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Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth, and the Human Condition – Part 1

Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth, and the Human Condition – Part 1

By Dennis Loo (2/1/14)

One of the central contradictions in this country’s educational system today is the gap between, on the one hand, the great stress on delivering information to students and, on the other hand, students developing the ability to actually think. Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" and its successor, Obama’s "Race to the Top," are based upon the premise that students need to demonstrate that they have learned a body of knowledge. Their emphasis on passing tests, however, has systematically undercut the importance of training young people to think holistically.

Knowledge and thinking are not entirely separate from each other because you cannot generally speaking think in the abstract without information or data with which to think. Even the most abstract of human endeavors, mathematics, is tied to the real world of concrete objects in motion, even if the specific development of pushing the envelope in math is not always immediately being applied to real world matters. Put another way, and perhaps more generally: problem-solving strategies cannot be employed unless you have an actual problem that you are trying to solve. Thinking, in other words, does not occur in thin air: it is tied to our desire to know and the need to know more about the world and to attempting to fit the pieces of a puzzle together without having a fully assembled picture to work from in order to guide us on where the individual pieces of that puzzle belong.

What has been left substantially out with this stress on high-stakes testing is teaching students how to make sense of and draw conclusions from different pieces of information. In the real world outside of the classroom, the general condition is that of incomplete information and of complexity. The world is not simple, despite Staples’ ads touting their EASY answers to everything, and when we act in that world most of the time we do not have complete information. We have to act based on partial information and most of the time we have to make decisions based on inference rather than direct and explicit knowledge.

Even the act of knowing cannot be separated from the ability to make judgments about the validity and relevance of what one “knows.” If you’re used to reaching conclusions based on what authorities tell you to conclude, then the matter of validity and relevance are collapsed into simply a question of which authority you choose to believe. For example, when it comes to politics, people who are Democrats generally speaking take as their authorities leaders in the Democratic Party and whatever news outlet(s) they favor or are exposed to. That might be The New York Times, CNN, and/or MSNBC, for example. Republicans take their authorities as leaders of the Republican Party, Fox News, and so on. If you’re a progressive, you might follow people like Chris Hedges or Noam Chomsky. And so on…

As a former student of mine wrote in one of her papers, if you hear someone whose political opinions you tend to follow say something that you might not immediately agree with or have any opinion about yourself, you are likely to think that the person who is saying it (e.g., that prisoners being held at Guantanamo are “the worst of the worst,” or that President Obama wants to close Guantanamo but Congress “won’t let him”) has given a lot of thought to this matter and must have some good reasons why they are saying this. Therefore you are not inclined to disagree with it, especially since you get your political bearings from this same person or political party or preferred news source. This is from “Why Politics Is More Than a Game”:

It's rather difficult to get people to think about politics at the level of the complexity that it warrants. Even sports fans will engage in much more nuanced, detailed, and sophisticated discussions about athletic factors such as game strategies and tactics, various moves and counter-moves on defense and offense, styles of coaching and playing, the history of the game, the specific strengths and weaknesses of different athletes and how they respond to specific situations, players and teams' records over time, and so on, than they will about politics. When it comes to politics all too many people, from both the right, left, and center, think in far too simplistic terms. The political arena is one in which to an almost unparalleled degree officials attempt to mislead people about what they are doing and why. By contrast, if one, for example, is trying to learn how to master a skill such as playing an instrument, the master practitioners of that instrument are not systematically trying to fool you about their professional techniques. Even in the absence of their attempts to mislead you, the way that public officials seek to mislead you, it is famously difficult to become a master of a musical instrument. How much harder must really understanding politics be if the ones doing it actively are not trying to teach you the ropes but deliberately trying to misinform you about critical aspects of the process? 

“I’m not saying that people will believe everything being said but they believe that people in political power at the very least believe their own words. You may look at a controversial issue being discussed by someone in political power and think, well maybe I don’t completely agree with that, but if this person who must know a lot about it truly believes in what they are saying, then it must be somewhat true.”

