Swans Commentary » swans.com October 8, 2007  



Irresponsible Americans


by Joel S. Hirschhorn





(Swans - October 8, 2007)   Plagued by intellectual curiosity, I often ask why so many people believe, think, or act in baffling and irresponsible ways. Personal irresponsible behavior harms the individual. Civic irresponsible behavior harms US society and government. The epidemic proportions of the first type, driven by business interests only concerned with making more money, have expanded the second behavior, driven by political interests intent on maintaining their clout (by serving the business interests), even if it means damaging American democracy.

Irresponsible behavior flourishes despite attempts to inform, educate, and persuade people to change it. Such behavior is seen subjectively as acceptable, logical, and reasonable. It is justified and reinforced systematically by myriad social and cultural forces. This explains why experience shows us how difficult it is to erase irresponsible behavior, even when attempts come from parents, spouses, friends, physicians, counselors, and teachers.


Personal Irresponsibility

Some examples of personal irresponsible behavior: Why do so many people still smoke cigarettes despite all the evidence of their health risk? Why do so many refuse to use seat belts in their cars despite their clear benefit? Why do so many drive when drunk, high on illegal drugs, or distracted by using cell phones? Why do so many eat large quantities of fat and sugar-rich foods (or allowing their children to do so) knowing that they make people overweight and unhealthy?

In this category ignorance of the likely harm does not explain the behavior. And it certainly is a lot more than personal taste. People consciously do what is unsafe, plain stupid, or ornery. Some may not change their behavior because doing so causes psychological pain. Some claim that they are addicted to their "bad" behavior and are helpless to change. Some may even feel pleasure or comfort knowing they are in a rebellious minority (cigarette smokers) or a normal majority (sedentary, overweight, and obese).

What is clear is that commercial interests want segments of the population to maintain their personal irresponsible behavior. They use advertising and marketing, often filled with deceit, distortions, and disinformation, to keep people behaving badly and preventing them from seeing themselves as being victimized, brainwashed, or manipulated. They also use money to ensure that the government does little to limit destructive behavior, even though it causes high societal costs. Where money is to be made, irresponsible behavior is prized and is now a hallmark of American culture. In fact, the parallel goal is to have consumers spend money to address the harmful impacts of their bad behavior rather than stop it. So, we have a billion-dollar market to address the many health impacts of eating large quantities of unhealthy foods, for example.


Civic Irresponsibility

The many forms of irresponsible personal behavior are integral to making Americans incredibly distracted from fulfilling their role as engaged citizens. A huge fraction of the population is popping antidepressants and sleeping pills because of their stressed-out and unhealthy condition. Together with economic insecurity and working long hours, these circumstances make Americans intellectually lazy. They easily fall prey to distractive consumerism and all forms of entertainment and self-indulgence. It is not that they are unintelligent, but that they do not have the motivation, time, or energy to dig deeply into civic, political, and policy issues.

What little Americans know about politics and government comes from mainstream media, government propaganda, and advertising messages of special interests. Even the Internet with its many alternative news and advocacy groups has not produced many better informed citizens. Just as you can lead a horse to water but not make it drink, you can attract people to Web sites but not make them go further than the home page to spend hours reading detailed, substantive materials.

Therefore, in this category ignorance is the biggest problem, followed by avoidance of pain from truths that conflict with current beliefs. Entrenched beliefs are nurtured over time by countless political, mainstream media, and corporate interests. The beliefs are "owned" and seem inviolate, sane, fact-based, logical, and rational. The result is that the beliefs take on a life of their own in the minds and hearts of the true believers. Attempts to change these beliefs are met with disdain, ridicule, and bewilderment. This is seen among people on the political left and right. Truth tellers face incredible obstacles. It is as if some alien from another universe or some highly suspect, unpatriotic, and untrustworthy enemy is attacking the sacred belief. Yet, objectively, the beliefs are dead wrong! But objectivity and the real truth are handicapped by being contrary to the sacred belief, often wrapped in the American flag.

Thus we have considerable behavior in the civic irresponsible category, including my favorites: Why do most Americans vote for Democrats and Republicans despite decades of evidence that they do not serve the public interest, but are subservient to corporate and other special interests? Why do people have an immediate negative reaction to having a second constitutional convention? And why do most Americans still accept the government's official 9/11 story despite reams of information and analysis that contradict it and many reputable people that boldly demand a new investigation?

