In the gardens of Athens in the fourth century BC (planting the seeds of Western Civilization), in the plazas of Florence in the 16th century AD (ushering in the modern era), in the salons of Paris in the 18th century AD (informing and inspiring others in a small meeting room in Philadelphia), to a lesser extent in mid-19th century Concord, MA (informing and inspiring Gandhi and King and Mandela), the genius of a few unleashed new currents of the genius of the many, currents thick with reason and a stronger commitment to our shared humanity, changing the course of human history. It has been done before and it will be done again, whenever and wherever people choose to do it.
They did not gather in those times and places to discuss only how to win this or that election or to shift power from one party to another or to address the human endeavor one issue at a time. Rather, they gathered, with wonder and hope and passion, to explore and discover, to create and innovate, to raise reason and our shared humanity onto a pedestal and dedicate themselves to the enterprise of perfecting our consciousness and improving our existence.
In every time and place, including these ones of particular florescence, most of the people went about their business, engaged in the mundane challenges of life, fought the battles we all fight, both personal and collective. But the great paradigm shifts of history have happened when a coalescence of inspired minds reached deeper and broader than others around them, beyond the individual issues of the day, beyond the immediate urgencies and power struggles, and sought out the essence of our existence, to understand it, to celebrate it, and to change it for the better.
Imagine a gathering of great minds today that were not lost to the minutia of academe or the mud-pit of politics or the selfish pursuit of wealth and fame and power, but were free to devote themselves to the challenge of orchestrating a social transformation, a peaceful revolution occurring beneath the surface of events, a new threshold reached in the advance of creative reason in service to humanity.
Imagine gatherings of engaged citizens that, guided only by the broadly attractive narrative of reason in service to our shared humanity, of emulating our Founding Fathers and fulfilling the vision that they had for this nation, dedicated themselves to learning how to listen to one another and weigh competing arguments rather than regress ever deeper into blind ideological trench warfare. Imagine forming the nucleus of a movement that would extend the logic of methodical reason in service to our shared humanity ever more broadly, not just through direct participation, but through the promotion of the narrative that we are capable of doing so and that it is incumbent on us to do so.
What is stopping us from establishing such gatherings, and such a movement? What is stopping us from bringing together a small cadre of brilliant minds to implement ideas designed to cascade through the social fabric in transformative ways, and large populations of engaged citizens to stir and be stirred by the sea giving rise to those cresting waves of brilliance, together advancing the tide of imaginative reason in service to our shared humanity? Only the precise combination of vision, drive, sophistication and resources that would make it happen, not just in some stumbling and unsustainable or unproductive way, but as a living, breathing, current reality.
I’ve designed the nucleus of an idea, a social movement that is realistic as well as idealistic, a secular religion to promote the narrative and practice of disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity. As a person who learned how to dream as a child; who drifted and worked and lived around the world for several years as a young adult; who became a social scientist, author, teacher, lawyer, public policy consultant, candidate for office, and member of several nonprofit boards and advisory councils; who has done urban outreach work and community organizing; who has synthesized ideas from many disciplines, many great minds, and much experience, this is not a Quixotic quest that boasts much but can deliver little; it is a carefully considered strategic plan for moving the center of gravity of our zeitgeist in the direction of an ever-increasing reliance on imaginative reason in ever-increasing service to our shared humanity.
For a comprehensive (though somewhat dense) presentation of my proposal, please see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
For a briefer and simpler presentation of the underlying philosophy of this proposed social movement, please see: The Ideology of Reason in Service to Humanity.
For an extremely bare-bones summary of the social movement idea itself, please see: A VERY Simplified Synopsis of “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill”.
For more elaboration of various aspects of this proposal and various musings about it, please see the essays hyperlinked to in the second box at: Catalogue of Selected Posts
Of the many wonders that happily impose themselves on a curious and observant mind, there is one that relentlessly taunts my imagination and tries my patience: The degree to which we fail, as a people, as a species, in our communities and on our own to take what seems to me to be, even more than that taken by the late Neil Armstrong 43 years ago, one small step for us as individuals, but one giant leap for our nation and for humanity. In this case, the small step is a step forward in thought and habit, in perception, and the giant leap is what it would yield in terms of our ability to govern ourselves in a way more conducive to the liberation and mobilization of our collective genius in service to our collective welfare.
Even as I write, I know that, for reasons that defy reason, those words grate on the ears of a large and vocal political faction. The word “collective” scares them, as if there is nothing collective about our existence, as if, despite the manifest absurdity of it, we exist as mutually exclusive entities. Lost in a caricature of reality, anything that smacks of the least recognition of human interdependence, of an existence not only as individuals but also as members of a society and citizens of a nation, resonates in their tortured minds as an affront to something holy and inviolable.
As is often the case, such folly results from the drawing of the wrong lesson from a set of failed applications (and the refusal to notice the larger set of successful applications) of a sound and inevitable principle. But the sound and inevitable principle must be acknowledged and addressed: We are not only individuals whose individual liberty must be protected and preserved, but also members of a society whose interdependence must be recognized and negotiated.
Our Founding Fathers did not fail to know this, and frequently explicitly and implicitly emphasized it: “United we stand, divided we fall;” “e pluribus unum,” “We must all hang together or we will surely hang apart,” The Constitution itself, the arguments in The Federalist Papers (which were overwhelmingly about our interdepedence and the mutual responsibilities as members of a society that it imposes on us), “The General Welfare.” So much a part of the fundamental assumption of human existence was it, such an essential pillar of their Enlightenment doctrine (committed to the application of Reason to the improvement of Society), that they could neither have intended nor foreseen that some of the heirs to their political experiment would manage to erase it from their consciousness.
But reality has frequently reasserted itself, revealed the complexities and subtleties, highlighted the need to articulate two views of the nature of human existence that are simultaneously in mutual tension and two sides of a single coin. Without our fundamental interdependence, our existence as members of a society, we have no existence as conscious human beings. The very languages we think in are expressions of generations of coexistence, concepts and symbols growing not in isolated minds but in interlinked minds. Our technologies, our social institutions, the physical products of our labors, everything that makes us human, are never incubated in a single mind or created by the labor of a single pair of hands, but always in the communication of the members of a society and in the articulation of individual efforts.
