July 2011

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Disempowerment by Illusion

Peter J. Bearse and Carmine Gorga

The converse of the delusion of self-power by actual or potential tyrants is the disempowerment of the many through illusion. As long as the illusion affects only a relatively small group of people, the negative effects remain largely private and personal. When illusion permeates culture and community, the result may be the collapse of both.

The investigation of human illusion by way of self-delusion is rich and varied. One can go all the way back to Don Quixote by Cervantes, the first modern novel. One can also recall Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot. Characters in these novels and many others build castles in the air and attempt to live in them. Idealistic and out of touch with reality, they make mistakes that cause them great unhappiness. Eventually their illusions are shattered. Why do people persist in hugging their untenable illusions?

Dorothea, the central character of Middlemarch, wants nothing more in life than to do good, but she does not know how to do good. Reality eventually shatters her idealism but still does not show her how to do good. Eliot’s Dorothea becomes Disney’s Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, who follows the “yellow brick road” and discovers that idealism never dies. So, the problem of how to do good has been chronic through centuries. And yet, notwithstanding centuries of progress in science, technology and prosperity, the socio-economic forces that dominate our own, most advanced century seem all the more directed towards the destruction of idealism and idealists.

A short-cut of more recent years has been: “Do well while doing good.” Yet, this is also an illusion that can lead to many other problems. Why? Because the focus is still on the pursuit of self-interest rather than the building of community. This leads to “other problems” by denying both the “other” and “problems,” and/or vitiating our ability to deal with either. For we can no longer count on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” whereby the pursuit of self-interest automatically leads to net benefits for others. The essential foundations of an ethical and well-performing market economy -- basic values and vibrant competition -- have been substantially weakened.

Many forces tend to make us weak as we bend to the wind of the last words whispered in our ears. These are the forces of illusion. The fundamental reason is lack of personal empowerment. The antidote, easy to state but hard to effect, is empowerment, not just personal or individual but of “We the People.” As Benjamin Franklin said during the American Revolution, “We can either hang together or hang separately.”

It’s too easy to blame others for the adverse situation(s) we now face. Some oft-cited include “the system”, “financial capitalism”, the President, Congress, the other (political) Party, et al. All of these figure in an overall indictment, but the first source of illusion we need to face is ourselves. We need to look in the mirror like Pogo and say: “We have met the enemy; he is us”. For among its other qualities, the human mind is a bulwark against uncertainty and a filter to cut information overload. We live in a world of increasing uncertainty and analysis paralysis.

What do we do in response? We seek easy answers to complex questions. These support illusions. We tend to filter out contrary opinions. These are primarily those that don’t support our illusions. Some that can afford the privilege build “castles” in the form of “McMansions” in gated communities. Others huddle together with similarly situated and like-minded neighbors. Thus, politics, instead of arising out of a community organized for social problem solving, becomes a game of “us” vs. “them”.

These human tendencies, the problems we face, and our inabilities to resolve them by ourselves, however, are aggravated by those who should know better. These more powerful, better established others use their favored positions to foster illusions, and to mis- or under-inform, de-skill, dis-empower and depreciate whatever we might do or try to do to get control over our own lives, “make a difference” and produce a better world for our children and grandchildren. Who are they? They include CEOs of:

The illusions that these forces have fostered and in which we and our “Go-Along/Get-along” neighbors have been complicit include those that lead us to believe that we can have a prosperous economy and a democratic society driven by:

There is too little space to do justice to these highlights or even the overall theme of this piece. Suffice to say that in a democratic Republic with a sound Constitution, “We the People” can still hold sway, reinvent ourselves and take charge of what, after all, should be OUR politics and OUR government -- IF We choose to. We can, like so many of the Tea Partiers have done, for example, rise up off our couches, turn off our TVs, get out into our communities, organize, learn the political ropes and begin to take charge of political party committees and local and/or state governing bodies.

For what all the other “forces” a.k.a. “powers that be” fear most of all is the power of people -- attentive, well-informed, involved in electoral politics and well-armed with all the tools of the political trade -- determined to “take back” THEIR politics and THEIR government. Then, the old political aphorism that “money talks” would be replaced by “people decide, and government listens.” A government cannot be FOR the people if it is not first OF and BY the people. Happy Independence (from illusions) Day!

So that the goal of “Power to the People“ – especially the readers of this piece -- can be advanced, comments and feedback are welcomed by the authors:

Peter Bearse, Ph.D. [pjbearse@gmail.com] and

Carmine Gorga, Ph.D. [cgorga@jhu.edu]

The authors wish to thank David S. Wise for his invaluable editorial contributions.

June 30, 2011