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An alternative representation, to emphasize the “flor”

The Flor de Luz, the Flower of Light, is both a symbol and, potentially, a tool. It is the symbol of Transcendental Politics (and logo of The Transcendental Politics Foundation) found in the middle of this Venn diagram, and the diagram itself. The name is, in part, a play on words of the French “Fleur de Lis” (a stylized lily), recognizing the incidental similarity of the original logo to a luminescent lily. It is also in part a reference to the concentric flower patterns formed by the overlapping circles of the Venn Diagram, with five small petals surrounding the logo, five larger ones surrounding those. and five larger ones still surrounding those (see the alternative representation). Most importantly, it is a reference to what both the logo and the Venn Diagram represent: Transcendental Politics, the flowering (“flor”) of a new Enlightenment (“luz”).

The Flor de Luz is, in one sense, a simple graphic with a simple purpose. It represents how Transcendental Politics resides at the confluence of our various overarching social institutions, how it aspires to be a distillation and synthesis of what is best in each of them, what has thus far worked well for humanity, leaving out what is least useful in each of them, what has thus far not served humanity well, an ongoing social movement that recognizes and respects the cumulative product of human history and humbly but proactively builds on it, weeding and pruning and watering portions of our social institutional landscape with new layers of conscious cultivation, continuing the human enterprise of transforming the wilderness of what time and numbers have produced into a garden of intentionality that better serves human welfare.

But the Flor de Luz is, in another sense, potentially (in a dynamical form discussed below) something more subtle and complex, a conceptual tool to assist in the identification stage of that ongoing endeavor of social institutional distillation and synthesis, a tool that is only partially and statically represented by the Venn Diagram above. Let’s explore, step-by-step, how it might be transformed into a dynamical tool.

First, consider possible variations of the Venn Diagram above. A different arrangement, or sequence, of the same five circles could be chosen, different pairs overlapping in the outermost petals (e.g., placing politics and activism next to each other, and religion and science next to each other, producing in their overlaps “campaigning” and “pursuit of universal paradigms,” respectively); or different overarching institutions altogether could be chosen (e.g., economics, family, technology, energy, environment, fine arts, etc.), creating a proliferation of possible combinations and sequences. (For instance, one product of the overlap of activism and economics might be “entrepreneurialism,” and of entrepreneurialism and technology “innovation,” leading to one of the already identified smaller petals by a different route.) Different aspects of what their convergences create can be highlighted, illustrating, in a sense, how “all roads lead to Transcendental Politics,” to the commitment to foster a more rational, imaginative, empathetic, humble and humane world.

We can create a completely different kind of Flor de Luz comprised of cognitive and emotional modalities instead of social institutions, with, for instance, reason, imagination, empathy, humility, and humanity (the five core values of Transcendental Politics) as the five overlapping circles, producing social institutions and types of behaviors and endeavors. We can even include such emotions and modalities as anger, fear, and tribalism, things we usually identify as that which we are striving to transcend, to acknowledge that they too have evolved for reasons, and that they may well have something to contribute to our garden of intentionality. Or we can combine cognitive and emotional modalities with social institutions from the outset, testing our minds to identify, for instance, what good can be harvested from the distillation and synthesis of anger, reason, and activism, or of imagination, fear, hope, and science, or of the convergence of those two sets. The possibilities are nearly limitless.

The purpose of presenting ourselves with these nearly limitless combinations is to guide our minds in an exploration of what is, in pursuit of what can be, by facilitating consideration of how we can work to leverage what is into something more beneficial. This can occur both in the abstract, imagining possibilities without worrying about how to attain them, and in the particular, identifying viable pathways to implementation and devising first steps that can be taken now in service to that end. It is, if nothing else, a tool for taking our minds out of the tumultuous onslaught of the perpetual urgency of now, and providing them with a space defined by a more synoptic view, in which we are guided not only in “thinking outside the box,” but in redefining “the box” as something far more expansive.

(I should insert here a response to the criticism, that I imagine has arisen in the minds of at least some readers by now, of “what does this have to do with anything? How does combining names of social institutions and cognitive and emotional modalities accomplish anything?” The answer is that it displaces our tendency to think in fixed ways determined by ideological narratives and ingrained habits of thought with a set of semi-random but also subtly systemic prompts to think in new ways. That can be remarkably useful, and it is integral to the meaning of “Transcendental Politics,” which is about institutionalizing the ongoing effort to transcend our ideological tribalisms and false certainties.)

Let me guide you through a consideration of how this design (five overlapping disks representing distinct social institutional, cognitive, and emotional modalities) can be utilized in the manner described above.

Imagine a narrated animation in which, first, the diagram is explained as representative of how Transcendental Politics is that which resides where our social institutional modalities overlap, each mitigating the others’ defects and reinforcing the others’ strengths, a sort of distillation of the best of what we’ve produced over the millennia, the product of the spinning lathe of trial and error. Then, the outer sections labeled “science, politics, education, activism, religion” are removed and the largest flower pattern is revealed, the narration stating that even though the various institutional modalities themselves are not precisely what Transcendental Politics is (because they exist independently), those aspects of their synthesis that are relevant to serving our shared humanity most effectively are distilled into the Flor de Luz. Then the next layer of petals is removed, and the next, and the narration continues, focusing on the distillation down to those essential ingredients that define Transcendental Politics, bringing the narration to a focus on precisely what Transcendental Politics IS, that quintessence at the center of this convergence of social and cultural evolution.

The animation can then grow back outward, with new petals labeled with new virtues distilled from other arrangements, both in sequence and in selection, of overarching institutions and modalities until a new completed Flor de Luz is constructed, the narration describing along the way how the petals of the concentric flowers, which in the other direction were derived from the larger overlapping petals, in this direction are emergent from the smaller ones (and ultimately from the center, from Transcendental Politics), illustrating how it inherits the cultural material of the past and helps create the cultural material of the future. The animation can then proceed to to a sliding around of the overarching circles, with the petals formed by their new overlaps changing accordingly, and then to a changing of the overarching institutions and modalities themselves, exploring some of the many different permutations of the Flor de Luz.

Now imagine a physical artifact, with five overlapping translucent plastic or glass colored circles in the form of the Flor de Luz, each rotatable around its center and able to switch positions by pivoting around the center circle containing the TPF logo and snapping into a new position. Each disk would contain perhaps three related social institutions or cognitive or emotional modalities that can be rotated into place, creating the possibility for 15 different arrangements without moving the relative positions of the disks, and some multiple of that by moving the relative positions of the disks. A complete set of disks can include far more than five, with the ability to switch out individual disks for others, removing all limits on how many arrangements can be explored. Of course doing so only suggests the combinations; the work of thinking about what that implies, what productive uses those combinations have, remains. But that work, too, can be cataloged and accumulated, in a kind of ongoing “social institutional genome project.”

(We can even create disks whose overarching categories are the finer ones produced by the confluence of other disks, and take their confluence into deeper, finer, and subtler levels.)

In an online version, that cumulative work can result in different combinations leading to different implied products of those combinations appearing in the various petals of the flower (much as they do in the graphic above). The physical artifact might accomplish the same through symbols visible in each petal in each rotational position of the disk, depending on which overarching principle is in effect, forming a sequence with the others, and then using a reference manual to interpret different sequences of symbols, the reference manual itself being a cumulative compendium of previous thought about the various possible combinations. Thus, this device could be used to explore different configurations of overlapping social institutional, cognitive, and emotional modalities, as a useful analytical and practical tool for thinking about how we can create different kinds of collaborative projects using those modalities in service to working our way toward the convergence in the center (Transcendental Politics).

(I can imagine turning it into a game as well, one that exercises the mind in certain ways that are aligned to what we are trying to cultivate, in which in each player’s turn they are challenged to take the set of social institutions and cognitive modalities they get from their “spin” of a Flor de Luz designed for that purpose and either create something from it following a set of rules and in pursuit of a defined goal, or build on what previous players have created. This is, obviously, not a fully fleshed out idea yet; just a glimpse of another possible use.)