The man who builds his own house did not mine his own ores to forge his own nails, and, if he did, did not learn the techniques for doing so only through his own trial and error without reference to any knowledge that preceded him. The current political debate over whether our individual achievements and creations are solely the product of one individual’s efforts, or are always in myriad ways a product of our social contract, is one based on an absurd blurring of reality: Of course they are a product of a social process, brought to fruition, frequently, by the focused efforts of one individual working on the margins of that larger process. We want neither to denegrate that individual effort, nor pretend that the contributions of an entire society were not also involved.
We’ve discovered, through our lived history, that individual rights can rarely be absolute. The right to freedom of religion does not mean that you have the right to sacrifice human beings on an alter if that is something that your religion requires of you. The right to freedom of speech does not mean that you have the right to slander another, or to incite others to violence, or to maliciously ignite a panic. The right to dispose of your property as you see fit does not mean that you have the right to dump toxic waste on your own land in a way which poisons others’ water. The tension between individual rights and mutual responsibilities is not just an occasional anomaly; it is a part of the fabric of our existence.
The step of which I spoke at the beginning of this essay is one which, like Neil Armstrong’s, requires first this vast journey across a daunting expanse of untraversed space. It requires the voyage from the ideological delusion that individual liberty is a value that stands unqualified and without countervailing recognition of our social contract, to recognition of the reality of our interdependence. We must stop referring to individual liberty without also, simultaneously, implicitly or explicitly, recognizing our mutual responsibilities to one another. This isn’t socialism or communism; it isn’t a rejection of the values incorporated into our nation at its founding; it isn’t rejection of capitalism or a presumption of the answers to the questions that it poses. It’s simply a journey of consciousness we absolutely must take.
Once we take that journey together, once larger numbers of us follow that voyage across space to something that has always been shining in our sky and recognize it to be something other than a mirage, we can step from that vessel of consciousness onto the otherworldly realization that we can and should and must work together as members of a society to confront the challenges and seize the opportunities that this world and this life present to us.
On that lunar surface, freed to leap a little higher in the lighter gravity, we can rediscover it as common ground that belongs to all parties and nations. Taking that step is not a partisan agenda, it is a human one. It does not resolve all partisan disputes, but rather frames them in more functional ways. It narrows the conversation to that which is minimally required by reason and lucidity. It ends the reign of an ideological folly and partisan cold war that did violence to humanity.
Obviously, not everyone will take this journey of consciousness, will believe that we could land on that distant moon and take that momentous step. Some will refuse to recognize the fundamental truth of human interdependence. There will always be such denial. Ignorance and folly are not things we can banish from the human condition. But we can diminish their degree, sometimes in small ways that have dramatic effects.
I have argued frequently and passionately for others to join me in the formation of a social movement that is not for the promotion of an ideological or partisan agenda, not to affect election outcomes or influence policy positions, but rather to take as many of us as possible as far on this journey as possible. We need to travel to the moon before we can walk on its surface. We need to cultivate our consciousness before we can act under its influence.
Of course, we will continue to act under the influence of the consciousness that we have, even while we devote just a little more effort to cultivating one more conducive to more functional and humane public policies. These are not mutually exclusive. Nor am I speaking only of us each cultivating our own consciousness (though that is, as always, absolutely vital); I’m speaking of us organizing in service to the cultivation of our collective consciousness.
My purpose in life is not to promote the Progressive agenda. My purpose is to promote wise self-governance in service to human consciousness and well-being. I think it’s important that we continue to remind ourselves of the distinction, because we cannot move humanity forward until we can appeal to people who are not in the market for a partisan identity. And if we can appeal to people who already have one, especially those who would recoil at the thought of working to advance any liberal or progressive agenda, all the better.
It is not a subterfuge: it is a refocusing of all of our minds on what is truly essential and truly important. It is the commitment to look past competing blind ideologies shored up by shallow platitudes toward ultimate purposes and deep underlying values. And getting past these rigid ideological camps into which we have relegated ourselves is one of the necessary steps toward real progress.
It depends on robust discourse among people of differing views. It flourishes when more of us recognize that there’s only one ideology to which any of us should adhere: That of striving to be reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, responsible enough to try to understand and see the merit in opposing views, compassionate enough to recognize that the goal of these efforts should be a commitment to humanity, working together with all others willing and able to embrace such an ideology to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world.
This is my mission in life: To promote this simple ideology, encourage as many as possible to work toward encouraging as many others as possible to adopt it to the greatest extent possible, always as a work in progress, more focused on our procedures for arriving at the truth than on what we currently think is the truth, always open to the possibility that we are dramatically wrong on one or more crucial points. This is something we should do independently of what we do regarding electoral politics and issue advocacy, diverting some small portion of our time and effort and passion into the long-term investment in a deeper political paradigm shift, into traversing the space between here and that distant moon where we recognize that we are interdependent, that we are fallible, and that we are all in this story together.
It’s not the first time such spaces have been traversed, such thresholds have been reached. We’ve had a Renaissance and a Reformation, a Scientific Revolution and an Enlightenment and the political revolutions based on it, an industrial revolution and now an information technology revolution, a confluence of globalizing forces and a movement to recapture some of the wisdom and beauty of the cultures that were trampled underfoot by modernity’s advance, and human history is still accelerating in amazing ways full of both promise and danger. We are a part of that process, participants in it, with an opportunity to plant the seeds for a future that could be one of ever-more rapidly growing human consciousness and an ever-wiser realization of our role on this wonderful planet of ours.
We are a work in progress, and maybe the word “Progressive” needs to be understood by those who bear it to mean “still a work in progress,” because once people fall into the trap of thinking they have all the answers, they forget how to ask the right questions.
Here’s to us! I believe in our potential, but I’m also keenly aware of the obstacles that stand in our way of realizing it, obstacles that, for the most part, we create ourselves, and throw up in front of us, seemingly determined to perennially condemn ourselves to live in interesting times….
On this 100th aniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, it seems fitting to write a tribute to that historic event, but one which takes what lessons it may offer and applies them to our own ship of state today.
