I’ve borrowed the title of President Obama’s second book as the title of this essay because the message is the same, if in a somewhat different flavor. After posting a link to A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How” toward the end of a long Facebook thread, an FB friend commented, “I still imagine activism to be succinct.” The following was my response:

The more succinct our activism is, the less conscious it is. Biological evolution, for instance, is the most succinct form of “activism” imaginable: It is the struggle for reproductive success, and for surviving long enough to facilitate reproductive success. Completely “unconscious,” and extremely slow and haphazard (though cumulatively brilliant). Human consciousness is the basis of another evolutionary process, with cognitions rather than genes being the packets of information that are reproducing, mutating, competing for reproductive success, and thus evolving.

We do have branches of human endeavor that are less bound by “succinctness,” that don’t need to fit their memes on a bumper sticker, but the gulf between them and the zeitgeist is almost infinite. The two are insufficiently articulated. One challenge is to articulate the realms of academe and politics better, so that our politics are better informed. That does not require that everyone take the time to understand the scholarship, but merely that a broader acceptance of the relatively greater legitimacy of scholarship over arbitrary opinion is cultivated.

To me, the bumper-sticker mentality IS the problem, which cannot be solved primarily by reproducing and reinforcing it. I am not struggling to ensure that liberalism or progressivism prevails, but rather to ensure that reason and imagination in service to humanity prevails, and the latter is a process that cannot be excessively abbreviated without being destroyed. I find many liberals and progressives only marginally less a part of the problem than folks like (an angry and narrow-minded conservative commenting on that thread), and I am not content to struggle only to ensure that a marginally less banal ideology prevails over a marginally more banal ideology.

The belief that such goals are impossible is belied by history. People may be irrational and lazy, but over the course of the last five centuries, science and scientific methodolgy have grown from tiny embattled zygotes to major facets of our shared existence, affecting our technologies, our economy, and our broadly shared worldview. People may be belligerent and bigoted, but over the past few centuries humanism and the notions of natural or human rights have grown from almost non-existent to major cornerstones of the modern world’s explicitly pursued ideals. And these things happened through the efforts of people with imagination and passion and a belief in the possibilities.

I’m not content to invest all of our resources directed toward intentional social change on maintaining the status quo with merely marginal fluctuations. Yes, we must continue to do that, and, yes, we will and possibly should continue to invest the lion’s share of our resources in precisely that tug-o-war between competing ideological camps. But we can and should –and, I think, must– divert some small fraction of our resources, of our time and treasure, toward something more ambitious and far-reaching, toward something more fundamental and imaginative, toward reaching and passing through yet another threshold in the evolution of our shared existence. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.

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As I wrote in The Dance of Consciousness, there is an eclectic coherence to the thoughts expressed on this blog, as there is to all thought that penetrates beneath a certain level of superficiality, and much that doesn’t. And as I explained in The Algorithms of Complexity, that coherence is a product of what might be described as “a tree of natural algorithms,” with larger branches controlling smaller ones, and our shared intellectual (and thus political) quest being getting closer and closer to the sublime and perhaps ultimately unattainable “trunk” controlling them all.

I described this in terms of a synthesis of several ideas about ideas, including paradigm shifts, dialectics, and meme theory. We live in a world forged by a competition of ideas, some sets of which may come to predominate in certain times and places (in the form of dominant paradigms), but which themselves are constantly challenged by both internal anomalies and conflicting interests or perspectives, combining an on-going problem-solving process with an on-going competition of both ideas and material interests.

To be clear, the competition of ideas has a large material component, such as the competition between military and economic technologies (which are implemented sets of ideas), a competition decided by which win in a physical competition over either the relative ability to physically coerce, or the relative ability to win market share.

In many ways, what happens in academe is more deeply political than what happens in politics narrowly defined, because it involves explorations into deeper currents that eventually inform the shallower ones. The processes are intertwined, so that as political permutations of academic ideas are discredited, so are the academic ideas, whereas political forms that succeed become academically rationalized.

So, the Enlightenment ideas of Locke and Montesquieu were derived from a combination of classical political philosophy and the recent historical experience of Western European, and particularly English development (most particularly in the form of The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was arguably more the moment when sovereignty shifted from crown to people than was The American Revolution), and in turn informed the American Revolution and U.S. Constitution, which have been vindicated by historical success, securing the success of their foundational ideas along with them. Conversely, the equally intellectual ideas of Marx and Engels, as well as a variety of fellow-traveling anarchists and socialists, informed horribly failed political experiements, discrediting the whole complex of imperfectly implemented ideas along with the discredited attempts to implement them.