What the Flor de Luz thus represents is that we have inherited an enormous quantity of social institutional, technological, cultural, cognitive, and emotional material, that is blended and can continue to be blended in complex ways, and that forms an evolving shared cognitive landscape of enormous complexity, subtlety, and power. It represents that we are not merely passive recipients of this material, but rather active participants in its ongoing formation, in how we combine and distill it, in what we derive from it, in how we employ it, in short, in what kind of world we choose to create together.

The Flor de Luz provides us with a relatively simple but elegant tool for thinking about this, for focusing our thoughts in productive ways. It reminds us of the possibilities, of how religious material and scientific material can combine beneficially, of the need to draw on reason and imagination and empathy all at once and not to pretend that anger and tribalism can (or should) just be wished away, of where our shared stories come from and what purposes they can serve. It reminds us of the fractal geometry of the anthrosphere, of how social institutional and cognitive and emotional materials are tributaries to larger streams; it helps us to reconstruct those tributaries and streams and rivers of possibilities in endless combinations. It is not a necessary tool; we can engage in the same contemplations without it. But it assists us in doing so more comprehensively and more precisely. Think of it as a social institutional kaleidoscope, with mechanisms for considering every set of combinations of every set of cognitive, emotional, and social institutional materials, and thinking about what those combinations imply, what challenges and possibilities they pose, what opportunities they present.

While potentially useful, it is certainly not a sufficient tool in and of itself; in the forthcoming book, “Transcendental Politics: A New Enlightenment,” I go into considerable detail exploring some small portion of the corpus of analytical and practical tools that are relevant to our endeavor. The need to continue to gather, produce, and synthesize them is perpetual. But the Flor de Luz is a reminder that at the core of all of that intellectual material and practitioner expertise are the lessons of our ongoing history, the convergence of a history of past experiments, and the cumulative products of human genius forming the foundation of present and future innovations. It is up to us to design those innovations to most effectively serve the ever fuller realization of our consciousness and of our shared humanity.

Our various personalities and affinities are reflected in which petals of which variations of the Flor de Luz resonate most with our own predispositions, talents, and desires; it becomes a way of locating ourselves in this shared endeavor of ours, of thinking about who our social institutional neighbors and natural partners are, of who we can reach out to to create new synergies in service to our shared humanity, to the greatest realization of our consciousness and our well-being, individually and collectively. It recognizes both diversity and coherence, facilitates both, draws upon both. The Flor de Luz is a way of thinking about our various roles in this shared story we are living and writing together, and how we can each individually and in cooperation with others, consciously and conscientiously, ensure that we are writing it and living it well.

To learn more about Transcendental Politics and The Transcendental Politics Foundation, visit our Facebook group, our Facebook page, or our website (still under construction).

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On a Facebook thread condemning President Obama for signing the Continuing Resolution with a rider protecting Monsanto from law suits, my defense of the President (pointing out that he really had to sign the CR and that all bills that come to his desk have unsavory riders in them) received some vitriolic responses from a couple of rabbidly anti-GMO activists. When I then mentioned that I am more agnostic on the issue of GMOs themselves, because I don’t think the evidence weighs so unambiguously against them as these particular activists maintained, their vitriol was ratcheted up even more.

As a result, I made the following post on my own Facebook page:

Here’s an interesting lesson in political advocacy: Don’t go out of your way to alienate people who share your general concerns but honestly differ on the particular analysis. On a thread about “Monsanto-gate,” when I mentioned that I’m agnostic about GMOs due to the many benefits on the plus side of the leger (reduced erosion, reduced pesticide and herbicide and fertilizer demands, thus reduced run-off and groundwater contamination, increased food production per acre, increased resilience, etc.) and the relatively few on the negative side, two anti-GMO zealots attacked with such venom that, despite myself, I’m a bit less agnostic now: I’m more pro-GMO than I was before!

It reminds me of a line from Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” about the harm done by overprescription of psychiatric drugs. He mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry could have paid the Scientologists (and Tom Cruise) to take the position against psychiatric drugs that they did, because it made a basically rational position look like one that only fanatical zealots support.

A long and productive discussion ensued, at the end of which, in response to various comments on both threads, I wrote the following:

Human beliefs and emotions are much like viruses, spreading through the population more or less robustly for a variety of reasons. The British biologist Richard Dawkins dubbed these cognitive-emotional viruses “memes,” because they mirror genes in how they reproduce and spread and evolve.As a general rule, memes that are motivated by hope and love and compassion are good ones to spread, and memes that are motivated by fear and hatred and anger are bad ones to spread. This isn’t always true, because some fears are legitimate, but whenever a meme is or a set of memes are spreading due to fear or anger, it’s a good time for folks to step back and be very, very introspective and self-critical about what memes they are latching onto and spreading. The human tendency toward panics should always give us pause and make us question our own certainties and our own “hysterias” (despite the sexist etymology of that word, there’s no other that quite captures the same flavor of meaning).As some of you know (and as I hope not to rehash here in relation to the specific issue I referred to), I think that we are overly certain even about some things for which there is considerable evidence, because though the world is extraordinarily complex and subtle, we tend to gravitate too quickly to certainty and dwell too briefly in uncertainty. We have to be careful not to let wise uncertainty become an unwise position against action based on the best available knowledge, but we should not feel the need to be certain in order to act, a psychological need which is exacerbated by the political demand to take strong positions. (A person who advocates for a political position while admitting to uncertainty undermines him-or-herself in public discourse.)In a more rational world (or with more rational participants in a conversation or debate), the opposite is true: Too much certainty undermines one’s credibility. On the original thread, one commenter (not one of the two belligerent ones) suggested that we are breeding super-pests with GMOs, because of their genetically built-in pesticides. (As an aside, I’m not sure how GMOs do this more so than the traditional use of pesticides does it, and would think that GMOs might do it less so.) Then he made what I consider a rhetorical mistake: He insisted that it was a certainty, and clearly and indisputably a catastrophe in the making.It’s a good point and a legitimate concern, but I am not convinced that it is quite as dispositive as he assumes. For instance, as he noted, the same argument can be made for the use of antibiotics, and, indeed, controlling the worldwide overuse of antibiotics has become particularly urgent for this very reason. But I would not consider it to have been a good thing to have nipped in the bud the use of antibiotics by a movement informed with such foresight a century or so ago.I tend to look at the world a little differently, through a more inclusive and organic paradigm which sees even human foibles as catalysts in a much larger evolutionary process. Yes, it’s true, the more dramatic our manipulations of nature, the greater the risk of catastrophic cascades, but it’s also good to remember that people have been predicting the human-induced destruction of the world for millennia. The world has always been on the verge of catastrophic collapse, with every new innovation throughout human history. Every single time.The reality of complex dynamical systems is that they’re very adaptive. They reorder themselves around even dramatic changes. That’s not to say we should be blithely indifferent to the potential consequences of our actions, but it does provide an often overlooked counterpoint to the ubiquitous predictions of inevitable catastrophe.My point here is that we would benefit from more uncertainty, and more interest in exploring the complexities and subtleties of the world we live in. The two women who were extremely vitriolic and offensive with me were that way because I had challenged an article of faith, and when you challenge people’s articles of faith, they become very angry. We could use less anger in the world, and we could use fewer articles of faith. Then, from that foundation of wise uncertainty, we could have the most informed and informative of national debates on all topics of importance to our shared existence, and do a far better job of aligning our policies to those which are best recommended by reason in service to humanity.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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….

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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.

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‎(The following, originally a comment of mine on a Facebook thread, I first published on CC as a comment on another post but decided deserves a post of its own. It was in response to an angry reaction to the argument that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. I think it hits the nail right on the head.)

Hi Joyce. Pleased to meet you.

There are plenty of websites and pages which are dedicated to particular dogmas, want to preserve an echo-chamber where adherents to that dogma can reinforce prevailing assumptions and articles of faith, and exclude the introduction of any facts or arguments that are inconvenient to them. There are others that, while they may have prevailing biases, remain, to their credit, dedicated to public discourse and the robust exchange of ideas, the life-blood of a vibrant and well-functioning democracy (or “republic,” if you prefer).

