I see life as an adventure of the mind and imagination. Whatever we do, wherever we go, however we thrive, it is our minds that define us as uniquely human, some weird and wonderful thing in this vast and varied universe of ours. The desire to help others discover that is a big part of why I’m a teacher.
We should all be students, all of our lives, because our world grows the more we learn about it, our lives expand and grow richer, our own identities deepen and ripen, who and what we are becomes something more than what it was. It’s easier to believe that about great literature, great music, great art, but I’m going to make the case for something not everyone realizes is so incredibly beautiful.
Mathematics is one of the great products of human genius. It is not the only one, maybe not superior to others that occupy its heights, but neither inferior to them. It occupies a pantheon of human consciousness that includes great literature that can take you on journeys of the imagination into ever deeper and subtler spheres of reality; brilliant music that provides not merely a beat to move to but an intricate language of tightly woven sounds that speaks to our very soul; philosophies and sciences and fine arts of various kinds.
But math is not least among them, and perhaps is most remarkable of all, music that has not been played, science unyoked from the constraints of observable reality or at least stretching an ever-more elastic tether to them. It distills some essence of the universe, of the macrocosms and microcosms, of ubiquitous and eternal forms, speaking a language that crosses cultural and linguistic barriers and historical epochs with a completeness that not even music and the fine arts can attain.
Math is the purified mind, the celestial symphony, a strange and beautiful sphere of human thought, god’s own soliloquy echoing within us. And when applied to the practical questions that assail us, either directly or through its verbal twin of logical analysis, it enables us to do better, to discipline our passions and channel our thoughts, to arrive at wiser rather than more foolish conclusions. It is a vehicle of both beauty and purpose, a tool and an instrument, delicately plucked to play truths too subtle to otherwise hear.
The one constant is change, but the speed and utility of change is not constant at all. Organizations emerge for the purpose of fomenting change, yet, as a general rule, they soon ossify in the same kinds of unimaginative patterns as the institutions they are seeking to affect. Significant change through the medium of established organizations and institutions is generally catalyzed by either those who are raised to positions of influence despite their failure to satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications, or those who act in ways not predicted by the fact that they satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications.
Human actions fall within a space one axis of which is defined by courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence at one extreme, and conventional choices striving for mediocrity or maintaining the status quo at the other. That axis alone does not describe the quality or efficacy of individual actions: Courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence that are made in service to an odious ideology, or that are in some other way misinformed, may well do more harm than good, whereas conventional choices striving for mediocrity may make valuable marginal contributions to human welfare. But, while caution, analytical sophistication, foresightedness and respect for uncertainty, and subtlety of insight and strategy are necessary variables to render courageous and creative innovation a positive rather than negative force, the absence of courageous and creative innovation guarantees suboptimal outcomes.
Several recent experiences have raised this to the fore of my mind: A program director position for an educational reform foundation that I applied for, and would have done a truly exceptional job in, that I failed to get because an unimaginative vice president was looking for candidates that satisfied the more superficial and easily acquired criteria for the job rather than the more profound and harder to duplicate criteria of greater importance; other nonprofit positions filled by decision makers similarly focused on superficial and less salient criteria; an alternative school led by a robust and idealistic principal who may prove to be an exception to this “rule;” a widespread insistence, across the ideological spectrum, to cling to conventional modes of thought and conventional strategies and conceptualizations of political activism, rather than to reach down a bit deeper and attempt to foment truly fundamental change instead.
The most profound lesson of human history is the robustness of social change, the degree to which that which is taken for granted as a permanent feature of our consciousness and our social institutional landscape is truly ephemeral, and can and does change far more rapidly and dramatically than those living in their own time and place are wont to realize. It is true, of course (as discussed in The Variable Malleability of Reality) that some things are easier to change than others; that smart strategies identify what aspects of our current reality are more malleable in order to massage our encompassing social (and natural) systems in ways which move us in desired directions. But it is also true (as discussed inThe Algorithms of Complexity) that that layered complexity, in which deeper levels are generally less malleable than more superficial ones, provides frequent opportunities for rapid, dramatic change, when some of the underlying “algorithms” are actually fairly malleable. The art and science of participating in history in socially responsible and “ambitious” ways involves recognizing and reconciling these two aspects of the challenge at hand.
It’s time for a new social movement that confronts this challenge head-on, and does so with a commitment to doing so as rationally and imaginatively and compassionately as possible. I’ve outlined one general proposal for organizing such a movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and in the other essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. (In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts can be found essays exploring the nature of our social institutional and technological landscape, to better inform such efforts; and in some other boxes can be found specific applications and aspects of this analysis.)
The proposal has three components: 1) Non-partisan community organizations whose members agree to commit only to reason and universal goodwill, to listening to competing views, and to seeking the policies which best serve humanity; 2) A data base or internet portal making access to all arguments that are framed as analyses applying reason to evidence in service to human welfare, and that provide documentation for all factual evidence relied on, upon which such community organizations can draw for their discussions and debates; and 3) Something I call “meta-messaging” (see Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives): The emotionally and cognitively effective dissemination of the narrative that this is a good and worthy project, that it is good for individuals and good for society to view our shared existence as a shared existence with shared challenges and shared opportunities, that, as I like to put it, it’s better to be Ebenezer Scrooge after his adventure with Marley and the Three Spirits than before.