A story on the PBS Newshour yesterday (Friday, 4/13/12; http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/jan-june12/titanic_04-13.html) about an interesting New Yorker article (“Unsinkable: Why We Can’t Let Go of the Titanic,” by Daniel Mendelsohn; http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/04/16/120416fa_fact_mendelsohn) got me to thinking about the parallels between that ill-fated vessel, and our perhaps equally tragic nation. The parallels Mendelsohn drew were to Greek tragedy, to the themes of hubris, of Man v. Nature, of something glorious and admired and full of a sense of its own exceptionalism going down in flames, or icy waters, as the case may be. It is about too much smugness and too little pragmatism.
As Mendelsohn aptly put it: It’s too perfect, too much like a story, the “unsinkable” ship sinking on its maiden voyage. Like Oedipus, the flawless hero, swept up and sucked down by forces that grab hold of all those who eschew humility, the great Titanic was doomed by its own sense of perfection, or the sense of those who had invested their identities into it. It was about the limits of technology, about class and injustice, about the bracing, icy reality confronting the dreamed up ideal. It was, of course, the ideal of unsinkability rather than the reality of unpredictability which sank.
The United States is, in many ways, “the Titanic Nation,” this great ship of state launched by the culmination of European development, by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, full of a sense of its own exceptionalism, bigger than life, ”unsinkable.” We are still on our maiden voyage, for the first couple of centuries in the history of a nation is still its infancy. And we are careening toward the icebergs of our hubris, of our uncompromising belief in our own exceptionalism, in our scoffing at the demands of pragmatic reality in deference to the oversimplified ideal we believe will always trump it.
Despite what many say, despite what many cling to, despite the satisfaction it may give to entertain the notion, in the final analysis, America is not an ideal; it is a nation, a product of history, a living, breathing, thriving and striving and faltering and self-correcting society, a work in progress, an on-going challenge to be met with a modicum of humility and a heavy dose of pragmatism. And it is the increasing rather than decreasing loss of this awareness that sends us hurtling toward unseen icebergs, destined, perhaps, to collide with them and rip ourselves to shreds in the process.
But we have not collided yet. We have not sunk yet, and do not have to. We can regain our humanity, our recognition of being nothing more or less than a nation struggling with the challenges of thriving in a complex and subtle world, a nation guided by wonderful values and founding principals, but a nation that is not invulnerable because of them, or beyond improvement in deference to them. Sometimes, we need to correct our course, to re-chart our trajectory, to avoid the obstacles that those who designed and launched us could not possibly have anticipated. Their design, and the course they charted for us, remain our foundation, but they do not remain the limits of who and what we are.
There are those in America today, too many, too loud, too smug, too full of hubris and folly, too natonally self-destructive, who insist that we must not evolve, that we must not develop our political economy to confront the challenges of today, that we must not adapt and grow and steer our course through the ever-dangerous waters of history. There are those who offend the spirit and character of the brilliant but historical and fallible men who drafted our Constitution by reducing it to a shallow sacred document, stripping it of its meaning, stripping it of its intent, and seeing in it only a mirror of their own blind ideology, whether its specific clauses actually mirror that ideology or not. (See. e.g., Right-Wing New-Speak.)
There are those who insist that a century-old non-empirical Austrian economic philosopher got everything right, and the entire empirical and analytical discipline of economics as it has developed ever since has gotten everything wrong, and who claim that theirs is the only reasonable position imaginable, all others being error. There are those who are as lost in their own blind ideologies, as insulated from reason and evidence, as any Medieval Inquisitor ever was, and who insist that that is what America is, that that is what America was meant to be. And they are steering us straight toward those icebergs of human folly, of ignorance, of hubris, of believing that an act of admirable engineering, whether technological or social institutional, whether a historically unprecedented giant ocean liner or a historically unprecedented national Constitution, once accomplished, need no longer be piloted in response to the realities as they are encountered, and can not possibly fail if only left to barrel ahead blindly.
As the economist and dynamical systems analyst Brian Arthur noted in his wonderful book, The Nature of Technology, these feats of engineering, of historical innovation, are not faits accompli, but are rather always works in progress, always tested and honed and refined by the reality of life and the challenges that it poses. The brilliance of our nation is not that we got it right once and for all, and only must adhere to that perfect, unsinkable design, but rather that we accomplished something admirable on which we can build, which we can continue to steer, which will take us farther than we ever imagined if only we continue the work rather then rest on ancient laurels.
We are, indeed, a Titanic Nation. But ours is one Greek Tragedy whose ending hasn’t yet been written. We are the ones who will write it. We are the ones who will determine whether it is written by our hubris and folly, or by our wisdom and humility. We are the ones who will either steer it into the icebergs that lay before us, or will continue to navigate our way among them, refining our institutions and developing our humanity to confront a reality that was not part of or foreseen by our original design, but rather is a part of what continues to make us . . . or break us.
As I like to say, let’s write our story well.
Writers and rebels, earnest young activists, starry-eyed romantics and unrequited lovers all have one thing in common: They yearn. Yearning, untempered by reason and humor, is pathological, the author of many unnecessary tragedies and many lonely, painful lives. But reason, and even humor, untempered by yearning is empty and often cruel, the stuff of a heartless and oppressive existence. Yearning is pain, but its absence is not pleasure; it’s absence is soullessness.
The early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber wrote much about the rationalization of society, its evolutionary force, its greater efficiencies, but also the trap that it sets for us. It is, Weber said, an iron cage, from which we cannot escape. Like the people caught in the cogs of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the savage trapped in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or McMurphy lobotomized as he flew over Ken Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest, the machine of society eats us alive.
But these all emphasize how that oppressive force is imposed from without, at most glancingly alluding to the way in which it is accepted from within. The Frankfurt School of Sociology, synthesizing Weber, Marx and Freud, and perhaps a touch of Sartre as well, into something richer and more insightful than any of their paradigms were on their own, came closest to focusing on this dynamic, on this internalization of the seductively oppressive machine which envelopes us. But, if anything, they erred by underestimating its real benefits, and the difficulty of preserving those benefits while minimizing its spiritual costs.