One of the problems with learning about politics from political leaders and the mainstream media is that it is utterly unreliable. In fact, calling it unreliable is a gross understatement. It is a spectacularly bad source of information without being analyzed with an understanding that you have to subject what you are being told to translation and supplementation for you to begin to approach the truth. Public officials are all members of bureaucracies. Corporations and media outlets are also members of bureaucracies. Bureaucracies by their very nature are secretive and loathe to tell people, even when they are sworn under oath and testifying before Congress, the truth about what they are doing, how much it costs to do it, and why they are doing it. This is not something that occurs because the individuals in charge of these bureaucracies are liars and if we just replaced them with better people then they would start to tell the truth. This is something that grows out of core characteristics of the governing principles for bureaucracies themselves as a mode of organizing tasks. I explore these questions in depth in especially Chapter Three of Globalization and the Demolition of Society. As a former student, writing his final paper in Classical Social Theory class two years ago, describes it:

The fact that the U.S. government employs bureaucracies may leave an individual confused when confronted with the question, “Can a bureaucracy exist within a democracy?” The fact that bureaucracies are such a major part of the way that government is organized, not only in the U.S. but in every major government, presents a problem for someone who is attempting to analyze this question. Bureaucracies are so intertwined within the fabric of modern U.S. society that one does not even question whether they can coexist with democracy. The question posed, however, is not intended to be a trick. Bureaucracies, though a common entity within modern government, are not facts of necessity, indispensible and ever-existing throughout time.

When juxtaposed with democracies, serious contradictions arise that make the coexistence of both, within the same government, illogical. Close analysis of the composition of bureaucracies and democracies and the paradigms upon which they are constructed elucidate the fact that both cannot operate simultaneously, in their pure forms, within the same government. This realization posits that our current form of government must be analyzed so as to understand the reason for its creation and the purpose behind the actions that it carries out. When these two things are made known, the truth behind the current economic system within which our society operates and the government that it promotes and is subsequently supported by will be revealed and progress toward change and social equality can be obtained.

To understand the relationship between democracies and bureaucracies, one must first understand the basic characteristics of each. Max Weber writes that bureaucracies are the highest form of societal organization. In order for society to operate on a macro level, bureaucracies, as proposed by Weber, must exist. Weber does not take this stance because he is a proponent of bureaucracies but rather because the observations that he made of society during the time his prominent works of literature were composed led him to claim that bureaucracies were the logical solution to mass control. For Weber, power, and therefore political rule – which is simply the legitimized employment of power – is the ability to coerce a person, or a group of people, to do something regardless of the desire of people. In other words, power is the ability to make someone do something whether they want to or not. Governments, therefore, possess power when they can effectively impose their will on the governed. In order to do this though, Weber states that these bureaucracies follow a particular modus operandi.

Bureaucracies – in order to fulfill their purpose of organizing society and maintaining control – possess certain traits. Weber wrote that bureaucracies are characterized by the following: having jurisdictions, appropriating official duties, granting authority to positions of leadership, possessing a hierarchy, documenting actions, having standardized training, and having a set of rules. The bureaucracy – by employing these standards – is “… the means of carrying ‘community action’ over into rationally ordered ‘societal action’” (McIntosh, 1997:149). These qualities are necessary in order to turn “public sentiment” into physical action. The size of government and the complexity of achieving a specific goal within a large society call for a strict set of rules and specific hierarchical structure to ensure the accomplishment of specific tasks. Without implementing such standards, the nature of human beings would disallow the smooth functioning of society. No sustained and efficient actions would be implemented if the masses were unorganized; control begets order. These very characteristics, though, are in opposition to the true nature of democracy.

The characteristics of bureaucracies, though efficient in facilitating the maintenance order, are not efficient in facilitating the representation of the people whom bureaucracies govern. This tendency is rooted in the very nature of bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are comprised of individuals who are appointed to their positions. The appropriation of official duties is not the appropriation by the people but by the organization itself. When talking about bureaucracies, understanding the deep complexities of a bureaucratic entity sheds light on this fact.

