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(The following was in response to a right-wing poster who had “steam coming out of [her] ears” over some left-wing commentator suggesting that “conservative values” was code for racism. She ended by saying that “we have to take back this country, or we are screwed!”)

You’re right Susan: “Conservative values” isn’t code for racism; “taking back this country” is.

The United States was born with slavery, fought a Civil War to get rid of it (against people who adhered to a very strong “states’ rights” political philosophy, much like a certain political faction of today), then endured another century of Jim Crow, which was abolished in a Civil Rights Movement confronting a new version of that extreme “states’ rights” perspective (much like a certain political faction of today), and has since fought an uphill battle to address the social injustices that remain embedded in our political economy, against a faction which clings to a strong “states’ rights” philosophy.

Or is it “liberty”? A great antebellum statesman wrote a tome called “Union and Liberty,” about the threat of federal tyranny to the liberty of minorities. His name was John C. Calhoun, the minority he was concerned about was southern slave owners, and the “liberty” that was being threatened was their liberty to own slaves. There’s a long tradition in America of using the word “liberty” to mean preserving the advantages of the few at the expense of the many.

You doubt that that’s what today’s use of the word means? Do you know the two peaks in the last century of the concentration of wealth, the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity? I’ll give you a hint: Both dates are notable for being immediately followed by the two largest, catastrophic economic collapses of the last century. And both dates are also notable for following a decade or two of the ascendance of a notion of “liberty” which favored unregulated, unchecked, predatory redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the extremely wealthy. Those two dates are 1929 and 2008.

And from whom, exactly, are you “taking the country back”? Blacks (except for the few who have become exactly like you)? Hispanics? Gays? Muslims? I see conservative threads insisting that every act of Sharia law somewhere in the world, or every court respecting the free exercise clause of the United States Constitution (which conservatives revere by crapping all over), is proof that we’re being taken over by it. And the uber-lame argument is that Islam isn’t REALLY a religion, but rather a plot for world conquest, which distinguishes it from Christianity by being spelled with fewer and different letters.

Probably the most infamous racist movement in 20th Century world history was one in which a whole country spiralled down into a belligerent hysteria over a group perceived to be “foreigners” living among them, who needed to be rounded up, detained in unpleasant detention centers, and removed, in order to preserve the purity of the nation. And it’s also well on its way to being an infamous racist movement of the 21st century, across an ocean and among people who take offense at being called “racist.”

Yeah, you keep right on “taking the country back,” because we sure don’t want it stolen by all of those “others.” Right?

Yeah, I get it. You mean “take it back” from the “socialists.” The people who helped ensure that the United States Constitution empowered Congress to tax and spend in the General Welfare (you know, the Founding Fathers?). The people who 80 years ago started to put into place the administrative structure and welfare state that has formed a part of the foundation of every single country that partook of the post-WWII explosion in prosperity. The people who passed an overdue Civil Rights Act that established that “liberty” and “property” don’t mean the right to discriminate against people on the basis of their race (a law that Rand Paul said he wouldn’t have been able to support). You want to take America back from the Americans who founded it, who fought for it, who have molded it, and who are it. That’s not “taking it back.” That’s just “taking it.” And we’re not going to let you.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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This Week With Christiane Amanpour hosted an excellent debate this morning, with conservative pundit George Will and Congressman Paul Ryan on one side, and Congressman Barney Frank and Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich on the other, over the fundamental, perennial issue of the optimum size and scope of government. First, please note that I did not frame it in the conventional way, with “small government” (SG) on one side, and “big government” (BG) on the other, because that is the frame created by SG advocates to mislabel their opposition. The real debate, as I see it, isn’t between SG advocates and BG advocates, but rather between SG advocates and advocates of “No Presumption Pragmatism” (NPP).

The legitimate concern is that NPP may tend toward limitless growth in government, but it is not therefore the case that those who are advocates of “no presumption pragmatism” are advocates of big government. Rather, it might be that there is an un-met challenge facing NPP that, if met, is a preferable path to either dogmatic SG advocacy or a careless, unrestrained-government growth version of NPP.

But there is an inherent tension between wanting government to perform an endlessly growing list of functions, and wanting government to be a minimalistic agent in our national affairs. ABC News’ John Donvan summed up that aspect of the debate nicely:

In the following introductory comments and opening salvos in this incarnation of The Debate, the participants lay out the parameters nicely, challenge some assumptions, redefine some positions, and offer some compelling insights and arguments:

Paul Ryan does an impressive job advocating his position, arguing that adhering to strict principals that generate optimal outcomes is superior to overreliance on government to take care of all challenges and address all issues, the latter error leading to a sprawling and cumbersome burden on human creativity and enterprise rather than an effective reduction in social problems and increase in human welfare. Barney Frank and Robert Reich respond that the government is too big in some ways and too small in others, and that reducing one’s position on the issue to an anti-government presumption fails to address the real challenges of managing a popular government.