Rationalized lesser-evil voting in a system rigged by the two major parties to make third parties uncompetitive causes many voters to keep the two-party duopoly firmly entrenched. The other half of eligible voters don't bother to vote at all, making American democracy with its extremely low voter turnout a disgrace. Despite their hopes of electing effective representatives, Americans mostly become disappointed with those placed in office. Today we have record-low levels of support for Congress and the presidency, yet there is little prospect of third-party victories.

Much of the US population steadfastly fears a second constitutional convention, even though there is a provision in Article V of our Constitution for conventions of state delegates to propose constitutional amendments. An Article V convention could be the path to achieving major government reforms. Yet the entrenched fear-belief is that radical-minded state delegates under the control of evil extreme forces would overturn and change our Constitution for the worse. Many groups for many years have spread the word that there would inevitably be a dangerous runaway convention. Almost all of these groups profess great admiration for the Constitution, but do not want us to have an Article V convention that we have a constitutional right to, because the Framers of the Constitution feared that one dark day citizens would lose trust in the federal government. What hypocrisy.

Thus the fear, knee-jerk reaction of most people makes little sense, because such a convention can only propose amendments that must satisfy the tough ratification requirement of Article V, exactly like proposed amendments made by Congress. Moreover, the nation's first Article V convention would be under incredible media and public scrutiny, placing delegates under the spotlight. Also, there have been hundreds of state constitutional conventions without any ludicrous and devastating actions that have wrecked state constitutions. The simple fact is that powerful and elitist status quo forces that now corrupt and control Congress fear an Article V convention that could propose amendments that would overhaul our political system to make it less corrupted by money and much more responsive to ordinary citizens. Moreover, most of the public cannot accept the fact that Congress has willfully disobeyed Article V by refusing to authorize a convention, even though the only requirement for one has been more than satisfied by over 500 petitions from all 50 state legislatures.

Friends of the Article V Convention is the only nonpartisan national group working to obtain the first Article V convention, but it confronts the intentionally induced fear of a convention, cleverly engineered by many groups on the political left and right. Instead of being seen as patriots attempting to get the Constitution faithfully implemented, Article V convention advocates are often denigrated as just the opposite. People fear a convention more than they fear the political status quo and that is really frightening, especially considering the record-low favorable rating for Congress, at just 11 percent in a recent Zogby poll.

Convincing the public that we need a new, comprehensive investigation of 9/11 events, because a mountain of data, analysis, and information contradicts the government's official story that the mainstream media has dumped on the public, faces incredible obstacles. And despite the fact, as documented on patriotsquestion911.com, that a large number of highly credentialed and educated people with impeccable professional backgrounds in the military, government, politics, engineering, and science have concluded that a new investigation is needed. A huge number of groups have been working diligently to obtain a new investigation by gathering and disseminating relevant information. Yet 9/11 truth seekers are generally portrayed as conspiracy nuts rather than true patriots trying to make the government fully accountable to the public. Behind the scenes are powerful forces in government and corporate America that fear a new investigation because it could prove that the 9/11 basis for Bush's preemptive Iraq war and the whole war on terrorism was a lethal hoax.


The Way Forward

In sum, those seeking US government reforms are hamstrung by irresponsible and dead-wrong beliefs by most of the public -- beliefs that have been carefully nurtured by persons and groups fearful of losing power if the attempts to get a competitive third party, the first Article V convention, and a new 9/11 investigation succeed. All are critically needed to reboot American democracy; otherwise America's delusional democracy will continue sliding downhill and the whole world will suffer from endless military and economic imperialism. It matters not whether a Democrat or Republican becomes the next US president or which party controls Congress. Deep political reforms are the imperative.

There is no easy solution to this problem, but there is reason to hope and not give up. Most major changes in American society have resulted from a relatively small fraction of the population that has used its passion to persevere and influence the remainder of society. Despite being attacked and disparaged, patriotic and responsible Americans with conscience seeking deep political reforms must keep fighting if American democracy is ever to regain its greatness.

Looking forward, major political reforms seem impossible. Only in looking back do we appreciate the feasibility of major change. That must sustain activists. The words of Mahatma Gandhi still ring true: "First, they ignore. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."


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About the Author

Joel S. Hirschhorn was formerly a full professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and senior staffer at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Governors Association. He now writes about politics and government, and is the author of Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government and Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health And Money.



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Published October 8, 2007