Civics

The early 20th century brought with it monumental shifts in culture. Those living in this period of time experienced the emergence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Winnie-the-Pooh, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Margaret Mead, Franz Kafka, Kahlil Gibran, and the whole surrealist movement, to name a few. It was indeed an explosion of immensely influential art. But equally important at that time was the emergence of a distinct kind of institutionalism.

Max Weber, Frederick Taylor,  Frank Goodnow, and Woodrow Wilson are four people I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know a whole lot about. You should though. Here’s why: these gentlemen were massive forces when it comes to defining 21st century Western institutionalism. By institutionalism, I mean the rules and policies that define how we run organizations as a society.

Weber and Taylor helped define modern conceptions of bureaucracy. Weber was focused on how specialization leads to efficiency and Taylor was about managing scientifically through measurements and tracking workforce processes. Goodnow and Wilson, on the other hand, we’re about reforming how we conduct democracy. They said that there needs to be a distinction between the folks who say what policies should be and those who actually put policies in place.

So why does this matter? Because over time our conceptions of what a properly functioning organization looks like have evolved to be necessarily handled by specialists and professionals. These are called technocrats. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this has led to an abandonment of the collective governing of our communities, resulting in less community ownership and less recognition of the benefits of democracy and understanding of the value of democratic norms.

To put it differently, it’s entirely possible that we’ve given up on democracy by handing over authority to “experts” who might not do what’s in our best interest. Moreover, we can’t know if they’re doing something that’s in our best interest because the wide array of topics that go into modern governing makes it difficult to navigate institutions to make a difference.

We are then faced with a question: do we want a well functioning, boring government that we don’t understand or do we want a messier government that we can more easily influence?

I’m confident that my conceptions about this issue will evolve over time. I’m not yet an expert on the evolution of Western institutionalism, bureaucratic governance, and the relationship between organizational innovation and democratic reform, but I will be eventually.

As I’m writing this, I can sense that there’s more to the story. To some degree, the specialization is necessary, and it is possible to make a difference if you know how. You don’t necessarily have to know all the institutional aspects. If you have enough people show up and express that they care about some issue, then it’s likely you can be heard, especially in a smaller city.

But it’s tough. The world does seem to have become increasingly complex, and it’s hard even for a highly educated governing pro to make a rational decision.

The central question, I suppose, is how do we better prepare our citizens to handle the responsibility of self-governance despite accelerating societal complexities?

Will is a force that can be used to construct if one is not guided by blind desire.

Thoughts lead to words. Words become actions. Actions become habits. Habits become character. These are powerful statements from Margaret Thatcher, which are further carried by James Allen in As a Man Thinketh.

Men and women, he writes, are makers of themselves – “by virtue of the thoughts which they choose and encourage; that mind is the master-weaver, both of the inner garment of character and the outer garment of circumstance, and that, as they may have hitherto woven in ignorance and pain they may now weave in enlightenment and happiness.”

Figuring out how to be and behaving as a good person is hard. You can try to follow the dictates of your conscience, to make the decisions you wish to, and to be confident about them. But it’s still a struggle.

You can try to treat strangers with friendliness; verbally thank those who conduct thankless jobs; be honest with yourself and others; convey empathy and thoughtfulness about another’s perspective or feelings; cultivate mutual respect and understanding; recycle when you can; count your blessings; and take time for people who you care about, the few folks who really care about you, the rare to find, genuine carers.

Notably, it’s difficult in part to be good because these are the rare ones. A community establishes cultural norms, and if there were more it would set a new standard. They shouldn’t be rare. It is an injustice.

One morally useful religious quote is Ecclesiastes 1:18: For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. 

There are so many major problems facing the world, and people mostly seem to be concerned with themselves, how they compare or how well-liked they are; or sports; or some movie or show; or their own small problems.

There needs to be so much more urgency. Its lacking might be caused by the spirit of capitalism, poor education, a lack of community, or something else – people seem so content with vanity and insincerity. The world needs to offer greater acknowledgment of the struggle billions face. People say this a lot, but it still isn’t said enough. It must be stated daily. Goodness must be championed.

Over a billion human beings don’t have clean drinking water. People are living on cents a day. Minorities in America face intense discrimination. Rich people are hoarding their money and strive for it greedily to maintain their power and status. Women and people in poverty are directly and indirectly denied educations. We are experiencing a massive extinction of species. People are refusing to try to listen to different perspectives.

There are no teams. There is only us, getting together to try to figure things out, and we’re doing a really bad job at it.

Yes, it’s hard to be a good person. It’s uncomfortable to place expectations on yourself and to admit when you might need to change your actions or your ideas. The proverb, it is stated in Plato’s Republic, “holds that hard is the good.”

You must try. We are failing the next generation.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of the greatest leaders of the Roman Republic. Over the course of his career, he became, among other things, an orator, lawyer, and politician. Also, for centuries, he was considered one of the greatest philosophers. One of his best-known works is On Duties. 

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Written in the form of a letter to his son Marcus, then in his late teens and studying philosophy in Athens (though, we can gather from the letters, not studying it all that seriously), but intended from the start to reach a wider audience. Cicero addresses the topic of duty (including both the final purpose of life, which defines our duties, and the way in which duties should be performed), and says that he will follow the Stoics in this area, but only as his judgment requires. More explicitly, the letter discusses how to determine what is honorable, and which of two honorable things is more honorable; how to determine what is expedient and how to judge between two expedient things; and what to do when the honorable and the expedient seem to conflict.

