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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 good--until 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 opposite--what 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.)

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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 be--and my example of humane work is just one part of the comprehensive transformation that is necessary--then 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?

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John Bardi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Penn State-Mont Alto. He is also a musician and has been playing blues and rock guitar since 1961.

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