Such a movement depends on suspending substantive debates until they can be contextualized in the framework being advocated, because to do so would be to lose what cross-cutting appeal such a movement might have. While there are many who would never join such a movement, and never join the community organizations that are a part of it, there are many who would, including many who identify themselves as “conservatives” or “independents.”
This is not, and cannot be, a movement to overturn Citizens United, or a movement to increase public spending on social services and education, or a movement to achieve preconceived substantive goals of any kind, because to allow it to become so would be to defeat its purpose: To find and develop the one common ground all people who wish to be reasonable people of goodwill can agree on, and that is that we all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that we don’t know all of the answers, wise enough to engage in a public discourse devoted to doing the best we can, and disciplined enough to develop new procedures and new institutions that help us to work together as reasonable people of goodwill confronting the challenges of a complex and subtle world.
What we need more fundamentally and more critically than to achieve any of the individual, ideologically saturated substantive goals that divide us is to rediscover and develop our common ground, the underlying values and aspirations that most of us share, and the procedurally and attitudinally focused framework that we can create to pursue them more constructively and cooperatively. There are many people in America who are sick of the divisive, angry, excessively intransigent political rhetoric which dominates our public forums and airwaves, who would flock to a movement that steps back from that and tries, instead, to establish another kind of public discourse, another kind of political participation. This is a movement to bring them in, and move us forward.
That means letting go of the rituals of warring false certainties, and coming together instead around a common acknowledgement of shared uncertainty and fallibility. It’s time for all who are willing to make that leap of daring idealism, of courageous commitment to doing better, of believing in our humanity, to do so. We can continue to reproduce the unimaginative and unproductive ritual of over-confident warring false certainties, or to work together to create something new and vibrant and potentially revolutionary. As always, we each get to choose how daring and imaginative and conscious, and therefore how effective, our commitment to progress really is.
I’ve written before about the potential of “new media” to accelerate our cultural evolutionary processes (processes described in the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), emphasizing the positive potential (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). But there are also dynamics in place which co-opt this meme-accelerator in service to our basest inclinations, systematically favoring the least well-informed and most poorly reasoned memes and paradigms over the best-informed and most well reasoned memes and paradigms.
This consciousness-contracting force is comprised of the following interacting factors, the first of which is laudable in and of itself, but combines with the other two in dysfunctional ways: 1) A shared popular commitment to respecting the right of each to express any position in public discourse without privileging some over others; 2) A wide-spread individual aversion to being embarrassed by having one’s own factual or logical error debunked in public discourse; 3) The pandering of many comment board and blog moderators to those who are so embarrassed, favoring empty sniping (which is accepted as the norm on such forums) over carefully constructed argument (which is considered too discomfiting a challenge to those who want a “safe” place to broadcast their often arbitrary, ideologically-derivative opinions).
I’ve encountered this dynamic repeatedly, targeted both by participants and, in service to popular inclinations, moderators as well, for introducing analytical thought into such forums. Most recently, the Denver Post has taken this dynamic to new depths, deleting three highly factual and analytical comments on my part, at the behest of someone who was offended by the factual and analytical content itself.
The first comment was a list of points contesting a comment by the complaining individual (whose own comment was nothing but a string of ad hominems), citing economic studies, a demographic argument made by The Economist magazine, and historical facts. Other than starting with the word “hogwash,” and ending with the phrase “other than that, you really nailed it,” it was nothing but fact and argument. The second comment was a point-by-point debunking of his response, devoid of any ad hominem. The third was nothing more than a straight-forward and very dry correction of the assertion that the 15% tax rate paid by many of the wealthiest Americans is due to their charitable giving, noting that the 15% rate was the capital gains tax rate that many of them enjoyed, and not an artifact of deductions for charitable giving. Amazingly, the Denver Post on-line moderator deleted all three, at one point messaging me that he saw nothing wrong with my comments, but was deleting them anyway!
I contacted the Denver Post about this, and received assurances that they would discuss it and get back to me. They never did.
This is just the most egregious example of a larger, and more troubling dynamic: The privileging of angry ideological memes over factually informed and well-reasoned memes. Anyone who reads comment boards such as the Denver Post can’t help but notice the dominance of angry ideological voices. What many may not realize is that the moderators themselves actually contribute to ensuring that such voices dominate their comment boards, not because they necessarily agree with or prefer the tone of those voices, but rather because of a mistaken application of a democratic instinct: Protecting voices from factual and logical challenges to them.