The machine is neither bad nor good in and of itself. It is a robust producer of wealth, in ways that evaporate if that machine is dismantled. But without spiritual and emotional yearning to give that machine its soul, the comfort it offers is the comfort of a living death.
Long before authors and philosophers shined their light on the machine which encompasses us, they shined their light on the poetry of our existence. Humanity’s first epic stories, indeed, our first philosophies, were epic poems, with loving and angry gods favoring and disfavoring our struggling heroes, magic and monsters enchanting and challenging them, glory or horrible failure always in the balance, neither certain, either one possible.
The Hercules we’ve forgotten in our Disneyfied distillation of world folklore and mythology was a violent hot-head who murdered his entire family in a fit of divinely-imposed rage and died in horrible agony by donning a poisoned cloak. And yet he was one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. Heroes before the machine weren’t sanitized human beings who we loved because we wrote them without flaws, but rather were yearning human beings trapped in the passions of existence, who we loved despite their flaws.
This classical humanism, celebrating the complex beauty of human existence, was reborn in the Renaissance, after Europe’s Medieval excursion into a world imaginarily reduced to saints and sinners, nobles and peasants, chivalrous knights and infidel villains. Shakespeare knew that all the world’s a stage, and we but actors upon it. He knew that we were just spirits, and that our cloud-capped towers, gorgeous palaces, and solemn temples all appear and disappear in a dance of our creation and time’s destruction.
Of course, in every time and place there is, in reality, a bit of both forces at work, the forces of repression and the forces of liberation, the former sometimes co-opting the latter’s name (as in our own current time and place). There are always those engaged in the dance of consciousness and aspiration, and always those engaged in the implicit opposition to it. But a time and place, a culture, is defined by the balance among these two, by which is more honored and which is more reviled.
The real project of modernity, the real goal of progress, is not to honor one and revile the other, but rather to appreciate the value of each, and the best ways to articulate the two. Strange as it may sound, repression isn’t all bad and poetry isn’t all good, but, though we don’t understand that, we still manage to err on the side of too much repression and too little poetry.
I contrast “repression” with “poetry” rather than “liberty” because liberty, real liberty, is a function of a blend of repression and poetry, not the complete absence of either. I am not now using the word “liberty” in the narrow political sense born of the late 18th century Enlightenment era political revolutions, but rather in the sense of the liberation of the human spirit from the shackles that we impose on it. Ironically, that narrowly defined political “liberty” has evolved into an ideology which stands largely in opposition to that more profound spiritual liberation, a vehicle of spiritual repression rather than of spiritual liberation, negating what should and could be the ultimate goal of our existence, insisting on the contraction of human consciousness and the dominance of extreme individualism rather than the ever-increasing realization of our humanity.
But that subtler, deeper liberation of the human spirit, something accomplished not just in mutual isolation, nor just in concert, but rather a bit of both, requires both the repression of mutually imposed discipline and responsibility, and the poetry of passionate yearning and a tolerant appreciation of one another’s humanity.
Though our prevalent ideology rhetorically dismisses repression as an unmitigated evil, it actually embraces it in practice as an unmitigated good, for we live in a time and place that smirks at the poetry of life, and believes only in the machine. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing the government, but the two are far from synonymous, government sometimes counterbalancing other parts of the machine in ways which reduce its oppressiveness. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing corporate capitalism, but those two, as well, are far from synonymous, corporate capitalism being a vital part of the drama of life, and the government we invoke to oppose it really not all that poetic itself.
And there are those who think they oppose the machine by belonging to enterprises, often nonprofits, that work toward reform, but, unless their minds liberate themselves from the machine as well, unless they appreciate the value of yearning and the poetry of life, they, too, are trying to change the machine by being the machine, and the changes, though they may be beneficial, will not be revolutionary.
But to the extent that all of these sectors do comprise aspects of the machine, that does not mean that our duty is to oppose them. Our duty, rather, is to make them all more subservient to our souls, to our poetry, to our spiritual and emotional yearnings. We do not cure the machine by being the machine; we do not humanize one part merely by championing an equally dehumanized counterpart. And to do that, to champion more poetry to invigorate and humanize the machine on which we depend and which we should not strive to discard or dismantle, we need to be conscious of the ways in which our current algorithms, our current methodologies, serve efficiency at the expense of imagination, and, by doing so, actually reduce efficiency in the process.
The poetry of life isn’t just a necessary component of our humanity; it’s also a contributing factor to our efficiency and effectiveness. Weber’s iron cage of rationality presupposed that ever-increasing rationality, in the sense of an ever-more machine-like existence, is an unstoppable evolutionary force because it produces ever-increasing efficiency, but we’ve seen much evidence that there is a point of diminishing returns, a point at which more liberation of human imaginations yields more productive outcomes, and too much regimentation diminishes rather than increases the full realization of even our narrow economic potential, let alone our human potential more broadly conceived.
We waste our valuable human resources, our valuable consciousness, by assigning only those who satisfy our check lists of qualifications to the tasks to which those checklists apply, and relegating those who are less well regimented to the margins of society, where their often extraordinary potential is simply wasted, and their lives unfulfilled. Businesses and nonprofits, enterprises of all sorts, need to look beyond their checklists, need to look beyond the machine of which they are a part, and consider the less easily reducible qualities that some could bring to their endeavors. The gains in productivity and creativity would be enormous.
The poetry of life is a value too little considered, too poorly understood, too infrequently invoked and cultivated. It cannot replace the machine, for poetry does not put food on the table. But the machine cannot replace it, for mere economic production does not satisfy the yearnings of the heart and soul. Nor does economic production achieve maximum efficiency when the poetry of our lives is completely disregarded, for that poetry, that imaginative, yearning, passionate aspect of who and what we are, is a creative force, one which has practical implications and benefits when harnessed to that purpose.
We do not exist merely to exist. Our consciousness allows us to pursue purpose, and that purpose can and should be more than mere prosperity, mere political liberty, mere participation in the rationalized mechanisms of our collective existence. The growth of our consciousness, of our compassion, of our wisdom, and of our ability to take care of one another and offer one another opportunities to yearn meaningfully and functionally, to sustain ourselves both materially and emotionally, to discover the full depth and breadth of our humanity, is something truly worth living for.