Frank points out that many SG advocates are perfectly happy to rely on government to impose their will on others, advocating restrictions on women’s reproductive rights and a lack of definition of civil rights for gays and lesbians, while opposing the use of government in the productive manner of addressing “public goods” and “public bads,” not defined by arbitrary moral convictions, but rather by the real effects of our inevitable interdependence on our individual well-being. Reich reiterates that the question isn’t the size of government, but rather what factions of the population government is assisting or failing to assist.

Paul Ryan’s argument that smaller government is inherently more efficient and more effective than big government simply ignores the inevitable fact that any government function costs money, that, in a complex modern economy, there are a plethora of inescapable and quite expensive government functions that must be performed (e.g., regulating information-intensive markets such as financial and energy markets, which are easily gamed at potentially catastrophic public expense, but costly to monitor effectively); that the majority of the government programs targeted by SG advocates (with the notable exceptions of Social Security and Medicaid) actually involve piddling expenditures in relation to these large inescapable costs that government must be able to meet; that advocacy not to meet those inescapable costs is advocacy for a wildly self-destructive public policy; and that many of those piddling expenditures are in programs which research strongly demonstrates reduces far larger future costs that occur in their absence (such as those we currently incur in our enormous criminal justice system, far larger and more expensive, per capita, than those in other developed countries, incarcerating a far larger proportion of our population).

Since, in reality, there are expensive functions that a modern government must perform, and since, in reality, some social welfare programs have been strongly demonstrated to be cost effective over time, all things considered, what we as a polity really need to do in this debate is to transcend both the “big government is bad” platitude and the “every problem has a direct government solution” habit, and move into thinking more systemically, more intersectorally, and engage, in ever larger numbers with ever more commitment and knowledge, in the real challenge of using government as a disciplined and effective agent of our will, a portal into the organic processes of which we are a part, through which the essential functions of consciousness, of collective decision-making, of necessary oversight, of intentionality and value-driven intervention, can be implemented.

The debate in response to the audience question at the end over bailouts v. limiting the size of banks so that none are “too big too fail” is, as Robert Reich pointed out, an example of an information-intensive issue on which the relative positions of “conservatives” and “liberals” is not quite clear. The conservatives in this debate favored limiting the size of banks, while Frank on the liberal side argued that we require a different paradigm that allows for the existence of big banks in order to be internationally competitive. Though this Great American Debate historically began, in many ways, over a very similar question (should we have a national bank or not?), in its modern incarnation, it’s less ideological than technical, both sides admitting to the need to rely on economic analysis rather than blind ideology, neither side having the definitive solution to what is in reality a very complex problem.

The next segment deals with economic inequality and collective responsibility:

Elizabeth Warren’s introduction to this segment of the debate is, I believe, a very eloquent expression of the fundamental truth undermining the extreme SG/Libertarian argument: We are interdependent members of a single society, our political economy not being, never having been, and simply not capable of being, a mere market place for exchanges among atomized individuals, but rather an arena of coexistence in which some aspects of our shared lives are coordinated through market exchanges, but some aspects are necessarily coordinated in other ways as well.

These “extra-market” aspects of our shared existence aren’t just cultural, aren’t just a matter of family relationships and community relationships and voluntary organization memberships, but are also political and economic, involving our collective decision-making apparatus, our laws, and the ways in which a modern capitalist economy is populated with corporate actors whose own internal structure is hierarchical rather than “free market” based, and which wield enormous political power as a result.

The distribution of wealth and opportunity in America is clearly not a function of some mythical perfected meritocracy, but, as in all times and places throughout human history, is primarily a function of historical injustices reproduced through the chances of birth and the inherited opportunities and burdens that come with them. Our current legal system, evolved through periodic cleansings of the codification of those injustices, has certainly diluted the effects of those historical injustices, but their remaining legacy is clear to see, and is, in fact, a statistically undeniable current reality. Whatever policies we implement or decline to implement today, doing so with blithe disregard for the realities that currently exist is indefensible on both pragmatic and moral bases.

Paul Ryan’s response to Christiane’s opening question about economic inequality bordered on disingenuous: He blamed “current economic policies” for that growing disparity, despite the fact that the disparity has grown with the greatest acceleration, as it has in previous historical epochs, with the growth of deregulation and the success of SG political advocacy. This trend can clearly be seen in the three eras of most obscene concentration of wealth in America: The era of “The Robber Barons,” the “Roaring Twenties” of the Hoover Administration, and the current Reagan and post-Reagan era.

Ryan also, as he did throughout this debate (and as is an endemic deficiency in his ideological camp’s position), acted as if there is no other nation in the world with which we can compare our policies, to determine which kinds of policies really do increase social mobility and decrease economic inequality, and which ones really do exacerbate the lack of social mobility and the increase in economic inequality. The inconvenient fact is that a comparison to the social democracies of Western Europe and Canada demonstrates what the historical record I mentioned above also demonstrates: Social mobility is increased through social democratic government interventions in the economy, economic inequality is decreased, and prosperity is not undermined.

