Several influences molded me as a writer over the years: A fascination with classical history and mythology, a love of science fiction and fantasy, years of world travel laden with ample adventures of my own, and a deep sense of wonder about the systems of Nature, most particularly (though by no means exclusively) about the human sphere of Nature, fed by a highly analytical and imaginative mind and abundant sources on which to draw.
At around the age of 18 (in 1977 or 1978), I wrote a short psychedelic vignette called “River Palace” which was the first seed of what would later become A Conspiracy of Wizards. A couple of years later, while living in Berkeley, I started an unrelated novel in which crystalized talismans of the five elements of classical natural philosophy had magical properties that were amplified when brought together, an idea that found its way into A Conspiracy of Wizards.
Most of my 20s was dedicated to world travels and adventures and the keeping of journals laden with descriptions and contemplations. Many of the real-world, visceral descriptive passages from those journals found their way into A Conspiracy of Wizards. During this time I also read prolifically and broadly, trying to catch up on as many classics of literature and of more recent intellectual discovery as I possibly could.
One year into my career as a sociology grad student in Connecticut, having become an aficionado of Chaos Theory in the late 1980s and believing it to be a critical piece of the puzzle of the story of our existence, I wrote a vignette about Chaos and Order being the parents of the universe, and immediately knew that this would be the nucleus of the novel I had always dreamed of writing.
During my grad student career in Connecticut, I was working on my novel at the same time that I was soaking up the spectrum of social theory, designing my world and weaving bits and pieces of my gradually emerging synthesis of the social theoretical landscape into it and the story-line. I incorporated into the novel a variety of epistemological theories (including, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” most visibly in the scene of Algonion in the ice sphere), Marxist theory, microeconomic and game theory, and network analysis and epidemiology. I also incorporated my previously acquired knowledge of international relations and world history to create a more complex and in many ways “realistic” world than is found in most novels of any kind, let alone fantasy fiction. The geopolitics and geopolitical and military strategies found in the novel are, I think, particularly elaborate and faithful to the forms found in the real world.
Two years into my status as “All-But Dissertation,” not actually writing my dissertation, I left the program and my position as a college lecturer to work full time on my novel. In many ways, I realized, I had been in the Ph.D. program primarily to inform my novel. Before moving out west, I took a couple of months to do a car trip around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, during which, while camping and hiking in beautiful Acadia National Park in Maine, I fully fleshed out the story of Cholumga (derived from “Chomo Lungma,” Tibetan for “Earth Mother” and the Tibetan name for Mount Everest), the giantess trapped in the hollow mountain. I did this in part by telling the story to a young girl and her mother who I ran into while hiking, as we sat on a bluff overlooking the gorgeous autumn colors. (Also from Acadia comes the imagery of Algonion arriving at the sea as he is escaping Lokewood.)
In late 1996, I moved to a cabin in the mountains of Northern New Mexico for a year (in Cabresto Canyon, between Questa and Red River, north of Taos) to write the first draft of the novel, simultaneously focusing my informal studies more on World Mythology and World History (both long-time interests of mine, along with International Relations), including studying Joseph Campbell’s analyses of mythological motifs. The multi-hued beauty of Northern New Mexico and the Four Corners region, around which I took frequent car-and-camping trips, filtered into the imagery of the novel. I then finished the millennium in Albuquerque, teaching and taking classes, working through some of the issues and challenges with my novel, developing it further, and developing other ideas as well (such as a series of vignettes about the institutionalization of time travel, including reunions of multiple selves across time, branching historical trajectories, and the colonization of the past). I began to submit excerpts of the novel to agents and publishers, trying to line up a publication deal, but without success.
While living in the cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I used to wander into the forest and visualize various characters in particular locations dedicated to each, having conversations with them to flesh out who they were. It was a form of intentional, self-induced semi-hallucination, powerful enough that occasionally a character would “say” something that would surprise me! This was a technique for discovering each character’s own authenticity rather than populating my world with contrived characters with less of a life of their own.
I believe it was also while I was in New Mexico that I saw (on video tape borrowed from the Taos library, since I had no television reception in my cabin) a National Geographic special on the rain forest canopy ecosystem, the imagery of which inspired the imagery of Algonion’s largely airborne trek through Lokewood in search of the Loci imps, one of my descriptively favorite passages.