I believe in the human endeavor. I believe in our ability to become ever wiser and more compassionate as a society. I believe that the technological and social institutional innovations we’ve come to take for granted, many of which were unimaginable just a few short generations ago, are ripples on the surface of an unfathomable sea of possibilities, and that what we accomplish in generations to come, like what has come before, will appear in retrospect not just to be more of the same, but rather profoundly revolutionary and transformative, and acceleratingly so.
But there is nothing automatic about the direction this punctuated evolution takes, and no guarantee that it will be benign rather than malignant. In what ways and to what extent, in service to which emotions and inclinations always vying for dominance within and without, we free the genius of the many, this captive giant fuming within her prison of oppression and repression, of intolerance and intransigence, will determine what wonders and what horrors we unleash.
Will we find new, more sterile and yet more virulent ways to enslave minds and souls, to shackle the human spirit by overlords of fear and bigotry, using our genius against itself in acts of brilliant inhumanity? Or will we harmonize more deeply and fully, through soaring but disciplined imaginations, with the malleable but coherent dream of which we are but a part?
Our minds form an ecology of their own, with flora and fauna of our fancy reproducing, evolving, giving way to new forms. We thrive best when we harvest most of that cognitive diversity, articulating the novel into the complex, sublime whole, accommodating more, suppressing less. So it’s no surprise that a sociologist such as myself, who perceives us less as a collection of individuals and more as slightly individuated moments of a shared consciousness, would become an advocate for mental diversity and mental freedom, for that mind we share does not best thrive by imposing as much conformity as fear and convenience counsel, but rather by tolerating as much non-conformity as wisdom and compassion allow.
If this movement, and this organization, were just about helping those in mental or emotional distress to find greater harmony within and avoid the ravages of a brutally destructive psychopharmacological paradigm imposed from without, that would be more than enough to inspire me to join in the effort. But it’s also about all of us together finding a richer and subtler harmony among ourselves and beyond ourselves, about that mind we share spiralling toward enlightenment, and about the increased wealth of joy and wellness we can produce together, from which we all can draw.
It’s to that latter ideal that all of us who believe in the human endeavor ultimately aspire.
(For essays and vignettes related to this one in various ways, see, e.g., Kick-Starting A ClearMind, Symptoms v. Root Causes, An Eddy In The Stream, The Politics of Consciousness, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Hollow Mountain, and A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.)
As I play with my Colorado Confluence Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Colorado-Confluence/151536731532344), 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.
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.
There is a Buddhist story that when the Buddha achieved enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree, his choice to continue to live as a human being was due to his recognition that there are two levels of enlightenment: That which is achieved by the individual, and that which can be achieved by humanity. The first is incomplete without the second. However one takes this story, whether literally or allegorically, the meaning is the same: There is an ideal to which we aspire, that perhaps defies clear definition but that we know exists. We implicitly recognize it whenever we strive to excel for the sake of excelling, whether in sports, or academics, or any other sphere of life. But true excellence, as Isaac Newton noted of his own genius, always “stands on the shoulders of giants.” Or, perhaps more precisely, of one giant, the giant that is the collective genius of a civilization (see The Genius of the Many and The Hollow Mountain).
Many people may conceptualize “human potential” as an individualistic concept, a thing that individuals achieve, individually. In reality, like the human mind itself, it is a collective aspiration, achievable only through our social unity. Even the most individualistic of achievements, such as running the fastest 100 meter dash, or jumping the highest or longest, is a feat built from the techniques and training that involve both people engaged in the same endeavor over time, and the transmission of their knowledge to and through the individual who excels.
But not only are most sports team sports, the mind itself is a team mind. We think in languages, mobilizing concepts, in communication with others, all of which are the product of a collective human history. My mind, like all others, is defined by a combination of genes and memes, most of which are broadly shared, and are only marginally individuated in me (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change). Even our minds are, in the final analysis, mostly common property. The question, therefore, is not so much how we each might excel individually, but rather how we all might excel together.
To a great extent, the processes by which this happens are organic and unintentional. Human history has produced a proliferation of techniques, of refinements, of “progress.” Not all of it is beneficial, and not all chapters of the story have been laudable, but it is certainly arguable that, on balance, we have stumbled toward various improvements in the quality of life, at least in certain limited regions, and by certain limited criteria. But intentionality plays a role as well; the intentionality that led to the development of scientific methodology, and the intentionality that led to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, for examples. Such intentionality in our shared enterprise is always, essentially, political in nature.
The question then becomes: What is the political meaning and process of “realizing human potential”? In a political context, what we normally think of as “human potential,” of excelling in various kinds of endeavors, is less an end in itself than a means to an end. Certainly, there is a certain euphoria attached to excelling, whether athletically, academically, artistically, professionally, or in some other kind of skill or endeavor, but it is really in how this excellence is applied that its political and social significance begins to become clear. Also, other kinds of “excellence” are brought into the discussion: excellence in kindness, in dedication, in mobilizing people, in leadership, and in performing myriad small and mundane tasks that contribute to human welfare. Mere individual “excellence,” in and of itself, is a paltry form of realizing human potential, a source of individual gratification and public entertainment. But excellence in contributing to our human endeavor, in liberating our collective genius, and in increasing our collective welfare, is a catalyst of something far greater.
In one sense, realizing our individual and collective “potential” is the goal, as well as the means to achieving it, for fragments of the greatest joy can be achieved through the expression of our humanity to the fullest possible extent in one field of endeavor, whether as dedicated humanitarians, phenomenal athletes, brilliant scholars, or visionary artists. But the whole, the compilation of those fragments, requires a balance among the various aspects of our humanity, and a balance between a focus on individual and collective excellence. Through this lens, working together to satisfy human needs, augment opportunities, and enrich lives is merely one aspect of the goal that “human potential” encompasses, but it is the most basic and fundamental aspect, the one upon which the rest is built.