Paul Ryan argues that any attempt to decrease social inequality inevitably serves only to impoverish the wealthy rather than enrich the poor. This is an assumption and a fallacy. Historically, in fact, our political economic institutions have evolved in large measure to decrease social injustice (including economic inequality) without undermining the productive engine from which we all benefit. We’ve been successful enough at the latter goal that we consider merely slow growth to be economic failure, and periods of economic stagnation to be a crisis, and have, on average, maintained a fairly constant and sustained continuing growth in overall economic prosperity. While we’ve met that side of the challenge rather soundly, we not only have failed to address the increasingly inequitable distribution of the wealth thus created, but have actually devolved into a debate over whether we should care about that failure or not.

Ryan and Will represent the more “urbane” branch of their ideological movement, counterfactually insisting that their position decreases inequality and increases social justice, rather than that inequality and social injustice don’t matter. Unfortunately for Ryan and Will, the history of our own nation, and a comparison to other nations, demonstrate that the truth is the precise opposite of what they are claiming it to be.

Robert Reich added the observation that both the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest, and economic growth, were astronomically high under Dwight D. Eisenhower, debunking the assertion that they are antagonistic to one another.

George Will argues that Big Government always favors the wealthiest and most powerful, because it is most responsive to those who can pay expensive lobbyists and make large campaign contributions. Well, yes, government is skewed in favor of those with greatest political economic power, which is why the anti-government, deregulation movement has been so successful: It favors those with the greatest political economic power. To argue against using government to favor the interests of the less powerful on the basis that any government action is somehow inevitably going to favor the more powerful is a bizarre tautology, especially given the historical fact that disenfranchised groups have with some regularity successfully organized to gain power and legal protections throughout our history (e.g., women, African Americans, workers, environmental activists, etc.)

George Will then brought up the interesting observation that (therefore) the welfare state in America is primarily a transfer of wealth from the poorer young to the wealthier elderly (in the form of social security and Medicare). But this is a surprisingly sloppy representation, since neither the young nor the elderly are monolithic in their economic condition. I do agree, however, that social security and Medicare should be means tested; as a nation, we simply can’t afford to subsidize the wealthiest with public programs designed as safety nets.

But it is completely disingenuous to argue that the primary reason for that intergenerational disparity in wealth is due to Social Security and Medicare. The fundamental reason is insufficient government regulation of a market successfully exploited by a small minority of citizens over the course of their lives, such that they accumulate astronomical wealth by old age, creating the disparity that Will cites.

Ryan, however, made a potentially good point that Big Federal Government concentrated in Washington creates a convenient geographic and institutional nexus of power for corporate America to influence the political class. However, ironically, the policies that are most implicated in anti-BG advocacy are those policies that are most antagonistic to corporate interests, such as improved public health and safety standards, improved environmental standards, and expanded social services and programs for the neediest. The success of corporate lobbyists isn’t primarily the increase of government action to their benefit (though there is, of course, some of that), but rather the decrease of government action to their benefit (i.e., deregulation).

I do believe, however, that we need to move toward a paradigm of government facilitated public empowerment to carry out some of the functions currently embedded in governmental bureaucracies. Government can serve best to channel resources and pass legislation that will fund and guide local efforts. We need to think and act more systemically, in a more decentralized way, rendered coherent and conscious through our central agency of collective action (i.e., government), but utilizing all of the social institutional material on the ground in pursuit of social problem solutions and social institutional improvements.

The audience question that opens the next segment is very timely for me, since just yesterday I received my first “photo surveillance” ticket in the mail:

Paul Ryan’s repetition of the notion that economic equality automatically grows with economic growth is well answered by Barney Frank, who pointed out that economic growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition of wide-spread economic well-being

In fact, aggregate economic growth and economic equity (distributive justice, which is one aspect of social justice) are neither diametrically opposed nor perfectly compatible. There is a tension between them, in which some policies could indeed increase aggregate growth at the expense of distributive justice, some policies could increase distributive justice at the expense of economic growth, and some policies increase both economic growth and distributive justice at the same time. Obviously, the last category has the most to recommend it, but there are also times to accept trade-offs between aggregate growth and equitable opportunity to partake of the wealth produced by it.

As a thought experiment, consider the extremes: Few would support an arrangement by which one person accumulates ten times our current GDP every year, but everyone else is left in abject poverty. And, similarly, few would accept an arrangement in which there is absolute equality of abject poverty. There is clearly some balance to be struck between these two values.

Of course, Paul Ryan is right on target in the gist of his last remarks at the end of this segment: We need to end crony capitalism, eliminate subsidies to the rich, and address our economic challenges systemically. Those observations, however, do not belong to the larger ideological package that he is advocating, and, in the final analysis, are not compatible with it.