Also while in New Mexico, I further developed my sociological paradigm, focusing it more on Richard Dawkins’ “Meme Theory,” which provided a lynchpin to the synthesis I had been developing. This has since found its way into the novel, particularly in the Kindle e-book version, in my newly rewritten description of the Vaznallam mindscape and the fractal geometry of their mental representation of the Sadache cognitive landscape, which is the imagery presented in a series of expository essays I’ve written on the fractal geometry and evolutionary ecology of our shared human cognitive landscape (and, along with it, our social institutional and technological landscape).
In December of 1999, I set out for Mexico to find a spot in which to continue to work on the novel, living modestly off investments, which were doing well at the time. I ended up in Mazatlan, where I developed the routine of waking up before dawn to write from my balcony, watching the morning light spread over the city and the bay while I was writing. I stayed in Mazatlan for over two years, taking several car trips to various regions of Mexico while there, all of which also contributed something to the imagery of the novel. During that time I got married and toward the end of my time in Mazatlan finished the current hard copy version of the novel and began seeking unsuccessfully to publish it.
We moved up to the Denver area in the summer of 2002 (and had our wonderful daughter, Scheherazade, in 2003), and I embarked on a combination of teaching, law school, a run for the state legislature, public policy research and analysis, and a variety of civic engagement, not touching the novel other than to self-publish it in 2005. The combination of my failure to do anything to market the novel and my realization that I had not, in fact, finished refining it prior to publishing it, that I had not ironed out all of the rough spots, that I had not perfected my own vision of what the novel should be, culminated in my decision in the summer of 2013 to do one more set of revisions and refinements, and to republish it as an e-book.
The ebook version of the novel is now available, via the links provided at the top and bottom of this narrative.
As I play with my Colorado Confluence Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Colorado-Confluence/151536731532344), selecting interests and organizations and historical figures to “like” in an attempt to convey the universe of ideas and efforts that I believe we are called upon to try to weave together into coherent wholes; and as I survey my accumulating corpus of posts, wondering how to convey their underlying integrity; and as I struggle with the challenges of my personal life, of unemployment, of seeking a new career advancing this general cause of humanity, and of a wife and daughter who depend on me; I feel the full brunt of both the hope and despair that life serves up in such generous portions.
That is really what this blog, and my life, are all about. The many themes of the blog are all facets of a single orientation, an orientation that includes conceptual and practical dimensions, one that seeks understanding from a variety of angles, and a refinement of our collective ability to both accelerate the growth and deepening of our understanding and improve our ability to implement that understanding in ways which cultivate ever-increasing quality and humanity in our lives.
“Quality” is an interesting word, one explored in subtle ways in Robert Pirsig’s iconic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The debate over what it means is, in many ways, at the heart of our political struggles. Does the quality of life require attention to social justice and material human welfare, or merely attention to individual liberty (narrowly defined as “freedom from state sponsored coercion”)? Does it require intergenerational justice, foresight and proactive attention to probable future problems, or merely short-sighted, individualistic service to immediate needs and wants? Does it have any collective and enduring attributes, or is it merely something in the moment, to be grasped now without regard for future consequences?
One of the difficulties of addressing these questions and their political off-shoots is the differing frames and narratives upon which people rely. But one of the most significant differences in frames and narratives is the one between those that would ever even identify frames and narratives as a salient consideration, and those that are trapped in narrower, shallower, and more rigid conceptualizations of reality. In other words, the most basic ideological divide isn’t between “right” and “left,” but between “aspiring to be more conscious” and “complacent with current consciousness.” To put it more simply, the divide is between those who recognize that they live in an almost infinitely complex and subtle world and those who think that it is all really quite simple and clear.
The social movement that we currently lack, and that we always most profoundly require, is the social movement in advocacy of the deepening of our consciousness, not just as an abstract or self-indulgent hobby, but as the essence of the human enterprise, and the most essential tool in service to our ability to forever increase our liberty and compassion and wisdom and joy, here and elsewhere, now and in the future.
