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Cognitive scientist George Lakoff (among others) confirmed (in The Political Mind) what we all have long known: People are not particularly “rational” in the old, Enlightenment sense of the word. We aren’t primarily persuaded by good arguments, but rather by good narratives, swayed more effectively by appeals to emotion than by appeals to reason.

Many of us are familiar with the frustrating futility of mobilizing a well-informed and well-reasoned argument in public discourse, only to have it crash impotently against the shoals of blind and inflexible ideology. We are not engaged in a rational national debate, but rather in a national competition of narratives.

This perspective defines a set of guiding principles for those committed to reason, humility, and humanity:

1) That we engage in this competition of narratives very consciously and strategically;

2) that one cornerstone of that strategy be the recognition that it is a competition of narratives, not sound bites, and that therefore sound bites should be used to invoke larger narratives rather than to reinforce the ritual of superficial political jousting;

3) that we should always anchor policy arguments in larger, consistent and coherent narratives, and make every policy debate an instance in that larger competition of narratives;

4) that our overarching narrative should be that we are the champions of reason and humanity (or reason in service to humanity);

5) that we use well-informed and well-reasoned arguments not just (or even primarily) for their own sake, but also as a constant reinforcement of the narrative that we are champions of reason and humanity;

6) that we strive to be, and to appear to be, the reasonable people of goodwill in every interaction, refraining as much as possible from ad hominem attacks and angry rants, avoiding the exploitation of trivialities, and instead arguing our positions calmly and reasonably and compellingly, not just through logical, empirical argumentation, but also through emotionally compelling metaphors and analogies and real life stories;

7) that we emphasize the importance of how we think rather than what we think, of procedures and attitudes rather than substantive conclusions, because the former is the algorithm that determines the latter –cultivating greater commitment to reason and compassion in the determination of specific policy positions should be our core agenda; and

8) that we suggest in every argument that none of us has all the answers, that oneself (the reasonable person of goodwill speaking or writing in that moment) might be wrong on some or all matters, and that what we most need as a people is for as many of us as possible, of all ideological inclinations, to agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world.

I’ve discussed various aspects of this in various other essays, ranging from the examination of the dynamics of our cognitive landscape (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, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix) to the importance of “walking the walk” (see. e.g., The Power of “Walking the Walk”, The Ultimate Political Challenge, The Foundational Progressive Agenda, and The Politics of Kindness) to what I call “meta-messaging,” which is the communication and dissemination of the underlying narrative of reason and humanity (see. e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives and “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few).

The underlying narrative of reason and humanity (or reason in service to humanity) generates more specific narratives by answering the question “what does reason, inspired by and leavened by imagination and empathy, applied to evidence reliably derived, suggest are the best policies for humanity?” That question doesn’t eliminate debate, but rather frames it, and those who want to argue positions that don’t purport to answer it can be directly challenged by the narrative itself.

(It’s possible to narrow the underlying narrative for particular audiences, if one element of it seems to unpalatable to that audience, particularly changing “humanity” to “the American national/public interest.” And it’s generally recommended to frame the narrative in different ways for different audiences, down to choosing the vocabulary that most resonates with that audience.)

As a result, there are many economic, constitutional/legal, moral, and other social systemic components and sub-components to this underlying narrative. There is, in fact, an entire corpus of economic, constitutional and legal, moral, and other social systemic arguments that are generated by the underlying narrative, each of which must be converted into narratives of their own, using compelling metaphors and analogies, and emotionally evocative real life stories, but always referring back to the well-informed and well-reasoned arguments, not so much for their own inherent persuasive value, but more for their value as a constant signification of being reasonable people, members of a movement defined by reason in service to humanity.

The opposing narrative, which frames itself in terms of “Christian values” or “Liberty” or “Patriotism” (or, to be fair, some parallel left-wing ideological reductions) is, in the frame of our narrative, “irrationality in service to inhumanity” (by definition, since that which opposes “reason in service to humanity” is its opposite). Most often, it relies on some stagnant, historically produced dogma, degrading those that are vital parts of our institutional framework in one way or another (e.g., Judeo-Christian morality, constitutional law, and fundamental economic principles) into false idols that undermine both the reason and the humanity of adherents (e.g., fundamentalist religious bigotry and brutality, “constitutional idolatry” and ideologically skewed and dogmatic interpretation, and selection of a preferred archaic economist whose doctrine rationalizes the preferred ideological convictions).

The more we succeed in framing our national political ideological debate as a debate between these two narratives, the more we will attract people with the weakest current ideological convictions, because, all other things being equal, more people are likely to be attracted to (that is, wish to be identified with) the narrative of “reason in service to humanity” than the narrative of “irrationality in service to inhumanity.”

I will begin working, at least from time to time, on composing and compiling a series of essays which systematically develops the component narratives of “reason in service to humanity.” Much of the corpus of work on this blog already, haphazardly, serves that purpose, and perhaps the project will include linking to previous posts in new ones that focus more specifically on this aspect of my project.