To excel in our individual contributions to our collective genius and collective welfare, we have to understand the arena in which we are operating. Political ideological space can be plotted along three dimensions: 1) a commitment to the improvement of the human condition; 2) a commitment to ideological certainties; 3) a commitment to crude self or localized interest. Most of us are comprised of some mixture of these three, and are thus located within this space in an area that is defined by the intersection of our “values” along each of these three dimensions.
The first dimension involves liberating the genius of the many (i.e., improving the processes by which the products of human genius are produced), but also mobilizing that genius to our collective welfare. In other words, it is comprised of both “effectiveness” (how well we accomplish our goals) and “social responsibility” (the extent to which our individual goals serve the general welfare). “Effectiveness” is the quality all purposive actors want to permeate the processes by which they do things, and “social responsibility” is the quality all socially responsible people want to permeate the substantive goals of what they are doing. I will refer to these two qualities as “functional rationality” (how well we accomplish what we set out to accomplish) and “substantive rationality” (how well what we set out to accomplish servies human welfare).
The second dimension is comprised of all of the simplifications that our minds rely on, all of the accepted certainties that we variously gravitate to and refrain from reexamining. This is not something that can be eliminated: The world is too complex, our minds too limited, and our time and attention too constrained to allow us to be perfectly “open minded” on a continuous basis. In fact, such perfect open-mindedness is dysfunctional, erasing past mental processes that had arrived at conclusions and understandings in order to leave them forever in question, forestalling any cumulative progress in our understandings by removing the previous steps taken toward such process. So, part of the challenge of not letting the second dimension pre-empt the first one is in very carefully selecting that which we considered settled, using processes that increase rather than decrease both the functional and substantive rationality of our individual cognitive landscapes.
The third dimension is ever-present. We each, almost without exception, are more concerned for our own welfare, and for the welfare of those closest to us, than we are with the welfare of others with whom we have little or no direct connection. It is true that we are hard-wired for empathy and cooperation, and that our own individual welfare depends on at least some commitment to the welfare of others, even independenly of how that commitment may materially benefit us. But we clearly are not a fundamentally altruistic species, else we would be unable to endure the gross inequities that those reading this are benefiting from. Self-interest is a real and significant dimension of our shared existence.
The precise location of any individual doctrine within this political ideological space can be contentious. For example, “Libertarianism,” if fervently adhered to, would be located far along the “ideological certainty” and “self-interest” axes. But libertarians also make arguments about the social value of extreme individualism. Therefore, it’s precise location along the “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” axis is a subject of debate. But, to the extent that any doctrine retains a high “ideological certainty” value, it’s “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” value is correspondingly reduced, because rather than subject the doctrine to the crucible of reason in service to that goal, it is adhered to as a thing unto itself. Therefore, the dimension of “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” requires freeing oneself from ideological certainties, and focusing instead on this goal which they may purport to serve.
In other words, adherence to substantive doctrines is in a tension with one’s commitment to improving the human condition, yet is a requirement of cognitive economics. And maximizing our commitment to the general welfare requires recognizing our degree of self-interest. A major challenge for those most committed to improving the human condition is how to reconcile these competing demands. Meeting this challenge is served by focusing on the development of disciplines, individual and collective procedures that those who truly want to improve the human condition attempt to adhere to, in order to maximize both the effectiveness of their efforts, and the wisdom of the goals we identify as serving the ultimate goal of robust, sustainable, and fairly distributed human welfare. (See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for a discussion of how to go about doing this).
Simplifying the above discussion a bit, we are all either trying to make the world kinder and more rational, or are pursuing more foolish (usually blindly ideological) goals, or are behaving indifferently or antagonistically to the welfare of others. Most of us are defined by some mixture of these three. The question, for those of us who are consciously committed to improving the general welfare, is how to increase in ourselves and others our individual and shared commitment to reason (functional and substantive rationality) and goodwill (in service to the general welfare).
Some people balk at one or both of these values, believing “reason” to be either unattainable or undesirable, and “goodwill” expressed in public policy to be either an affront to “liberty” or a ceding of power to the enemy. But if we clearly define “reason” to mean most effectively acting in accord with and in service to the welfare of those we care about, and “goodwill” to mean either caring about all others or, at least, preferring our actions and choices to assist rather than obstruct others in their efforts to serve the interests of those they care about, then the vast majority of people will claim either to be, or to be striving to be, or to agree that we all should strive to be, reasonable people of goodwill.
That is the foundation on which we can build. We need a movement that recognizes that our current ideological balkanization does not serve these values, even if each is convinced that their own personal ideological convictions do. At stake is how well or poorly we meet the challenges of our shared endeavor.
The gap between our current capabilities for more robustly, sustainably, and fairly producing and distributing “human welfare” (a concept which includes material wealth, physical and mental well-being, and the various elements of a rich and fulfilling life) and our realization of those capabilities is a challenge to which all reasonable people of goodwill should address themselves. Those of us most committed to closing that gap need to step back from the endless urgency of now, and from the specific issues on which we each may be working, and ask ourselves how to create, implement, and maintain the most effective movement possible for closing the gap between what is and what can be.
(Formerly titled “Improved Communications Technologies & Techniques + Personal, Organizational & Methodological Discipline = Historic Social Change”).
For those who are serious about working for social progress based on reason and goodwill, despite the momentary resurgence of regressive “Political Fundamentalism”, the confluence of factors is currently conducive to a major paradigm shift. The power of decentralized mass media (“social media”), combined with improvements in our knowledge of relevant disciplines (e.g., cognitive science, microeconomics and game theory, learning theory, complex dynamical systems analysis, network analysis, epistemology and epidemiology, evolutionary ecology, etc.), as a tool for intentional and potentially revolutionary social change, is a theme which requires the weaving together of several separate threads of thought I’ve been developing on this blog.
I’ve posted previously about the processes of cultural evolution and revolution, involving “memes,” groups of memes called “paradigms,” and the revolutionary effects of the accumulation of anomalous memes within a paradigm, leading to “paradigm shifts” (The Politics of Consciousness). And I’ve continued that theme down several avenues, including a discussion of the acceleration of the cultural evolution effectuated by two products of that evolution itself: scientific methodology, and evolving communications and data processing technologies (Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).