This sometimes involves “babies” being thrown out with “bathwater,” or “bathwater” being retained along with the “babies” that were in it, such as the popular Western dismissal of every idea Karl Marx ever had due to the abject failure of most societies that tried to implement his general doctrine, or the popular acceptance of an idealized laissez-faire economic philosophy because the more nuanced reality more or less incorporating it has proven to be generally successful along certain highly valued dimensions.

Not only are our ideas and political forms a product of various dialectic and paradigmatic dynamics (including the dialectic of conceptualization and implementation), but also of how these are compiled into ideological packages. The translation of ideas and political forms into political ideologies is very consequential, because even slight errors can be amplified into tragic proportions. For instance, Social Darwinism, despite how horrific it was, was essentially just the confounding of a descriptive reality with a normative one, justifying and even idolizing successful brutality because successful brutality tended, historically, to prevail.

The challenge we are faced with, as conscious beings, is how best to participate in these processes. There are many facets to this challenge, including identifying the purpose(s) of our participation, and the degree to which we feel any imperative to impose our will on the organic development of human history. Some might argue that there is no real purpose to our participation, that we should each simply pursue our own lives, addressing our own interests and the interests of those we care about, and let the rest take care of itself. This is the value-system of “mutual indifference,” caring about ourselves and those closest to us, but not caring about others only to the extent that doing so serves our primary concern.

But this is akin to “non-cooperation” in collective action problems (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), condemning everyone, now and in the future, to fare less well than we otherwise might have. It is the embrace of a mere hyped-up animal existence, grasping in the moment, without far-reaching imagination or foresight or compassion in any way informing our choices. The result is a combination of organized violence and relentless exploitation of any human or natural resource that any group is able to exploit, to our own ultimate self-destruction.

Both humanity and Gaia are better served by more conscious participation in our shared existence, by the proactive effort to understand the systems of which we are a part and which comprise us in order to most fully realize the genius of the many, in service both to our collective material welfare, now and in the future, and to our cognitive capacity to most fully enjoy it. I call the ideology which best meets this challenge “cynical idealism,” the pursuit of the ideal in the cold light of an unflinching understanding of less-than-ideal existing realities.

What we see more frequently is the exact opposite: “Idealistic cynicism,” which is the idealization of who and what we are, while essentially surrendering to the cold, cruel realities of the world. One prominent examples of this is the “angry progressive” movement, driven by the belief that conservatives are the enemy, and committed to achieving immediate progressive policy ends while surrendering to politics as usual in order to do so. It is idealistic about existing realities, by frequently ignoring the real political dynamics by which those ends must be achieved, inconveniences such as compromising with competing points of view and interests, while remaining cynical about our ability to ever transcend our current state of being in any fundamental way (despite the historical reality of constantly transcending previous states of being in very dramatic ways, through a combination of technological and political economic revolutions, for instance).

Another example of “idealistic cynicism” is Tea Party conservatism, which is superficially the opposite of angry progressivism, but on a more fundamental level representative of essentially the same political modality. Tea Partiers are driven by an ideal that they believe to be immediately dispositive, the ideal of absolute freedom from state (i.e., mutual) coercion, which is mobilized in service to an implicitly cynical reality, that we are just a collection of ultimately disconnected individuals whose highest responsibility to one another is to stay out of each other’s way.

Both of these archetypal examples of idealistic cynicism are dogmatic, convinced of substantive truths without worrying too much about how those substantive certainties were arrived at. Cynical idealism, conversely, is the exact opposite: It focuses on procedures by which to improve both our understandings and our implementations of those understandings in service to our collective well-being, here and elsewhere, now and in the future. A cynical idealist recognizes our foibles, including the foibles of oneself, and so is more committed to careful examination of the strengths and weaknesses of various conceptualizations and proposals than to precipitous advocacy of the ones they find most emotionally appealing (the latter leading to our noisy and dumb politics of today, a competition of ideas less refined than otherwise might have been attainable in an alternative political culture).