And on to the closing arguments:

Diminutive Robert Reich’s joke during his closing argument, reminding the audience that he has worked in government most of his life and then standing up and asking, “Do I look like Big Government to you?” struck me for a moment as funny but irrelevant, until I reflected on it a bit: Government is a human institution, comprised of human beings, acting in human ways. It is how we use it (and how we fail to use it), and what we do with it that defines its value. It is a vehicle of human will, not an external imposition, and it is, and should be, exactly as “big” as we are.

But, despite all of my arguments above, the take-home lesson from this debate, for everyone, should be that there is a legitimate debate to be had. From there, we can begin to acknowledge that no platitude suffices, and that the question is not one that can or should be answered with a slogan or reductionist philosophy. The responsibility of popular sovereignty, of self-governance, is that we govern ourselves wisely, succumbing to the manias and oversimplifications neither of the left nor the right. The more of us who take that step, who seek to transcend blind ideologies and embrace the challenge of being reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world, the better off we all will be.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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As I play with my Colorado Confluence Facebook page (, selecting interests and organizations and historical figures to “like” in an attempt to convey the universe of ideas and efforts that I believe we are called upon to try to weave together into coherent wholes; and as I survey my accumulating corpus of posts, wondering how to convey their underlying integrity; and as I struggle with the challenges of my personal life, of unemployment, of seeking a new career advancing this general cause of humanity, and of a wife and daughter who depend on me; I feel the full brunt of both the hope and despair that life serves up in such generous portions.

That is really what this blog, and my life, are all about. The many themes of the blog are all facets of a single orientation, an orientation that includes conceptual and practical dimensions, one that seeks understanding from a variety of angles, and a refinement of our collective ability to both accelerate the growth and deepening of our understanding and improve our ability to implement that understanding in ways which cultivate ever-increasing quality and humanity in our lives.

“Quality” is an interesting word, one explored in subtle ways in Robert Pirsig’s iconic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The debate over what it means is, in many ways, at the heart of our political struggles. Does the quality of life require attention to social justice and material human welfare, or merely attention to individual liberty (narrowly defined as “freedom from state sponsored coercion”)? Does it require intergenerational justice, foresight and proactive attention to probable future problems, or merely short-sighted, individualistic service to immediate needs and wants? Does it have any collective and enduring attributes, or is it merely something in the moment, to be grasped now without regard for future consequences?

One of the difficulties of addressing these questions and their political off-shoots is the differing frames and narratives upon which people rely. But one of the most significant differences in frames and narratives is the one between those that would ever even identify frames and narratives as a salient consideration, and those that are trapped in narrower, shallower, and more rigid conceptualizations of reality. In other words, the most basic ideological divide isn’t between “right” and “left,” but between “aspiring to be more conscious” and “complacent with current consciousness.” To put it more simply, the divide is between those who recognize that they live in an almost infinitely complex and subtle world and those who think that it is all really quite simple and clear.

The social movement that we currently lack, and that we always most profoundly require, is the social movement in advocacy of the deepening of our consciousness, not just as an abstract or self-indulgent hobby, but as the essence of the human enterprise, and the most essential tool in service to our ability to forever increase our liberty and compassion and wisdom and joy, here and elsewhere, now and in the future.

This blog employs what I’ll coin “Coherent Eclecticism” in service to that aspiration. No branch or form of human thought is dismissed, no aspect of the effort denied, no wrinkle or subtlety ignored, to the fullest extent of our individual and collective ability. That does not mean that Coherent Eclecticism treats all ideas and opinions as equal, but rather as equally meriting the full consideration of our reason and imagination and compassion. We start with as few assumptions as possible, revisit conclusions not carefully enough examined, and dedicate ourselves to the refinement of those procedures and methodologies, individually and collectively, that best serve the goal of distilling all thought and action into the wisest, most liberating, most compassionate, and most useful concoction possible.

Coherent Eclecticism implies that apparent contradictions and incompatibilities may not be, that “realism” and “idealism” (the philosophy), “cynicism” and “idealism” (the attitude), aspects of conservatism and aspects of progressivism, religion and science, imagination and reason, aesthetics and practicality, may all be nodes in a coherent whole, may all serve a single vision and single aspiration. But it is not the arbitrary glomming together of disparate elements; rather, it is the careful articulation of subtly integral elements, the realization of coherence in complexity, of systems subtler and richer than our minds can ever quite fully grasp.

As I briefly describe at the beginning of The Politics of Consciousness, this is one aspect of Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory of “paradigm shifts,” the notion that accumulating anomalies within a coherent understanding lead to a focus on the resolution of those anomalies and a deepening of the understanding, often reconciling what had been apparently contradictory views. One excellent modern example involves The Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory in physics. Throughout the 20th century, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics had both proven themselves indispensable theoretical tools for understanding the subtleties and complexities of our physical universe, and yet they were apparently incompatible, addressing different kinds of phenomena, but essentially contradicting one another. String Theory has, to a large extent, reconciled that apparent incompatibility with a subtler mathematical model that transcends and encompasses both of its predecessors.

