voices marginalized? Why are people targeted for exclusion, incarceration, or military attack based on their identity or because they happen to live in the "wrong" place? And why is it so hard to have a democratic process in this country? Why do we end up with laws and structures that always seem to serve power instead of serving the majority?

I explained in the last Nygaard Notes that the dominant theory used to explain all of this is what I call the Morality Theory, which is based on an Idea, which is in turn supported by a way of thinking, or Thought Style. Recall that the Idea is the Individualistic idea that corruption is a personal, moral issue, and that the Thought Style is based on Cause and Effect. Using this way of thinking, problems in general are understood to be "caused" by power residing in the hands of Evil People. And it's not just journalists who use this theory. Popular culture is filled with Good Guys and Bad Guys, and stories typically occur in a world where people can live happily ever after ONLY if the Bad Guys are vanquished.

The Morality Theory tells us that our problems are caused by Evil People who want to dominate, people who think only of themselves, people who will stop at nothing to get their way. For those who subscribe to this theory—that bad people are the cause of whatever problems we're talking about—then the answer is obvious: We need to replace those people with Good People, people who respect us and who want us to be treated well. People Like Us. And this thinking leads us to spend most of our time figuring out who is "bad" and who is "good" and trying to elect the good ones. Then, you see, everything will be better, because Good People do Good Things.

The Investment Theory is based on a different Idea entirely, and is supported by a different Thought Style. The Idea is that we all are capable of behaving like the best among us—or the worst. We may act in one way or the other, depending on the nature of the context in which we find ourselves. The Thought Style that supports this Idea is Systems Thinking, which focuses neither on intentions nor causes, but rather on conditions and outcomes. For those who "think Systems," the idea is that corruption arises when conditions are right, regardless of the original intentions of the people involved.

Looked at from a Systems perspective we can say that, given the political/economic/social system that we have, we are virtually guaranteed to have major problems with corruption. In fact, in this system, we could expect to get the same basic outcomes that we now have—the outcomes that so many people blame on "corruption"—even if nobody were corrupt. Put simply, in the current system, even if everyone had a good heart and simply went about doing what they think is best, the workings of the system would assure that the winners would continue to win and the losers would continue to lose. That is, the system itself is corrupt. And, as each of us is a functioning part of that system, we must and will do our part to make it all work.

Thank heavens that there are always people who refuse to do the dirty work. But, as we can unfortunately see, a corrupt system will cast aside these do-gooders and go about finding others who—for whatever set of reasons—are able and willing to do it. What is horrifying is that, in a truly corrupt system, the most corruptible will often be the most highly-rewarded, as a glance at nearly any newspaper in recent years will reveal.

The Language of Corruption

My dictionary has various definitions of "corrupt." Most people, when they use the word "corrupt," focus on the definitions that are based on the Morality Theory: One such definition is: "Debased in character; infected with evil; depraved; perverted; evil, wicked." Here's another: "Perverted from uprightness and fidelity in the discharge of duty; influenced by bribery or the like; venal." The idea here is that people are perverted, evil, wicked, venal and, well, that explains it.

But there are other meanings for the word "corrupt" that focus on systems. A corrupt system may be said to be "Changed from the naturally sound condition, esp. by decomposition or putrefaction developed or incipient; putrid, rotten or rotting; infected or defiled by that which causes decay." (What a mouthful!)

Take the example of food. Based on this understanding, food may be understood to be nutritious—"naturally sound"—while at the same time it is understood to be subject to "corruption" that can make it inedible, even toxic. But no one says that an apple, say, or a piece of cheese is basically toxic (corrupt) because this happens. It's understood that any food may become corrupted, but that depends on where it is kept, how long it is kept, how it is prepared, and so forth. That is, it depends on conditions.

And so it is with people, once we get away from the Morality Theory and start thinking Systems.

What, then, are the factors in our current political/economic/social system that breed corruption? Of course it's fantastically complex, but one big factor would be the great disparity in wealth and income in this country.

Assuming that we all share some basic urge to have some say over the things that affect how we live—that is the basis of the argument for democracy, after all—then it is not a sign of individual corruption that both Jeff Nygaard and the Koch brothers might wish to donate a small portion of our wealth to our candidates of choice. The difference comes when that small portion adds up to $50 in the case of Jeff Nygaard and it adds up to untold millions or billions in the case of the billionaire Koch Brothers, Charles and David, whose net worth adds up to some $72 billion.

A second cultural factor that breeds corruption is what I have referred to in these pages as "Fetishized Freedom." As I said back in Nygaard Notes #146, "'Fetishism' is when someone exhibits 'excessive devotion or blind adoration' to something. That 'something' is called a fetish. The idea of Freedom, more so than the reality, has come to occupy a highly exalted place in American political culture." (Read the whole article, "Fetishes, Cults, and Infinite Possibilities," online.)