In another, related, series of posts, I’ve written about the power of decentralization for liberating and mobilizing “the genius of the many” (a term for evolving decentralized but coherent sets of memes and paradigms) to an extent never before possible (Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed, Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”, Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), itself a product of the processes discussed in the “human social evolutionary ecology” series. (See also http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html). And in two series of posts largely unrelated to these, I discussed the importance of creating a methodology akin to that of science or law for disciplining the development of political beliefs (Ideology v. Methodology, A Proposal, The Elusive Truth), and the importance of each of us truly committed to social change becoming equally committed to individual change, adopting a personal discipline that will make us the most capable and compelling of messengers (“Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few). There are some posts, as well, which combine these latter two themes to some extent (The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Ultimate Political Challenge).
But, though these disciplines and methodologies, to some extent yet to be developed, are the key to robust sustainable social progress, we do not have to invent either the products or procedures of reason applied to politics from scratch. We have the academic disciplines I listed above (as well as all others) to draw on. I hope that some of my posts have helped to disseminate a glimpse of their relevant fruits, which is as much as any of us can unilaterally accomplish (e.g., 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, A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Real Education Reform, The Most Vulnerable Americans, The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services).
“The genius of the many” extends the concept of division and coordination of labor to the development of human consciousness; the ecology of memes that transcends the individuals whose brains are its physical medium (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia). A simple example of the genius of the many is that if a thousand random people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the mean of their guesses will be closer to the correct number than any individual guess, including the one made by the most mathematically capable of doing so.
Ironically, the far-right, relying on caricatures of reality, reduces all progressive thought to a hierarchical top-down “statism,” whereas the philosophy I am espousing is just the opposite: A coordinated bottom-up aggregation. The far-right, conversely, advocates for a tyranny of the lowest common denominator, never mobilizing more genius than the least informed among them is already in possession of, and imposing that state of relative ignorance on all of us in the form of information-stripped public policy.
One academic discipline not only informs the progressive policies we should be seeking to design and implement, but also the challenge of bringing more people on board in the effort to design and implement them. George Lakoff, in The Political Mind, explores the underlying metaphors upon which our minds are structured, the differences between conservative and progressive metaphors, and the techniques of messaging that should be employed to activate the narratives of empathy that exist compartmentalized in almost every mind –including conservatives’ minds– in advocacy of progressive policies. Combined with other advances in cognitive sciences (e.g., Evolutionary Psychology, such as espoused by Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct and How The Mind Works; Semiotics; Frame Analysis), this body of thought provides an encouraging foundation for accelerating the reproductive success of progressive memes and, by doing so, the coming paradigm shift that will favor them.
If enough of us dedicate ourselves to these personal, organizational, and procedural disciplines, utilizing to as great and effective an extent as possible these new decentralized media of mass communications, then the power of that movement will be unstoppable. I have frequently quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”) and John Maynard Keynes (“[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives”) as a reminder that the momentum of history is on our side. Bigotry and various forms of violence (including institutionalized mutual indifference, and politically organized ignorance) keep rearing their heads and wreaking havoc in the short run, but they are not what defines the historical progression of humanity, which has, overall, been characterized by gradual, inconstant, unequally distributed gains in both prosperity and social justice (and though sustainability has still been woefully insufficiently addressed, there are indications that the momentum of reason will favor it as well, though whether in time to avert disaster remains to be seen).
Those of us who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill are the ones with the wind of time at our back. Those who oppose reason and goodwill are the overabundant debris resisting that wind, stinging and bruising us as we rush through and past them.
Here I am, conveying this matrix of interrelated memes, this paradigm, on a blog, and on Facebook, utilizing the very media that form one component of what I am discussing, in order to discuss it, to disseminate the information and attempt to persuade others to do so as well, and to refine our efforts in accord with these opportunities and lessons. We can see the acceleration of innovation resulting from some of the variables described above in many spheres of life: “Chaos Theory” (aka “complex dynamical systems analysis”) and numerous non-computer-related technological advances that have resulted from it (in fields such as medicine, engineering, meteorology, etc.), fractal geometry, the internet, the computer revolution, wikis, vastly reduced economic transaction costs, vastly accelerated processes in almost every sphere of life.
Social systems, which have been in so many ways so resistent to reduction through scientific methodologies (though not as resistant as conventional wisdom maintains), are opened up in a variety of ways, as themselves comprising the quintessential complex dynamical system, amenable to the new analytic techniques that come with that paradigm. Social systems are a complex network of linkages and impulses across them, triggering cascading state changes among nodes and clusters of interlinked nodes, reverberating, self-amplifying, mutually reinforcing or suppressing, not unlike the brains that provide the physical medium of their primary constituent unit (memes, or cognitions).
I am not suggesting that we now have the magic bullet, the panacea that will resolve all problems and meet all challenges. Nor am I suggesting that our efforts will suddenly yield spectacular results. Even in our accelerating world, dramatic change takes time, and is dramatic only in retrospect. Few people have recognized any non-military revolution at the time it has occurred, but they occur nonetheless, and are marvels to behold once they become apparent.
Past modern historical occidental social revolutions have been partial and cumulative: the Renaissance recovered some of the grace and aesthetic rationality of classical Greece; the Scientific Revolution gave us a robust methodology for improving our knowledge and understanding of nature; the Industrial Revolution gave us new machines of production and distribution; the very recent and equally consequential Computer Revolution created a quantum leap forward in the speed and capacity of data processing and communication.
At some point, whether now or in the future, these accumulating revolutions will embrace aspects of social organization that have remained thus far elusive, advancing with accelerating leaps forward in the liberation and implementation of the genius of the many in service to humanity. We will look back on that threshold as we look back on those that came before, recognizing that it transformed the world to human benefit in ways that were almost unimaginable prior to it. That inevitable threshold will usher in a new standard of human welfare that becomes completely taken for granted by those who enjoy it, which will be an expanding portion of humanity, both geographically and temporally. Whether that moment has come or not, it behooves those of us who want to speed its (sustainable) arrival to work, in individually and collectively disciplined ways, using the cognitive and technological tools at our disposal, to facilitate that transformation.