This blog employs what I’ll coin “Coherent Eclecticism” in service to that aspiration. No branch or form of human thought is dismissed, no aspect of the effort denied, no wrinkle or subtlety ignored, to the fullest extent of our individual and collective ability. That does not mean that Coherent Eclecticism treats all ideas and opinions as equal, but rather as equally meriting the full consideration of our reason and imagination and compassion. We start with as few assumptions as possible, revisit conclusions not carefully enough examined, and dedicate ourselves to the refinement of those procedures and methodologies, individually and collectively, that best serve the goal of distilling all thought and action into the wisest, most liberating, most compassionate, and most useful concoction possible.
Coherent Eclecticism implies that apparent contradictions and incompatibilities may not be, that “realism” and “idealism” (the philosophy), ”cynicism” and “idealism” (the attitude), aspects of conservatism and aspects of progressivism, religion and science, imagination and reason, aesthetics and practicality, may all be nodes in a coherent whole, may all serve a single vision and single aspiration. But it is not the arbitrary glomming together of disparate elements; rather, it is the careful articulation of subtly integral elements, the realization of coherence in complexity, of systems subtler and richer than our minds can ever quite fully grasp.
As I briefly describe at the beginning of The Politics of Consciousness, this is one aspect of Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory of “paradigm shifts,” the notion that accumulating anomalies within a coherent understanding lead to a focus on the resolution of those anomalies and a deepening of the understanding, often reconciling what had been apparently contradictory views. One excellent modern example involves The Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory in physics. Throughout the 20th century, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics had both proven themselves indispensable theoretical tools for understanding the subtleties and complexities of our physical universe, and yet they were apparently incompatible, addressing different kinds of phenomena, but essentially contradicting one another. String Theory has, to a large extent, reconciled that apparent incompatibility with a subtler mathematical model that transcends and encompasses both of its predecessors.
I describe this general phenomenon in fictional terms in The Wizards’ Eye, metaphorically synthesizing Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts with Eastern Philosophical notions of Enlightenment or Nirvana, describing a process which leads us into deeper and deeper understandings that are simultaneously rational and spiritual, reductionist and holistic, “noisy” and meditative. The narrative itself reconciles the forms of fiction and exposition, and the realms of Eastern Mysticism and Western Philosophy of Science.
Coherent Eclecticism is apparent, too, in the range of essays and narratives I’ve published on this blog, often seeming to inhabit completely separate realms, but always coalescing into a coherent vision when examined as a whole. The social theoretical essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts may seem at first glance to have little or no connection to the social movement essays in the second box, but, without trying, the threads that weave them together have gradually begun to appear. The most recent addition to the first box is Emotional Contagion, which identifies how the cognitive/social institutional dynamics described in posts such as The Fractal Geometry of Social Change have an emotional element to them. Among the earliest entries to what is now the second box, pulling together the essays that developed and now describe “the politics of reason and goodwill” (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified), are essays that explored that emotional contagion in current political activism, and the importance of being careful about what emotions we are spreading (see, e.g., The Politics of Anger and The Politics of Kindness).
These first two sets of essays, those in the box labelled “the evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems,” and those in the box labelled “the politics of reason and goodwill,” form together the overarching structure of the “coherently eclectic” paradigm developing on this blog. But the other boxes, with their various other focuses, fill in that framework, add other kinds of meat to those bones, get into the details of specific policy areas and specific ideological orientations and specific social and political phenomena, articulating those details with the overarching paradigm that organizes and channels them. And the fictional vignettes and poems celebrate the beauty and wonder of the entirety.
It’s quite a giddy thing to participate in, this dance of consciousness of ours. It is, when you get right down to it, both the means and the ends of all of our aspirations and efforts.
(The following is a modified excerpt from my novel A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology).
The Vaznallam faces wavered and vanished, like images in a pond dispelled by a pebble. Algonion found himself alone in the spherical chamber, surrounded by diffuse light and geometric symmetry; alone in a sanitized asylum devoid of warmth. He lay there on his back in the hard, cold curve of unmelting ice…, in what he thought may well be his tomb, still weak and starving, not knowing what his fate would be, supposing it would be death. But time dragged on, hours, days, weeks, he couldn’t tell, and instead of dying he grew stronger, until he gradually emerged from his morbid stupor. Still too weak to rise, he gradually realized that, miraculously, he was being nourished by the very air he breathed, as though it were the Earth’s own breath reviving him.