As the French writer Anatole France once said, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread." And so it is that the cultural embrace of an abstract "freedom" in the modern U.S. mandates that both the billionaire and the pauper be equally "free" to use their resources as they wish to influence our political system. And in such a culture is it any surprise that we have evolved a myriad of other power-friendly rules, structures and norms which assure that wealth is the most effective ticket to political influence?

The power and significance of Propaganda lies in its ability to normalize certain sets of ideas and Thought Styles while relegating others to the margins. Reducing the fundamental corruption of our political and economic systems to a simple matter of Good Guys vs Bad Guys won't get us far. In order to lay the groundwork for what Martin Luther King called "a radical revolution of values" we have to try and understand the nature of the theories which are currently dominant and that form the basis for The System that brings out the worst in us. Yes, we have to be outraged at The System, but if we want to begin to dismantle it we have to begin to understand how it works.

The next article gives a brief glimpse of "how it works" in regard to race.


Health, Race and Systems

The Minnesota Legislature in 2013 directed the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and its partners to complete a report about advancing health equity in Minnesota. The report was released to the public on January 31st, and it's quite a remarkable document, indeed, as it talked about—and attempted to help the resistant white majority understand—the system dysfunction known as "structural racism."

My local newspaper, the Star Tribune, ran a story on the report in the Metro section headlined "Wide Health Gaps Tied to Race: State Officials Warned That Minnesota must Work to Close Some of the Widest Racial Health Disparities in the Nation." The article, written by a student at the University of Minnesota, was good but too brief. And, of course, the article provided the obligatory "balance," noting that "Rep. Jim Abeler, an Anoka Republican who is a leading voice on health policy, said he agrees the state needs to do more to reduce its health disparities, but said blaming structural racism is misguided."

I don't think it's misguided at all, in fact I think it's commendable that the report not only highlighted racial disparities, but also tried to define "structural racism," a concept that is foreign, if not offensive, to many in the dominant Euro-American culture in this state.

The MDH report is entitled "Advancing Health Equity in Minnesota: Report to the Legislature," and I'll just pass on a few of the notable remarks here. I'll start with the cover letter from the report authors to the Legislature, which listed a few things that the Report reveals, including this one:

"Structural racism . . . is rarely talked about. Revealing where structural racism is operating and where its effects are being felt is essential for figuring out where policies and programs can make the greatest improvements."

Later on, the Executive Summary (page 12) discusses the rarely-talked-about reality. Here are a few excerpts:

"Minnesota ranks, on average, among the healthiest states in the nation. But the averages do not tell the whole story. Too many people in Minnesota are not as healthy as they could and should be, and the health disparities that exist are significant, persistent and cannot be explained by bio-genetic factors."

"These health disparities persist and are neither random nor unpredictable. The groups that experience the greatest disparities in health outcomes also have experienced the greatest inequities in the social and economic conditions that are such strong predictors of health...

"When groups face serious social, economic and environmental disadvantages, such as structural racism and a widespread lack of economic and educational opportunities, health inequities are the result."

Defining the Term

Early in the Executive Summary, the authors include three paragraphs in which they attempt to define the term "Structural Racism." Here they are:

"A key decision made in the Advancing Health Equity effort was to be explicit about race and structural racism, especially the relationship of race to the structural inequities that contribute to health disparities. Even when outcomes related to other factors such as income, gender, sexual orientation, and geography are analyzed by race/ethnicity, greater inequities are evident for American Indians, African Americans, and persons of Hispanic/Latino and Asian descent.

"Structural racism is the normalization of an array of dynamics — historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal—that routinely advantage white people while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color and American Indians. Structural racism is deeply embedded in American society and is a potent factor leading to inequities in all major indicators of success and wellness.

"Structural racism is perpetuated when decisions are made without accounting for how they might benefit one population more than another, or when cultural knowledge, history and locally-generated approaches are excluded. When this happens, programs and policies can reinforce or compound existing race-based inequities."

A hint of the nature of the resistance to such ideas on the general population of Minnesota (at least those who read the Star Tribune) can be gotten from the online "comments" that appeared after publication of the article in the Star Tribune. They included a simple rejection: "I am getting very tired of the race card being played." And they included a somewhat more complex response directed at the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, Dr. Edward Ehlinger:

"In order to fully understand Dr. Ehlinger's perspective, it's informative to read his blog written as the head of MDH. A clear pattern of obsession with race and a repeated sneering contempt for 'our social and economic systems' suggests that the good doctor is no newcomer at the table when it comes to white guilt and redistribution of wealth. The villain is, of course, 'A culture that values individualism, individual freedom and survival of the most fortunate over social solidarity.' Not to mention one that plots in every waking moment to persecute minorities who are helpless victims of their surroundings and have no ability to effect their own situations. That, Dr. Ehlinger, is called the Racism of Low Expectations."