There are legitimate debates that we, the sovereign (in our “popular sovereignty”), need to have, over economics, law (including Constitutional law), culture, values, and numerous other issues relevant to our shared existence as a polity, as a state and a nation. The more able we are to engage in that discussion as reasonable people of goodwill, the better off we’ll all be.

And my only argument here is one that no one should find offensive: That the more people who agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that they don’t know, driven by a combination of pragmatic realism and a sense of fairness and human decency, the more able we are to thrive as a society and to prosper as individuals.

Our society is divided by something more profound than the ideologies we normally identify, a chasm that divides many societies in many times and places. That division is between those who, on the one hand, accept the notion that being a responsible citizen requires striving to be a reasonable person of goodwill, and those who reject that notion. Some who reject the notion can be found on the Left; some who accept it can be found on the Right. I feel far greater affinity for, and far more thoroughly enjoy and feel satisfied by discussions with, those on the Right who accept this premise than those on the Left that don’t.

People sometimes argue over which ideologies are responsible for the horrors and violences against humanity of the past, and some do contortions to revise history to insist that it was always the ideology they oppose and never the ideology they adhere to. But, in reality, the horrors and violences against humanity that have occurred throughout history and around the world have found vehicles from all across the political ideological spectrum; sometimes under the auspices of totalitarian governments, sometimes under the auspices of tribal feuds obstructing the ability of national governments to form and function; sometimes under theocracies in which religious leaders have taken power, and sometimes under philosophies that claim there is no god. The one thing they all have in common is that they are perpetrated by people who choose either to impose a dogmatic certainty rather than support procedures of on-going discovery and decision-making, or they disintegrate into the cynical pursuit of self and local interests without maintaining the social coherence to do that in a mutually beneficial way. In other words, they are all perpetrated by people who lack a commitment to either reason or goodwill (or both).

It’s clear that in this country at this time, there are many who lack those two values, and are vehement in their rejection of those two values. They react angrily to any suggestion that we should put aside our ideological differences long enough to agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, each and every one of us aware of the fact that we are not in possession of the final answers on all matters, and each and every one of us dedicated to the on-going challenge of governing ourselves wisely and fairly. They are a vocal minority, but far from a majority. Most Americans are not attracted to people of that nature, whether they are found on the Right or Left or anywhere in between. Most Americans want to be decent human beings, reasonable people of goodwill, working together with others similarly inclined to govern ourselves wisely and fairly.

So we, that majority of us who feel that way, should make it the dominant ideology. We should agree that we are all mere human beings, each certain of things that may or may not be true, engaged in a process together that requires listening as well as speaking, thinking as well as knowing, considering the world from the perspective of others as well as from our own. We, all reasonable people of goodwill, can work toward that end, can advocate for that “ideology,” can encourage others to join such a movement. And we, all of us, would be far, far, far better off for it.

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One of the great paradoxes of American history and society is that we are simultaneously a country founded by religious zealots committed to the promotion of religious zealotry, and a country established on Enlightenment principles committed to the creation and preservation of a secular Constitutional Republic. In an honest debate over which direction best serves current and future generations of Americans and humanity, I personally believe that there is no contest: Religious fanaticism and Theocracy are the authors of untold horrors in the world, and it is not a model to be emulated.

It’s true, of course, that some secular “religions” have produced the same horrible outcomes (Bolshevism is the iconic example), which leads to the wise conclusion that it is not the presence or absence of some conceptualization of the divine that renders an ideology destructive to human welfare, but rather merely an aura of absolutism, a belief that the complex and subtle reality of the world has been perfectly distilled into an easily grasped human ideology, and that no further discussion is required. It is not religion that is at fault, but rather blind dogma, absolute faith in some reductionist representation of how the world works and how we should interface with it.

Identifying this problem is easier than solving it. Humans have no choice but to conceptualize the complex and subtle reality of which we are a part in manageable ways, to reduce it to images and forms and packages that we can understand and work with. Our most sublime intellectual achievements do this as surely as our most shallow superstitions. But what distinguishes our most sublime intellectual achievements is that they are products of a process through which our imaginations and our intellects are disciplined and evolve, whereas our most shallow superstitions are ossified products of ancient imaginations entrenched in our consciousness and as insulated as possible from the continuing lathe of reason and imagination. One modality is based on skepticism, on critical thinking, and the other on Faith, on blind acceptance of given “truths.”

(The same holds true for modern dogmas, sometimes intellectual and frequently political ideological, as for archaic superstitions: The greater the extent to which adherents dogmatically believe substantive tenets, the more in the mode of “religious fanaticism” they are; the more they commit to on-going procedures –facilitated by wise uncertainty– which favor reason and humanity, the more they are contributing to the progress of both human consciousness and the social institutional and technological landscape that emanates from it.)

The dilemma in America is not that we are in a debate over these two modalities of thought, but rather that one of these two modalities precludes such a debate. It is not possible to engage in a debate with blind dogma insulated from reason and information. But worse yet, not only is such a debate precluded, but those who preclude it play a shell game with these two very different modalities of thought, turning the U.S. Constitution, which is so much in the tradition of reasoned engagement with the complex and subtle world we live in, into a quasi-sacred document, stripped of its actual subtlety and wisdom, and selectively understood and interpreted in service to the blind dogma that they favor.

They claim to be champions of the Constitution, while in reality being its most virulent enemies. What the Constitution represents first and foremost is rule of law, and what rule of law is first and foremost is a procedural discipline, a commitment to making decisions about legality through processes established by both the Constitution and by the challenge of implementing it in a real world more complex than any such document can fully anticipate.

But rather than accept that we have a real Constitution, written by mere human beings in a language full of ambiguities and imprecisions and in a time which framed their understandings and emphases, a document that Constitutional Scholars debate and study and spend dedicated lifetimes trying to fully understand, in the context of an ever-changing world, these would-be theocrats insist that only their superficial and frequently poorly informed interpretations, sometimes completely at odds with any literal interpretation of the document itself, must prevail.

If one points out to them, as I have sometimes done, that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes…to pay for the general welfare,” and that that is a rather broad power that, if literally interpreted, means that there is no limitation on what Congress can tax and spend in service to, as long as Congress can make a case that it serves the general welfare, they answer that there must be limits on it, because, after all, isn’t such a limitation what their dogma insists upon? They love the Constitution until it blatantly contradicts their ideology, at which point it is, in their view, the Constitution rather than their ideology which must yield. That is the very essence of anti-Constitutionalism.

(The limitation on the tax-and-spend power of that clause is, of course, that if voters don’t like the way Congress is exercising it, voters can fire them and hire representatives who do so more in accord with their wishes. The Constitution, drafted to strengthen rather than weaken the federal government, was designed, as explicitly elaborated on in The Federalist Papers, to overcome the collective action problems rampant under the Articles of Confederation that preceded it. It’s no accident that the Founding Fathers included this ample power to tax and spend in service to the general welfare.)

Of course, as many point out, well-reasoned and well-informed arguments fall on deaf ears, because people in general, and religious and quasi-religious fanatics in particular, do not form their opinions according to the dictates of reason applied to evidence –or in service to humanity rather than to their own national, racial, class, ethnic, etc., in-groups– but rather on the basis of emotional appeals to the frames and narratives which form our consciousness and our identities. When I argue that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (toward all humanity), and others respond that that won’t work because there are those who lack reason and lack such goodwill, I reply that the irrationality and belligerence (toward humanity) of others does not imply that we must be irrational and belligerent (toward humanity) as well.

I emphasize “toward humanity” because the misconception is common, among both those who tend to agree with me on substantive positions and those who tend to disagree, that goodwill toward humanity precludes hurting the feelings of those who preach ideologies or behave in ways which are antagonistic to humanity. It doesn’t. (Those on the right embrace this fallacy to discredit those challenging the substance of their ideology, by claiming that anyone who criticizes their ideology is not acting with goodwill toward humanity; those on the left embrace this fallacy to discredit the challenge to their preference for righteous rage over effective advocacy, arguing that since goodwill toward belligerent fanatics is ineffective the ideal of goodwill toward humanity is irrelevant to political discourse.)

