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Of the many wonders that happily impose themselves on a curious and observant mind, there is one that relentlessly taunts my imagination and tries my patience: The degree to which we fail, as a people, as a species, in our communities and on our own to take what seems to me to be, even more than that taken by the late Neil Armstrong 43 years ago, one small step for us as individuals, but one giant leap for our nation and for humanity. In this case, the small step is a step forward in thought and habit, in perception, and the giant leap is what it would yield in terms of our ability to govern ourselves in a way more conducive to the liberation and mobilization of our collective genius in service to our collective welfare.

Even as I write, I know that, for reasons that defy reason, those words grate on the ears of a large and vocal political faction. The word “collective” scares them, as if there is nothing collective about our existence, as if, despite the manifest absurdity of it, we exist as mutually exclusive entities. Lost in a caricature of reality, anything that smacks of the least recognition of human interdependence, of an existence not only as individuals but also as members of a society and citizens of a nation, resonates in their tortured minds as an affront to something holy and inviolable.

As is often the case, such folly results from the drawing of the wrong lesson from a set of failed applications (and the refusal to notice the larger set of successful applications) of a sound and inevitable principle. But the sound and inevitable principle must be acknowledged and addressed: We are not only individuals whose individual liberty must be protected and preserved, but also members of a society whose interdependence must be recognized and negotiated.

Our Founding Fathers did not fail to know this, and frequently explicitly and implicitly emphasized it: “United we stand, divided we fall;” “e pluribus unum,” “We must all hang together or we will surely hang apart,” The Constitution itself, the arguments in The Federalist Papers (which were overwhelmingly about our interdepedence and the mutual responsibilities as members of a society that it imposes on us), “The General Welfare.” So much a part of the fundamental assumption of human existence was it, such an essential pillar of their Enlightenment doctrine (committed to the application of Reason to the improvement of Society), that they could neither have intended nor foreseen that some of the heirs to their political experiment would manage to erase it from their consciousness.

But reality has frequently reasserted itself, revealed the complexities and subtleties, highlighted the need to articulate two views of the nature of human existence that are simultaneously in mutual tension and two sides of a single coin. Without our fundamental interdependence, our existence as members of a society, we have no existence as conscious human beings. The very languages we think in are expressions of generations of coexistence, concepts and symbols growing not in isolated minds but in interlinked minds. Our technologies, our social institutions, the physical products of our labors, everything that makes us human, are never incubated in a single mind or created by the labor of a single pair of hands, but always in the communication of the members of a society and in the articulation of individual efforts.

The man who builds his own house did not mine his own ores to forge his own nails, and, if he did, did not learn the techniques for doing so only through his own trial and error without reference to any knowledge that preceded him. The current political debate over whether our individual achievements and creations are solely the product of one individual’s efforts, or are always in myriad ways a product of our social contract, is one based on an absurd blurring of reality: Of course they are a product of a social process, brought to fruition, frequently, by the focused efforts of one individual working on the margins of that larger process. We want neither to denegrate that individual effort, nor pretend that the contributions of an entire society were not also involved.

We’ve discovered, through our lived history, that individual rights can rarely be absolute. The right to freedom of religion does not mean that you have the right to sacrifice human beings on an alter if that is something that your religion requires of you. The right to freedom of speech does not mean that you have the right to slander another, or to incite others to violence, or to maliciously ignite a panic. The right to dispose of your property as you see fit does not mean that you have the right to dump toxic waste on your own land in a way which poisons others’ water. The tension between individual rights and mutual responsibilities is not just an occasional anomaly; it is a part of the fabric of our existence.

The step of which I spoke at the beginning of this essay is one which, like Neil Armstrong’s, requires first this vast journey across a daunting expanse of untraversed space. It requires the voyage from the ideological delusion that individual liberty is a value that stands unqualified and without countervailing recognition of our social contract, to recognition of the reality of our interdependence. We must stop referring to individual liberty without also, simultaneously, implicitly or explicitly, recognizing our mutual responsibilities to one another. This isn’t socialism or communism; it isn’t a rejection of the values incorporated into our nation at its founding; it isn’t rejection of capitalism or a presumption of the answers to the questions that it poses. It’s simply a journey of consciousness we absolutely must take.