I describe this general phenomenon in fictional terms in The Wizards’ Eye, metaphorically synthesizing Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts with Eastern Philosophical notions of Enlightenment or Nirvana, describing a process which leads us into deeper and deeper understandings that are simultaneously rational and spiritual, reductionist and holistic, “noisy” and meditative. The narrative itself reconciles the forms of fiction and exposition, and the realms of Eastern Mysticism and Western Philosophy of Science.

Coherent Eclecticism is apparent, too, in the range of essays and narratives I’ve published on this blog, often seeming to inhabit completely separate realms, but always coalescing into a coherent vision when examined as a whole. The social theoretical essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts may seem at first glance to have little or no connection to the social movement essays in the second box, but, without trying, the threads that weave them together have gradually begun to appear. The most recent addition to the first box is Emotional Contagion, which identifies how the cognitive/social institutional dynamics described in posts such as The Fractal Geometry of Social Change have an emotional element to them. Among the earliest entries to what is now the second box, pulling together the essays that developed and now describe “the politics of reason and goodwill” (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified), are essays that explored that emotional contagion in current political activism, and the importance of being careful about what emotions we are spreading (see, e.g.,  The Politics of Anger and The Politics of Kindness).

These first two sets of essays, those in the box labelled “the evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems,” and those in the box labelled “the politics of reason and goodwill,” form together the overarching structure of the “coherently eclectic” paradigm developing on this blog. But the other boxes, with their various other focuses, fill in that framework, add other kinds of meat to those bones, get into the details of specific policy areas and specific ideological orientations and specific social and political phenomena, articulating those details with the overarching paradigm that organizes and channels them. And the fictional vignettes and poems celebrate the beauty and wonder of the entirety.

It’s quite a giddy thing to participate in, this dance of consciousness of ours. It is, when you get right down to it, both the means and the ends of all of our aspirations and efforts.

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The title quote, uttered by President Obama to describe the choice we had in the 2010 elections, captures the essence of the on-going struggle between humanity’s inner-angels and inner-demons, a struggle which produces the realization of both our dreams and our nightmares, depending on which prevails in any given moment of history.

The refrain “we want our country back” is the refrain of those who fear progress, who cling to a mythologically sanitized past rather than forge a path into the inevitable future. It attracts, along with those who are making some vaguer, narrower reference, those who want to take the country back from, among others, women, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christians, and Gays, groups which have succeeded in diminishing the opportunity gap between themselves and the white, male, Christian minority that has historically maintained that gap to their own advantage and in accord with their own bigotries. And while we have progressed in diminishing the gap, the legacy of history remains with us today, and demands our forward-looking rather than backward-looking attention.

Those who have the courage to hope, to aspire to do better, don’t ever want their country “back.” We always want it “forward.” Our history has been the story of a people moving forward, conceived in a Declaration of Independence which continued and contributed to a transformation of the world already underway, accelerating our reach for future possibilities, and our removal of the shackles of past institutional deficiencies. It was a nation of Progressives, of people who knew that you don’t just accept the institutions handed down, but always seek to refine and improve them. It was a nation that drafted a document by which to govern itself, one which proved insufficient (The Articles of Confederation, drafted and adopted in 1777, though not actually ratified until 1781), and then got its representatives together to try again, ten years later, and get it right (producing the U.S. Constitution, which was a document drafted to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government).

The drafting and ratification of our brilliant Constitution marked a beginning, not an end, a point of departure through which to express and fully realize our collective genius, not an impediment to the use of our reason and will to address the challenges yet to come. It was drafted by people wise enough and humble enough not to imbue it with the quasi-religious hold it (or an insulting caricature of it) now has over some contracted imaginations. It was meant to be a source of guidance rather than a source of idolatry. It provided the nation with a robust legal framework through which to address future challenges, some of which were already visible at the time, and some of which were not, but which the framers knew would ceaselessly present themselves (and which many thought would promptly make the Constitution itself obsolete. The fact that that hasn’t come to pass is a tribute to our ability to make from the document they created in a given historical context one which adapts itself to changing historical circumstances).

Ahead of the country remained the abolition of slavery, the protection of individual civil rights from state as well as federal power, a far-too-late end to the slaughter and displacement of the indigenous population (too late because they had already been nearly exterminated, and removed to tiny, infertile plots of land), the institution of free universal public education, the extension of suffrage to unpropertied males and women, the passage of anti-trust laws to preserve a competitive market, the establishment and necessary growth of an administrative infrastructure which immediately preceded and facilitated the most robust acceleration of economic growth in the history of the world, the desegregation of our schools, the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beginnings of absolutely crucial efforts to address the long-term detrimental health and economic consequences of environmental contamination.