The maintenance of order and the deep ranks that make up a bureaucratic body are shaped internally. A quasi organism is developed in which checks and balances are applied to maintain the health of the organization. Even if the people vote that a bureaucratic organization be created – though that is not usually the case – once the organization has been established, the onus of maintaining the organization falls upon the organization itself or any governing bodies accountable for the organization. Therefore, the decisions that are made by the organization are decided by those who work within the organization; they are not decided by the people. Promotions, rules, policies, and actions that affect society are decided by those who are in control, those who have been appointed. This fact contradicts the very premise of democracy that the people decide the rules that govern them.

In the case of the U.S., one might propose that the citizenry does in fact decide the rules that govern them. One might make the argument that we elect our officials, therefore we are in control of the system. If we decide who has been elected to office, then we have essentially exerted our authority as the people; therefore the elected officials and their subsequent decisions are in essence a reflection of our will. What is being overlooked here, however, is the fact that we do not decide who is nominated to represent us in the first place.

Drawing from the works of Dr. Dennis Loo, if people are presented with a choice between two objects – he uses the example of two ice cream flavors – then whichever object is chosen is not necessarily that which the people wanted but rather that which the people preferred (Loo, 2011). There is a distinct difference between the two.

What the people truly want – leadership, in the case of political authority – is not necessarily offered as a choice. The election between two people is hardly democratic when the people did not even have the opportunity to choose whom they wanted to vote for in the first place. Claiming that an elected official is the “people’s choice” is only half true. Yes, the people did in fact elect that person, but only because he was the best option; the people decided within the narrow limits of their choices. It would be a completely different situation if the people decided who ran for office in the first place. If the choices available were the preferences of the people, then whoever got elected would in fact be the people’s choice because the candidates would have been decided by society instead of some organization in charge of choosing official candidates [including both the mainstream media’s designation of certain candidates as “credible” and major party leadership’s designation of the same]. This holds water, though, only if democracy is seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

If democracy is viewed as an end in itself then just the fact that people voted would be good enough to fulfill the criteria. Democracy and the event of people casting their ballots is not a full embodiment of rule by the people – as argued above. But, if democracy is viewed as an end in itself, then this is okay. If people vote, and if it did not matter whom they voted for, only that they voted, then democracy would be fulfilled. This would make the existence of bureaucracies and their system of operation okay in a “democratic” society. The problem is that if people are not in control of every aspect of government, then those who are in control will manipulate the system to meet their interests, not necessarily the interest of the people.

Marx and Engels wrote that a capitalistic system of economy would be doomed to fail because those who control the means of production would manipulate the system in such a way that would cause immense economic inequality and therefore a collapse. Engels specifically wrote that “… the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions …” (Engels, 2007). These two realizations, the fact that a capitalistic society is doomed to fail and the fact that government ultimately represents the economic system within which it operates, expose why bureaucratic institutions in the U.S. cannot operate within a true state of Democratic rule. Going back to the fact that bureaucracies are highly stratified and maintained by the organization itself and not the people, it becomes clear that when people do not have control over an organization, and if the organization is heavily influenced by an economic system, then that organization is going to be a product of the economic system and put forth policies that support those who are in power (not the people). In the case of the United States and our capitalistic economy, those who are in charge are the capitalists themselves.

Our economic system breads inequality and those who are able to succeed within the system are able to use their material wealth to influence the system and use it to promote their desires. The decisions that are made by governments are therefore not decisions that reflect the will of the people but the will of those who are in charge. When those who are in charge are those who are at the top of social hierarchy then naturally their decisions are not going to reflect necessities of the greater population. Government institutions will therefore operate in such a way that ensures that the current economic system stays intact so that those who benefit from the system can continue to reap its benefits. This pattern is a result of the fact that Democracy is not an end in itself.

If voting was all that mattered, then those who are in charge are granted authority and are legitimized because the people “have spoken.” The people whom we elect to represent us are then free to make decisions based on their own volition and the people are powerless to stop them. There is no democratic rule if the people have no ability to affect change within the system. In order for a government to arise that is representative of the people and a proponent of equality, revolution must occur.