Whether the Vaznallam decided to make a pet of him, or a curiosity for study, or had in fact discarded him from their thoughts altogether, his small enclosure, perhaps merely resounding with residual vibrations, undertook his education. At first he mistook it for torture.
It began when his body was still weak. He noticed, through the throbbing in his head, that the triangular panels were no longer the translucent white of ice, but rather softly violet. Then, gradually, indigo. The headache grew worse. Then blue. Still worse. Then green. He turned away and closed his eyes, trying to understand the relationship between the shifting colors of the panels and his pain, and as he did so, his physical distress lessened. He looked again and saw yellow, and eased his anguish more by trying to guess the next color. Closing his eyes, he considered the sequence, and with a sense of discovery realized the answer was orange, replacing the now mild discomfort with a surge of euphoria. But when he looked, the panels were resolving into differentiated colors, an interspersion of red and violet, and the agony blossomed anew.
Each time he resumed his effort to solve the puzzle of the pattern, the discomfort gradually eased, giving way to pleasure when he succeeded. But when he looked to confirm his success, a more complex pattern than expected appeared, along with the return of pain. And so again and again, always such that the solution logically followed from the entire sequence, from translucent white to the most recent arrangement. But each time, the pattern proved itself to be subtler than expected in the very moment of its resolution.
Meanwhile, sounds filled the air, or his mind, a scale at first, that, like the walls, demanded resolution. He hummed or chanted the solution, the next tones in the sequence, only to reveal that the progression was always more complex than the one he had discerned. This continued as he regained his strength, the only way to relieve the suffering being to solve the patterns, though no solution was sufficient. Thus motivated, he solved them ever more rapidly, heightening their complexity all the while, his mind anticipating the increasingly intricate patterns of light and sound, his body emitting the tones and timbres demanded of him.
These two challenges were all that occupied him. Until he was strong enough to move.
Without ever allowing himself to be distracted from the riddles of sound and sight, he noticed a stiffness gradually growing in his limbs. The cramp eased a little as he rose, balancing himself in the curve of the ball, and a little more as he stretched, but came back more forcefully when he sat, and even more so when he tried to recline. He rose again, and found that certain movements provided more relief than others, some approaching physical gratification. As with the patterns of color and tone, each solution, avoiding streams of pain and encountering those of pleasure, revealed a more complex puzzle, continually refining his movements.
He was soon using the entire inner surface of his cell, stepping and rolling along the curve, turning and twisting in the air, gravity always seeming to migrate toward where he made contact, as though the globe were rotating beneath him, as though it rolled to and fro along a larger curve in which it was lodged. Sometimes he evoked aspects of nature; a stalking cat, a swaying tree, an uncoiling serpent, a blossoming flower. As he perfected the forms, or as they perfected him, he almost began to feel that he was becoming these things, that his limbs were leafy and supple with sap, his body as lithe as a jungle predator’s.
These pushes and pulls swept him along, as though he were being carried by a current which flowed unseen. At first he resented the manipulations, thinking what a fool he was to let himself be made to dance on Vaznallam strings. But the thought itself provoked unease, as did all thoughts other than the ongoing resolution of the sensory riddles, until his mind was empty but occupied, focused only on the progression of patterns.
At last he accepted the forces that were moving him, for he understood that he had always been moved by such forces. He had always, in a sense, pursued pleasure and avoided pain, even when subtly so, when the pleasure was self-sacrifice in aid of others; when the pain was knowledge that indulgence today would cost too much tomorrow. Whether in mundane or extraordinary circumstances, he had always responded to a world not of his own making, in ultimately predictable ways. But now, mind and body flowing with the deepest and purest of currents, it was not the chimera of freedom that he sought, but rather the grace of surrender….
Algonion’s dance of mind and body melted his own shell of illusions. As he had continued to discern the sequences by which the patterns changed, he began to discover the pattern by which those sequences themselves changed, this subtler pattern evolving as well according to a pattern of its own, and so on, propelling him into ever deeper currents, constantly approaching the essence underlying them all.
