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The Founding Fathers, Doublethink and Gold-Plated Shovels

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Much has been said about the Founding Fathers during this election year. Regardless of the brand of religion they practiced, a few facts are clear — they were aristocratic, educated, courageous men who believed in God and democracy, although they were not willing to extend its blessings to all Americans. Women, slaves, and those who did not own real property were excluded from voting.

I don’t think it’s really that important whether the Founding Fathers were deists or theists. Deists believe in God based on reason and nature only, whereas theists also believe in the supernatural revelation stories that are foundational to the major world religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. If you are confident that the universe probably has some first cause or creator, but find yourself doubting whether it was done in seven days, or are uncomfortable with burning bushes, holy water, or the seven seals of the apocalypse, you are probably a deist, not a theist.

Today’s culture battles, it seems to me, are better focused on converting the hordes who are outside the mainstream of all major world faiths and lack any humanist tendencies whatsoever. Those whose only creed is consumerism, and whose prayers are voiced to the sports bookie, or at the shopping mall, ATM machine, or oil rig. The ones who, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “waste and destroy our natural resources, who skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness.”

No matter what your religious belief, all the major faiths have much common ground, all being “founded, first and foremost, on the precept that we must reduce our selfishness and serve others,” says the Dalai Lama. Buddhists, Muslims, Deists, secular humanists, and ethical culture adherents share this belief with Christians and Jews. Among atheists and pagans, in contrast, the prevailing view seems to be an acceptance of the cruelty of nature and the proverbial “dog eat dog” philosophy of life.

The Founding Fathers prayed, but some of them did not foresee the direction our democracy would take. John Adams was on the mark when he noted that “the numbers of men in all ages have preferred ease, slumber, and good cheer to liberty, when they have been in competition,” and Thomas Jefferson agreed that “timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty.” We see this principle illustrated often among materialistic flag-wavers who are more than willing to send other people’s children (usually, those of the working class) off to war, while they sit and watch CNN.

George Orwell’s novel, “1984,” was referred to by a fellow Wave columnist last week as a cautionary tale on the dangers of revisionist history. The practice of revising history is a part of the novel’s plot, but the story’s main concern is whether there is such a thing as objective truth. In the twisted world depicted by Orwell, the Party controls men’s minds by denying the existence of objective truth, on the theory that man is too frail and cowardly to face it. What replaces it is called “doublethink.”

The term “doublespeak” is not used in Orwell’s novel at all, whereas “doublethink” is critical. I only realized the importance of the difference after reading certain passages in Orwell’s book over and over again. Doublethink means “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” Writing about the meaning of doublethink in 1961, psychologist Erich Fromm stated: “we present our society as being one of free initiative, individualism and idealism, when in reality …we are a centralized managerial industrial society, of an essentially bureaucratic nature, and motivated by a materialism which is only slightly mitigated by truly spiritual or religious concerns.” I see doublethink manifested every day in the many conflicting laws and regulations governing our lives — often completely unenforceable, self-enforced, or enforced selectively by the powers that be. It’s difficult to keep believing in the essence of our democratic institutions.

But we keep trying. Our local experiment with participatory budgeting is coming to a close. I encourage everyone in the 32nd Council District to come out and cast a ballot in the last week of March — even if your only choice is to vote for a gold-plated shovel. The committees put forth serious, well-researched proposals to benefit the community. But $400,000 for replacement of rubber playground mats (with the new fence that goes around them, of course) seems excessive to me. Shade structures built from lumber, plywood and shingles should not cost more than $50,000. They don’t even have solar panels in them! Budget delegates learned that it is not uncommon to see a huge markup on the cost of items obtained through authorized city vendors. In a world that gives constant lip service to cost-cutting and budgetary discipline, this is more doublethink in action.

If you missed the public assemblies, the suggested projects in our district should eventually be posted online, at www.pbnyc.org. The proposals that came out of the other three participating city council districts in Brooklyn and Manhattan are posted already.

Let’s hope that astute voters will be able to judge which proposals are worthy of funding. In my view, we should think of participatory budget funds as seed money, and vote for projects that empower community groups with the resources to help themselves in the future, such as the proposal to expand the facilities and resources at Peninsula Library.

The decision is yours.

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