In one sense, the larger endeavor we are in, the struggle over humanity’s future, is a contest between the forces of mindlessness and mindfulness, of belligerence and compassion, of bigotry and enlightenment. We must never forget, each and every one of us, that that struggle occurs within as well as without, within our own individual psyches, within our own groups and movements, within our own rationalizations and ideologies. But the two are a challenge that we face without distinction, for we share a mind, and when the forces of mindlessness prevail in our interactions, they also prevail in our own internal cognitive landscapes. The Denver Post, for instance, succeeded not only in silencing reason applied to fact in deference to irrationality applied to fictions, but also in reinforcing the belief that it was right to do so in the mind of one who least could afford to have that belief reinforced.
It is incumbent on each of us to confront these countervailing currents, sweeping through the same media of collective consciousness as I am using now; to level their waves of mindlessness with the interference of equal and opposite waves of mindfulness. As many know, my outline of a sustained strategy for doing so can be found in the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. But this suggested paradigm, like the paradigms it is designed to affect, should be one which benefits from the genius of the many, from the refinements offered by time and numbers. It is now just a nascent thought, waiting to be developed. The only critical thread that must weave itself through all of our efforts is a commitment to continuing to strive to be reasonable and imaginative people of goodwill, working together with humility and compassion to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world. The more successfully we spread that meme, the better off we will be.
We have a lot of work to do. All reasonable people of goodwill have a lot of work to do. It’s not enough to groan, to bemoan, to talk or even walk, to vote and encourage others to vote, to protest or rally or lobby or canvass, to organize for specific goals, to engage in rituals and contribute to the noise of a very noisy world. It’s not enough to write, or implore, or contemplate, or engage others. We need to take action; a very specific kind of action; a less familiar and, for many, less emotionally gratifying kind of action; a less cathartic and more creative kind of action; a less ritualistic and more conscious kind of action; a less well-trod and more innovative kind of action.
The first step is to know that we can do much, much better. I don’t mean we could do better if only we beat the political opposition at the polls, or that we could do better if only others saw the world the way we do and joined us in our efforts to create a kinder, gentler, saner world. I mean that those of us who claim to believe in our collective potential to improve the human condition can do much better at translating that belief into results. That’s not something that depends on any superficial panacea saving us from a very deeply entrenched status quo, or on any sudden mass change of consciousness (that, in truth, it is our challenge to catalyze and cultivate), but rather on the discipline and commitment of those who share a general vision and goal, in service to that vision and goal.
First of all, I shy away from using the term “progressive,” because, while among existing political ideological orientations, that is clearly the one I align with, and clearly the closest to being the force for moving in the direction of being a kinder, gentler, saner world, it falls woefully short, and leaves behind some who might join us in this effort, while being overtaken by others who are as much an obstruction to moving in the direction of becoming a kinder, gentler, wiser world as our ideological opposites are.
We need a movement within and beyond the progressive movement that commits to something many progressives have not committed to, and some conservatives would: To leave behind the false certainties, the overwrought commitment to oversimplified panaceas, the ancient tribal impulse to reduce the world to the “good guys” that are us and the “bad guys” that are them, and commit instead to disciplined reason and universal goodwill alone as the ultimate goals and underlying means of all that we do.
That doesn’t mean, as some people always insist on interpreting it to mean, that this is advocacy for always being “nicey-nice” and never taking firm stands for or against specific positions, even engaging in “hardball” politics in service to those stands. (Indeed, there are many who accuse me of the opposite error, of not being “nicey-nice” enough in public discourse, of “bullying” people, either with my intellect or my “flowery, condescending bullshit,” depending on their disposition toward me. While I am not claiming that I always get it right, I am claiming that there are definitely times to “bully” people with one’s intellect, or, as I like to put it, to make arguments so compelling that those who find them inconvenient are made uncomfortable by the difficulty of refuting them.) Those are determinations that must be made in the context of the kind of comprehensive analysis, holistic vision, and disciplined commitment to them that I am advocating. Nor does it mean that this vision is meant to (or possibly could) displace the current and familiar popular political landscape, with all of its oversimplifications, precipitous manias, and narrow interests or visions. I discuss below how these two visions and orientations, one of strident advocacy for passionately held views, and the other for cultivating a broader and more accommodating commitment to reason and goodwill in both the form and substance of our political advocacy, can coexist.
Rather, this is the articulation of a higher ideal, a more conscious and restrained and aspirational political and cultural movement, to which people who aspire to the creation of a kinder, gentler, and saner world can invest some or all of their energy, either while engaging in other more familiar political movements that also appeal to them and capture their imaginations and their motivations, or (as might be the case for some few) as their primary or only vehicle for social change.
I had, not long ago, developed one specific blueprint for what such a movement could look like (see, e.g., Transcendental Politics, A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). The specific blueprint developed in these essays is not the subject of this one. Our efforts to create this new “transcedental politics,” this more disciplined and humble and wise commitment to working toward a positive vision of what can be rather than against all of the windmill-dragons populating our ideologically saturated realities, can take what form it will, but it must begin with a commitment to it, and an organized effort to cultivate this new species of activism so that might flourish amidst the flora and fauna of the current political ecosystem.