The walls of his cell had long since ceased to exist, or ceased to matter. The sounds and patterns and sensually charged air converged, filling the space surrounding and permeating him. He merged with the tiny triangles of swiftly flowing colors, with the tapestry of tones and tendrils of tactility that he emitted and moved to, anticipating them into the limits of complexity, feeling rather than calculating each next instant. He found himself immersed in a blissful space, a woven effervescence of light and sound and sense. He would never have thought of leaving, perhaps never have thought at all, if not for Sarena’s dreams calling him back. For he suddenly felt her more intensely than ever before, felt her amidst the flowing configurations, a presence so compelling that it awoke him from his trance. And as it did so, the Paths opened up to him, the currents that course everywhere, along more dimensions than merely those of time and space.
He perceived surfaces within surfaces, forms within forms, particles in motion and the structures they comprised. He saw beyond his enclosure, saw that his small sphere rested inside a larger one, tracing intricate designs in the shallow bowl of the latter’s base. And he had glimpses of the past and future as well, some of which he knew Sarena would eventually share; currents surging through myriad possibilities, the stronger the possibility, the stronger the current, forming endless variations of the ellipse of life; some spiralling off into extinction, some drawing together into a single point of light.
He saw the streams that had joined to form him…, the trickle of his early life suddenly fed by gushing streams, a confluence of currents….
(See “Flesh Around A Whim” for a later adventure of Algono’s, in which the chaos of nature’s imps puts this training to the test, and takes it to a whole new level. Also: The Hollow Mountain, The Cloud Gardener, and Prelude to “A Conspiracy of Wizards”, The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”.)
Political discourse habitually loses the forest for the trees, because too rarely do we discuss human consciousness in political terms, though consciousness is both the soil from which all of our other endeavors grow, and the essence of the fruit which those endeavors strive to bear.
Consciousness is both political and evolutionary: It is fought over every step of the way, but carved on a lathe of trial and error such that it transcends, over time, the battles that comprise it. Economist John Maynard Keynes summed up this apparent paradox most eloquently (and humorously): “[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.”
British Biologist Richard Dawkins framed this process in terms of “memes,” cognitions which, like genes, are packets of information which self-replicate (through communication), mutate (through interpretation, synthesis, and innovation), compete for reproductive success (in individual choices of what to believe and what techniques to utilize, which aggregate into social institutions and technological regimes), and thus evolve.
American Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn, at about the same time (the mid-1960s), framed the process as one invigorated by the emergence of dominant paradigms (from the chaos of competing views), thus allowing focused investigation within that paradigm, the subsequent accumulation of anomalies (findings that are incompatible with the paradigm), and an eventual paradigm shift through attention to and resolution of those anomalies.
Combining these two independently developed theories into a single framework, we can discern in the realms of human consciousness and social institutions (which are two sides of a single coin) one very robust manifestation of the ubiquitous interplay of the parts and the whole –the more local (or microcosmic) and the more global (or macrocosmic)– an interplay that exists across levels from the quanta or superstrings of physics to the universe in its entirety, and across our arbitrarily siloed categories of natural phenomena. The reproductive robustness of memes and the shifting of paradigms are interdependent phenomena, with the robustness of memes being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the paradigms into which they coalesce, and the robustness of paradigms being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the memes that comprise them.
For instance, the “anomalies” of Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts are an example of emerging memes that are incompatible with a prevailing paradigm, often displacing now discredited opposing memes that were compatible with that paradigm, thus creating a new set of memes with increasing reproductive success that simultaneously diminish the reproductive robustness of the displaced memes, first by countervailing empirical evidence (and subsequently, for the public at large, by a removal of the stamp of the endorsement of expert opinion), thus leading to an eventual replacement of the entire paradigm. As a result, other memes that comprise that paradigm but are not found in the paradigm that comes to replace it are weakened (though not necessarily eliminated) in tandem with the paradigm itself, even if no other evidence or social processes arose to undermine those memes.