Goodwill toward humanity does not mean that you cannot intervene militarily to stop a genocide, even though shooting at people (in a military action to stop a genocide) is not really the best expression of goodwill toward them personally. Nor does goodwill toward humanity preclude one from hurting the feelings of someone preaching some hateful ideology by sharply criticizing their ideology, and doing so in terms which are logically and emotionally compelling and thus, to them, offensive. To the contrary, goodwill toward humanity requires it, not gratuitously, and not in service to one’s own emotional gratification, but rather in service to moving the zeitgeist gradually in a desired direction.

For those who believe that moving the zeitgeist in a desired direction is impossible, all I can say is: Glance back across the sweep of human history, and you will see that it has been done before, and is done constantly. Scientific methodology didn’t exist half a millennium ago, but has grown in prominence over that span of time, in large part due to human effort, and frequently against human resistance. That thread of history, in fact, is the archetype of what I’m advocating. We have, historically, increased the salience of reason and goodwill in human affairs, by developing scientific methodology and legal procedures, and by developing humanistic philosophies which identify the rights of individuals and the value of various forms of egalitarianism. Extending these historical processes is what Progressives should be most committed to. And, by that definition, all reasonable people of goodwill should be Progressives.

(I’m tempted to dump the word “Progressives,” though, because, of course, the ideology that goes by that name is not precisely the ideal ideology I have described. True “progressivism” would involve reducing the emphasis on precipitous substantive certainties, and increase the emphasis on ever-evolving procedural disciplines developed for the purpose of realizing an ever-evolving humanism.)

It’s true, of course, that merely making well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments is not the primary way in which the zeitgeist changes. We think in frames and narratives, and it is through those frames and narratives that change occurs. But one frame which almost all modern Americans embrace is that they are reasonable people, that their beliefs are what are supported by reason and evidence, that in any debate between equally competent debaters, their point of view inevitably wins. Another frame common to almost all modern Americans is that each believes themself to be a person of goodwill, a person whose ideology is the ideology which best serves others. Few Americans explicitly applaud Scrooge before the transformation and condemn Scrooge after the transformation; almost all define themselves as being a reasonable person of goodwill.

One way to challenge these frames is to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, to make the discrepancy between the narratives that people are subjectively applying to themselves and the narratives that they are “objectively” living as inescapable as possible. And that means not only throwing well-reasoned arguments in their face, but rather throwing in their face well-reasoned arguments that challenge not particular policy positions but, more importantly, their own fundamental identity.

The way in which I habitually do this is, in every conversation in which a blind and belligerent dogma is being favored, to ask the person favoring it if they would be willing to set aside for a moment our substantive disagreements and agree with me only that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can in service to humanity. Some leap to agree; many do not. But almost all recognize, on some level or another, that they can either agree with this premise or suffer the cognitive dissonance of realizing that they are unwilling to.

I strongly recommend that this one, simple commitment become our core ideological identity and the platform that we most consistently and relentlessly advocate. It is a position which most find difficult to denounce, and to which many who do not consider themselves “progressives” would gladly gravitate. It is the basis for all well-conceived progressive policies, the standard by which they should be measured, such that it is this ideal rather than anything else we currently believe that should hold sway. And it is a shared foundation to which we want to attract as many people as possible (from all across the ideological spectrum).

The catalyst for this essay was an exchange on Colorado Confluence’s Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence). The exchange captures much of what I’m talking about, and expands upon some of the ideas I’ve presented here, so I am reproducing it below. It started with my posting a link to this Economist article on the relationship between religion and politics in America (http://www.economist.com/node/21548964) accompanied by this comment from me:

A nice summary of the disingenuity of Santorum’s remark about people of faith being banished from the public square (which is both the opposite of the current reality, and not advocated by any mainstream public official past or present), and the complex relationship between faith and politics in America.

One thing the article doesn’t note is the tension between the “Free Exercise” and “Establishment” clauses of the First Amendment: Government can neither inhibit nor promote any particular religion, which leaves a very narrow band between the two in which to operate.

Many religious zealots in America, for instance, don’t realize that, while it is unconstitutional for a school to promote or sponsor prayer on school grounds, it is also unconstitutional for schools to prohibit prayer on school grounds, as long as it is done in a manner which does not disrupt the normal functioning of the school and does not appear to carry the “imprimatur” of the school (e.g., does not use the school PA system, or occur as a part of a school event). It is, of course, the right balance…, except for theocrats who don’t want freedom of religion but rather a tyranny of their own religion.

For more on religion, see “Is Religion a Force for Good?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=742), “A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2452), “Do Deities Defecate?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2504), and “Discourse, Diderot, and Deity” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1081).

A woman named Dina then commented “wow, drink the cool aid (sic) much?” This was my response:
Okay, I’ll bite. What Kool-Aid are we talking about? If we’re invoking cult leader Jim Jones and the mass suicide he orchestrated (which is where the term comes from), then it would make more sense to use it to refer to those who are defending dogmatic beliefs (particularly religious beliefs) against a commitment to a more open and moderate secularism. But such reversals of meaning, though ironic in the extreme, are also remarkably common.
She then replied, “”‘socialism,’ ‘secularism,’ let’s call the whole thing off!” To which I responded:
“Secularism” and “Socialism” are not the same thing. Our Constitution essentially guarantees a secular form of government by not only guaranteeing to each the freedom to practice their own religion (“The Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment) but also prohibiting government from favoring any one religion over others (“The Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment). For an ideological faction whose adherents generally fancy themselves the defenders of the Constitution, it’s remarkable how eager some members of that faction are to disregard and undermine that very same Constitution in both letter and spirit.

The word “socialism” has been applied very broadly, especially in service to a particular ideological agenda, to societies that are widely divergent in form. At one extreme are a group of societies that are characterized by autocratic, oligarchical governments that completely dismantle market economies and replace them with command economies. These have all been horrible failures. At the other extreme (in normal usage) are the “democratic socialist” countries such as some Scandinavian countries have at times been, and these have been by and large quite successful (robust economies, excellent quality of life, extensive individual rights, and far more equitable than average).

More generally, all modern developed nations are, in reality, a hybrid of robust market economies, popular sovereignty, large administrative states, a strong commitment to rule of law, and a thoroughly secular (non-religious) and civil (non-military) government. All nations that participated in the post-WWII economic boon were characterized by this combination of institutional qualities, bar none. To call them “socialism” would mean that the word “socialism” must be understood to encompass both a certain category of failed states, and the unique category of the most successful states in world history (i.e., all successful, fundamentally capitalist countries).

The point of using the word “socialism” to describe both is to obfuscate the fact that some of the states being so labelled comprise the entire set of modern prosperous, free nations on Earth, and to imply instead that all states so labelled actually belong to the set of failed states known by that label. In other words, it is an attempt to relabel all modern, prosperous, free nations as something other than what they are, and to pretend that a proposed extremist form that has never described any actual successful nation on Earth is what defines that category instead! It is a triumph of meaningless, cultish rhetoric over anything even vaguely resembling reality.

There are legitimate debates to be had about the issues that divide us, about the right balance between public investment in human and material infrastructure and laissez-faire market dynamics, about the degree to which we should be committed to maximizing equality of opportunity and how to go about it, about to what extent we should try to consider possible future consequences of current policies and to what extent we should focus exclusively on present outcomes, about, in general, what works and what doesn’t work, what best serves our liberty and prosperity and well-being and what doesn’t. My fondest hope and highest aspiration is that we become a nation that has those debates, as reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that none of has all of the answers, working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can; to be, in other words, a nation of people who decline to drink various flavors of “the Kool-Aid,” and choose to be thoughtful, open-minded, and constructive citizens instead.