(There have been several great “meta-messagers” of history. Ben Franklin and Charles Dickens come to mind as two prominent examples of people who intentionally created and published parables and other literary works for this purpose, to move the zeitgeist, to cultivate a cognitive and emotional orientation. The power of their work is widely recognized, but it was the power of individuals working on their own, to make their own marginal contribution. Imagine the power of an organized effort focused on precisely this modality, producing, compiling, and disseminating messages in a coordinated way to cultivate a commitment to reason in service to humanity. It has been tried before, many times, but never, to my knowledge, with quite the same explicit political focus as I am recommending now.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The shared human enterprise is multidimensional. Its various dimensions don’t exist in mutual isolation. Each dimension implicates all others. Human efforts and developments within the various dimensions need to articulate with human efforts and developments in all others. Politics can’t be considered without considering economics, and economics can’t be considered without considering technological developments. None can be considered without considering the production and dissemination of ideas and values and understandings and techniques (and the emotional reactions to them), in short, of human cognitions (including emotions).

The evolution of our social institutional and technological landscape is the overarching theme of human history. Wealth is produced and distributed, ideas created and disseminated, wars sparked and fought, buildings designed and built, political forms and processes developed, all due to and through and as an expression and producer of our ever changing social institutional and technological context.

Technological developments pose both opportunities and challenges. They provide new ways, new tools with which, to produce wealth and address problems. But they also create new problems of their own.

The Economist magazine recently provided a glimpse into the immediate future, by exploring some cutting-edge technologies of the present (see http://www.economist.com/node/21552901). Perhaps the most striking aspect of the package of new technologies changing the face of manufacturing is the 3-D printer:

3-D printing is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of “digital manufacturing,” which in turn is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of what can be called an “information technological revolution.” We all are aware of it, but we don’t always incorporate that awareness into our more generalized understandings and strategies. The fact is that the rapid developments in information technologies (i.e., the set of technological innovations that includes computers, the internet, and mobile communications devices that now are hand-held communications and information processing instruments) is transforming our world, and will continue to do so, in dazzlingly dramatic ways.

The impact of this IT Revolution isn’t just that everyone has or soon will have an i-phone, hooked into a global network of thought and information access. It is also that the more generalized processes of conceptualization, communication, creation, development, production and distribution of cognitive material and all of its products is undergoing a major paradigm shift that has deep structural implications that will ripple and reverberate throughout the social institutional and technological landscape in acceleratingly transformative ways.

We’ve seen the first salvos of the political implications in “The Arab Spring” and other geopolitical events and transformations in recent years, with autocratic governmental control of information flows (and thus of populations in general) being eroded by the IT Revolution. We’ve seen it in our own political system, with political organizing and fund-raising and networking enhanced by new tools which favor those who most rapidly become most adept at their utilization (see, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). We’ve seen it in science and scholarship, starting with the development of “Chaos Theory” in the early days of modern computers, and growing from there into an accelerating transformation of our understanding of the nature of the world of which we are a part (including the evolutionary ecology of the social institutional and technological landscape itself; see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

Now we are seeing it in how we create, produce, and distribute the material manifestations of human existence, the machines and commodities and, in general, the “stuff” of our lives.

What does this all mean for those of us who are most consciously engaged in the human enterprise, who are committed to working with others similarly committed to do the best we can in service to humanity? It means we need to start thinking in new ways, ready to utilize new tools. We need to develop new paradigms that incorporate all of this massive information, these massive changes in the processes that comprise our shared existence, this threshold through which we are passing, and address the future not just as an economic challenge narrowly conceived (as some do), and not just as a technological challenge narrowly conceived (as others do), and not just as a political challenge narrowly conceived (as still others do), and not just as a scientific or scholarly challenge narrowly conceived (as still others more do), but as an integrated challenge incorporating all of these together.

One of the lagging components of the paradigm shift we are undergoing (perhaps always the lagging component in all historical paradigm shifts) is the intentional or organic integration of its various parts for maximum human benefit (see, for instance, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve, for a discussion of the need to better integrate and articulate the products of our scholarship across disciplines). This is where the crucial challenge lies: How do we gather together these various threads of thought and innovation, and synthesize and channel them most effectively for human benefit?

One of the common threads emerging from the IT Revolution is coherent decentralization. Our ability to publish, network, and organize (social media and the blogosphere), to be vigilant (see Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), to raise funds (see Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”), and political and economic collaboration in general (see Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed). But it’s not just augmented multi-lateral communications in play, but simultaneously augmented information processing (e.g., the data analysis function of computer technology), and now, the direct translation of information into its physical manifestations (i.e., production and construction). 3-D printers enable anyone anywhere to manipulate the design of an object digitally, integrating mass production and custom design into a single technology, and to manufacture that object remotely, for anyone else anywhere else, on demand.

One of the central implications of our current technological trajectory is that the demand for human labor will be increasingly a demand for highly trained, technically proficient, information-intensive labor. Humans will be more and more relegated to doing the tasks for which humans have –and will long have– a unique comparative advantage over any devices we can invent, and that is in our highest levels of cognitive functioning, in our imaginations and creativity, in our unique human consciousness. Increasingly, developing that consciousness as something more than a set of mechanical skills that can be sold on the labor market will not only be what feeds our souls, but also what imbues us with what will increasingly be the only asset for which there will be a future demand on that same labor market: Brilliant, imaginative, inventive, creative minds.

There will never be a shortage of opportunities for minds thus developed, but there will increasingly be a shortage of opportunities for everyone else. In a society and world where we haven’t yet met the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of the past century, meeting the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of this imminent and in many ways already present future poses an urgent, imperative challenge to us as a society.