(This also points to the value of attempting conceptually to separate memes and the paradigms to which they belong to some extent, since a discredited paradigm doesn’t necessarily imply that all of the memes that comprise it are similarly discredited, nor do discredited memes within a paradigm necessarily discredit that paradigm in its entirety. So, for instance, there are those who roundly reject the concept of “God,” an amazingly robust meme throughout human history, because they rightly criticize some of the paradigms which have evolved around it, though, as I argue in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, the meme of god and gods may have great positive value to human consciousness if embedded in other kinds of paradigms.)
George Lakoff offered another angle of insight into this set of both political and evolutionary processes in his book The Political Mind. Lakoff emphasizes that the human mind thinks in frames and narratives which can as easily support rational or irrational beliefs and opinions; it is by appealing to the human mind as it really works (by fitting new information into existing frames and narratives), rather than as we would like to believe it works (weighing out competing arguments on their merits, and selecting the most rational one), that particular memes and paradigms (with their implications for how well they serve either reason and goodwill or their opposites) are advanced.
Referring back to paragraph two of this essay (including the quote by John Maynard Keynes), the irrational exploration of “all other alternatives” is a function of how well those alternatives often appeal to our existing frames and narratives, while the eventual triumph of “the rational thing” is a function of how relentlessly utility seeps into those frames and narratives and oh-so-slowly weeds out those that are irrational and self-destructive, creating the paradox of a horrifying prevalence of irrationality in the short run, serving a remarkable florescence of highly sophisticated rational forms in the long run.
The complexity and subtlety of these processes are dazzling, with many apparent contradictions as a result. To begin to explore these complexities and subtleties, please peruse my series of essays that give this paradigm a more precise and comprehensive treatment: 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.
Nested within these intertwined progressions of memes and paradigms are bitter battles over what is and is not true. Scientists might discern a heliocentric solar system, but inquisitors can obstruct and punish the dissemination of this knowledge. There is, however, no a priori reason to assume that either the heretics or the defenders of the faith (whether religious or secular), in any given instance, are on the side of truth or utility: Either can be right, and either can be wrong. History is defined by the accumulation of victories of innovative memes over established memes, but this belies the vaster number of innovative memes that did not prevail, often due to their relative superficiality or naiveté. Just as in biological evolution, in which the vast majority of mutations are disadvantageous to the reproductive success of that gene, so too the vast majority of radical new ideas are less useful to human welfare than their well-established counterparts honed by the genius of time and numbers.
Of course, that genius is forever skewed by concentrations of political and economic power, such that existing memes and paradigms may disproportionately favor those already materially favored, and new ideas that may produce less human welfare may be at least momentarily popular if they are either effectively disseminated by and in service to those with more political and economic power, or if they are products of certain kinds of intense reactions to that power, promising to distribute that which is produced more fairly, but succeeding only in destroying or undermining existing institutions in ways destructive to the interests of the poor and disenfranchised as well as the rich and powerful. Often, some combination of these two forces is at work, as in the case of the current Tea Party Movement.
Many, if not most, marginal extensions of the franchise, on the other hand, have historically led to a more robust rather than less robust production of human welfare, enriching the rich as well as the poor. The lessons of history, therefore, suggest that increasing distributional justice generally increases total wealth, increases social justice, and contributes to the social stability that is conducive to both, but that the increase in distributional justice must not be overly dismissive of the complex and highly functional social institutional landscape that has evolved over time, even though it has evolved to favor the interests of some over others.
Modern political struggles are defined by these dynamics: Conservatives (in theory) defend the tried-and-true wisdom of established institutions, while progressives (in theory) strive to extend the franchise and refine the social institutional landscape in service to human welfare. To the extent that we can all acknowledge the wisdom and utility of both agendas, and devote ourselves collectively to their simultaneous realization, we will have increased the efficiency of this evolutionary process, wasting less time and effort on blind ideological disputes, and devoting more productive energy to cautious innovation. This is not to suggest that we are capable of eliminating partisanship or of living by a happy consensus, but rather that reasonable people of good will can be drawn toward a center defined by the application of careful analysis to reliable data in service to human welfare. Let our disputes be increasingly defined by the limits of our reason rather than by the extent of our bigotry.