Therefore, the first pillar of transcendental politics is a dominant commitment to procedures and methodologies, and a more humble and flexible commitment to the inevitably tentative substantive positions that are produced by those procedures and methodologies (see Ideology v. Methodology). This has already occurred to a large extent in one of the most important of our deep political institutions: Academe. Academe is political because it is a place where we produce authoritative (though often competing) statements about reality. And it is not, as has been the historical norm, a mere branch of politics narrowly defined, authoritative truth being a product of who can force it upon others, but is rather, to a large (if inevitably incomplete) extent, a product of a very sophisticated process, of a particular algorithm of for discovering certain facets of reality, carved on the lathe of history, and by the efforts of human beings engaging in it and advocating for it.

It has also occurred, to a lesser but growing extent, in law, where resolutions of legal disputes (including disputes over the meaning of the law itself) are resolved through a very highly refined academic process. This is not to say that politics narrowly defined do not in some ways and at some times control decisions in both of these spheres: Supreme Court justices and federal judges are appointed for political reasons, with attention to their political predispositions; scholarship can be funded or unfunded by political processes, and certainly is very much in the grips of the local politics of academe itself. The point is not that some absolute transcendence of the politics of competing material interests and precipitous substantive certainties either motivated by those interests, or manipulated in service to them have been completely transcended by the disciplines of law and science, but rather that some marginal degree of such transcendence has made significant inroads through these two methodologically-dominated spheres of our social institutional realm.

The major benefit of this procedural or methodological commitment is that, if well designed, it steadily increases The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, and does so at a constantly accelerating rate. The same methodologies can be used to continuously refine the methodologies themselves, and to continuously refine the procedures by which the procedures are refined, delving ever deeper into the The Algorithms of Complexity, just as the fictional character Algono did in the abstract metaphorical representation of this process in  The Wizards’ Eye.

We are on a journey, both individually and collectively, both haphazardly and intentionally, toward ever deepening consciousness, and toward ever more holistic and robust implementations of that consciousness in the form of our social institutional and technological landscape. It is a journey which occurs both despite and due to our efforts, one whose path and destination are not predetermined, but whose logic will sweep us along slowly or quickly, painfully or happily, in service to some at the expense of others or in service to all at the expense of none. These are the dimensions along which our shared fate varies, dependent on the degree of compassion and wisdom we employ and cultivate, in ourselves and in those around us.

I have offered my own nascent view of a way in which we can participate more consciously and more effectively in this shared endeavor of ours, as I have defined it in this essay (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, or, for the more in-depth version, A Proposal). But that suggestion is just one starting point for discussion. The essential step, and the only thing we ever need agree on, is that we are capable of doing so much better than we are doing now, and that there is a conceptual framework that better serves our ability to do better than the blind ideologies to which we currently cling.

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In our exploration of our collective consciousness and our shared existence, much can be understood in terms of how far down into underlying ordering principles particular thoughts and actions reach. The vast majority of our academic and political debates occur between ideas residing at similar levels of subtlety, with decreasing participation as depth increases. These conflicting positions are generally more compatible in some essential ways than their various adherents realize, but also generally defective due to errors of oversimplification and “overreach” of application.

Examples in science include the 19th century debate between particle and wave theories of light, reconciled in the 20th century into a paradigm that transcended the distinction; and the apparent incompatibility of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, reconciled by String Theory, which provides a subtler mathematical penetration transcending that apparent incompatibility.

The principal modern example in geopolitics was the “debate,” culminating in a half-century long Cold War, between Totalitarian Command Economies and Democratic Capitalism, between political economic centralization and political economic decentralization. The lessons of history clearly point to some subtle blend of market dynamics and state regulation, of representative democracy rather than either plebiscite or dictatorship, as a form that transcends either of the previous political ideological poles. Even so, depending on the history of the particular country, extremists at one pole or the other (or both) are likely to continue to obstruct and disrupt the approach toward that transcendent blend, insisting that their pure ideology, existing on a more simplistic plane of conceptualization, is superior. In such instances the dialectic is across levels of subtlety, and the preference should be , in the light of the paradigm I am developing here, for the deeper level of subtlety.

(There are many today who are convinced that the fall of Communism conclusively vindicates its extreme opposite, though even if it had fallen to its extreme opposite, it would only have proven that it was the inferior, in terms of competitiveness, of two extreme views, not that there were no forms superior to both. In reality, Communism didn’t fall to its extreme opposite, but rather to the hybrid form that had developed from the Great Depression onward, that all societies that had participated in the post-WWII expansion of wealth had already implemented and continued to develop, by far the most successful modern form, which blind anti-government ideologues seek to undermine by insisting that their never-tested and fundamentally flawed ideal replace it.)