Many of the essays I wrote in the course of developing and fleshing out my “politics of reason and goodwill” are iterations of the same theme of this one, such as The Ultimate Political Challenge, Second-Order Social Change, “A Theory of Justice”, The Foundational Progressive Agenda , The Politics of Anger, The Politics of Kindness, The Power of “Walking the Walk”, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, The Heart of Politics, A Call To Minds & Hearts & Souls, Politics & Social Change, Changing The Narrative, Cluster Liberals v. Network Liberals, Realizing Human Potential, The Loss of Humanity, Getting Off The Political Treadmill, and An Argument for Reason and Humility. Though there is undoubtedly considerable redundancy laced throughout these essays, it is my hope that together they, somewhat haphazardly and inefficiently, carve out a well-defined and increasingly detailed vision of how to do better, of what it means to do better, and of what it requires of each of us who wish to help change the world for the better.
The keys to this vision for progress are two-fold: 1) We need to cultivate within ourselves and within whatever organizations we create committed to this vision the humility, wisdom, and universal goodwill that must inform it, and make those values a discipline that we actively pursue, both within ourselves as individuals and throughout all social fields to which we belong; and 2) we need to explore, in depth and with precision, the nature of the social institutional and cognitive landscape that is the field within which we are operating, applying the knowledge gained to the challenge of affecting that landscape in desired ways. (For my nascent contribution to that second component, see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)
The articulation of these two aspects of what I’ll now refer to as “Transcendental Politics” is one of the challenges I have only barely waded into. It’s clear that they are closely bound together, in numerous ways, and that the discovery of the conceptual threads that weave them into a single whole will be an exciting and gratifying enterprise. I alluded to some of the connections in The Dance of Consciousness, The Algorithms of Complexity, and undoubtedly in other essays as well: They revolve around the fact that we are both participants in, and elements of, the social institutional/technological/cognitive landscape that we are simultaneously operating through and trying to affect. These are not too distinct spheres of reality, as we so often pretend they are, but rather one; recognizing that, and acting on the basis of that recognition, is a cornerstone of Transcendental Politics. (I have just recently bought a book, “Spiral Dynamics,” recommended to me by a friend, that purports to address precisely this dimension of the challenge, to develop a leadership and social movement/social change paradigm based on, essentially, the evolutionary ecology paradigm of our shared social institutional/technological/cognitive landscape.)
Transcendental Politics is one specimen of a larger, already defined category, referred to as “Transformational Politics,” which is political action designed not just to win battles within the current paradigm, but to change that paradigm as well. Transcendental Politics specifies a very precise kind of transformational goal, one which relies less on assumption and more on analysis, is more dedicated to humanity, all things considered, and less to narrower goals that conflict with that global goal on closer examination. It is a transformation that discourages stridency and encourages thoughtfulness and civil discourse informed by humility. It is, in short, the politics of reason and goodwill (leavened with imagination and compassion), pursued with Discipline & Purpose.
Part of what is to be transcended is the level of analysis on which the current ideological dichotomy defining the contemporary partisan divide is to be found (see A Tale of Two Movements). While both contentions are true to varying degrees and in varying ways (the Right is correct that there is a very salient agency problem embedded in any reliance on government to order our lives, and the Left is correct that corporate power, particularly over the political process, has reached crisis proportions), neither dynamic is as simple as its staunchest advocates imagine, and neither lies at the core of what is obstructing progress. (Admittedly, like peeling away the layers of an onion, the core itself may be ever-elusive, but part of the project of Transcendental Politics is to focus on the peeling back of layers to find the ever-more fundamental issues to address, and to eschew the self-satisfied belief that complex issues require no further analysis once a position has been taken. See The Algorithms of Complexity; or The Wizards’ Eye for a fictionalized representation of the dynamic.)
Transcendental Politics involves digging beneath these issues, recognizing the elements of truth in them, but also the utility of the institutions being critically analyzed, and eschewing the manias of obsessive exaggeration and oversimplification. Transcendental Politics requires us to embrace rather than scoff at the habit of qualifying assertions, identifying exceptions and conditions and variability, and, in general, declining to reduce the world to pithy soundbites in favor of exploring the world in all of its subtlety and complexity. To paraphrase the former Colorado (and now Wisconsin) political journalist Adam Schrager, quoting his father, Transcendental Politics favors thinking and speaking in commas and question marks over periods and exclamation points.
Stridency doesn’t exclude anyone from participating in advocacy of Transcendental Politics, or joining any groups that may emerge to implement it, though the stridency itself is excluded. There are times to be strident, and we each use our own judgment to determine when that time has come for us, though, on average, I would say we err on leaping to stridency too quickly rather than refraining from it too often. (For instance, I recently became very strident in an exchange on Facebook, with a bunch of right-wing evangelicals preaching anti-Muslim attitudes, calling for an attitude of prejudice and policies of discrimination toward all Muslims residing in the United States. I found their attitude so reprehensible, so horrifyingly familiar, that, while composing powerful arguments designed to increase the difficulty of rationalizing their bigotry, I also declined to mince words in my characterization of their position. See “Sharianity” for my depiction of their position.)