More than anything else, my own efforts have always been, and continue to be, focused on human consciousness, and on the goal of ushering in a paradigm shift in how we predominantly perceive and address this inevitable political-evolutionary process. In one sense, the paradigm shift I hope for is the mere continuation of an historical trajectory long underway, passing through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the political revolutions (including our own) informed by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the accelerating stream of social, technological, political, and economic innovations that have ensued ever since.
History, Social Theory, Science, and Philosophy all conspire to impress upon us that change is, in a sense, the only constant. Certainly, the human mind reaches beneath that frothing sea of change, and looks for the constants that underwrite it. But those underlying relative constants, too, like the laws of physics, change, at least as far as our awareness of them is concerned, and we must reach further down still, as Thomas Kuhn and Richard Dawkins (and many others) did, to find the relative constants that underwrite those rules of change (See The Wizards’ Eye for a fantasy-fiction representation of this). As the Taoists understood thousands of years ago, whatever we can reduce to words or equations is not the immutable truth. It is essential, therefore, that while we admire the brilliance of our founding concepts, and respect their power and sophistication, we honor them by understanding that they, like those that preceded them, are meant to grow richer and subtler under the patient lathe of historical experience.
It is in this spirit that I suggest that it is time to recognize that “Liberty,” that most precious and fundamental of our values, should not be treated as the ossified talisman that it has become for so many, but should be appreciated for the living concept that it in reality is. “Liberty,” to too many, merely means “freedom from government.” While that was the core of its meaning at the time of the American Revolution, it has evolved, as good memes do, to embrace the mobilization of our consciousness, of our entire social institutional and technological landscape, to actively augment freedom, to produce and distribute a wealth of sustainable opportunities through which human beings, and the human spirit, can more effectively and enduringly thrive.
For those who find this suggestion heretical, consider the words of Thomas Jefferson himself: “[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Even in Jefferson’s time, the government that defined and enforced property rights was seen to augment rather than interfere with individual liberty. With the growth of the discipline of economics, we have come to understand that the government that reduces transaction costs and internalizes externalities in order to facilitate a more robust and efficient market economy augments individual liberty and human welfare as well. Who now doubts that the government that amended the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery and to extend the franchise to women, and that passed legislation to protect civil rights even from private infringements, augmented individual liberty and human welfare by doing so? And who does not recognize that the expansion of government more “socialist” than any before or since in American history, the institutionalization of free and compulsory public education, is not absolutely necessary to the individual liberty and life-long welfare of all of those who benefit from it?
If the state were to be removed from the equation (ignoring, for this conversation, the foreign and private vortices of organized political economic power that would fill the vacuum), people would band together for predation or defense, violent gangs eventually coalescing into local governments, in a sense pressing the reset button on political history, and leaving us with an undoubtedly more tyrannical government than the one it replaced. The state is an inherent part of the formula, for good or for ill. The challenge of using it for good is the one we must face. The threat to liberty is not state action, but rather failure on any level to ensure equality of opportunity and diffusion of political and economic power: A government captured by any faction is tyrannical, but a government effectively designed to act as the agent of the people is liberating.
Of course, the latter challenge is never fully met. The disparate ideologies and interests of the people ensure that some will never feel that their government is acting as their agent. But this country has laid a brilliant foundation for addressing the challenge, by combining representative democracy with constitutionalism, thus enabling the many to prevail, with constitutional limits protecting minorities from their tyranny. Within this context, government is far more our agent than our enemy.
Doing the best we can with the materials we have is the essence of the human endeavor, to which all reasonable people of good will can and should dedicate themselves. Neither obstinate obstructionists clinging with ideological purity to historical memes unadapted to changing circumstances, nor rash radicals dismissing and disdaining our rich and highly sophisticated social institutional heritage, are contributing most effectively to this enterprise.
Let’s join together in common cause, rational people of good will striving to do the best we can. We will continue to debate the details, and form parties around our differences. But let’s leave blind ideology, whether of the Right or of the Left, on the dust heap of history, and instead, with eyes and minds wide open, use our accumulated wisdom, our historical experience, and our improved techniques, to wear a coat that fits us now, rather than be straight-jacketed by the one that fit us as a child.