Another way to conceptualize this historical dynamic is in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, or the Taoist dance of opposites. In the Hegelian dialectic, a thesis is developed and argued, generating an antithesis and counterarguments, resulting eventually in a synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, generating a new antithesis…, and so on, constantly penetrating into deeper levels of subtlety by means of this dialectic. In Taoism, yin and yang are in a constant dynamic tension with one another, each always bearing the seed of its opposite (as in the image of the Taiji Tu, the Taoist symbol of yin and yang).

But it is not just the dance of opposites; it is also the resolution of puzzles. Hegel’s thesis and antithesis are both attempts to understand something, their interaction leading to a deeper understanding. But there is a perhaps even more robust “dialectic” involving Dominant Paradigm, Emerging Anomalies, and Subsequent Paradigm Shift. Frequently, the traditional dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis both precedes and occurs in the interstices of this paradigm-anomalies-paradigm shift dynamic, with competing pre-paradigmatic views vying for dominance, and then, within a given paradigm increasingly beset by anomalies, competing proposed resolutions vying for dominance.

There is even a dialectic that can be discerned in the competition of these two views, between those who understand human history primarily in terms of class conflict punctuated with occasional revolutions, and those who understand human history primarily in terms of dominant paradigms undergoing constant refinement through a process of trial-and-error and responses by centralized regimes to historical exigencies. An example of this can be seen in the competing views on the rise of modern democracy, between those who view it as the result of the less powerful confronting and challenging the more powerful and gradually advancing as a result (the Hegelian dialectic), and those who view it as the result of the English Crown’s need to empower broader and broader swathes of the population in order to finance internecine European wars (the dominant paradigm, anomalies or challenges, paradigm shift view).

In academe as in politics, people debate these competing views, these competing paradigms, these competing theses, as though they are mutually incompatible, only grudgingly and gradually arriving at some evenutal reconciliation which recognizes a subtler reality beneath them, subsuming them, transcending them.

Recently, I broadened and deepened the colorful thesis/paradigm described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change (and the related posts on “the evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems”) by adding in the concept of Emotional Contagion, and by doing so, continued to reconcile with new interweaving threads the social theoretical and social movement tapestries of thought being simultaneously developed on this blog. Another development of the thesis/paradigm might include recognition of the ways in which that pulsating, reverberating, expanding and contracting fractal flow of memes across our collective cognitive landscape involves a progression into ever-increasing subtlety and complexity, penetrating deeper into the ever-more fundamental algorithms generating ever-broader swathes of the complexity around and within us.

Just as the character Algono, in The Wizards’ Eye, was reaching ever-deeper into the potential of human consciousness, finding the algorithms by which change occurs, and then the algorithms by which those algorithms themselves change (as, for instance, scientific paradigms do, as we delve deeper into their implications, discover their anomalies, and transcend them), and so forth, into levels beneath levels, we are, or could be, forever reaching down into the deeper currents that subsume the shallower ones.

To put it another way, this act of reaching down into deeper currents is the act of finding the subtlest algorithms generating the greatest complexity, in much the way that a simple algorithm generates the Mandelbrot Set fractal. (Videos exploring the Mandelbrot Set: The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity. See also, capturing the combination of self-similarity and complexity across scales;, emphasizing self-similarity across scales, and, emphasizing the complexity across scales. See YouTube “Mandelbrot Set Zooms” or “Fractal Zooms” for a wide variety of different projections, no two exactly the same. Also, see, for a wide selection of different still images from the Mandelbrot Set.)

The implication is that, in both thought and action, our challenge in The Dance of Consciousness is to reach into ever deeper currents, finding ever-subtler algorithms of change that affect ever-broader swathes of the encompassing complexity of our existence. When we discuss the actual, practical problems that confront us as a people –problems such as unemployment, the collapse of the housing market, climate change, and illegal immigration– the most useful and effective policies for addressing them are invariably the policies based on more rather than less systemic understanding, reaching deeper down into the currents beneath the superficial phenomena under discussion. This effort, one aspect of which I have outlined in The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, is what I will call “Transcendental Politics.”