Many of my fellow progressives are strident about things I choose not to be, and am less convinced merit it. The governmental and police responses to “Occupy” protesters, for instance, while certainly sometimes excessive and counterproductive (and therefore deserving of very clear criticism), seem to me to be embedded in a more complex and nuanced challenge of balancing legitimate needs to enforce laws designed to protect the public health and safety with the need to limit the freedoms of speech and assembly (especially political speech and assembly) to the slightest degree practicable. It is an issue in which there is an inevitable balance to be struck (even if it is not currently being struck in the right place), and therefore an issue in which stridency is to be avoided.
But if an individual, on careful consideration, and in full consciousness, determines that, by their judgment, the issue of overzealous and overly violent enforcement of marginal laws, against political protesters generally not engaging in any serious misconduct of any kind, is an issue worthy of strident condemnation, that’s not a judgment I am in any position to say is “wrong.” I can only say that, since such determinations are a matter of personal judgment, and since one goal of Transcendental Politics is to increase our thoughtfulness and reduce our stridency in general, both my stridency toward those anti-Islamic xenophobes on Facebook, and others’ toward overzealous police action toward the “Occupy” protesters, should be left in the arena of conventional political discourse (where we all will still be participating as well), and removed from the attempt to transcend it.
In fact, people who are stridently opposed to one another on some or all issues might find a venue in which to discuss underlying aspects of those issues in a different way, if some of them at some times share the basic commitment required of participation in Transcendental Politics: That of striving to be reasonable people of goodwill working together to confront the complex and subtle challenges of life on Earth. To enter that new venue, we take off our hats of issue advocacy, and put on our hat of tolerance and acceptance. We do not have to worry that we are tolerating and accepting something intolerable and unacceptable by doing so, because we have not forsaken the other hat of passionate advocacy on that issue. But we can rejoice that we have, without giving anything up, opened up a channel through which reason and goodwill might have more opportunity to gain more purchase on more hearts and minds.
Transcendental Politics is about reducing the entrenchment of mutual antagonism, and increasing the commitment to reason and goodwill. It is about reducing irrationality and belligerence, and increasing consciousness in both thought and action. It is about moving from a politics that reproduces and reinforces our folly toward a politics that liberates us from and gradually transcends that folly. It is about growing as human beings, as individuals and as societies, and reaching toward higher and more life-affirming expressions of our humanity.
My role, thus far, has, for the most part, been to articulate this vision and try to rally others to it. (I have made some organizational attempts as well, such as trying to form my own community organization as part of that component of my “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” project, and engaging, both professionally and avocationally, in a multitude of public interest advocacy efforts. I developed this project, beyond my writings here, in the context of a Colorado Leaders Fellowship, with the Center for Progressive Leadership, outlining a long-term plan for bringing it to fruition. I also sent out hundreds of packets to political and civic leaders in Colorado, describing my specific project to them, looking for support and funding. However, despite all of that, I have not yet done enough to take these ideas across the threshold from the drawing board into implementation.) But, while social progress is always urgent, and millions suffer every day from our failures to address the challenges we face more effectively, instantaneous success is rarely an option.
This is not something one individual can make happen on his or her own. We often look to leadership to lead us, and lament its failure to do so, but, in the end, we should lament most of all our own failures to step up to the plate, and become leaders ourselves, leaders in our families and communities, leaders in our organizations and professions, leaders in our thoughts and actions (see What is Leadership?). None of us should wait for someone else to make this happen; we each should take action ourself to make it happen, to move it forward, to spread this meme and this paradigm, to help it insinuate itself into our cognitive landscape, and, from there, into our social institutional landscape.
If this is a vision you share, or one that you believe has a vital place in our social field, then please, step forward and say, “yes, I want to be a part of this.” Email me with an expression of your interest (even if you have done so already, please do so again: firstname.lastname@example.org). Let’s start a dialogue around it, a continuing effort on all of our parts to transform our world for the better, not by raising our fists and expressing our rage, but by raising our consciousness and expressing our humanity.
We are capable of accomplishing so much together (see, e.g., Public Entrepreneurialism and Gaia & Me). But it takes more than a wish and some words. It takes commitment. Let’s not lament our failure to transform this world for the better to the extent that we know we are able to; let’s, instead, rejoice in our commitment to doing so, and act on that commitment with a renewed sense of determination and indomitability.
As some of you may have noticed, I went on one of my informal (self-)promotional campaigns recently on Facebook, posting links to my Colorado Confluence Facebook page on a variety of group sites (and some friends’ pages) that seemed like well-chosen places to do a little advertising. On one FB page I chose, “You know you’re a political staffer when…,” I was received with the reflexive vitriol that seems to have become an integral part of what passes for political discourse these days. Apparently, the sole purpose of the page was to complete the title phrase (though I saw plenty of posts that did not serve that purpose, without complaint), and my post was an act of “hijacking the thread” (the whole page being conceived of as a single thread).