The world has been changing dramatically, in cumulative and accelerating ways, and will continue to do so. But those changes have provided humanity with a mixed blessing, creating riches beyond belief to all but those born into them, but also tools of violence, oppression, and depletion and destruction of the Earth on which we depend. There are those who would like to barrel blindly forward, ravaging the Earth and prospering on the backs of the suffering of others. And there are those who want to harness the forces we are unleashing, to create the sustainable and just future that all reasonable people of goodwill should strive for. Our ability to organize to that latter end has never been greater. Now, we have only to see if our determination is sufficient to rise to that opportunity.
The issue of improved public discourse is, ultimately, the most important of all political issues, for it is in the final analysis the means by which reason and justice prevail over irrationality and bigotry, within each of us as well as throughout society. Discourse is challenged along many dimensions: civility, robustness, depth, subtlety, inclusiveness, rationality, factual accuracy, scope, precision, and quantity of information mobilized and assimilated. How kind is it? How productive is it? How well-informed is it? All of these are relevant dimensions to be constantly improved upon.
Discourse takes many forms. As I wrote recently, perhaps one of its most useful and probing forms is satire (Tragically Comical American Political Discourse). Humor can be revealing, as well as enjoyable, and is often most provocative of deep insights of all discursive forms. From Gulliver’s Travels (in which Jonathan Swift gave us the term “yahoos”) to Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22, and beyond, satire often hits the nail right on the head, and leaves us with a smile on our faces while doing so. That’s as good as it gets.
But discourse fights against many dysfunctional structural inhibitors and disinhibitors. Those with the largest audiences are often either incentivized to censor themselves or to inflame uninformed passions. Those who depend on endearing the many and offending as few as possible must avoid taboo topics and controversial positions as much as they are able to, while those who depend on appealing to and cultivating a loyal following must do just the opposite, and pander to their target market (whether sincerely or insincerely), reinforcing and helping to insulate prejudices and unreasoning passions. This bifurcates the most loudly broadcast voices into those that are sterilized by political and strategic considerations, and those that are contaminated by demagoguery.
Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff argued in his book The Political Mind that we need a new Enlightenment, one which does not try to advance the cause of Reason simply by recourse to rational arguments, but one which embraces new insights into how our minds work, and seeks to advance the cause of Reason along the avenues carved out by those insights (recognizing the roles of frames and narratives, of primary and complex metaphors, and working with them in advocacy of Reason and Empathy). But the old Enlightenment still holds its lessons, some of which we should continue to learn from.
The Economist recently published a review of Philipp Blom’s book (to be released in March): “Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris” (http://www.economist.com/node/17358838). The theme of the book is those Enlightenment philosophes who convened in salons to discuss all matters, some of whom refuted the existence of God, despite the dangers of doing so. It was not, overall, a more courageous time than our own, and it was not a time when more people were willing to question the existence of God (Biologist Richard Dawkins, for instance, is one of many famous modern atheists, while Blom critiques some famous philosophes for their own failures to publicly entertain non-religious perspectives). But it is instructive that those committed to reason were discussing over two hundred years ago a reasonable but historically persecuted point of view that is little more tolerated today than it was then.
For the record, I am not saying that I consider atheism to be the final word on the subject (I don’t; I consider the truth to be far subtler, and far less dismissive of the sublime aspects of reality that concepts of divinity address). I am saying that atheism’s continued absence from most spheres of public discourse, along with the absence of subtler but equally unconventional views (e.g., pantheism, Taoist/Buddhist non-anthropomorphic mysticism, etc.), and the continued hold over public discourse and public cognition that the generally reductionist, absolutist, and somewhat superstitious bias of insitutionalized religions continues to command, are evidence of a public discourse unhealthily constrained by cognitive, social, and institutional forces that hinder rather than facilitate a robust and comprehensive public dialogue.
In other words, we continue to put informal “Inquisitions” between ourselves and the pursuit of truth. Galileo, who was basically accurate on every topic he addressed, and certainly more accurate than the Church, was subjected to torture by the Inquisition until he recanted his assertion that Copernicus was right, and the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa. And my own career as a teacher ended when I faced my own Inquisition for having compared cultural to genetic diffusion and innovation in a World Geography class (though I remain convinced that it was one of the best lesson plans my students had ever been exposed to).
Religion isn’t the only topic around which informal barriers to discourse are thrown up, nor do such barriers need to be society-wide to contribute to the constriction and impoverishment of public discourse. Some current trends in political discourse are contributing to further constriction, though in a more balkanized manner. Those with strong ideological views listen to and talk with those of similar views, and avoid those of conflicting views, sometimes quite explicitly (one left-wing ideologue, in a post on SquareState, said he was interested in reasonable criticisms, defined as things unlike what I say, which are too incompatible with his worldview to count as “reasonable”). The “confirmation bias” already making cross-fertilization of differing views difficult, is reinforced by the ability now to get news from, and engage in discourse with, those who already agree with us, making it that much easier to filter out contradictory evidence and analysis. Instead of a society-wide constriction of public discourse, we have a balkanized constriction, in which occasional debates across ideological borders quickly degenerate into angry mutual denouncements and insults.
A sociologist named Mark Granovetter wrote a paper in the 1970′s or 1980′s called “The Strength of Weak Ties,” in which he discussed the value of those network connections that form bridges between social (and ideological) islands. He was writing in a different era (strange as it may seem that so much has changed in so short a time), but captured a truth that transcends the form that our social coalescences take. We still need “weak ties,” bridges across social, cultural, and ideological chasms. We still need some threads of authentic social interaction, authentic dialogue, among as well as within our ideological enclaves.
There should be no taboos, particularly no taboos regarding modes of thought that do not preach hatred or antagonism of any kind. There should be no privileging of fixed ideologies. We need to work as a people toward promoting a society-wide public discourse that does not presuppose the conclusions, neither on the left nor the right nor in any other location of our complex ideological space. We need to continue to cultivate a commitment to reason, to analysis, to reliance on carefully acquired and verifiable information. No political challenge is more important, no advance more beneficial to our long-term collective welfare than advances in our ability to participate in a robust and unconstrained public discourse, with reason, humility, and goodwill as our guiding lights.