This is nothing less than a revolution in the speed and agility of our technologically augmented collective consciousness, and in the speed and agility of our ability to translate that consciousness into action and objects, into wealth and welfare, into opportunity and the accelerating realization of human potential. But it also poses daunting challenges, challenges in how we prepare people to contribute to and participate in this production of wealth, and how we cope with the inequities and inhumanities that will result to the extent of our failure to do so.

There is so much dazzling new cognitive material currently flourishing in our shared cognitive landscape, a garden of possibilities bearing rich new fruits to be picked. But it is through their constant cross-fertilization, through the interweaving of their various vines, that the richest and most abundant fruits will be produced. The future is hanging low on the boughs of human consciousness, of imagination and innovation. We need to stop waiting for its fruits to fall on us of their own accord, and reach up and grap them with conscious intent and design, because, by doing so, we increase their value and quantity. When it comes to human consciousness and all of its products, it is through the act and intentionality of harvesting it that we most effectively cultivate it.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

…but everything is politics.

On the one hand, the almost exclusive focus of highly engaged, intentionally political activity is electoral politics and governmental decision making proper. On the other hand, the implicit recognition of the paramount importance of public opinion pervades that same narrowly conceived arena. The hot-button issues of campaign finance reform and corporate power, for instance, are firmly rooted in that implicit recognition, for, in the final analysis, campaign finance and corporate political power is entirely a function of the ability to influence public opinion. (“Follow the money” if you doubt that conclusion.)

Human history is a story of the dynamical tapestry of human cognitions and emotions (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). Politics is one slice of that dynamo, the slice which involves everything from forceful subjugation to sophisticated mass persuasion. The more democratic a society is, the more salient is the latter modality. Despite the flaws in our own American democracy, it is sound enough that mass persuasion is at the root of all political decision-making.

But we tend to address that paramount challenge of swaying public opinion on too superficial a level, issue by issue, candidate by candidate, fighting against impenetrable fortresses of confirmation biases, with drawbridges raised at first sight of the party or issue-position already opposed. We tug back and forth between ideological and partisan camps, while deeper forces are constantly shifting the ground beneath us.

Those deeper forces are in a largely unconscious struggle of their own, between, on the one hand, reason and goodwill, and, on the other, irrationality and belligerence. One of the principal challenges facing reasonable people of goodwill is to turn that unconscious struggle into a conscious one, to engage in it not just candidate by candidate and issue by issue, but on a more fundamental level. When, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before the Lincoln Memorial, what made it so momentous, what made it so effective, was that it wasn’t an appeal just to pass a piece of legislation or elect a particular candidate, but rather an appeal to rise to the heights of our better natures. And that is a very powerful appeal indeed. (See The Power of “Walking the Walk” and The Foundational Progressive Agenda )

I’ve written about Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, using stories and narratives, without reference to specific policy issues or specific candidates or specific political ideologies, to disseminate and inculcate a framework invoking shared underlying values conducive to the forces of reason and goodwill. My archetypal example of a meta-message has always been Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which I adapted as such in A Political Christmas Carol), but I did not know until recently that that was exactly how Dickens had intended it.

In Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar (author of A Beautiful Mind), the author describes how Dickens had written A Christmas Carol as an intentional response to Thomas Malthus’s An Essay On The Principle of Population, which had been the intellectual basis in opposition to England’s public welfare system and a move in the direction of greater cruelty and callousness exemplified by work houses and other memorable relics of Victorian England. Dickens believed, and history has borne out, that we are capable of reaching for and achieving greater heights of humanity than the callous indifference that characterized so many in his time and place, and, shockingly, so many in our own as well.

And who would deny that, while it may be impossible to attribute any specific political achievement to the immense success of his wonderful little tale, it has almost certainly played a role in those gradual, invisible shifts of the ground beneath our feet, keeping them at times from moving as far as they might have in the direction of greater callousness, and perhaps even nudging them at times in the direction of greater kindness.

We can’t all write such wonderful stories, but we can reiterate and amplify on them (as I did in A Political Christmas Carol), disseminate them, facilitate their reverberation through our collective consciousness. Politics, at its most fundamental level, isn’t as much about candidates and elections, or public debates about specific issues and the governmental processes which determine what public policy will be regarding them, as it is about what people think and believe, what people feel, what forms the substance of human consciousness.

So for those who live as though politics is everything –eating, drinking, and breathing what we narrowly conceive of as political engagement– please remember that there is much more beyond those explicitly political endeavors of ultimately deeper and broader significance to how our futures are formed and down what channels the currents of history flow. While some throw all of their weight and all of their passion into the tug-o-war between competing ideologies regarding competing candidates and policy positions, the real struggle, and the more momentous movement of humanity possible within it, lies largely unattended by any conscious and organized effort. Imagine the untapped potential of devoting just some small fraction of our passion and energy to that deeper challenge, tunneling under the ideological fortifications that deny entry to reason and humanity, collapsing those walls with subtler and more strategic assaults upon them.

(See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for a complete discussion of how to go about this.)

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

‎(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.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

I. The Habits, Methodologies and Procedures Which Govern Our Existence

Political activism tends to focus on issues and candidates, advocating for particular positions on particular issues, which cluster into and are framed by competing ideologies, and campaigning for candidates who, by and large, represent those competing ideologies. This system is the product of an evolutionary process (discussed at more length in section II)), and is certainly more functional than many that have historically preceded it or exist elsewhere. But it is not a perfected system (no system is), and some portion of our advocacy efforts should be dedicated to the challenge of consciously refining it.