One poster there complained that I should be dismissed for writing “impractical abstract bullshit” rather than manning the phones in order to move the political needle a little. That got me thinking (and pontificating): What is the relative value of my “impractical abstract bullshit,” and what is the relative value of manning the phones to move the polical needle a little (in competition, of course, with those of the opposite ideology, doing the same in the opposite direction). (I also threw in a long list of the other things I’ve been doing to affect the world positively, that might compare favorably to manning the phones….)
So, here are some of the things that economically, sociologically, and legally informed “impractical abstract bullshit” helps with, if you are involved in “politics” (which used to –and still should– mean the art of devising and implementing “policies”):
1) A popular mental health “consumer movement” idea called “money follows the individual” is burdened with the same flaw that the popular “school voucher” idea bears: It allocates money equally to individuals, thus leaving those with the greatest needs in a ghetto of underfunded and underserved extreme problems. (See School Vouchers, Pros & Cons)
2) School reform requires the opposite of current popular incarnations of it, with more attention to community involvement, more attention to holistic and integrated child development, and more attention to creating a culture of positive reinforcement through, for instance, designing school programs and policies which give students a stake in one another’s success. (See Real Education Reform and Mistaken Locus of Education Reform)
3) While we do have to create a trajectory in which our national debt is stabilized as a proportion of GDP, it is not the urgent problem that some pretend it is. In fact, new debt is being financed at a rate about equal to the rate of inflation, meaning that in real terms it is costless to finance. And our current entire national debt is equal to about one year’s GDP, which compares very favorably to the average homeowner, whose household debt in the early years of home ownership is equal to several years’ income. Also, the private sector, to which many conservatives bow as the model to which the public sector should aspire, relies on credit as the life-blood of its operations. (See The Economic Debate We’re Not Having , The Real Deficit , The Restructuring of the American and Global Economy , The More Subtle & Salient Economic Danger We Currently Face, and Why Extreme Income and Wealth Inequality Matters)
4) Popular attitudes toward “illegal immigration” in the United States sometimes parallels deeply discredited historical chapters of identifying reviled “foreigners” living within a nation, and seeking to remove them. While there are important differences between our current political situation vis-a-vis our undocumented residents, and the most infamous of historical chapters of mass xenophobic scapegoating (e.g., our directly targeted foreign population does not include descendents of immigrants, but only those who actually crossed the border after their own birth; and our treatment is not yet at “concentration camp” levels, let alone approaching genocide, though detailed knowledge reduces this gap to an extent that would surprise many, including a family detention center that made small children stand at attention for hours and urinate in their pants). (See A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, and Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score)
The list, of course, goes on (and on, and on, and on…; see Catalogue of Selected Posts), but the point here is that it pays to think about the world we live in; and think about the exact nature of the policies we are currently pursuing or advocating, versus the exact nature of the policies that a better informed and more reflective stance might support instead.
Apropos this discussion, I responded to Ed Quillen’s column in today’s Denver post (The Hazards of Nitpicking: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19360471?source=bb) with a discussion of the importance of getting the facts and analysis right, rather than merely engaging in the blind partisan warfare and ritualism that the critical poster on that FB page was so committed to. My DP comment (which for some reason does not seem to appear after the column on the DP website) is reproduced below:
Excellent point, Ed!
As a Progressive Blogger (at http://coloradoconfluence.com/) and person engaged, in many different ways, in our shared human enterprise, the only ideology I want to see anyone embrace is the one that acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge and understanding, and commits us to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together to confront the challenges of a complex and subtle world.
I cringe just as much when I see a Progressive leap to some insufficiently supported conclusion, or cling to some insufficiently justified assumption, as when I see a conservative do it, because it is just as counterproductive to our collective welfare (more so, in some ways, since it squanders the opportunity to define ourselves as something other than blind ideologues opposing other blind ideologues).
The real political divide isn’t between the Right and the Left (or Libertarians and “Statists,” or whatever substantive dichotomy you might want to define yourself by), but rather between those who, on the one hand, are committed to applying reason to reliable evidence in service to human welfare, all things considered, and those who, on the other, want to engage in blind ideological warfare, relying on cheap and irrelevant shots, shoddy or false information, poorly reasoned arguments, and cynical and base methodologies of all sorts, ranging from mindless marketing of candidates and policies to disingenuous smear campaigns to simply inventing facts to suit one’s ideological convenience, in service to the displaced goals of advancing an insufficiently examined ideology rather than advancing the interests of humanity.
Ed, there is no message that needs to be repeated as frequently and as forcefully as the one you’ve reiterated in this column. Thanks!
The title refers to two things: 1) that which people mistake for sacred truth and fortify against any critical analysis or countervailing evidence; and 2) that which is critical analysis, or, more broadly, proven procedures and disciplines in service to the immutable and inarticulable underlying coherence of our existence. I’ll distinguish between them by putting the first (but not the second) in quotation marks.