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The “Signal-to-Noise Ratio” (SNR) is an engineering term that has come to be applied more broadly to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant information in communications ( As long as I have been aware of the phrase, it has been a favorite of mine. If we were to attempt to construct a comprehensive and maximally useful paradigm of public discourse, this phrase would have to be a cornerstone. SNR refers to the density of meaning in what is being said, the quantity and quality of relevant information that is being communicated, in proportion to the quantity and quality of everything else that obscures and displaces it.

Most political discourse is characterized by an extremely low SNR. Traditional unidirectional mass media (television, radio, newspapers) used to be tempered by trying to appeal to broad markets, which led to a reduction in SNR in order to offend no one. More recently, the balkanization of traditional mass media, appealing more to ideologically targeted markets (particularly on the right), has led to a different kind of reduction of the SNR, an ideologically intense but analytically poor set of insulated messages, reinforcing the creation of ideological islands of selective information reverberating among the faithful. Even the best mass media programming today tends to focus too much on politics as competition among existing ideologies, and not enough on politics as the on-going search for the best policies by which to govern ourselves. Programs that address head-on the questions underwriting the ideological differences are few and far between.

If you visit message boards and political blogs, you find mostly angry tantrums, flame wars, ridicule, arbitrary assertions and opinions, and even, often, an open hostility to analysis. Many of the most active participants in public discourse not only indulge in a low SNR, but privilege it as preferable and superior. In some places, such as on SquareState, the signal-to-noise ratio suffers from adamant ideological insularity, reinforcing a somewhat informed but assiduously narrow and stagnant ideology.

In other places, such as Colorado Pols, the SNR is particularly low, nuggets of information buried in avalanches of chatter. The combination of comradery among accepted insiders and antagonism toward rejected outsiders (placed within and shifted between these categories according to how well they reinforce the ritual of empty discourse that defines the blog) creates a strong group identity. Shared pride is taken in accommodating “everyone” while accomplishing nothing. Virtual friendships are forged among ideological opposites, and arguments resolved, on the basis of the shared ideology that all political orientations are arbitrary and equal. And a strong sense of community is maintained by means of an ethnocentricity of political ritualism, in which saying nothing knowledgeably is perceived to be the height of discourse.

Obviously, the highest SNRs are found in the most inaccessible forums: Professional journals, symposia, and other venues in which highly distilled information is presented and exchanged. Due to the fortress of jargon, and the assumption of a shared expert foundation on which to build, these “ivory tower” forums exist in a world apart, with too few bridges to the realm which most of us occupy.

The challenge to those who want to improve political discourse is to combine the virtues and avoid the vices of each of these various forums. The most important virtues to be combined are the comradery and accommodation of diverse views that characterizes Colorado Pols with the information intensity of academe. The most important vices to be avoided are the ideological insularity of SquareState, the reduction of political discourse to mere arbitrary opinion of Colorado Pols, and the inaccessibility of state of the art information and analysis characteristic of academe.

What we need to work on creating is an all-inclusive, information-intensive, friendly but robust national, state, and local discussion. What we don’t need is to keep reproducing and investing in the clubhouses that currently exist, the clubhouses of ideological insularity, of superficiality, and of esoteria. We need, as individual information consumers, to exercise the discipline to switch the channel from “Reality TV” (including the blogosphere versions) to “National Geographic,” and as individual information producers to be more informative and less offensive. But no one needs to be an expert to contribute to an improved SNR (and few if any are in all things): Asking cogent questions is as important as providing cogent answers, and learning is as essential as teaching.

Premature false certainties are the bane of high SNRs, because they stagnate individual understandings, and balkanize ideological camps. We all need to consider what aspects of opposing views might be valuable to consider. (For instance, our growing national debt, and our undisciplined spending as a nation, major Tea Party issues, are legitimate concerns, and merit our attention.) We need to avoid the meme that compromise is bad, and embrace the meme that pursuing the best and most informed policies is good. We need each to fight against our own pettiness, and discourage it in one another. We need to recognize that we have a civic responsibility not just to be engaged, but also to become ever better informed, and to develop ever deeper and broader understandings of the issues that confront us. And we have to, all of us, exercise that civic responsibility publicly, together, helping one another to develop those deeper and broader understandings, and seeking from one another our own on-going education, for responsible self-governance benefits first and foremost from an increasingly better and more richly informed electorate.

(This theme is continued in Un-Jamming the Signal.)

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