In some other facets of life, particularly scholarship and law, procedures and methodologies have evolved which increase the role of reason in human belief formation and decision-making. Scientific methodology is a discipline which reduces error and increases accuracy. It has proven to be an acceleratingly robust technique for exploring the nature of the world and universe around and within us. Legal procedure is a discipline which assesses the accuracy of alleged facts and applies complex decision-making rules to them. It has proven to be a more accurate tool for pursuing just outcomes than the less rationalized procedures which preceded it, such as “trial by ordeal” or the purely idiosyncratic judgment of rulers or magistrates.

One of the challenges facing humanity is to refine and extend such disciplines. Though our electoral system is an example of such continuing refinement and extension, the context of our electoral system still involves a competition of largely arbitrary and underexamined ideological convictions. The products of scientific and legal methodologies are brought in haphazardly, and with only marginal influence. Popular opinions are formed irrationally, and voting choices are manipulated by well-funded marketing techniques, turning politics into a competition of cynical strategies favoring concentrated capital interests, and leading to dysfunctional outcomes.

It is a well-known and well-evidenced conclusion of cognitive science that human beings are not, by and large, persuaded by logical arguments and reliable evidence as much as by emotionally appealing messages that resonate with their already internalized frames and narratives. Some people misinterpret this to conclude that it is impossible to increase the salience of reason in popular political decision-making. But history demonstrates the error of such a conclusion: Scientific methodology, legal procedure, and constitutional democratic forms of government have all developed and gained prominence in the modern era, despite human irrationality.

II. The Lathe On Which We Spin…

The explanation for this paradox can be found in John Maynard Keynes’ quip that people “will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” The archetype of this dynamic can be found in nature, in biological and ecological evolution, where creatures large and small, few of which are generally considered to be “rational,” evolve in highly rational ways, embodying strategies for reproductive success (and survival in order to facilitate it) that we, for all of our impressive human consciousness, can only mimic and emulate in our own intentional social institutions and technologies.

In biological evolution, this occurs through genes, which reproduce, occasionally mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. In cultural evolution, this occurs through “memes” (cognitions), which reproduce (are communicated), frequently mutate (change in the process of communication by mixing with other memes to form new memes or being are refined or altered or misinterpreted by those to whom they are communicated), compete for reproductive success (compete with mutually exclusive beliefs, or compete with other technologies, or compete for limited cerebral capacity), and thus evolve. In both cases, packets of information reproduce, mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. (For more in-depth explorations of this evolutionary ecology of human social institutional and technological systems, see, e.g., 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), plus several others in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

Cultural evolution isn’t inherently benign. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically favor those memes most conducive to human happiness and welfare. More powerful weapons prevail over less powerful weapons; conquerors spread their memes more prolifically than pacifists; those who mine natural resources more rapidly (even if unsustainably rapidly) prevail more surely; aggressive, predatory societies overrun others that may be laden with beautiful and life affirming memes that simply don’t survive the brutality of our existence. One role for our conscious participation is to counterbalance these dysfunctional aspects of our underlying cultural evolutionary processes.

But neither is cultural evolution inherently malignant. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically disfavor those memes and paradigms most conducive to human happiness and welfare. A social entity characterized by strong internal cooperation will tend to prevail over a social entity characterized by weak internal cooperation.  The robust production of prosperity tends to prevail over more sluggish economic systems. Broader and deeper systems of cooperation prevail over narrower and shallower systems of cooperation. Political and economic liberty, in which most or all people are robust participants in their own governance and in a production of wealth from which they benefit in proportion to the value of their contribution, tends to prevail over political and economic centralization, in which human energy and enterprise is less fully tapped and channeled.

This combined, almost paradoxical, evolutionarily favored status of both liberty and cooperation is precisely why the movement I am referring to is not just “the politics of reason,” but “the politics of reason and goodwill.” Decades ago, in an experiment by Robert Axelrod, competing computer programs using strategies of “cooperation” and “defection” in bilateral, repeated “prisoners’ dilemma” games (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems) demonstrated that the best strategy in a world in which cooperation yields collective benefits, but not cooperating is always better for the person who doesn’t cooperate, is first to cooperate (show goodwill), and then respond to the other in kind (continue to cooperate if they do, but not if they don’t). This is a mathematical demonstration of what we all intuitively know (or should know) to be true: Goodwill benefits us all.

That’s at least one reason why the evolutionary process I describe below, entering into the modern era, has produced notions of human rights and natural rights and individual rights, and notions of egalitarianism and fairness and mutual responsibility, that many of us treasure, and that all of us benefit from. The world is a better place not only when we are reasonable people, but also when we act with goodwill toward one another. And even if the distribution of individual reasonableness and goodwill is not something that is particularly tractable by organized efforts in social movements, the salience of reasonableness and goodwill might be (see below for an explanation of this distinction).

III. …And That We Ourselves Are Spinning.

Biological evolution is, in a sense, a passive process. The members of evolving species do not intentionally participate in the evolutionary process that creates them, identifying evolutionary goals and consciously pursuing them. They merely are more or less prolific reproducers, and so carry genes that are more or less well-represented in subsequent generations. But the human cultural echo of this evolutionary process plays out through our cognitions, which are the substance of our consciousness. It is the result of what we choose to believe, and the result of how successfully we advocate or promote or market our beliefs or innovations. We are active and conscious participants in our own cultural evolution.