The book is as wonderful as it is dense and aphoristic. But my favorite and most personally influential line in the work describes his conception of the greatest thing to be praised.

He writes in Book One,  Section 88 that:

Furthermore, we should not listen to those who think we should be deeply angry with our opponents, and consider that that is what a great-spirited and courageous man does. For there is nothing more to be praised, nothing more worthy of a great and splendid man than to be easily appeased and forgiving. Among free peoples who possess equality before the law we must cultivate an affable temper and what is called loftiness of spirit.

Notably, this has been translated differently as followed:

Neither must we listen to those who think that one should indulge in violent anger against one’s political enemies and imagine that such is the attitude of a great-spirited, brave man. For nothing is more commendable, nothing more becoming in a pre-eminently great man than courtesy and forbearance. Indeed, in a free people, where all enjoy equal rights before the law, we must school ourselves to affability and what is called “mental poise”;/a for if we are irritated when people intrude upon us at unseasonable hours or make unreasonable requests, we shall develop a sour, churlish temper, prejudicial to ourselves and offensive to others. And yet gentleness of spirit and forbearance are to be commended only with the understanding that strictness may be exercised for the good of the state; for without that, the government cannot be well administered.

His remarks may apply to your personal life and may be summed in the following manner:

A great person is kind, gentle, easily forgiving, affable, and calm.  

 

It isn’t that people are apathetic, that they don’t care about what’s going on at city hall and just want to live their lives with the government operating in the background.

It’s that the government’s communication strategy is terrible.

We live in a hectic world where we’re constantly interrupted, and they are publishing 150-page documents filled with jargon and without any sense of context or narrative to their websites then just posting it in the newspaper because they’re legally obligated.

People tend to only show up to complain or be negative because they’ve only just been explained how policy impacts their daily lives.

The government needs to be dedicating more resources to tell their stories – in media besides the newspaper. No one reads newspapers.

Invest in good video communications, relatable tweets, and creative engagement.

Show up to churches and schools and let students know how your policy will impact their lives.

They’ll care if you explain it right.

Get past busy by creating better content, showing up, and adapting the medium.

If we evolve our mediums, we can start healing our broken communities.

My first internship with the Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce terrified me. I walked away so dismayed about professional life I emailed Northern Illinois University’s College of Business, telling them I was terrified. Here is how I ended the email:

I feel like college and the real world is going to crush my twenty year old dreams, and I’ll end up like everyone else – hoping – letting competition crush them and letting their distant dreams fade into what could have been.
I’m writing this to you after being less than 8 months to transfer feeling an impending sense of concern in that the next few years I’ll be scraping by, flipping burgers trying to find a decent part-time entry job making nothing hoping I might have an element of leadership (which I’ve read up on extensively) to put me somewhere where maybe I might live an okay life. I’m scrambling to learn any skill I can e.g. excel, free certification of project management, SWOT analysis, business plan development so that hopefully life doesn’t kick me down.
In short and in absolute, sincere honesty I am absolutely terrified.
That was just over four years ago. I felt I wasn’t ready because I had studied classes such as Contemporary Social Problem, Marriage and Family, and Abnormal Psychology rather than ones like Managerial Accounting.
In addition, I was deeply concerned that so many people settle for an average life, are disingenuous and only act kind because they want a connection, or get a little success and think they’re big man (or woman) on campus.
Here’s a great tip: If you want to see how someone really is, see how they treat people they can’t get anything from.
Professionals get so caught up playing their “game” or trying to advance their careers that they forgot to take enough time to listen and provide mentorship to the next generation.
I saw them mock citizens on social media, take pride in their ability to slam the public who were against the policies they were pursuing, look down on their colleagues, and not follow-up with me or treat me well because I didn’t serve their interests.
But not everyone will count you out. I have also received mentorship, and people did meet with me sometimes.
While there are those selfish folks, as Mister Rogers says, there are also the helpers – the ones who believe in you and give you a hand up if you’re really trying.
It’s true that time, patience, and perseverance will accomplish all things.
Try and try again – fail often. Eventually, despite the non-believers, you’ll make it.

Smarter people than me, scholars and artists, have tried hard to capture the complexities of the human experience and show perennial truths about the state of Man. Unfortunately, the fact is that it’s probably impossible to do. There are so many diverse cultures in the world. People change greatly for an unlimited number of reasons, from biological to conditional to generational and locational.

Yet, it seems that there are some things that people tend to want. They would like to feel accepted and like they belong. They want to experience their parent’s love, support, and guidance; and have the confidence that their parents will be dependable. And they want to feel like their work is meaningful – or, to put it differently, that they are living a meaningful life.

Mixed in with these there are variations. Some people are more disagreeable and don’t care what people think, so they don’t worry so much about belonging, others are just not good people, and some only really care about themselves.

You could go on describing the nuances of existence, but it’s safe to say this one very important truth that most people in Western culture commonly accept: human beings are social creatures. More than anything else, we crave to be a part of a community.