The reason why our current system persists is because the people have been fooled to believe that capitalism is the only way. Capitalism’s historical roots in our country and its promotion in everything in modern day society lead people to believe that it is the way that things should be. Ordinary people do not question whether capitalism is the answer or not; they automatically assume it as a truth and live their lives within its constructed reality. This deep existence in the minds and hearts of the people is what ultimately lends to its continued dominance.

People think within the paradigm of capitalism and all the individualistic selfishness that follows; it therefore serves as the base of their decisions. People do not see inequality as a result of the system but of individual failure. People do not have the desire to change the system or eliminate those who are in power because they believe that one day they might be in that position and if so, they would like to enjoy the same privileges. It makes sense to the average person why someone would manipulate the system to work for his/her own benefit; few people would say that it is unwise to do. The idea of, “I am okay as long as I get mine” follows. A more equal system cannot be put in place until these sentiments are greatly diminished or destroyed. As long as selfishness is purported as the standard of human existence, then no matter what system is put in place, manipulation will be inevitable and corruption will follow.

Bureaucracies and democracy should not coexist in the same society. If democracy is viewed as an end in itself, then this would not be true. But the fact that democracy as an end in itself is a democracy that grants almost no power to the people, means that it must be viewed as only a means to end. People must vote, this is important, but people must also be able to design the system within which they are voting. Any new system that is developed must be one that is grounded in a paradigm centered on equality and human rights. As long as the motivations of the people are based on individual gain, equality cannot manifest itself.

This is the first installment of a multi-part series. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here

Comments   

 
0 # sintricity08 2014-02-04 10:21
I greatly agree upon the notion that capitalism is and has been a corrosive force in society (America in particular). It simply does not promote any sense of true social solidarity upon which I can think of, and is leading society down a path of unfound/hidden truths. Many out there in the U.S. (for the sake of relevance) remain untold about the true intentions behind our government and its bureaucracies. Schools too have been greatly affected by the polices and agendas laid down from our leaders, that we are allowed to choose from. Voting in this sense is why I have remained a non-registered voter. What hope do I have of changing capitalism and the society I live in when the real power remains in the hands of those who contribute most to it? I say down to the materialistic values set forth in our existing paradigms associated with capitalism, and in place a more people based system that does not promote the $$$ making and class stratification we see everyday on the streets.
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-05 03:05
Thanks Sin...

Voting doesn't change the system, which is why it's promoted so heavily as THE one & only way to do anything. No system that rests upon exploitation for its existence would make a legal & safe path to overthrowing it available to people.
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0 # Wolfian 2014-02-05 01:59
I agree with your notions about capitalism being a corrosive force in society, and that little by little the repercussions of capitalism, and most importantly social stratification, are felt across the USA. However this force (Capitalism) is not only present in the USA but also worldwide. As much as you and other people hate a capitalist society, there is nothing that can be done about it. A people based system- as you call it- is impossible to achieve, it will never happen. Capitalism knows only one color and that color is green; all else is necessarily subservient to it, hence, race, gender and ethnicity cannot be considered within it. (Thomas Sowell)
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-05 03:09
Wolfian: You say a "people based system" as opposed to a profit-based system would never happen. But capitalism's only been around a few hundred yrs whereas humanity's been ard for 200,000 yrs. History shows that systems aren't everlasting & revolutions HAVE been the course of history, including the founding of the US that revolted against Britain. What wd u say abt those in the American colonies who argued that revolution against the Brits would "never happen"? What abt the basic contradiction btw bureaucracies & the democratic spirit as laid out in the article above?
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0 # Wolfian 2014-02-05 03:50
Dennis: No it won’t! Unless you are ready to start a revolution. I know that systems are not everlasting, that is why we had the French, industrial revolutions and the revolt of the American colonies against the British. Today people complaint about government yet do nothing to change it; and the few that have the guts to speak can’t accomplish much. The article says “Bureaucracies and democracy should not coexist in the same society” We are not a democracy because the big decisions are made by the bureaucrats. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, was a nice dream.
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-05 04:02
Quoting Wolfian:

Unless you are ready to start a revolution. I know that systems are not everlasting, that is why we had the French, industrial revolutions and the revolt of the American colonies against the British.