The degree to which we consciously guide and channel this process in service to humanity is a function of how far-sighted we are in our goals, and how inclusive we are in our identifications. Genetic evolution occurs through the pursuit of very immediate, short-sighted goals: Surviving long enough to mate, mating, and ensuring in one way or another that some of your progeny survive to mate as well. Cultural evolution occurs through the pursuit of these as well (through the reproduction of memes that serve these goals), plus slightly less immediate and short-sighted goals, such as financial security or prosperity and satisfaction of various needs and desires, and conscious identification with genetically somewhat dissimilar others, such as co-members of a race, a tribe, a nation or a religious community. (Often, there is an element of marginal genetic similarity in these identifications, due to how they are historically produced.) Politics consists by and large of a struggle over how and if and how far to extend both our time horizon and our identification, and how ambitious or modest our collective goals should be.

This struggle occurs on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, framed by competing comprehensive ideologies. We tend to emphasize the particular battles, and “recognize” that it is futile to try to win an argument over “which” ideology is superior. (Even so, the most zealous among us –myself included, but in a modified way explained in this essay and others like it– engage ceaselessly in debates over the relative merits of competing ideologies.)

The tendency to “duke it out” on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis comes at the cost of shortening our time horizons and narrowing our identifications, because issues attract our attention in proportion to their urgency and immediacy, elections are immediate and urgent contests, identifications in these struggles focus on the coalition of factions advocating particular positions within it, and, most importantly, the logic of political competition drives the most politically active among us into an almost exclusive focus on political strategies and tactics. The last dynamic strongly favors appealing to our basest and least far-sighted and least-imaginative inclinations as a polity, because these are the easiest to appeal to, and the most successful fulcrums on which to ply our political efforts.

If our evolutionarily determined habit of focusing on immediate issues and immediate candidates in service to immediate concerns and immediate desires does not best serve the challenge of being more conscious and inclusive participants in our own cultural evolution; and if it is futile to try, instead, to move the struggle to the level of a national debate over which substantive comprehensive ideology to embrace; then what is the alternative?

The alternative is diverting some portion of our time and attention and resources from both the issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate political struggle, andthe futile substantive ideological debate that envelopes and undergirds it, to an effort to transcend both by developing and investing in methodologies which systematically favor reason and goodwill in our personal and popular political decision-making process. To accomplish this, we need to find a foundation on which to build such a methodology on which most people, across ideological lines, can agree to, and which appeals to most people’s underlying frames and narratives, as well as recognizes the limited degree to which most people are willing to invest time and energy in our political processes.

Extremists of all stripes will tend to reject any such foundation that is proposed, correctly certain that it would undermine their ideological convictions and goals. But, though extremists dominate message boards and public attention, most people are not extremists. Most people are relatively moderate and pragmatic people who just want to be able to participate marginally, without investing too much time and energy, in our self-governance in a way which is both gratifying and productive. Many, of course, don’t want to do more than vote, but even those form their political opinions and electoral choices by means of a diffuse engagement with others around them and with various media of communications.

The challenge is to find, rally, and motivate those who both are or wish to be highly politically engaged, and who are interested in exploring the possibility of doing fundamentally better than we are now in moving the state, nation, and world in the direction of ever-increasing salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of our public policies, and to mobilize these activists in the design and implementation of a movement which accomplishes that goal. Obviously, any success would be marginal, and the world would continue much as it has. But even just marginal success in such an endeavor could have truly revolutionary implications over the course of time.

IV. The Proposal

I have already outlined my proposal (which I call, alternatively, “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill,” or “Transcendental Politics,” or “Holistic Politics”) in several essays (see, e.g,. A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, and Transcendental Politics; plus dozens of others in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I’ll just summarize it very briefly here.

The social movement I envision is, by necessity, a non-partisan social movement which emphasizes the procedures by which we arrive at our beliefs, conclusions, policy positions, and electoral choices (which I’ll refer to from here on out as “political memes”), rather than the specific, substantial political memes themselves. It is a movement that is dedicated to not advocating for progressive or conservative ideologies or policies or candidates, but rather for a commitment to reason and goodwill and to the development of procedures and methodologies which systematically favor them.

This may seem to run up against the cognitive science reality that people are not primarily persuaded by reason in the formation of their political memes, and certainly the most fanatical and extreme will not be amenable to any suggestion to make any movement of any kind in any direction. But this movement does not depend on people in general changing their habit of political meme formation. Rather, it depends, first, on a dedicated group of people implementing the three components summarized below (and elaborated on at length in the other essays I linked to), and, secondly, on a significant number of people agreeing in principal only to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. That second requisite is not a change in how people form their cognitive landscapes, but rather an appeal to existing frames and narratives, since most Americans, I would argue, identify themselves as, and wish to be, reasonable people of goodwill.

It’s very important not to be excessively distracted by the highly visible and vocal minority who clearly are too committed to irrationality and belligerence to even contemplate making such a commitment. In the end, any social movement that aspires to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of public policy, while it might continue to try and hope to gradually convert some of them, has to focus more on simply marginalizing the most irrational and belligerent among us, and rendering them outnumbered and de-fanged by a movement that just leaves them behind (in terms of their political and cultural influence, not in terms of our shared commitment to their well-being and the facilitation of their productive participation in society).

