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Posts published in “Day: May 18, 2015”

Institutional loss


Though our lives are different in many ways, we all share experiences of growing up with - and becoming reliant upon - certain communal foundations. Call them institutions. Always there - always relied upon - constants as we aged.

My institutional list includes family, schools, media, government, religion, the bank downtown - things denoting permanence used as points of reference as I grew up. Constant and familiar. We relied on those constants and familiarities as our worlds expanded. They just - were. Maybe, for you, those characteristics of permanence continue. They don’t for me.

Take schools. Education. Teachers taught. Proof of learning was required before moving up a grade. Without it, you went nowhere. For kids, fear of failure was often a real motivating pressure to keep up with everyone else.

Is that true today? Do teachers “teach” or do many “teach” to the next test? Are they free to teach or hamstrung by “educational standards” laid on by mandates from outside? Are kids moving through public schools by merit or just being shuttled up a year - deserved or not? Is education - the process and assurance of children gaining knowledge and new skills - the constant you remember?

Banking. Most banks were local. They did business with a personal relationship between lender and borrower. A call or a handshake usually got the deal done. Banks were stable. Employees were part of the community. Trust, service and solvency were inseparable. And taken for granted.

Are those institutional memories accurate today in your relationship with banks and other financial institutions? Solvency? Stability? Security? Service? Trust? With few exceptions, banks and other financial companies have become remote, lacking in personal service, fee-burdened to meet expectations of boards of directors and shareholders. Some seem to operate with impunity from laws and regulations. We’ve attached the false label “too big to fail” and, while allowing outright criminal activities to go unpunished, have granted them status - above the law - that was never intended. Firm foundations? Trust?

Media - the most important parts of it - was local. Print media and, eventually, broadcast started where they lived, conveyed a permanence to readers or listeners - a usually reliable source for what was going on - which continued for a long, long time. Until deregulation. Until, dominated by huge amounts of money, newspapers and broadcast operations were relegated to a status of just so many pieces on a national chess board. Often sensationalized. Too often unreliable.

Much of today’s media output is suspect for truth and accuracy. Some sources have become tools of ideologues. Monopolies have been created to deliver profits rather than to publish or broadcast reliable and comprehensive information. News has become “what sells” rather than “what is.” More people are suspicious of media bias or deliberate disinformation than ever before. Sensationalism - formerly found in grocery store magazine racks - now blares at us from oversized TV screens - being passed off as “news.” Is it the community “foundation of trusted information” you remember? Or has it failed, too?

Government. Ah, yes, government. We’re a nation built on unchanging documents guaranteeing permanence and sound institutions - a stable base upon which to grow and prosper. For all of us. Not just the few. We learned the Bill of Rights and Constitution were the bedrock of our Republic. Today, we still hold the authors of those documents to some sort of higher - often mythical - standards than those we choose to live our own lives by. Good fiction.

But is government still the foundation? Is it still responsive to the governed? Does it protect the weak - defend the defenseless - assure all are treated equally? Is it representative of who we are as a nation? Is it still reliable? Is it fair? Is it trusted? Does it “provide for the common good” as designed?

The reason for posing this - for asking questions - is a current feeling abroad in this country of helplessness when, as individuals, we interact with our institutions. Rather than being served, we often feel we’ve been tolerated at best - ignored at worst. It’s been years - many congresses and many presidents ago - since I felt “served” by a bank - had trust in media. Decades have passed since feeling my kids and grandkids were “well-served” by our educational system - that our civic and structural needs were being met by government.

We live in a world with the best communications tools in history. But we’re more poorly informed, more removed from national relationships, more cutoff as individuals, less valued as customers/clients of businesses we rely on which - during the same period - have grown large, impersonal and distant.

Civic, fraternal and even some religious communities have disappeared to be replaced by impersonal and often changing electronic “communities.” Those that are left seem to be diminished in both membership and relevance.

Political, civic and economic foundations are not as close to us nor as responsive to our needs as they once were. Basic national infrastructure of roads, bridges, transportation, water and electrical systems is in rotten shape - being ignored by a government whose prime responsibility it is to maintain and improve all of them.

We have a national malaise. Distrust, anger and violence are directed at authority. Usually governmental authority. Our basic institutions have been under sustained attack for so long a new generation is growing up with those traits ingrained in their lives as natural emotions.

We’re a wandering nation starting - and losing - wars for no purpose. We’re ignoring basic human needs and problems important to our sense of national purpose. Our national political system has become an employment source for too often unqualified participants. Our leadership in world affairs has been undermined by poor decision-making and failure to focus - and fund - those things that have made us great.

It just doesn’t feel like home anymore.

First take

The Mad Men conclusion did the job, which wasn't especially easy. It had to put some manner of conclusion on a story line that sprawled widely over a number of characters and ideas, there being no tight story spine here (in the manner of Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy). It also had to make some kind of commentary on a whole decade, the sixties; Mad Men began just before it and ended just after, and a statement of some sort seemed needed. (photo: "Mad Men season 5 cast photo" by Source (WP:NFCC#4).) The Sunday finale did both, giving us a clear sense of where the major characters were headed, with hints back to their trajectory over the course of the hottest an most day-glo decade we've ever had. Many of the things people do, their opportunities and senses of possibility, changes, the show seemed to say, but the cores of people did not. Much of the attention will go to the changing role of women (the Peggy and Joan threads), and reasonably. But don't lose track of the final scene with Don Draper, at an oceanside meditation group, searching for answers, which had great resonance in two directions. One was the first scene in the series, when Don tried to understand the perspective of a black man working in a bar, and his motivation for smoking his brand of cigarettes; that was a mental journey too, of a sort. And the other point of resonance, the final scene: A clip from the old Coca Cola commercial "I'd like to teach the world to sing." Was Don - who appeared to have been assigned the Coke account at the ad firm he'd abandoned - going to be implicitly using his new meditative approach for the new ad? Or is the ad a counterpoint to where Don is going? Mad Men was always a bit open-ended and, while offering a satifying finish, it stayed so to the end.

It's been 35 years since the Mount St. Helens eruption, and news reports are looking back and, to a degree, taking stock. Apart from a change in the mountain, and a new visitor center nearby, it's hard to point to massive changes in the area resulting from it. Most of the debris was brushed away long ago. (I still remember though walking outside my newspaper office in Pocatello, hundreds of miles east the mount, that day, and finding a clear coating of volcano dust on my car.) But the Seattle Times does have an interesting piece on its front page about how the volcano changed - in some ways for the better, economically - the small city of Castle Rock, which received a mass of sediment from the volcano, and has been making use of it since.