If systems aren't everlasting, then why is rev impossible? What makes the US today exceptional now? A few peo w/ guts is the only thing that has actually brot change in history. Commodity production & cash-based economies have only been around for less than 5% of human history. How does that fraction then best characterize what humanity can do if it's just 5%? If you pay close attention to what's going on capitalism is literally destroying the planet's viability (e.g., global climate change & vicious storms). How is it realistic to allow this disaster to continue?
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0 # Jakeylove 2014-02-06 00:36
It seems to me that the word "democracy" is another form of bureaucracies keeping their way of running things by a form of secrecy. The average American would not understand this concept unless they took your class because as you said you will not find "the truth" of this very important information without the help of seeking higher education. We are fooled to believe that we as the people share power in the decisions made in this country when it is obviously the people at the top of the bureaucracies who are in fact making the decisions for us but fooling us to believe that we have a say when it is in fact them just giving us a choice of what they have already chosen for us. The system is set up to favor those in charge and their interests and to make ordinary people think that they have a say. It is a form of secrecy because not everyone gets a chance at obtaining a higher education.
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0 # Rod24 2014-02-09 05:34
I agree with you on that Jakeylove, the word democracy is another way for the bureaucracies to maintain the power. It is used as a form of manipulation in which people feel that they have dominant control but in reality we have no control over anything. Also, to mention about your question about starting a revolution. I do not believe the gov't thinks us capable of starting a revolution. We are a selfish nation in which we only think of ourselves, everyone is on their own to fend for themselves. With this in mind then, I feel that it is no secret that most ppl can care less about the social inequalities that exist starting with the power the ppl at "the top" hold. I myself do not even think us capable of starting a revolution, at least not until we start caring more about each other.
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0 # Jakeylove 2014-02-11 00:08
I see what your saying Rod24 because the United States is considered a capitalist, individualistic , society so people feel that as long as they and their family is ok, then inequality doesn't effect them. So no one is trying to start a revolution because we have been socialized to believe that "it is what it is" "Every man for himself" those are the beliefs that capitalism and our country is founded on. It is extremely difficult to rethink what your country has told you to believe of what is right and what is wrong. The government likes it this way and we are the very blessed select few that get the golden key that unlocks the truth. Be thankful and feel honored and special.
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0 # Jakeylove 2014-02-06 00:43
Why are the bureaucracies allowing people who do get a chance of receiving higher education allow us to learn the information at all? Do they want us someone to make a change or start a revolution?
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-06 01:33
They do restrict who gets what kinds of higher education via de facto tracking in K-12 and by the existence of social classes and the capitalist division of labor in the first place. Since one's class and access to resources, social capital and capital, largely determine where and how far one goes educationally, this is sufficient in general to get people to accept the status quo. In addition, those who do rise in the social hierarchies tend to accept the existing DOL because they are now personally doing better and are less likely therefore to try to change the whole system.
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0 # Jakeylove 2014-02-06 01:52
That is not necessarily true because I am a single mother, a minority, by being a woman and a Latina, and I am dependent on the welfare/Calwork s system for income. This would be considered part of the bottom lower class, yet I was able to get into Cal Poly Pomona, a prestigious university. I would be a candidate for someone who would be restricted via my social class yet I am able to obtain higher education despite my status quo.
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0 # Jakeylove 2014-02-06 01:56
So how do you explain my situation as far as my class status being low but still having a chance to gain social mobility if social capital and class largely determine how far one goes educationally?
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-06 03:45
Saying that something is mainly the case means that there are exceptions to it. Cal Poly's students are largely from working class background like you. If there were no exceptions and everyone HAD to remain in their class of origin, then the system would have no flex in it. That it has some flex in it that allows some people some mobility helps to maintain the idea of an American Dream and therefore helps to keep the system from being rejected by the majority.
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0 # Jakeylove 2014-02-06 04:47