This movement, which I’ll refer to here as “PRG” (short for “Politics of Reason and Goodwill”), requires two very difficult, interrelated steps for adherents (that is, activists working to advance this social movement) to commit to, in order to realize the social step forward that the movement aspires toward: 1) In the context of the movement (though not in political activities pursued outside of the movement), advocacy for specific substantive positions, specific ideological convictions, specific candidates, and, in general, specific substantive political memes, must be suspended. PRG advocates for a commitment to an ideal that transcends ideology and a procedure for realizing that ideal, sincerely and with assiduous integrity agreeing not to displace that ideal or that procedure with current substantive certainties held by any adherents. And, 2) The sincere humility to realize that a procedure which accomplishes this to any meaningful degree is preferable to such substantive certainties currently held, because our current substantive certainties may or may not be what reason and goodwill, assiduously adhered to, would actually have led to, and we should prefer what a disciplined process suggests is most in accord with reason and goodwill over what we more haphazardly assume is most in accord with reason and goodwill.

The core political meme of this movement, in fact, is the meme that we are better served by disciplines and processes which systematically favor reason and goodwill than by our current ideologies that assume they are most informed by reason and goodwill. And, just as those who have practiced and implicitly and explicitly advocated for scientific methodology, rule of law, and democratic and constitutional governmental processes have fought uphill battles to establish them as central features of our shared cognitive and institutional landscape, assisted by the evolutionarily favored utility of these disciplines, so too is this extension of that logic evolutionarily favored by its utility and implementable, over time, through our relentless and passionate advocacy and practice.

PRG consists of three components: 1) The creation of a comprehensive data base or web portal which makes easily accessible all arguments which purport to apply reason to evidence in service to human welfare, along with citations by which to verify the reliability or accuracy of the evidence utilized (see “Component 1” of A Proposal for a more complete and extensive description); 2) The creation of an enterprise which disseminates the message, in emotionally appealing ways which communicate directly to existing frames and narratives, that we are better off, both individually and collectively, when we strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (see Component II of A Proposal and Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives for more complete and extensive descriptions), and 3) The establishment of a network of community organizations, which leverage existing community organizations (e.g., PTAs, HOAs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and other religious institutions, park districts, etc.), to create a forum in which participants agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, to consider all points of view and arguments with an open mind, to be civil, and to improve the strength and solidarity of our local communities and of our nation (see Component III of A Proposal and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN) for a more complete and extensive description).

The supposition is not that most people would avail themselves of the internet portal or spend significantly more time comparing arguments and counterarguments surrounding various policy issues, or that most people would attend the community meetings or participate on the on-line network, or that most people would change their habits in any visible or significant way. That would not be realistic. Rather, the hope is that this would create a new center of gravity, a new source of legitimacy for the concept of making decisions on the basis of reason and goodwill, a new nucleus from which a marginal increase in the number of people who take marginal steps in the direction of thinking and acting in accord with this ideal can form a source of information and inspiration for the many who make no change in their lives whatsoever. Few of us are scientists, but most of us rely in one way or another on science.

Think tanks and policy institutes are in some respects the prototype for Component I, but always lost their popular legitimacy by failing to be popularly accessible and popularly comprised institutions. All are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having been co-opted by a particular ideology. But, in PRG, the think tank is all of us, the arguments considered are all of them. And it does not stand alone, like an ivory tower out of reach, but in the center of a community, where it can be utilized and discussed by those ordinary people inclined to do so. Even if very few ever avail themselves of those resources (the portal and the community organizations), others (moderate others who are not lost to an impenetrable fanaticism) will be more inclined to look to those who do as relatively reliable sources of information. And those who do avail themselves of these recourses will be those who, both by predisposition and by the effects of utilizing these resources, will tend to have more moderate, better informed, better reasoned, more humane positions on social and political issues.

History is comprised of innovations, both humble and bold. Many such innovations are social institutional, and some have had enormous and lasting effects on our cultural evolution. The invention of money, of legal systems, of our own Constitution and national system of government, are all examples. Some technological innovations dovetail with these, or form the basis of social institutional innovations of their own: The computer, the internet, social media, have developed in ways which have created new opportunities and new dimensions of possibilities yet to be fully explored. PRG, or something similar to it, would be precisely the way to leverage these developments, and explore these possibilities.

I sincerely and fervantly believe that a dedicated cadre of people working dilligently to design and implement this plan, or a plan similar to it, can and almost inevitably would have a dramatic effect, over time, in moving our state, nation, and world gradually but significantly in the direction of reason and goodwill, in the direction of being wiser, more foresighted, more cooperative, more life-affirming, and more humane. I hope all who read this will join me in this effort, and will share it widely in the hope that others join us as well.

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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.

As some of you may have noticed, I went on one of my informal (self-)promotional campaigns recently on Facebook, posting links to my Colorado Confluence Facebook page on a variety of group sites (and some friends’ pages) that seemed like well-chosen places to do a little advertising. On one FB page I chose, “You know you’re a political staffer when…,” I was received with the reflexive vitriol that seems to have become an integral part of what passes for political discourse these days. Apparently, the sole purpose of the page was to complete the title phrase (though I saw plenty of posts that did not serve that purpose, without complaint), and my post was an act of “hijacking the thread” (the whole page being conceived of as a single thread).

One poster there complained that I should be dismissed for writing “impractical abstract bullshit” rather than manning the phones in order to move the political needle a little. That got me thinking (and pontificating): What is the relative value of my “impractical abstract bullshit,” and what is the relative value of manning the phones to move the polical needle a little (in competition, of course, with those of the opposite ideology, doing the same in the opposite direction). (I also threw in a long list of the other things I’ve been doing to affect the world positively, that might compare favorably to manning the phones….)