The purpose of my blog, Colorado Confluence, and this Facebook page that links to it is to promote the application of reason and imagination to evidence and accumulated knowledge and understanding in service to humanity. All points of view, all arguments, are welcome. If you have an actual argument to make, please feel welcome to make it: Understanding and insight are served by robust debate (the opposite of “drinking of the Kool-aid” of insulated dogmas blindly adhered to). The informationless, unreasoning, and generally meaningless one-liners about “drinking the Kool-aid” of secularism (ironically completely inverting the meaning of the phrase), and equating “secularism” and “socialism” in a catchy cliche about “calling the whole thing off,” are modalities best suited to other kinds of forums, offered for other purposes.

That got her goat! Here’s how she replied:
well, I guess you told me, huh? I will leave the rest to your ‘enlightened’ state of mind! My point being that your insulting comments regarding the disingenuousness of Santorum feed into the rhetoric we hear everyday in the main stream media. There has been a war against Christianity in this country for decades..actually, around the entire world! Mr. Bloomberg in NYC should heed your words about the ‘imprematur-lessness (sic) of churches who have used public buildings for worship when school is not in session….Other public entities would be smart to heed these same words when they are insistent on shoving other religious tenets down our throats by installing foot washes and prayer rooms in their institutions! IMO, secularism and socialism go hand in hand and both ideas are ruining this great country…Our Forefathers must be turning in their graves! God Help the USA! Goodbye….
And, finally, my response to that:
The NYC law prohibiting the use of public schools for religious purposes is currently in the courts, where that balance between Free Exercise and non-Establishment will be struck. The main problem is that the congruency of non-school use days to some religious holy days and not others (Jewish and Christian, but not Islamic) may be construed as an implicit favoring of those religions that [have] their sabaths on the weekend. It’s a subtle question; my guess is that the courts will find that the NYC law is unconstitutional, and I would agree with that decision.

Your comments about the allowance of Islamic practices as well as Christian and Jewish, on an equal footing, merely goes to demonstrate your theocratic rather than constitutional orientation. Islam, according to our Constitution, is neither to be privileged nor discriminated against, and, if we fall short at all as a nation, it is in the latter rather than former error, one which you are determined to increase rather than decrease. You are of a mindset that Christianity should be privileged, and that the failure to do so is a failure of our national conviction. But that simply is not how our nation is Constituted. We are not a theocracy; we are a Constitutional Republic.

What’s most remarkable to me about her last comment was the equation of adhering to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, permitting and accommodating the free exercise of non-Judeo-Christian religions, with “shoving (those religions) down (the) throats” of those who don’t adhere to them! The notion that Christians in America are more discriminated against than Muslims, that Islam is “shoved down the throats” of Christians but that Christianity is just one religion among many, in no way privileged and in no way seeking to be, is so incredibly ludicrous, it simply boggles the imagination that anyone could argue such a position.

Our national debates aren’t over whether to permit Islamic and Christian religious imagery to co-exist, but rather whether to continue to privilege Christianity in the ways that it has been historically privileged, to use exclusively Christian imagery and language in official displays and communications relating to holidays and other religious events. It is not that these would-be theocrats want no religion shoved down anyone’s throat, but rather that they want their religion exclusively shoved down everyone’s throat!

This isn’t just an issue of religious zealotry and hypocricy and anti-constitutionalism pretending to be the opposite; it’s one example of the more fundamental divide in American politics, one which tracks the left-right divide to some extent but not exactly, one which is where our focus should be as we work on both ourselves as individuals and the nation and world to which we belong. That divide is between ideologies which favor irrationality over reason, and belligerent tribalism/sectarianism over a commitment to humanity. The solution is not to remain entrenched in the struggle to ensure that our own substantive certainties prevail over opposing substantive certainties, but rather to promote a greater and more widespread commitment to procedures and attitudes which systematically favor reason over irrationality, and humanity over various forms of bigotry and belligerence.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The one constant is change, but the speed and utility of change is not constant at all. Organizations emerge for the purpose of fomenting change, yet, as a general rule, they soon ossify in the same kinds of unimaginative patterns as the institutions they are seeking to affect. Significant change through the medium of established organizations and institutions is generally catalyzed by either those who are raised to positions of influence despite their failure to satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications, or those who act in ways not predicted by the fact that they satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications.

Human actions fall within a space one axis of which is defined by courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence at one extreme, and conventional choices striving for mediocrity or maintaining the status quo at the other. That axis alone does not describe the quality or efficacy of individual actions: Courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence that are made in service to an odious ideology, or that are in some other way misinformed, may well do more harm than good, whereas conventional choices striving for mediocrity may make valuable marginal contributions to human welfare. But, while caution, analytical sophistication, foresightedness and respect for uncertainty, and subtlety of insight and strategy are necessary variables to render courageous and creative innovation a positive rather than negative force, the absence of courageous and creative innovation guarantees suboptimal outcomes.

Several recent experiences have raised this to the fore of my mind: A program director position for an educational reform foundation that I applied for, and would have done a truly exceptional job in, that I failed to get because an unimaginative vice president was looking for candidates that satisfied the more superficial and easily acquired criteria for the job rather than the more profound and harder to duplicate criteria of greater importance; other nonprofit positions filled by decision makers similarly focused on superficial and less salient criteria; an alternative school led by a robust and idealistic principal who may prove to be an exception to this “rule;” a widespread insistence, across the ideological spectrum, to cling to conventional modes of thought and conventional strategies and conceptualizations of political activism, rather than to reach down a bit deeper and attempt to foment truly fundamental change instead.

The most profound lesson of human history is the robustness of social change, the degree to which that which is taken for granted as a permanent feature of our consciousness and our social institutional landscape is truly ephemeral, and can and does change far more rapidly and dramatically than those living in their own time and place are wont to realize. It is true, of course (as discussed in The Variable Malleability of Reality) that some things are easier to change than others; that smart strategies identify what aspects of our current reality are more malleable in order to massage our encompassing social (and natural) systems in ways which move us in desired directions. But it is also true (as discussed inThe Algorithms of Complexity) that that layered complexity, in which deeper levels are generally less malleable than more superficial ones,  provides frequent opportunities for rapid, dramatic change, when some of the underlying “algorithms” are actually fairly malleable. The art and science of participating in history in socially responsible and “ambitious” ways involves recognizing and reconciling these two aspects of the challenge at hand.

It’s time for a new social movement that confronts this challenge head-on, and does so with a commitment to doing so as rationally and imaginatively and compassionately as possible. I’ve outlined one general proposal for organizing such a movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and in the other essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. (In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts can be found essays exploring the nature of our social institutional and technological landscape, to better inform such efforts; and in some other boxes can be found specific applications and aspects of this analysis.)

The proposal has three components: 1) Non-partisan community organizations whose members agree to commit only to reason and universal goodwill, to listening to competing views, and to seeking the policies which best serve humanity; 2) A data base or internet portal making access to all arguments that are framed as analyses applying reason to evidence in service to human welfare, and that provide documentation for all factual evidence relied on, upon which such community organizations can draw for their discussions and debates; and 3) Something I call “meta-messaging” (see Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives): The emotionally and cognitively effective dissemination of the narrative that this is a good and worthy project, that it is good for individuals and good for society to view our shared existence as a shared existence with shared challenges and shared opportunities, that, as I like to put it, it’s better to be Ebenezer Scrooge after his adventure with Marley and the Three Spirits than before.

Such a movement depends on suspending substantive debates until they can be contextualized in the framework being advocated, because to do so would be to lose what cross-cutting appeal such a movement might have. While there are many who would never join such a movement, and never join the community organizations that are a part of it, there are many who would, including many who identify themselves as “conservatives” or “independents.”

This is not, and cannot be, a movement to overturn Citizens United, or a movement to increase public spending on social services and education, or a movement to achieve preconceived substantive goals of any kind, because to allow it to become so would be to defeat its purpose: To find and develop the one common ground all people who wish to be reasonable people of goodwill can agree on, and that is that we all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that we don’t know all of the answers, wise enough to engage in a public discourse devoted to doing the best we can, and disciplined enough to develop new procedures and new institutions that help us to work together as reasonable people of goodwill confronting the challenges of a complex and subtle world.