The first consists of sacred scrolls (religious documents and philosophical tomes that state or legitimate the preferred dogma) and secular sages (those pundits or scholars who give voice to the preferred dogma). The quality of the substance of the dogma is not the defining characteristic, but rather the mere fact that it is an inflexible false certainty, an opinion held not via any real analysis on the part of the holder, but rather accepted as given truth. It is an error found across the political and religious spectrum, and is more prevalent than its absence. Humans are defined more by adherence to false “sacred truths” than to true ones.
The second meaning consists of processes forged in skepticism, in service to wonder, informed by humility, unclouded by malice. It is not comprised of articulable conclusions, but rather of processes and disciplines by which to arrive at them, and by the most basic premises which give those processes and disciplines meaning.
Even so, there are “true” sacred truths that can be put into words, though, paradoxically, the first one is that there aren’t: “The Tao of which we speak is not the eternal Tao.” We don’t know as much as we think we do or pretend to, and that which we reduce to words is something less than the absolute truth.
A second sacred truth is that we are parts of a whole, that “no man is an island entire of itself,” that we are comprised of smaller systems and comprise larger ones. This is one of the few substantive sacred truths, a recognition of coherence and systemicness to ourselves and our context, because without it, the disciplines which provide windows onto that coherence have no meaning. It is basically the realization that there is a coherent and comprehensible reality within which we are working, even if none of our understandings of it are ever complete and final.
Not all sacred truths belong to the left hemisphere of the brain; not all are based on reason and the procedures derived from it. Empathy, for instance, a sense of interconnectedness, is a sacred truth, an emotional rather than rational understanding of the systemicness and coherence described above.
But emotionally based factual certainties are false “sacred truths,” not true ones. People who bend facts to their preferences, or select from legitimately disputed facts or theories according to their emotional predilictions (imbuing their preferred conclusion with a degree of certainty incommensurate with its actual conclusiveness), are engaging in the folly of adhering to “sacred truths,” rather than the wisdom of being guided by sacred truths.
This is one of the fundamental challenges we face as humanity, as a people, as individuals: To admit to the degree of uncertainty that wise humility demands, and adhere to the disciplines and emotional foundations that well serve a wise and compassionate people.
(This is the most recent in a series of essays on this topic that can be found in the fifth box, titled “Dogmatic Ideology and its Avoidance,” at Catalogue of Selected Posts.)
I’m angry too.
I’m angry at those who try to obstruct improvement of the human condition, and at those who obstruct improvement of the human condition while trying to facilitate it. I’m angry at both those who lack any sense of responsibility to one another, and those who lack any sense of how to satisfy that responsibility to one another. I’m angry at those progressives among us who try to turn every meeting into a group therapy session, focused on how mad they are that their imperfect certainties of the world are not being adequately realized by the candidates that they supported. I’m angry at hubris, and inflexibility, and attempts to impose the noise and obstruction of false certainties on a system already clogged with noise and obstructions of all kinds. I’m angry at folly, littered liberally across the ideological spectrum.
I’m angry at those who believe that progressive activism should consist entirely of trying to impose one’s own will on government, and not at all of trying to inform the will that is being imposed. I’m angry at those who believe that if they are convinced that something must be, then making it so must be good. I’m angry at those who think a straight line is the best path to all destinations, even if the destination cannot be reached by it.
I’m angry at those whose self-indulgent and unproductive anger drives productive people away, dominating discourse and derailing progress. I’m angry at those progressives who are essentially the same as Tea Partiers, only filling in the blanks of the same Mad-lib differently; who are political fundamentalists of another shade, characterized by the same attitude, adamant and inflexible, impermeable to new information, content to be absolutely certain of inevitably imperfect understandings. I’m angry at those who respond to the intentional obstruction of progress with the unintentional obstruction of progress, forming an implicit alliance with those they purport to oppose. I’m angry with those who adhere to and reinforce the cycle of blindly ideological opposition rather than striving to transcend it, as would serve an authentic progressive movement.
I’m angry at those who think that unproductive bitching is the epitome of political activism, and that attempts to plan and execute efforts to actually affect the political and ideological landscape are distractions from their “substantive work.” I’m angry at people who combine working to get favored candidates elected with anger that those candidates consistently disappoint them, or anger that fellow progressives made other choices, while doing nothing to assist those candidates in their efforts to persuade constituents who are not in agreement. I’m angry with people who think elections are the breadth and depth of politics, and that all challenges are met by winning them, though even they constantly observe that the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary.
I’m angry with people who completely ignore the importance of creating a context which facilitates what we want our elected officials to do. I’m angry with people who don’t understand that getting progressives elected and re-elected is just the most superficial layer of the political challenge we face, and that unless we address the layers beneath it, we will be both less successful at achieving that superficial layer, and less successful at making such success, when it comes, conducive to the ends we had in mind when pursuing it.
I’m angry at those who don’t understand that electoral politics is just the beginning of the challenge; that the rest involves more, not less, responsibility on our part. And the tragedy is that too few people undertake that more essential responsibility.