Once we take that journey together, once larger numbers of us follow that voyage across space to something that has always been shining in our sky and recognize it to be something other than a mirage, we can step from that vessel of consciousness onto the otherworldly realization that we can and should and must work together as members of a society to confront the challenges and seize the opportunities that this world and this life present to us.

On that lunar surface, freed to leap a little higher in the lighter gravity, we can rediscover it as common ground that belongs to all parties and nations. Taking that step is not a partisan agenda, it is a human one. It does not resolve all partisan disputes, but rather frames them in more functional ways. It narrows the conversation to that which is minimally required by reason and lucidity. It ends the reign of an ideological folly and partisan cold war that did violence to humanity.

Obviously, not everyone will take this journey of consciousness, will believe that we could land on that distant moon and take that momentous step. Some will refuse to recognize the fundamental truth of human interdependence. There will always be such denial. Ignorance and folly are not things we can banish from the human condition. But we can diminish their degree, sometimes in small ways that have dramatic effects.

I have argued frequently and passionately for others to join me in the formation of a social movement that is not for the promotion of an ideological or partisan agenda, not to affect election outcomes or influence policy positions, but rather to take as many of us as possible as far on this journey as possible. We need to travel to the moon before we can walk on its surface. We need to cultivate our consciousness before we can act under its influence.

Of course, we will continue to act under the influence of the consciousness that we have, even while we devote just a little more effort to cultivating one more conducive to more functional and humane public policies. These are not mutually exclusive. Nor am I speaking only of us each cultivating our own consciousness (though that is, as always, absolutely vital); I’m speaking of us organizing in service to the cultivation of our collective consciousness.

My purpose in life is not to promote the Progressive agenda. My purpose is to promote wise self-governance in service to human consciousness and well-being. I think it’s important that we continue to remind ourselves of the distinction, because we cannot move humanity forward until we can appeal to people who are not in the market for a partisan identity. And if we can appeal to people who already have one, especially those who would recoil at the thought of working to advance any liberal or progressive agenda, all the better.

It is not a subterfuge: it is a refocusing of all of our minds on what is truly essential and truly important. It is the commitment to look past competing blind ideologies shored up by shallow platitudes toward ultimate purposes and deep underlying values. And getting past these rigid ideological camps into which we have relegated ourselves is one of the necessary steps toward real progress.

It depends on robust discourse among people of differing views. It flourishes when more of us recognize that there’s only one ideology to which any of us should adhere: That of striving to be reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, responsible enough to try to understand and see the merit in opposing views, compassionate enough to recognize that the goal of these efforts should be a commitment to humanity, working together with all others willing and able to embrace such an ideology to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world.

This is my mission in life: To promote this simple ideology, encourage as many as possible to work toward encouraging as many others as possible to adopt it to the greatest extent possible, always as a work in progress, more focused on our procedures for arriving at the truth than on what we currently think is the truth, always open to the possibility that we are dramatically wrong on one or more crucial points. This is something we should do independently of what we do regarding electoral politics and issue advocacy, diverting some small portion of our time and effort and passion into the long-term investment in a deeper political paradigm shift, into traversing the space between here and that distant moon where we recognize that we are interdependent, that we are fallible, and that we are all in this story together.

It’s not the first time such spaces have been traversed, such thresholds have been reached. We’ve had a Renaissance and a Reformation, a Scientific Revolution and an Enlightenment and the political revolutions based on it, an industrial revolution and now an information technology revolution, a confluence of globalizing forces and a movement to recapture some of the wisdom and beauty of the cultures that were trampled underfoot by modernity’s advance, and human history is still accelerating in amazing ways full of both promise and danger. We are a part of that process, participants in it, with an opportunity to plant the seeds for a future that could be one of ever-more rapidly growing human consciousness and an ever-wiser realization of our role on this wonderful planet of ours.

We are a work in progress, and maybe the word “Progressive” needs to be understood by those who bear it to mean “still a work in progress,” because once people fall into the trap of thinking they have all the answers, they forget how to ask the right questions.

Here’s to us! I believe in our potential, but I’m also keenly aware of the obstacles that stand in our way of realizing it, obstacles that, for the most part, we create ourselves, and throw up in front of us, seemingly determined to perennially condemn ourselves to live in interesting times….

