12-Step Program for America: Step 2

By Jim Selman | Bio

Anyone familiar with 12 Step programs knows that the literature generally characterizes the ‘ism’ or addiction as a disease of ‘self-centeredness’. This is basically a way of saying that the behavior (that is, the alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, etc.) are symptoms—not causes. The nature of the problem is that people become trapped in a ‘self-referential’ relationship with the world, live in various states of denial, and pursue increasingly self-destructive behaviors until they ‘hit bottom’. At that moment, they can begin the process of recovery—assuming they will take the first step—to acknowledge that they are out of control and powerless and that their life is ‘unmanageable’.

I suggest that the relationship between the ego and the individual (the self-centeredness) is similar to the relationship between culture and an organization or society. They are both manifestations of a paradigm that creates self-referentiality. Self-referentiality, in itself, can be useful: it is what allows us to learn from our past experiences and allows us to choose what is meaningful to us. But it can become dangerous—even fatal—when reality changes and we find that what has worked in the past stops working. It is then we must move beyond our assumptions and beliefs about ‘the way it is’.  

In my prior blog on Step 1, I pointed out that, for our democratic system to work as a whole, our principles, our constitution and our government must work together. When the institutions necessary to implement the principles or to enforce the constitution stop working, then the entire system is broken.

I propose that our Constitutional Democracy is broken. As a nation, we are trapped in a self-destructive spiral and are powerless to do anything about it until we ‘hit bottom’. The only question is where is the bottom?  We must find something that is more important to us than our ideological and political agendas if we are to have a place to stand to begin recovering our sanity—that is, come to our senses—and recreate America as a possibility for its people and the world.

The second step of any 12 Step program proclaims: “We came to believe that a ‘power greater than ourselves’ could restore us to sanity.”

It is ironic that a society that claims to be so righteous (on both the right and the left) has allowed religion to be the primary wedge that divides us. Even secular ‘non-believers’ are religious and increasingly zealous in their commitments to counter fundamentalism.  However, I think the analogy of a ‘higher power’ can be found in our Constitutional Democracy.

The founding fathers conceived that there were two institutions that must exist and function independently from the day-to-day operations of society: the media and the legal system.  They would be necessary if our government and our people were to have a way to observe our own behaviors as a whole (deal with self-referentiality) and to ‘self-correct’ if the system stopped working and needed to be changed. Together they were intended to constitute a kind of ‘guidance system’: the press (and its modern extensions) would foster dialogue and debate, while the legislative and legal mechanisms would define the rules and resolve conflict.

It is pretty obvious that both of these institutions have been co-opted by the institutions they were designed to serve and be independent of—notably business and the bureaucracies of government.  “Free Speech” is bought and paid for and ‘sold’ to us using all the tools of modern marketing and technology. Can anyone believe that billion-dollar elections and armies of very high paid lobbyists do not ‘taint’ those who govern? Anyone who has ever been sued or pressed a suit against someone else is clear that the only big winners are the lawyers. Justice comes with a very high price tag. We see too many examples (such as Wall Street abuses and the recent Toyota scandal) of ‘ethical expediency’ depending upon some “cost-benefit analysis”.

I don’t think that all of this is intentional or even criminal corruption. Rather it is symptomatic of the kind of slow diseases and ‘isms’ that kill us while we protest they are justified.  These are the same kind of thoughtless patterns maintained by well-intended technocrats performing their specialized and mechanical functions without regard to or responsibility for the larger consequences of their actions.  

If there is a ‘higher power’ that can save us, it is the ‘people’… it is us. We are the higher power that could return our national process and our Constitutional Democracy to sanity.  How we mobilize our national conscience and recover our personal responsibility for our current condition is an open question.

Perhaps we can find some wisdom in the remaining steps….

© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.