So, here are some of the things that economically, sociologically, and legally informed “impractical abstract bullshit” helps with, if you are involved in “politics” (which used to –and still should– mean the art of devising and implementing “policies”):

1) A popular mental health “consumer movement” idea called “money follows the individual” is burdened with the same flaw that the popular “school voucher” idea bears: It allocates money equally to individuals, thus leaving those with the greatest needs in a ghetto of underfunded and underserved extreme problems. (See School Vouchers, Pros & Cons)

2) School reform requires the opposite of current popular incarnations of it, with more attention to community involvement, more attention to holistic and integrated child development, and more attention to creating a culture of positive reinforcement through, for instance, designing school programs and policies which give students a stake in one another’s success. (See Real Education Reform and Mistaken Locus of Education Reform)

3) While we do have to create a trajectory in which our national debt is stabilized as a proportion of GDP, it is not the urgent problem that some pretend it is. In fact, new debt is being financed at a rate about equal to the rate of inflation, meaning that in real terms it is costless to finance. And our current entire national debt is equal to about one year’s GDP, which compares very favorably to the average homeowner, whose household debt in the early years of home ownership is equal to several years’ income. Also, the private sector, to which many conservatives bow as the model to which the public sector should aspire, relies on credit as the life-blood of its operations. (See The Economic Debate We’re Not Having , The Real Deficit , The Restructuring of the American and Global Economy , The More Subtle & Salient Economic Danger We Currently Face, and Why Extreme Income and Wealth Inequality Matters)

4) Popular attitudes toward “illegal immigration” in the United States sometimes parallels deeply discredited historical chapters of identifying reviled “foreigners” living within a nation, and seeking to remove them. While there are important differences between our current political situation vis-a-vis our undocumented residents, and the most infamous of historical chapters of mass xenophobic scapegoating (e.g., our directly targeted foreign population does not include descendents of immigrants, but only those who actually crossed the border after their own birth; and our treatment is not yet at “concentration camp” levels, let alone approaching genocide, though detailed knowledge reduces this gap to an extent that would surprise many, including a family detention center that made small children stand at attention for hours and urinate in their pants). (See A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, and Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score)

The list, of course, goes on (and on, and on, and on…; see Catalogue of Selected Posts), but the point here is that it pays to think about the world we live in; and think about the exact nature of the policies we are currently pursuing or advocating, versus the exact nature of the policies that a better informed and more reflective stance might support instead.

Apropos this discussion, I responded to Ed Quillen’s column in today’s Denver post (The Hazards of Nitpicking: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19360471?source=bb) with a discussion of the importance of getting the facts and analysis right, rather than merely engaging in the blind partisan warfare and ritualism that the critical poster on that FB page was so committed to. My DP comment (which for some reason does not seem to appear after the column on the DP website) is reproduced below:

Excellent point, Ed!

As a Progressive Blogger (at http://coloradoconfluence.com/) and person engaged, in many different ways, in our shared human enterprise, the only ideology I want to see anyone embrace is the one that acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge and understanding, and commits us to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together to confront the challenges of a complex and subtle world.

I cringe just as much when I see a Progressive leap to some insufficiently supported conclusion, or cling to some insufficiently justified assumption, as when I see a conservative do it, because it is just as counterproductive to our collective welfare (more so, in some ways, since it squanders the opportunity to define ourselves as something other than blind ideologues opposing other blind ideologues).

The real political divide isn’t between the Right and the Left (or Libertarians and “Statists,” or whatever substantive dichotomy you might want to define yourself by), but rather between those who, on the one hand, are committed to applying reason to reliable evidence in service to human welfare, all things considered, and those who, on the other, want to engage in blind ideological warfare, relying on cheap and irrelevant shots, shoddy or false information, poorly reasoned arguments, and cynical and base methodologies of all sorts, ranging from mindless marketing of candidates and policies to disingenuous smear campaigns to simply inventing facts to suit one’s ideological convenience, in service to the displaced goals of advancing an insufficiently examined ideology rather than advancing the interests of humanity.

Ed, there is no message that needs to be repeated as frequently and as forcefully as the one you’ve reiterated in this column. Thanks!

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The notion that it is better to address the root causes of any problem or ailment than merely treat the symptoms may seem obvious to most of us, but it is often neglected and rarely unpackaged. It is relevant in multiple ways on multiple levels to multiple issues. And it forms a pathway toward continuing refinement of both our understandings and our actions.

In my new capacity on the Board of Directors of ClearMinds, Inc., a recently established non-profit dedicated to a more holistic, root-cause oriented approach to mental health care, this distinction is front and center. ClearMinds is the brain child of my friend Dr. Mark Foster and Amy Smith, a mental health services consumer who had testified to Congress several years ago on behalf of legislation favoring the status quo, only later to discover by accident how truly dysfunctional the status quo really is.

Amy’s experience involved an accident which prevented her from taking her medications for several days. She describes the effect as that of having woken up after a long stupor, fully alive again for the first time in many years. Mark’s experience comes from what he has seen in his practice as a family physician, and then discovered through research on his own, a discovery which paralleled that of science writer Robert Whitaker, who wrote Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic, detailing how America’s reliance on antipsychotic, antidepressant, and antianxiety drugs has, far from being the miracle solution to the supposed chemical imbalances at the heart of various psychoses and neuroses, fueled an explosion in the rate and severity of mental health problems in America.