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

As I began to discuss in the third installment in my series on “Political Fundamentalism”, “Liberty Idolatry,” the notion of individual liberty divorced from recognition of social interdependence just makes no sense. We are all aware of the most dramatic limitations on individual liberty in service to mutual responsibility: Laws against violence and predation. We are not free to act in ways which hurt others for our own benefit. Everyone understands, implicitly, that that is the limiting factor in defining individual liberty: One’s freedom ends where another’s rights begin.

We each have the right not to be assaulted, robbed, defrauded, or otherwise victimized, though there can certainly be legitimate debate over how far the law should reach to protect each from the victimization of others (few, for instance, would recommend criminalizing being a dishonest and self-serving “friend,” and the gray area between that which obviously should be legally prohibited and that which obviously should not be is bound to be contested terrain).

But, while most would agree that poisoning someone else is not an ambiguous instance of when my liberty to poison ends at the point where your right not to be poisoned begins, many can’t even contemplate the possibility that poisoning the air or water with toxic wastes might fall into a similar category, and that governmental regulations preventing it might be as necessary and appropriate as governmental enforcement of the law against poisoning less incidentally.

My point is not to argue that there is no difference between the two: Some relevant considerations are how harmful to others something is, how much an action harmful to others is also helpful to others, and how much something harmful to others is a traditionally acceptable practice embedded in our social norms and customs. But all acts that are harmful to others fall on the continuum defined by these variables, and all must be subjected to an analysis weighing them in a well-reasoned manner. And that is exactly what our regulatory agencies do, in a very well-developed procedure that explicitly considers all of these dimensions, and involves both experts and the affected public in the process.

It should be obvious that the need to balance the liberties of each against the rights of others permeates our social institutional landscape. One can argue whether it is enough to inform consumers of unhealthy or dangerous ingredients or parts in consumer goods, and that to fail to do so should be criminal in the same way that other intentional or reckless inflictions of harm are. But none can argue that that is sufficient for by-products of commercial or private activities which adversely affect others who are not willing participants (such as consumers of given products are). The demands imposed by our interdependence simply cannot be denied.

There are many gray areas to be discussed and explored: At what point does your right to smoke infringe on my right to breathe unpolluted air? At what point does your right to engage in unhealthy and dangerous activities infringe on my right not to have to bear the public costs (e.g., higher insurance premiums for those who do not engage in those activities, and higher tax burdens to pay for the emergency services sometimes involved)? Defining where one’s liberty ends and another’s rights begin is an information intensive, case-by-case requirement of good governance, and one which cannot simply be ideologized away.

This is just one of the many ways in which the Small Government Idolatry of the political fundamentalists is untenable: We need as much government as we need to address the challenges that government has to address. Doing so with complete consideration of all relevant concerns does not mean imposing one and only one imperative on government (that it be shrunk), but rather weighing all concerns in a complete c0st-benefit analysis, on a case-by-case and comprehensive basis. The concerns expressed by Tea Party fundamentalists are not irrelevant; they simply aren’t the only relevant concerns, nor the only relevant considerations. Often, ironically, they even lead to a government that is both more expensive and less functional (avoiding proactive services that both increase human welfare and reduce more crushing reactive costs).

Perhaps the best way to conceptualize how to balance all relevant considerations is captured in John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice”, since a fully-informed and rational decision about what social institutions and policies would be optimal from a position of not knowing one’s own location in the social firmament (including not knowing whether one would be alive today or in the future) would include consideration of both the value of personal liberty and the value of being protected from the harmful effects of others’ exercise of their personal liberty. It would also include considerations of economic consequences, including a balancing of efficiency, fairness, and sustainability. Public policy subjected to the tyranny of a single fixation is harmful and destructive; public policy which balances competing values and concerns is healthy and rational. 

Debates over where to draw the line are necessary and useful; debates over whether to draw the line are absurd and dysfunctional. Those political fundamentalists who fight tooth and nail to impose an absolutist, unbalanced notion of “liberty” on the rest of us are not contributing to a healthy public dialogue over how best to govern ourselves, but are rather arguing outside the bounds of reason, trying to advance the cause of harmful irrationality.

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