What we need more fundamentally and more critically than to achieve any of the individual, ideologically saturated substantive goals that divide us is to rediscover and develop our common ground, the underlying values and aspirations that most of us share, and the procedurally and attitudinally focused framework that we can create to pursue them more constructively and cooperatively. There are many people in America who are sick of the divisive, angry, excessively intransigent political rhetoric which dominates our public forums and airwaves, who would flock to a movement that steps back from that and tries, instead, to establish another kind of public discourse, another kind of political participation. This is a movement to bring them in, and move us forward.

That means letting go of the rituals of warring false certainties, and coming together instead around a common acknowledgement of shared uncertainty and fallibility. It’s time for all who are willing to make that leap of daring idealism, of courageous commitment to doing better, of believing in our humanity, to do so. We can continue to reproduce the unimaginative and unproductive ritual of over-confident warring false certainties, or to work together to create something new and vibrant and potentially revolutionary. As always, we each get to choose how daring and imaginative and conscious, and therefore how effective, our commitment to progress really is.

We have a lot of work to do. All reasonable people of goodwill have a lot of work to do. It’s not enough to groan, to bemoan, to talk or even walk, to vote and encourage others to vote, to protest or rally or lobby or canvass, to organize for specific goals, to engage in rituals and contribute to the noise of a very noisy world. It’s not enough to write, or implore, or contemplate, or engage others. We need to take action; a very specific kind of action; a less familiar and, for many, less emotionally gratifying kind of action; a less cathartic and more creative kind of action; a less ritualistic and more conscious kind of action; a less well-trod and more innovative kind of action.

The first step is to know that we can do much, much better. I don’t mean we could do better if only we beat the political opposition at the polls, or that we could do better if only others saw the world the way we do and joined us in our efforts to create a kinder, gentler, saner world. I mean that those of us who claim to believe in our collective potential to improve the human condition can do much better at translating that belief into results. That’s not something that depends on any superficial panacea saving us from a very deeply entrenched status quo, or on any sudden mass change of consciousness (that, in truth, it is our challenge to catalyze and cultivate), but rather on the discipline and commitment of those who share a general vision and goal, in service to that vision and goal. 

First of all, I shy away from using the term “progressive,” because, while among existing political ideological orientations, that is clearly the one I align with, and clearly the closest to being the force for moving in the direction of being a kinder, gentler, saner world, it falls woefully short, and leaves behind some who might join us in this effort, while being overtaken by others who are as much an obstruction to moving in the direction of becoming a kinder, gentler, wiser world as our ideological opposites are.

We need a movement within and beyond the progressive movement that commits to something many progressives have not committed to, and some conservatives would: To leave behind the false certainties, the overwrought commitment to oversimplified panaceas, the ancient tribal impulse to reduce the world to the “good guys” that are us and the “bad guys” that are them, and commit instead to disciplined reason and universal goodwill alone as the ultimate goals and underlying means of all that we do.

That doesn’t mean, as some people always insist on interpreting it to mean, that this is advocacy for always being “nicey-nice” and never taking firm stands for or against specific positions, even engaging in “hardball” politics in service to those stands. (Indeed, there are many who accuse me of the opposite error, of not being “nicey-nice” enough in public discourse, of “bullying” people, either with my intellect or my “flowery, condescending bullshit,” depending on their disposition toward me. While I am not claiming that I always get it right, I am claiming that there are definitely times to “bully” people with one’s intellect, or, as I like to put it, to make arguments so compelling that those who find them inconvenient are made uncomfortable by the difficulty of refuting them.) Those are determinations that must be made in the context of the kind of comprehensive analysis, holistic vision, and disciplined commitment to them that I am advocating. Nor does it mean that this vision is meant to (or possibly could) displace the current and familiar popular political landscape, with all of its oversimplifications, precipitous manias, and narrow interests or visions. I discuss below how these two visions and orientations, one of strident advocacy for passionately held views, and the other for cultivating a broader and more accommodating commitment to reason and goodwill in both the form and substance of our political advocacy, can coexist.

Rather, this is the articulation of a higher ideal, a more conscious and restrained and aspirational political and cultural movement, to which people who aspire to the creation of a kinder, gentler, and saner world can invest some or all of their energy, either while engaging in other more familiar political movements that also appeal to them and capture their imaginations and their motivations, or (as might be the case for some few) as their primary or only vehicle for social change.

I had, not long ago, developed one specific blueprint for what such a movement could look like (see, e.g., Transcendental Politics, A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). The specific blueprint developed in these essays is not the subject of this one. Our efforts to create this new “transcedental politics,” this more disciplined and humble and wise commitment to working toward a positive vision of what can be rather than against all of the windmill-dragons populating our ideologically saturated realities, can take what form it will, but it must begin with a commitment to it, and an organized effort to cultivate this new species of activism so that might flourish amidst the flora and fauna of the current political ecosystem.

Many of the essays I wrote in the course of developing and fleshing out my “politics of reason and goodwill” are iterations of the same theme of this one, such as The Ultimate Political Challenge, Second-Order Social Change, “A Theory of Justice”, The Foundational Progressive Agenda , The Politics of Anger, The Politics of Kindness, The Power of “Walking the Walk”, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, The Heart of Politics, A Call To Minds & Hearts & Souls, Politics & Social Change, Changing The Narrative, Cluster Liberals v. Network Liberals, Realizing Human Potential, The Loss of Humanity, Getting Off The Political Treadmill, and An Argument for Reason and Humility. Though there is undoubtedly considerable redundancy laced throughout these essays, it is my hope that together they, somewhat haphazardly and inefficiently, carve out a well-defined and increasingly detailed vision of how to do better, of what it means to do better, and of what it requires of each of us who wish to help change the world for the better.

The keys to this vision for progress are two-fold: 1) We need to cultivate within ourselves and within whatever organizations we create committed to this vision the humility, wisdom, and universal goodwill that must inform it, and make those values a discipline that we actively pursue, both within ourselves as individuals and throughout all social fields to which we belong; and 2)  we need to explore, in depth and with precision, the nature of the social institutional and cognitive landscape that is the field within which we are operating, applying the knowledge gained to the challenge of affecting that landscape in desired ways. (For my nascent contribution to that second component, see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)

 The articulation of these two aspects of what I’ll now refer to as “Transcendental Politics” is one of the challenges I have only barely waded into. It’s clear that they are closely bound together, in numerous ways, and that the discovery of the conceptual threads that weave them into a single whole will be an exciting and gratifying enterprise. I alluded to some of the connections in The Dance of Consciousness, The Algorithms of Complexity, and undoubtedly in other essays as well: They revolve around the fact that we are both participants in, and elements of, the social institutional/technological/cognitive landscape that we are simultaneously operating through and trying to affect. These are not too distinct spheres of reality, as we so often pretend they are, but rather one; recognizing that, and acting on the basis of that recognition, is a cornerstone of Transcendental Politics. (I have just recently bought a book, “Spiral Dynamics,” recommended to me by a friend, that purports to address precisely this dimension of the challenge, to develop a leadership and social movement/social change paradigm based on, essentially, the evolutionary ecology paradigm of our shared social institutional/technological/cognitive landscape.)

Transcendental Politics is one specimen of a larger, already defined category, referred to as “Transformational Politics,” which is political action designed not just to win battles within the current paradigm, but to change that paradigm as well. Transcendental Politics specifies a very precise kind of transformational goal, one which relies less on assumption and more on analysis, is more dedicated to humanity, all things considered, and less to narrower goals that conflict with that global goal on closer examination. It is a transformation that discourages stridency and encourages thoughtfulness and civil discourse informed by humility. It is, in short, the politics of reason and goodwill (leavened with imagination and compassion), pursued with Discipline & Purpose.