I’m angry at people who take pride in a passionate commitment to change things for the better that is being squandered in ways which are more emotionally gratifying than effective, and, if anything, actually contribute more to ensuring that things won’t change for the better than that they will. I’m angry when these people speak for the progressive movement, attempt to ostracize and disinvite those who aren’t like them in order better to wallow with fellow travelers in an ecstasy of complete ineffectiveness.
But I’m not angry about the possibilities that lie beyond their fortifications, that can attract larger numbers of more able souls. I’m not angry, but rather am hopeful, that there are many who are silent, put-off, disgusted, and alienated by the combination of arrogance, ignorance, anger, and intransigence that characterizes many of the most vocal lay participants, of all ideological stripes, in our political process. I’m hopeful that a different kind of progressive movement, a more pragmatic but more robust and effective progressive movement, can attract the vast silent majority, who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, and seek only a sign directing them to where reason and goodwill reside.
I’m hopeful that those of us so inclined will be able to find and create venues in which tackling the real challenges we face, that are ours to tackle, is considered the proper focus of our efforts rather than a distraction from them. I’m hopeful that there are those who want to work with some degree of humility to do our part, on the ground, to improve the quality of life in this state, nation, and world, both by affecting government, and by affecting the context within which it operates.
For those who haven’t figured it out yet, I believe that we live in a fundamentally systemic reality, that increasing both our understanding of the nature of those systems and our application of that understanding to the challenges and opportunities we face, in service to reason and goodwill, is what defines, or should define, the collective human endeavor. If all human beings, or all Americans, or all Coloradans, agreed with this simple proposition today, the enormity of the challenge would still loom before us like a mountain to be scaled, but one we would be able to scale, to our immense benefit. But in a world in which so many people are so irrationally, or self-interestedly, resistent even to getting to this starting point, that mountain recedes beyond moats and fortified walls, hordes of armed and angry sentries attacking those who even gesture toward, much less try to approach, those heights or our potential.
We not only need to analyze the interactions of our social institutions, technologies, and natural systems in the pursuit of an ever-more robust, sustainable, and equitable production and distribution of human welfare, but we also have to analyze the nature of the human obstinance and ignorance that stands between those of us committed to addressing these inherent challenges, and our collective ability to do so. And we need to discern the strategies for circumventing that obstruction.
Politics, which should be the execution of the process we’ve created for acting collectively to our collective benefit, has devolved instead into a shouting match over whether there is any collective benefit to be pursued, and whether the process is one which is meant to bind us together at all. It has been hijacked completely, not by competing views of which analytical tools to employ, or which balance of interests to favor, but rather by those loud and angry mobs that insist we should not engage in the challenge at all, that there is no need, that since (in their view) it was not the will of those who designed our system of self-governance that we govern ourselves, any attempt to do so is an affront to the immutable authority of the ideologues’ misinterpretation of the will of people who died two centuries ago.
On one level, this is nothing new or exceptional. Politics has long, if not always, been held hostage by the need to trade in raw power, to manipulate masses by mobilizing resources. There have always been those, perhaps always a majority of those actively involved, who have not asked “what best serves the public interest?” but rather only “what best serves my interests?” Those who ask the former have always been trapped in the battle against those who ask the latter, while the latter have been trapped in battle against one another. The form of systems analysis that evolves in this context is the one that addresses itself to political victory rather than to social problem solving. It has thus far been an inherent dilemma.
But there are times and places when this perennial dysfunctionality is eclipsed by a deeper incarnation of its underlying logic, both a response to it and a culmination of that logic. In such circumstances, the political morass is no longer defined by a battle of competing self-interests and commitments to the public welfare. Instead, it is defined by a combination of competing self-interests and a battle between those who fight for the public interest, on the one hand, and an uneasy alliance of self-interested power and misguided ignorance, on the other.
We are in such a condition now, in this country. Despite the erosion in recent decades of social institutions which have served the interests of the many and diminished the distance between their welfare and the welfare of the most privileged few, a robust populist movement exists in America which mistakenly believes that that erosion was to their benefit, that it’s continuation and acceleration serves the greatest good, that it facilitates some mystical function or value that is absolutely inviolable.
The alliance of self-interested power and misguided ignorance is an uneasy one because the populist movement in question (The Tea Party) is not a reliable partner. In its fanatical commitment to a clear, simplistic ideal divorced from analysis, from any cause-and-effect considerations, it threatens not only to undermine the ability of the many to continue to refine our social institutional framework to increase equality and social justice, but also undermines the basic functionality of our political economy altogether, promising to decrease the wealth and welfare of rich and poor alike. The politically self-interested wealthy (those who seek policies which protect their wealth) try to co-opt this movement, but also try to recover their party from its clutches, unable to do either effectively
The most pressing systemic challenge we face in this country today is the one imposed by this mass delusion, one which not only undermines the interests of those who fall prey to it, but also the interests of those who don’t. The great, overwhelming frustration of human existence is the recognition that we are capable of doing so much better, if only we all agreed to, if not join in the effort to do so, at least refrain from obstructing those who do.