This leads to one interesting thing to note about the search for root causes: If not done honestly, it leads us astray. The conventional wisdom, echoed by many in the mental health care industry, is that we are addressing root causes with these various psychotropic drugs, when in fact we are merely addressing symptoms, and doing so in the most counterproductive of ways. The historical lauding of such drugs as “chemical lobotomies,” supposedly more humane and less intrusive than physical lobotomies, captures the truth perfectly: These drugs dull the mind and reduce the lucidity and vitality of their users.

It may be the case that for certain people, at certain times, such dulling of the mind, such a “chemical lobotomy,” is preferable to the alternative, when one’s mental health problems inflict so much damage on one’s ability to function that even being half-dead is a superior alternative. But story after story emerges of someone who describes the experience of finally getting off their meds, rarely on the advice of their doctor, as that of waking up after a long stupor, discovering a quality of life they had been told was unavailable to them, and enjoying that quality of life thereafter, treating their mental health problems in more balanced and restrained ways. This suggests that, while the judicious use of psychotropic drugs still has a role in a complete mental health care portfolio, we need to be more alert to the preference of not using them when not necessary, and striving to make them in almost all instances a mere temporary foot-in-the-door on the way to establishing a healthier and more life-affirming mental health regime.

Despite the rising awareness of the influence of genetics on personality, it increasingly appears to be the case that mental health is more deeply rooted in social context than in biological interventions after all. The citizens of those countries with strong families and communities but little access to psychotropic pharmaceuticals enjoy far better mental health than we do. While biological factors are undoubtedly in play, the environmental factors are the ones that have the greatest impact on how they affect one’s life.

There are many other areas of life in which this distinction between symptoms and root causes, and the quest for working our way ever deeper into the latter, form a critical challenge for us to meet. This is perhaps most evident in the political sphere, where those most passionate and engaged tend to be most focused on the symptoms of our political deficiencies, and least focused on root causes. Two examples illustrate my point:

The first example is that of eruptions of violence, whether in the form of ordinary violent crime, domestic terrorism, or international terrorism. The latter two are easily understood as a form of political action gone awry, with fanatical organizations or unbalanced individuals pursuing some political end through a misguided and violent means. But all of these forms of violence, I believe, are symptoms of deeper causes, and should be addressed by increased attention to those deeper causes.

After every such violent act, there is always a chorus of voices decrying the act in vengeful tones. Ironically, I consider this reaction to be as much a part of the problem as the act itself, because it forms the sea of anger and hatred from which those cresting waves of violence emerge. The anger and hatred in which so many participate, to so many various degrees and in so many various ways, is, I think, a deeper root cause of the violence than the mere malice or political agendas of the perpetrators of the violence.

There are many, of course, who dig a little deeper, and cite mental instability as a root cause, and even go a bit deeper than that and cite our failure to adequately address mental health issues as a root cause. This points to something I will talk about below: Digging deeper, and recognizing a root cause of a symptom that itself is a symptom of deeper root causes. Because, while recognizing the salience of mental health issues, and of our mental health care policies, as root causes of eruptions of violence are steps in the right direction, I think we can go deeper still, and recognize that our easy recourse to anger and hatred, often treated as harmless and normal in many contexts in which they are non-violently expressed, combined with our ideological tendency toward extreme individualism, is at the heart of both this aspect of our mental health deficiencies, and our failure to address those deficiencies with adequate public policies.

The second example from the political sphere is the distinction between electoral politics and public attitudes. Enormous amounts of energy and passion are devoted to affecting electoral outcomes, and, in the course of doing so, specific public attitudes on specific issues have come to be seen as an important battlefield on which this political struggle is waged. But we address those attitudes as means to an end, seeking the most effective marketing campaigns to affect perceptions on a very superficial and transcient level, mostly ignoring the underlying attitudes that would make people more or less inclined to favor this or that public policy or candidate.

In political debates about political outcomes, the focus is always on political strategies and tactics, but almost never on how we as a society, acting in organized ways, affect how we as a society, diffusely, fundamentally understand the world we live in. I have often said that the real political battlefield is the human mind, and that the greatest long-term investment political activists can make is to nurture an understanding of the world compatible with the policies that they favor.

This distinction between symptoms and root causes is less a dichotomy than a continuum, from the more superficial to the more profound, with the most easily identified root causes of particular symptoms being themselves symptoms of deeper root causes. Therefore, we should never be complacent that we have found the ultimate underlying answer to any question, or the ultimate treatment regime for any disease or social problem. Just as the fictional character Algono found that every solution to every puzzle was itself a part of a subtler puzzle to be solved (see The Wizards’ Eye), we are forever on a path into increasing subtlety of understanding, tracking a world far more complex than any of our models or conceptualizations.

That is why the starting point of all wisdom is the recognition of not knowing. More than any other habit of thought, more than any other virtue, this skepticism, this humility, is at the heart of our ability to grow and improve and do better. With it forever front and center in our consciousness, we can continue to dig ever deeper through the layers of symptoms and root causes, increasing both the subtlety of our understandings and the effectiveness of our practices, increasing our mental health as individuals and our social and economic and cultural and political health as a state, nation, and world. This is the real challenge, and glorious endeavor, of human existence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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