There never was a moment in the course of this story when there weren’t challenges yet to be identified and addressed, many of which could only be successfully addressed by means of government, and, often, only by means of the federal government (e.g., the abolition of slavery, which ended up requiring the federal government to prosecute a civil war; the enforcement of Civil Rights protections; and environmental protections covering interstate pollutants). Our Founding Fathers understood that. Thomas Jefferson himself said that every generation needed to refine its institutions to adapt to changing circumstances and meet the challenges of their own day. Such people never wanted their country “back.” They always wanted it “forward.” And they dreamed of establishing a country that would renew rather than renounce that commitment with every new generation.

Though there are many today who don’t get this, most don’t get it by means of blurry vision and historical inconsistency, rather than a retroactive commitment to what they claim currently to be an immutable truth. It is a tiny minority today, utterly detached from reality, who want to completely abolish Social Security or Medicare, though there are many who vehemently opposed health care reform and improved financial sector regulation. The difference between those past acts of our federal government that we have come to take for granted and whose value we almost universally recognize, and those present acts of our federal government that so many (so absurdly) call a “socialist” threat to our “liberty,” isn’t in the nature of the policies themselves (they are actually very similar in nature), but rather in the difference of perspective granted by elapsed time and an improved quality of life.

The impassioned, angry, vehement opposition to today’s progressive reforms, almost down to the precise words and phrases (including cries of “socialism”), is virtually identical to that which confronted the passage of Social Security and Medicare in their day. It is the perennial resurgence of the same faction, the same force at work today as in those previous generations: The voice of fear, the clinging to past failures and deficiencies for lack of courage, the perception of progress as a threat rather than a promise, though those same cowering souls could hardly imagine living without the promises of progress fulfilled before their birth and in their youth. They take gladly from those progressives who came before and fought to establish the world they now take for granted, but fight passionately against those progressives of today striving to provide similar gifts of social improvement to future generations.

Economically, Hope counsels that we employ the best economic models to forge the best fiscal and economic policies possible to ensure the robustness, sustainability, and equity of our economic system, while Fear counsels that we base our economic policies on information-stripped platitudes, contracting rather than expanding, insulating rather than competing, cowering rather than aspiring. A hopeful people invests in its future; a fearful people stuffs its money in a mattress. A hopeful people works to create a higher quality of life, while a fearful people works toward enshrining past achievements and, by doing so, obstructing future ones. A hopeful people seeks to expand opportunity; a fearful people seeks to protect what’s theirs from incursions by others. A hopeful people reaches out, looks past the horizon, and works toward positive goals. A fearful people builds walls, huddles together, and obstructs the dreams and aspirations of others.

But in the past couple of years, it has not been just any other incarnation of the struggle between Hope and Fear. It is the most dangerous form of that struggle, the form it takes when we are on the brink of inflicting on ourselves enormous suffering. Because the struggle in recent years has been characterized by a terrifying discrepancy in passion: The angry, fearful mob is ascendant, while cooler heads are too cool, too uninspired, to face that mob down and disperse it.

It is under just such circumstances when, historically, Fear prevails over Hope. It is under these circumstances, circumstances that the hopeful among us are allowing to take hold, when countries get sucked into the nightmare that fear produces. This is what responsible, reasonable people of goodwill cannot, must not, allow to happen.

Be voices of reason and goodwill, voices that do not simply return anger with anger, nor return anger with despair, but rather return anger and irrationality with implacable reason and goodwill. Confront the angry, frightened and frightening mob and insist that we are better than that. Don’t let them put this state, this country, and this world back into Reverse again, as it was from 2001-2009, when America became a nation defined by fear, with a government defined by the belligerent ignorance which is Fear’s most loyal servant. Let’s keep this nation in Drive, and move hopefully into the future. In 2008, many of us were excited by that prospect, and in 2010, we should have remained warriors of reason and goodwill in the face of the Grendel of small-mindedness awoken by the small, fledgling steps forward we have taken as a people. We need to defend, preserve, and advance what we accomplished in 2008. We need to move forward, not backward.

There is a path forward, one that is not simply the continuing volleys of mutually belligerent blind ideology, nor one that is focused only on the upcoming election cycle: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified. Join me in turning this simple, clear message into a reality. Let’s create the future we are wise enough to hope for, rather than the one we are foolish enough to forge in the pettiness of our fears.

Don’t sit this one out. Don’t let the brutal tyranny of Fear and Ignorance rule us.

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We tend to engage in politics treating the distribution of reason and goodwill in our society as a constant, and fighting over the variables of who is in office and what policies can be passed within the constraints of that constant. That’s necessary on a certain level (in the short-term), because the distribution of reason and goodwill does not tend to vary rapidly nor, thus far, to be highly amenable to intentional attempts to affect it. However, it’s clear that it does vary: It is quite different in Germany today than in Germany of the 1930s, and it is quite different in this country that fetishizes a notion of “liberty” that has come to mean “mutual indifference and social irresponsibility” than it is in most other developed countries, where the knowledge that “no man is an island entire of itself” has long been more fully embraced.