I just bring up the point about how important it is for people to have access to higher education because those who don't have no clue about the truth of our society. The lies of America being a democracy and the ingrained lies of capitalism being the best way to run a society. This socialization from the time we are in elementary school is done on purpose by our bureaucracies and is mind blowing how much power they have to instill their beliefs into our minds. I cannot explain how valuable the truth and knowledge we are discovering about our society is. Those who don't get this chance are truly disadvantaged. I feel extremely fortunate that I have the opportunity to gain access to the TRUTHS of how our society runs and not walk around like a gullible blind sheep. Socialization from the people at the top is an extremely powerful tool. The bureaucracies know this and it has been very effective to gain control and power over the American people that we cannot overcome.
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0 # screamingrelaxesme 2014-02-06 08:39
I would have to agree that we do not live in a “TRUE state of democratic rule”, that we are “influenced by an economic system” and they are the ones putting forth the policies. I find it rather ironic that we have a democratic system when we live in such an individualistic society. I believe the nature of democracy is to stand as a social unit, ideally that is, but yet we find ourselves living in a capitalist country whose main goal is to gain profit meanwhile stepping on the hands and feet of those striving after the American dream.
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0 # Rod24 2014-02-07 19:35
I agree that our society is running on gov't ruled by capitalism and bureaucracy. It isn't in the interest of the gov't to truly carry out the expectations that they have implemented in the minds of every American. Rather, they serve the wants and needs of the "people on top". The gov't has socialized us to believe that we indeed do live in a dmcry ran by the ppl for the ppl but what we do not realize is that Weber's predictions are in fact being revealed right before our eyes. Just as the excerpt mentions above, Weber foretold that a bureaucracy would come to rise because this is the only way which "the mass can be controlled". Therefore, viewing bureaucracy as the solution to this; to control the people. A democracy cannot exist within a bureaucracy because what these both represent are too very different ideas that are contradictory to each other. My question then is, when will the ppl finally rise and fight to defend themselves? What needs to occur to start the revolution?
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0 # sintricity08 2014-02-09 08:16
Well to answer that somewhat, you can start by looking into what is happening all around us now. Our govt is virtually claiming acts of free speech and peaceful protests as terrorism. By doing this as well as other things, they are slowly, yet surely restricting our ability to gather and rise up against absurd policies/laws. So in a way, they are knowingly preparing or at least trying to regulate our ability to start rev. But once it starts, it will be b/c of something that eventually starts affecting the lives of most living in America. Americans need to most likely see an actual event, one similar to the Russian rev of 1917, where innocent people were killed to maintain order. We as a nation are going to need a major wake up call that triggers a need for change in my opinion. And even though it's sad to suggest, I do not think it will be an all too passive movement. NSA spying on citizens and deeming protests as terrorism is just the beginning of something larger, wouldn't you agree?
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-10 15:35
Rod & Sin: I agree w/ Sin that u can see the elements of the results of capitalism and its bureaucracies' attempts to control the population thru systematically stripping ppl of rights that ppl use to manifest their sentiments and fight for needs that the system robs them of. For rev changes to occur, there must be a minority of ppl who do the challenging preparatory work prior to the pt where millions surge into the streets. That prep work involves PRIMARILY uncovering thru exposures & analysis what is really going on and why and why it doesn't have to be this way & spreading this message to others. For people to really make their way forward & not go down dead ends, they need to be ideologically & politically trained, otherwise they'll adopt fascist "solutions" wh of course aren't solutions at all. That minority of organizers for a new society have to be schooled in deeper understandings of what's going on so that they can raise others' sights.
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0 # PD06 2014-02-10 11:01
An old saying I heard when i was in HS is, it is not the person voting that has power to change things, but the one that is counting it that decides what becomes law. Back then this saying was nothing more than to make students laugh a little about the way our voting system works and was played off as a joke by the teacher. It wasn't till later in college that I really understand the meaning behind this. That schools teaches us that the vote is the one thing, as Americans, we can do to change our government, however this is not true as the saying suggest. Even though the government has given people the power to vote, they are instead tricked into believing that this is the only way to make a difference in the government. To have a democracy that is not ran by the people, for the people is really not having a democracy after all.
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Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12