The idea that the Commissioner is "obsessed with race" is open to interpretation. The comment cited, for instance, has nothing to do with "white guilt." And I don't see any "villains" at work. That quotation about "individualism, individual freedom and survival of the most fortunate" was not made up of Dr. Ehlinger's words, but was a direct quote from a panel of the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, that Dr. Ehlinger heard last November at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association. As Ehlinger noted, "The theme of disparities and health equity was evident in almost every session" of the meeting. Remarking on this in his blog doesn't appear to me to indicate "obsession" with race. An obsession with health equity, perhaps.

We don't, of course, know the race of the people who wrote these comments. I will say that they reflect a resistance to addressing racial equity that, in my experience, comes most frequently from the mouths of white people. It doesn't really matter since, whatever the identity of the authors of these comments, they illustrate the type of resistance that can be expected when anyone within a system attempts to challenge a foundation of that system.

You can read Dr. Ehlinger's blog for yourself online. The relevant entry in this case is the one from Wednesday, November 6, 2013.


Steinbeck Helps Us Go from Villains to Systems

I realize that the concept of assigning responsibility to "systems" instead of individuals likely sounds strange, and somehow wrong, to many. It lets bad people off the hook, doesn't it? It's almost reflex, after all, to see "villains" hatching "plots in every waking moment," as the Star Tribune comment-writer said.

I think the following excerpts from the 1939 novel by John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, may be helpful in this regard. Watch as Steinbeck illustrates how the various systems at work in the Depression-era United States result in great suffering, not only on the part of the victims of the injustice, but of the perpetrators as well.

In the novel, the bank evicts some poor tenant farmers from their land. In a scene where the bulldozers come to tear down the tenant farmers' shacks, we listen as one of the tenant farmers goes out to confront the driver of one of the bulldozers:

"Why, you're Joe Davis's boy!"

"Sure," the driver said.

"Well, what you doing this kind of work for—against your own people?"

"Three dollars a day. I got damn sick of creeping for my dinner—and not getting it. I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day."

"That's right," the tenant said. "But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can't eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?"

And the driver said, "Can't think of that. Got to think of my own kids. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day. Times are changing, mister, don't you know? Can't make a living on the land unless you've got two, five, ten thousand acres and a tractor. Crop land isn't for little guys like us any more. You don't kick up a howl because you can't make Fords, or because you're not the telephone company. Well, crops are like that now. Nothing to do about it. You try to get three dollars a day someplace. That's the only way."

We see in this exchange that the driver is simultaneously a part of numerous systems, all of which shape the choices that he makes. His family is a system that places demands on him as breadwinner. The larger social system of which he and his family are a part makes the man the breadwinner, and forces him to make choices like the one here. He is also a part of the community of tenant farmers, the pressure from which is illustrated so well in the above exchange. And all of the characters in the book are a part of an agricultural system that is oriented toward things other than the welfare of the farmers. And that agricultural system is in turn a part of the larger economic system, which defines ownership in a certain way. Judgements and consequences are assigned from above, again due to the nature of the system in effect.

Shortly before the above confrontation we meet the "owner men" who have come to talk to the tenant farmers whose land is being reclaimed by the bank. Steinbeck explains it like this:

"Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves."

When the owner men explain to the farmers that it is this larger something that is responsible for the displacement, and that "The bank isn't like a man," the farmers make the familiar argument: "Yes, but the bank is only made of men." And here Steinbeck, in the voice of the "owner men," succinctly explains the nature of the relationship between people and the institutions of which we are a part:

"No, you're wrong there—quite wrong there," say the owner men. "The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it."

When we view the world from a Systems Orientation, we begin to see the futility of seeking solutions by working at the individual level. Rather than seeing social problems as the result of "villains" who want to hurt us, we begin to see human behavior as arising out of the complex interactions of the various systems of which are all simultaneously a part. When we begin to honor the complexity and interrelatedness of the forces that give rise to human behavior we begin to let go of the urge to blame, or to judge, the people whose behavior is causing the problem. That doesn't mean we don't judge the behavior! And Steinbeck makes this clear later in the book, when he has the former Reverend Jim Casy ("Jus Jim Casy now.") explain to Tom Joad what he had "figured out" during his days as a preacher.

Said Casy, "There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say."

No villains. Just systems.


A Little Obvious Propaganda

A recent article in the New York Times (February 17) about Bolivia noted that it is doing exceptionally well in turns of its macroeconomic performance, with many quotes from officials of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But a few paragraphs in the story reveal the ideology lurking below (barely below) the surface.

The Times says that while Bolivia's president "calls himself a revolutionary, others have begun using a very different word to describe him: 'prudent.'"

Get it? A "revolutionary" can't be "prudent"!

After the praise, the Times notes what it calls "areas of concern." Why worry? Because: "Both the monetary fund and the World Bank say much more should be done to encourage private investment. Bolivia has less than half the rate of private investment of most other countries in South America."

Get it? The good economic performance is in spite of public ownership of capital, not because of it.

Finally, the Times finds a lawyer from Houston who says that Bolivia's good news "is not sustainable in the long term" because "The model is not designed to generate substantial profits for [the] oil industry..."

And THAT can't go on, now, can it? Only profits are "sustainable". ◆