Part of what is to be transcended is the level of analysis on which the current ideological dichotomy defining the contemporary partisan divide is to be found (see A Tale of Two Movements). While both contentions are true to varying degrees and in varying ways (the Right is correct that there is a very salient agency problem embedded in any reliance on government to order our lives, and the Left is correct that corporate power, particularly over the political process, has reached crisis proportions), neither dynamic is as simple as its staunchest advocates imagine, and neither lies at the core of what is obstructing progress. (Admittedly, like peeling away the layers of an onion, the core itself may be ever-elusive, but part of the project of Transcendental Politics is to focus on the peeling back of layers to find the ever-more fundamental issues to address, and to eschew the self-satisfied belief that complex issues require no further analysis once a position has been taken. See The Algorithms of Complexity; or The Wizards’ Eye for a fictionalized representation of the dynamic.)

Transcendental Politics involves digging beneath these issues, recognizing the elements of truth in them, but also the utility of the institutions being critically analyzed, and eschewing the manias of obsessive exaggeration and oversimplification. Transcendental Politics requires us to embrace rather than scoff at the habit of qualifying assertions, identifying exceptions and conditions and variability, and, in general, declining to reduce the world to pithy soundbites in favor of exploring the world in all of its subtlety and complexity. To paraphrase the former Colorado (and now Wisconsin) political journalist Adam Schrager, quoting his father, Transcendental Politics favors thinking and speaking in commas and question marks over periods and exclamation points.

Stridency doesn’t exclude anyone from participating in advocacy of Transcendental Politics, or joining any groups that may emerge to implement it, though the stridency itself is excluded. There are times to be strident, and we each use our own judgment to determine when that time has come for us, though, on average, I would say we err on leaping to stridency too quickly rather than refraining from it too often. (For instance, I recently became very strident in an exchange on Facebook, with a bunch of right-wing evangelicals preaching anti-Muslim attitudes, calling for an attitude of prejudice and policies of discrimination toward all Muslims residing in the United States. I found their attitude so reprehensible, so horrifyingly familiar, that, while composing powerful arguments designed to increase the difficulty of rationalizing their bigotry, I also declined to mince words in my characterization of their position. See “Sharianity” for my depiction of their position.)

Many of my fellow progressives are strident about things I choose not to be, and am less convinced merit it. The governmental and police responses to “Occupy” protesters, for instance, while certainly sometimes excessive and counterproductive (and therefore deserving of very clear criticism), seem to me to be embedded in a more complex and nuanced challenge of balancing legitimate needs to enforce laws designed to protect the public health and safety with the need to limit the freedoms of speech and assembly (especially political speech and assembly) to the slightest degree practicable. It is an issue in which there is an inevitable balance to be struck (even if it is not currently being struck in the right place), and therefore an issue in which stridency is to be avoided.

But if an individual, on careful consideration, and in full consciousness, determines that, by their judgment, the issue of overzealous and overly violent enforcement of marginal laws, against political protesters generally not engaging in any serious misconduct of any kind, is an issue worthy of strident condemnation, that’s not a judgment I am in any position to say is “wrong.” I can only say that, since such determinations are a matter of personal judgment, and since one goal of Transcendental Politics is to increase our thoughtfulness and reduce our stridency in general, both my stridency toward those anti-Islamic xenophobes on Facebook, and others’ toward overzealous police action toward the “Occupy” protesters, should be left in the arena of conventional political discourse (where we all will still be participating as well), and removed from the attempt to transcend it.

In fact, people who are stridently opposed to one another on some or all issues might find a venue in which to discuss underlying aspects of those issues in a different way, if some of them at some times share the basic commitment required of participation in Transcendental Politics: That of striving to be reasonable people of goodwill working together to confront the complex and subtle challenges of life on Earth. To enter that new venue, we take off our hats of issue advocacy, and put on our hat of tolerance and acceptance. We do not have to worry that we are tolerating and accepting something intolerable and unacceptable by doing so, because we have not forsaken the other hat of passionate advocacy on that issue. But we can rejoice that we have, without giving anything up, opened up a channel through which reason and goodwill might have more opportunity to gain more purchase on more hearts and minds.

Transcendental Politics is about reducing the entrenchment of mutual antagonism, and increasing the commitment to reason and goodwill. It is about reducing irrationality and belligerence, and increasing consciousness in both thought and action. It is about moving from a politics that reproduces and reinforces our folly toward a politics that liberates us from and gradually transcends that folly. It is about growing as human beings, as individuals and as societies, and reaching toward higher and more life-affirming expressions of our humanity.

My role, thus far, has, for the most part, been to articulate this vision and try to rally others to it. (I have made some organizational attempts as well, such as trying to form my own community organization as part of that component of my “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” project, and engaging, both professionally and avocationally, in a multitude of public interest advocacy efforts. I developed this project, beyond my writings here, in the context of a Colorado Leaders Fellowship, with the Center for Progressive Leadership, outlining a long-term plan for bringing it to fruition. I also sent out hundreds of packets to political and civic leaders in Colorado, describing my specific project to them, looking for support and funding. However, despite all of that, I have not yet done enough to take these ideas across the threshold from the drawing board into implementation.) But, while social progress is always urgent, and millions suffer every day from our failures to address the challenges we face more effectively, instantaneous success is rarely an option.

This is not something one individual can make happen on his or her own. We often look to leadership to lead us, and lament its failure to do so, but, in the end, we should lament most of all our own failures to step up to the plate, and become leaders ourselves, leaders in our families and communities, leaders in our organizations and professions, leaders in our thoughts and actions (see What is Leadership?). None of us should wait for someone else to make this happen; we each should take action ourself to make it happen, to move it forward, to spread this meme and this paradigm, to help it insinuate itself into our cognitive landscape, and, from there, into our social institutional landscape.

If this is a vision you share, or one that you believe has a vital place in our social field, then please, step forward and say, “yes, I want to be a part of this.” Email me with an expression of your interest (even if you have done so already, please do so again: steve.harvey.hd28@gmail.com). Let’s start a dialogue around it, a continuing effort on all of our parts to transform our world for the better, not by raising our fists and expressing our rage, but by raising our consciousness and expressing our humanity.

We are capable of accomplishing so much together (see, e.g., Public Entrepreneurialism and Gaia & Me). But it takes more than a wish and some words. It takes commitment. Let’s not lament our failure to transform this world for the better to the extent that we know we are able to; let’s, instead, rejoice in our commitment to doing so, and act on that commitment with a renewed sense of determination and indomitability.

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One would think that such a title could only be given to an attempt at humor, for how could such a question ever be taken seriously? But, though humor may well be the highest form of human discourse, I’m not attempting it today. Today, I am using the following absurd line of reasoning as a springboard into a steam of thought: If “man is made in God’s image,” and that image (i.e., form) is one that defecates, then why wouldn’t God defecate as well?

The perhaps tasteless title of this essay is meant as a portal into a labyrinth of questions and contemplations about the nature of the divine and its relationship to both the physical universe and to human beings. Given that one large swathe of humanity has anthropomorphized our gods since at least the days of Homer and Hesiod, it seems reasonable to ask: Just exactly how anthropomorphic are they? The Greek (and other Indo-European) gods, for instance, were not so transcendent that they didn’t squabble and feud, engage in petty jealousies and vendettas, and in general act very much as ordinary humans do, albeit with a bit more bite to their bark. Yahweh, the direct prototype of our own Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, was prone to fits of anger and, certainly in the case of Job, enjoyed playing cruel mind-games to test the loyalty of his followers.

If we are “made in God’s image,” and that image includes some traits that go beyond the mere superficial appearance, then where, exactly, is the line drawn? And if at some place that someone would be willing to point to, why there?

This isn’t meant, as it may appear at first glance, to denigrate religious beliefs, or trivialize the concept that forms the core of this particular inquiry (i.e., the posited self-similarity of deity and human being). I have indeed argued so robustly against dogmatic atheism (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization) that the person arguing the opposite point of view became quite upset with me, and, prior to that, made a similar argument in “Is Religion A Force For Good?”. I have also previously posited my own theory about the human “resemblance” to god in terms of a particular conceptualization of “consciousness,” which may be in part (in one of its forms) understandable as mutating and proliferating packets of information competing for reproductive success (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). (More broadly, this particular conceptualization of consciousness identifies it as the underlying fabric of the almost infinitely complex and subtle systemicness of nature.)