Throughout human history, we have developed techniques to affect parameters that had previously been intractable constants, such as how quickly we can move over the surface of the Earth, what environments we can exist in and for how long (e.g. extreme cold, submarine, outer space), how much energy from non-animal sources we can tap and utilize to perform “work” in our service, how fast we can perform calculations, how quickly we can communicate across large distances, and even how efficiently we can coordinate disparate efforts to mutual benefit (e.g., the evolution of monetary instruments, enforceable contracts, and improved organizational efficiency). I discussed this dimension of our on-going shared history in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology.

Our entire social institutional landscape, in fact, is comprised of similar purposive efforts, pursued both as individuals and in groups or as societies. The era of brainy college kids starting Apple or Microsoft or Google or Facebook in their garage (or dorm room) followed the era of nations putting satellites into space and a man on the moon, and the era of uprisings utilizing their wares, organizing through social media, cascaded across the world, most recently in the Middle East (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain). Even The United States has seen its political effects, with Barack Obama’s election riding a netroots’ wave, and various other movements utilizing the new social media in various ways. These dynamics are discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change.

In this subtle, complex, dynamic social institutional and technological environment, it is more crucial than ever to correctly identify current political (and technological and social institutional) constants and current political (and technological and social institutional) variables, always recognizing that plying the variables deftly enough can convert, over time, constants into variables, bringing into range aspects of our shared existence that we did not previously imagine were within our power to affect.

The current trend is to take as a given the current distribution of cultural attitudes and political ideological convictions, considering the variables to be how social issues are interpreted through those lenses as they arise. The emphasis is therefore on “messaging,” on how well we design and launch pithy slogans and brief emotional appeals, something the left laments that the right has mastered, and that the left should emulate. On one level, this recognition of the importance of such messaging is perfectly legitimate; persuading people from within their current attitudes and ideologies to lean toward one policy or another is a tug-o-war utilizing the pulls of these kinds of messages.

But on another level, there is a deeper project which must not be abandoned, though it has hardly yet even been identified. One aspect of this project is what I call “meta-messaging,” targeting not the frames and narratives which determine particular positions on particular policies within the given of current attitudes and ideologies, but rather target the attitudes and ideologies themselves, plying cognitive dissonance in service to the underlying values that best serve humanity and that most people want to claim they adhere to and are motivated by. I discuss this in  Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives.

In the end, there are really only two virtually absolute political constants: The underlying nature of the human mind, and the fundamental dynamics of physical reality. (Even these are not technically absoluteconstants, because biological evolution over milenia, or genetic engineering in a shorter time span, could conceivably alter the underlying nature of the human mind; and singularities involve breakdowns of what we think of as “the laws of physics” under certain extreme physical conditions, such as are found in a black hole or at the birth of the universe). Within the framework of these constants, we are faced with The Variable Malleability of Reality, a complex continuum of more and less malleable aspects of our environment and ourselves, which we are challenged to ply wisely in order to effect the most realizable and useful forms of contextual change.

One of the most salient and frustrating nodes on this continuum of malleability is human consciousness, not so much in the shallow and ideological sense of “getting others to recognize as a fundamental truth what I recognize as a fundamental truth” (so that libertarians long for the “enlightenment” of their fellow citizens in which the latter recognize the wisdom of libertarianism, while progressives long for the same in regard to progressivism, and so on), but rather on the more fundamental dimension of rigidity-to-flexibility.

On first encounter, so many assumptions, on so many levels, are so fixed and unassailable, from the false certainty that no political effort based on a complex and subtle message can ever be attempted (a certainty belied by our own national birth, and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, which was based on very subtle and complex arguments, sumarized by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in The Federalist Papers), to the related false certainty that reason can not be made to play an increasingly substantial role in politics (a false certainty reinforced by a tandem misunderstanding of recent advances in cognitive science and of what it would functionally mean or require for reason to play a larger role in politics), to the false certainty that politics is only about who we get elected and what policies we get implemented today (involving the related false certainty that politics must always be focused on specific substantive issues to be meaningful and effective), to the false certainty that increasing goodwill in service to increasing compassion in our public policies can not be cultivated. All of these false certainties, which form an interrelated set, turn what could be a set of critically important political variables into a set of ossified political constants.

Many former constants become current and future variables as we liberate our own imaginations and collective genius in service to accomplishing that transformation. For milenia, the speed at which humans could travel was a constant, first determined by how fast we could walk, then by how fast a horse could run a vessel on water could be moved by muscle or wind or current, and increasingly by how fast our rapidly changing technologies can move us.

