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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 5/25/10

Theories of Change ... and Now Paralysis

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James Brett
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Well, you say, change is change. It is self-defining and means simply that things are different from what they were. And so the popular view of "things that change" is more than slightly naive, even in the terms of popular thinking. Today is Tuesday, and yesterday was Monday. Is this change? Yes, but last week the same thing happened, so is it really change? Yes, because last week was mid-May and now we are already at the "end" of May, and to belabor the point a great deal has happened in the seven days we are comparing.

Well, what has happened? The American stock market has declined sufficiently that 2-3% of the wealth represented in market indices, like the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, has "evaporated." That is a lot of money value, billions! For those who came up short at the end of the seven days, change was easy to define as BAD!

What this little example tries to demonstrate is that change takes place at different levels of "granularity." In a family the day of a wedding or of a death is a "milestone day" wherein takes place a signal event for which all concerned must change their routines and behaviors. They are "changed" irrevocably. Lots of people die and lots get married, so the idea of this kind of change is not earth-shattering on a broad scale, but nevertheless, at the broad scale we acknowledge the inevitability of these "little local" changes as part of the relevant, even salient, reality.

And, vice versa, at the local, almost private, and in the privacy of our own thoughts we acknowledge that changes in the large scale often have scant effect upon our daily lives, but we know that perforce a large-scale change will eventually change our path in the world. The institution of Social Security in the 1930's had no effect immediately, but since we are a life-form that plans and calculates a variety of plausible futures, we were changed. We accommodated ourselves to the idea of Social Security and did things somewhat differently at our private and local levels.

Meanwhile, of course, the federal government geared up a system that, predicated on certain assumptions, principally the ratio of those working to those retired, trundled along quite nicely with small changes accumulating more or less "out of sight." Birth rates declined slowly, life expectancy rates increased slowly, industrial jobs gave way to office jobs for many or their children, and all these accumulated. Social Security is a classic example of individuals seeing the opportunity for change, resisting it politically, or not, and arriving at the present with a sense of angst or self-satisfaction.

David Brooks, columnist in the New York Times tackles the subject of change courageously today, describing two important "theories of change", to which we Americans are heir--the British and the French. Brooks quickly and courageously wrestles to the ground a whole epoch of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. He takes necessary short-cuts through the thickets of history and philosophy, but arrives, I think, at a reasonable and instructive dichotomy, which practicing historians usually call the aspects of "continuity and change" in civilizations and cultures. You should read Brooks's account.

The problems we face today are very much the product of tidal forces set in motion by choices we made decades and even centuries ago. There were "savants" then who said if you do This there is a strong likelihood that That will happen eventually. If you immigrate to America nothing will be the same for you and your family again. If millions immigrate then the force of personal, private change becomes public and large, and America will never be the same.

But that is not where I want to leave it. Change, as Brooks writes, has its "British sentimental component," that is, the capacity (or lack of it) that humans have (or don't have) to conceive of and then endure change. Against this is what I will provisionally call the "urge toward continuity." In the last election the candidate offered the hope for Change, political change, directional change, emotional change, and took sustenance from the reaction in the multitudes, noting the private, personal, local need for large-scale public change. It has not happened.

What you are seeing is called a paralysis of conscious behavior. It is analogous to thinking about every step you take while walking. You cannot contemplate each step, send a "voice-mail" directive to the appropriate muscles, and expect to get down the road. You will soon stumble and fall. You will, if you are lucky, get up, put it on automatic, and run to catch up to where you should be. That's where the candidate Obama is now. He is trying to avoid every ant and blade of grass in our path. He just cannot do it. He has infected his staff with this paralysis, and his staff, led by Rahm Emanuel loves it, because it means they can avoid doing something that might turn out bad. They are, of course, avoiding doing anything that might turn out good, even those things that we agree need to be changed!


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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