Around this time last year, as the legislative session was ending, I was reflecting on the meaning of politics and the politics of meaning. I wrote and published my thoughts and ended on this note, “If we pursue a legislative agenda committed to putting meaning at the center of our deliberations, we will have made Vermont more humane, and maybe restore a bit of hope and possibility in the world.”
At that time, I mentioned that we were experiencing a “crisis of meaning,” but now we face a global health crisis as well. Of course, what counts as a crisis, or crisis enough to take substantive action, is a contested topic. I believe poverty is a crisis. Inequality is a crisis. The climate is in crisis. The culture of violence is a crisis. We are in multiple moral crises. Going back to “normal” would mean returning to a broken world in which acquiescence to injustice is rebranded as normal, or at best as “incremental change.” I say this not to be depressing but to urge an honest look at what issues we mobilize resources around, whom we direct them to, and what the ongoing result is.
This COVID-19 pandemic invites reflection on Vermont’s state motto – “Freedom and Unity.” It illustrates a fundamental tension playing out before our eyes – the tension between individual liberty and the common good. Some argue it is more important that they be allowed to decide for themselves what precautions to take, if any, and others argue that it must be a collective effort in order to protect everyone.
Like Irene before, this crisis reveals that the vast majority of Vermonters see that there is freedom in unity. That is to say, in a time of crisis, we see our fundamental interdependence much more clearly. Sadly, as the immediate threat subsides, we begin to retreat back into individualistic cocoons. Those on the left tend to withdraw to a laissez-faire cultural cocoon hesitant to make any moral judgment about the coarseness of the entertainment industry or the decline in religious participation. Those on the right tend to withdraw to a laissez-faire economic cocoon hesitant to make any moral judgment about oppressive working conditions or the exploitation of human and natural resources.
The potential silver lining in this pandemic for me is that it just might reveal to more folks the fundamentally inequitable and inadequate structure of our economic system. There seems to be a spotlight now on what we value as humans, and what we value with money. I would argue that those things ought to be aligned. A parent that stays home to nurture a sick child should be rewarded more than a drill operator extracting oil from the earth. Teachers, nurses, and eldercare workers ought to make more money than reality TV stars. Our economy is upside down. It is often immoral and we ought to be able to say so.
However, just as our economy is upside down, so is our culture. This ties directly to the crisis of meaning I mentioned. The fundamental, deep, reflective sustenance of the arts and humanities and of religious practices is being eclipsed by the capricious, shallow, and superficial empty calories of the culture industry. It too is often immoral and we ought to be able to say so.
In a recent article, former Obama advisor Gene Sperling argues that the fundamental metric that ought to be the measure of an economy is not growth or GDP, but human dignity. To the degree that an economic activity increases human dignity it is good and if it diminishes human dignity it is bad. I often talk of a “caring economy,” which means real wealth begins at home, in supportive, loving relationships and neighborly communities – not in investment portfolios. Ultimately, dignity is inextricably linked with care and both seem a preferred alternative to mathematical formulas for evaluating economies. Sperling points out that a key feature of dignity is the ability to pursue “potential and purpose.” He says being denied economic purpose links the 50-year-old white factory worker displaced by a globalized economy with the minority youth from a dysfunctional school unable to land a job.
Dignity ought to be at the center of our cultural life as well. The loss of cultural potential and purpose can take the form of denigrating the arts, mocking religious belief, dismissing rural traditions like hunting and fishing, or devaluing homemaking. These are all activities that can nurture our souls and bring us meaning in a difficult world. To be denied them is to be denied dignity and a people without dignity cannot effectively navigate through crisis, nor obtain freedom in unity.
Written by Randall Szott. Rep. Randall Szott, D-Barnard, is a member of the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs. He is a former merchant mariner, library director, and chef now serving his first-term in the Legislature.