Today, the Dutch and Danish, for instance, are more committed to their collective welfare through the underlying values of reason and universal goodwill than we are to ours through our increasingly distorted and bastardized semantically drifting concept of “liberty” so dominant in some quarters (see, e.g., Liberty IdolatryLiberty & Interdependence, and Liberty & Society). The difference in the distribution of attitudes among the populace may be very small, but the net effects are very large. It’s time for us to ask ourselves how to effect such a change, and then to set out to do it, whether it is a long project involving working our way up a hierarchy of malleability, tacking the most malleable preliminary aspects first, and thus paving the way to less malleable aspects later; or whether it is something that we can begin to tackle directly right away.

I  believe it is a combination of the two. But, in either case, it is time to get off the treadmill of our self-limiting false certainties, not just those that obstruct progress as progressives currently define it in terms of substantive positions, but, more fundamentally, those that obstruct the progress that comes of believing in our potential on more fundamental and essential levels of our individual and collective being. It is time to think beyond what we assume to be current immutable realities, to work toward massaging them into greater malleability, both within our own individual consciousnesses, and within the collective consciousness that is human society.

This is a transformation we can accomplish one person at a time (starting with ourselves as individuals), and through a well-designed movement that increases both this cognitive agility and a commitment to recognizing our systemicness, our interdependence, and the challenges and opportunities that that poses to us as individuals and as a society. Doing so does not cure all ills or create some instantaneous dramatic change in our world, but rather establishes a continuous force in favor of that which best serves humanity, gradually, marginally, transforming humanity on a more fundamental level than we have yet managed, just as we have managed to move humanity gradually, marginally across similar thresholds in the past.

It is by means of committing to such procedures for change, such disciplines of mind and organization, that we transform humanity, that we cross those thresholds that move aspects of our reality from the constants column into the variables column. Our current efforts are more bogged down in self-limiting assumptions and rituals of thought and action than they need to be. Greater possibilities are available. All we need do is believe in those possibilities, and turn them into realities.

I’ve laid out one sketch of one plan for doing so, which would of course benefit from more minds and more participation. It can be found at A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, and a series of related posts (including simplified and abbreviated versions of the proposal).

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(This was a response to a conservative poster on a Denver Post comment board, who contended that I seem to think I know some “universal truth” that lesser mortals don’t get, in reference to my strong statement of a moral and intellectual position on Colorado ASSET, which would allow undocumented Colorado teens who had graduated from a Colorado high school after at least three years in attendance to pay an unsubsidized in-state tuition rate to attend Colorado universities.) 

We all take stands and adhere to ideologies that somehow blend bits of “absolutism” with bits of relativism; the challenge is to do so consciously and in a disciplined way, such that we create the most useful frameworks through which to understand a complex and subtle reality.

Those who simply follow blind passions instead tend to get it wrong both ways. You are relativistic about reason and knowledge, arguing as if any assertion of facts or attempt at reasoned argumentation is equal to any other, regardless of the accuracy of the facts or soundness of the reasoning. But knowledge and skill do matter (going to the trouble of acquiring reliably derived information, of getting training in analytical skills, and utilizing them in an attempt to best understand complex social issues is more useful than not doing so).

In matters of public policy, you belong to an ideology which takes offense at such assertions, though you take no such offense at the similar assertion that, for instance, a trained surgeon (or lawyer, or carpenter, or accountant…) is more competent to perform surgery (or practice law, carpentry, or accounting…) than a lay person. This is because your ideology depends on doing the opposite of what your screen name claims you do: it is based on a dogged lack of thought, and it falls apart under careful scrutiny.

On the other hand, you are moral absolutists about those beliefs that are most hostile to the rights and welfare of others. Your ideological camp (i don’t know your position personally) opposed civil unions, for instance, arguing incredbily bigoted nonsense about why discriminating against human beings who want to marry partners of the same sex cannot be afforded the same rights as those who want to marry partners of the opposite sex, even though the only issue involved is an extension of our concept of equality under the law to something we now understand is just a natural area of human variation (sexual orientation).

But, then again, you are moral relativists when it comes to the bedrock morality of caring about other human beings, about striving to be as reasonable and humane a society as we can be, not just acting with universal goodwill in our hearts, but also doing so with as much attention to our social systemic realities as possible, so that we do so wisely and effectively.

In other words, you’ve cobbled together an ideology that gets the “relativism” and “absolutism” blend diametrically wrong on every single dimension, thus fighting to produce an ever dumber and crueler society, rather than an ever wiser and kinder one.

The only “universal truth” I claim to know, that you are missing, is that we must first start with the knowledge that we don’t know, and, on that basis, dilligently build the best understandings we are capable of, in service to the most humane and effective public policies we are capable of implementing, forever evolving in a positive direction as a result. As a general rule, I stick to letting my arguments speak for themselves on these message boards, and don’t cite my “credentials,” but if you go to my autobiographical page on Colorado Confluence, you’ll see that I’ve very much lived according to that “universal truth” I just cited. And I encourage everyone to strive to do so to as great an extent as possible.

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