Sunday, November 30th, 2008...1:53 am

Change We Can Believe In or Change Our Beliefs?

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“Change we can believe in” is a wonderful and effective phrase. In the giddy days before and after the election, the phrase seemed to promise that an Obama administration would bring needed change, steering our nation off the rutted road of corruption and driving it onto an environmentally friendly superhighway of wisdom. It all felt so good­until Obama’s cabinet appointments seemed to reveal the best we could hope for was a change of lanes on the same old and rutted road.

Not yet ready to abandon hope, even after hearing about Obama’s appointments, I retraced my steps, going back to take a second look at that most intoxicating phrase.

Surprisingly, the phrase sounded a lot different the second time around. Where originally it seemed to say something exhilarating, it now sounded cautious, restrained, and even conservative. The difference came about when I changed the way I read the phrase by placing the primary emphasis on the word “belief” rather than “change.” With that difference in emphasis, the phrase “change we can believe in” then became limited to those changes that were in harmony with the internal belief system of most Americans.

Now we have a problem.

Think about it. The core, basic beliefs of a people determine their horizon of possibility, both collectively and individually. This is why big changes in the collective life of a people cannot be implemented if the changes contradict the collective belief structures of the people. Conversely, the problems in our screwed up nation are deeply linked to the screwed up assumptions, beliefs, and false certainties that now constitute the basic mind-set of a majority of Americans. This means that the change we need will decidedly not be the change most Americans can believe in. It is the oppositewhat we need is for more Americans to change their beliefs. Obama himself alluded to this when he said early on, “I don’t want just to end the war; I want to end the mind-set that got us into war.”

It is sad to consider, but perhaps this is not yet the moment of progressive power but instead a time to dream. We can’t begin to implement a better future until we have learned to dream a better future. However, it’s hard to dream a better future. Let me give an example of what I mean.

In the chapter “Buddhist Economics” in Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher presents an expanded horizon of what work would be like in a harmonious society. He says there are three important reasons why we work, and any sane and humane economy would be designed to provide for all three. The first is to bring forth needed goods and services. (This runs counter to the current assumption that says we work to make money.) The second is to provide opportunities to practice overcoming our inborn egocentricity. (This is precisely what most people avoid at work.) And the third is to experience the joy of life that comes from creative activity. (This requires structuring work to give maximum scope to the creative satisfaction of the worker.)

This is a vision of a much better world, a world in which work is both beneficial and enjoyable. Why can’t America be such a society? As soon as we try to imagine the American economy being structured this way, we run into difficulties. The stern voices of the old belief system begin to bark frantically ­“This is not feasible.” “People only work for profit.” “No one will have a job.” “We will all starve.” “Work is not meant to be fun.” The wonderful new idea is coming in conflict with our assumptions of how it has to be.

Until enough of us are able to change our assumptions about how it has to beand my example of humane work is just one part of the comprehensive transformation that is necessarythen change we can believe in will always be some version of what we already have, which is what Obama and his centrist administration now appear to be offering.

How could it be any other way?


  •   Christian Peirson
    December 2nd, 2008 at 11:31 am    

    One must come to the conclusion that our society creates debt. People have to submit to employment to pay off that debt. Therefore man is restricted by a profit structure which leads to many people being unhappy. Its a form of insitutionalized slavery. And people remain obedient and apathetic and do not interfere with the privilege of power.

    We now live in a society where that is not needed because technology can alleviate man from most forms of labor and create abundance. We have the technology to house, fed and educate everyone on the planet. But we are held back by a profit structure.

  •   Jonathan G. Muller
    December 11th, 2008 at 9:56 am    

    John, I could not agree more with your asssessment of the situation. True change in any individual can never come until they first change their paradigm. So it then makes perfect sense to say the same about change as a society, until we change the way we look at these situations, wholesale change will remain a pipedream.

    Christian, I found your comment to be one of two extremes. That very way of looking at the world is the problem, not the solution. Money and profit are not inherantly bad; they are necessary tools to mobilize resources. Labor is not something to be avoided, nor should that even be the goal. Every person must contribute to society in some fashion if they are to reap its benifits.

    What is needed to fix the biggest problems in our society is not some massive change in its basic structure, but rather small changes in the hearts and minds of every individual.

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