To be clear, I neither praise nor condemn religion per se. I praise imaginative, disciplined, compassionate wonder, and condemn dogmatic, divisive, destructive false certainty. It doesn’t matter to me whether the former takes the form of religion, nor whether the latter takes the form of secular ideology (or atheism itself). We see the defects of dogma in realms far removed from religion, and too often too close to home. Not only do we see it in a nationalistic American ideology which can justify any degree of violence toward any number or type of “other,” but also among those who claim to oppose this error. There are too many on the Left as well as the Right who have turned their ideology into just another blind dogma, and rally to it as just one more incarnation of the tribalistic impulse against which progressivism should most staunchly stand.

Returning to the title question, if god and humans share a form, why wouldn’t gods defecate? And if gods don’t defecate, what does it mean that “man is made in (their) image”? Isn’t it a bit bizarre to think that God merely has some human-like form or appearance, without anything beneath the image? One would think that God would be more, rather than less, “substantial” than a human being, more than an empty image, more than a mere shell of the organic replica, more than a facade encasing nothing.

Ironically, it is less the facade which is similar, than the processes which that facade encompasses. Humans are less the physical image of God than the functional image of God, an echo of an echo of the fabric of “consciousness” that forms the coherent universe, creating new echos of its own (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). By embracing this step away from the literal and toward the literary, we open up the beautiful imagery and insight of all the world’s religions, reaping their allegorical wisdom without becoming entangled in their thorny vines of blind dogma and irrational reductionism.

Before I answer the title question, I must be explicit about what I mean by “deities.” In this context, deities are our representations of the natural superordinate systemic layers of manifested consciousness that comprise our universe. The god or gods imagined to be the creator of life on Earth is our representation of the process of evolution, a process which preceded, produced, and is the prototype of our own human consciousness. Our imagery representing the complex dynamical systems of which the universe is comprised, always more complex and subtler than our minds can grasp, are the deities that populate that universe, that we fruitfully imagine and conceptualize not just in terms of our reductionist sciences, but also in our metaphors and stories and awe-inspired incarnations, allowing our minds to grasp aspects of that wonderful sublime systemic complexity in ways that elude mathematical models and cause-and-effect paradigms. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus not on the imagery we use, but on the systems it represents.

With this definition of “deity” in mind, and for no good reason other than to let the question continue to act as an enzyme on our mind, we can answer the title question. On one level, deities both do and don’t “defecate,” because deities both are and aren’t like human beings. Lacking a literal human body with a literal human digestive system, they do not engage in an identical process of waste discharge that humans do. But, being systems in the fractal organization of nature, of which we are a self-similar set of sub-strata, they engage in analogs of our process of defecation. Natural systems are open systems, parts of larger systems, a tangle of overlapping and encompassing processes in which the outputs of one form the in-puts for another. Just as human (more generally, animal) feces provides food and fertilizer for other organisms, so too does the Earth itself take in enormous meals of energy from the Sun, and emit into space that which passed through its systemic processes.

On another level, it might be argued that the universe is by definition a closed system, and that therefore it can emit no waste that is taken up by larger or external systems. So, while deities may defecate, one might argue that the deity, the monotheistic God, doesn’t.

Of course, these “answers” to the title question aren’t really what matter (nor are they particularly meaningful; any “answer” that followed similar thought processes would be just as accurate and useful); the attitude and habit of looking at the world and universe from a variety of different and novel angles are. Asking the question is what matters, even though the question itself is superficially trivial and ridiculous, because we pry open our understandings not by staying locked into the familiar and normal, but by finding unfamiliar and uncharted mental paths down which to wander and wonder.

At core, the title question is a whimsical version of a more basic and familiar question: Where is the line between the spiritual and material, the sacred and mundane? I think that the highest forms of spirituality erase that line, and instead see everything as divine, nothing as mundane. All lives are a glorious story, all of nature an expression of that ubiquitous consciousness that we cast as God or gods or animistic spirits or the Tao…. All of our tools for exploring it, including both our robust and far-reaching imaginations and our more anchored, disciplined processes of applying reason to evidence, can and should articulate into one single enterprise.

The more we, as individuals and in groups, can gravitate toward this realization, toward a disciplined commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and humility all in service to human welfare, and, even if only by extension, therefore to the welfare of this wonderful planet on which we live, the more surely we will move forward into the far brighter future we are capable of creating together.

The obstacles to this are enormous and ubiquitous, within each of us and throughout our national and regional societies. Here in America, a political and cultural force that has long festered has taken one of its most concentrated forms in opposition to this vision of who we are and who and what we can be, clinging instead to a divisive and regressive set of dogmatic convictions, and, by doing so, struggling to drag us all down against those of us struggling to lift us all up. It is an old story with a new veneer, humanity being humanity’s own worst enemy, inflicting on ourselves a tragedy born only of small minds, hardened hearts, and shriveled imaginations.

But there is another force among us more insidious than this movement of organized ignorance and belligerence which inflicts such suffering on us, that is an unwitting partner to it, more similar than different when examined closely: It is non-engagement, indifference, a recoiling from the challenge of confronting the obstacles to our collective welfare, whether in terror or despair or just due to a lack of will. Those who simply live their own lives and let the currents of human history sweep them along are complicit in the suffering and injustice inflicted by those more explicitly motivated by ultra-individualistic and ultra-nationalistic (and anti-intellectual, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and just generally hateful and destructive) ideologies, because in both cases it is a case of people rejecting our shared purpose, our shared humanity, our interdependence and shared responsibility to one another.

So, just as “all roads lead to Rome,” all questions (even “Do Deities Defecate?”) lead to one answer: We are challenged, individually and collectively, to exercise our imaginations, our reason, our compassion, our humility, and our will in disciplined and dedicated service to humanity, in service to this wonderful Consciousness of which we are a part, living with minds and hearts and hands reaching ever farther into the essence of what is in order to cultivate in that fertile soil the endlessly wonderful garden of human existence.

And may the deities continue to defecate on it….

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The title quote by Harvard professor Jill Lapore during an excellent roundtable discussion on This Week With Christiane Amanpour captures the meta-argument that we all have to divert some small portion of our attention to: The argument between any one faction’s absolutism, on the one hand, and the continued dialectic of competing views reconciled through formal and informal procedural mechanisms on the other.

Each of us will feel a stronger affinity for one or another of the arguments presented in the discussion linked to above, and insist that that argument represents the one absolute truth. But recognizing that the debate itself is the essence of our freedom, and the life blood of our popular sovereignty, is the shared recognition to which we must all return, allowing the tension between foundational principles and our lived history to be played out within the crucible of a vibrant constitutional democracy.

In other words, those who insist that the growth in power of our federal government over the course of American history -starting with the drafting of our Constitution (which strengthened the federal government over the failed Articles of Confederation), and playing out through The Civil War (which ended the disintegrative cesessionist/nullificationist version of States Rights doctrine as a reality of our national existence), continuing with The New Deal, and sailing on into the present- is a betrayal of our Constitution, and those who feel that it is the realization of our national history through the framework of our Constitution, both have to realize that their voice is not the only voice, their view is not the only view, and this dialogue we are having is the hallmark of our success as a nation and a society.

I am more concerned about those on both sides of this and related debates who are adamant that their own dogmatic false certainties are the one and only Truth than I am about those who disagree with me, but have the humility to realize that none of us have the final answers, and that all of us are participating in an on-going endeavor.

As a progressive, I am not determined to force my particular substantive certainties down the throats of others, but to engage both those who agree and those who disagree in a process which favors reason and goodwill, and disfavors blind dogma and angry fanaticism. I have enough faith in what I believe to be true that I am willing to subject it to such a test, and enough humility to know that I prefer the outcome of that test to the blind dominance of what  I currently believe to be true.

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