November 6, 2017: Down in the dark, beneath the American psyche, some of it’s not so bad

In the September 18 issue of New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan asks what it must be like to live in a tribal society like Syria, Iraq, or the Balkans where the smallest difference defines friend or foe. [1] But we already know, he claims, as we live in America. Where the 18th century hope was that emotion could be tamed by reason, and deep divides “bridged by a culture of compromise,” he writes. For Sullivan we have regressed to more primitive origins of our evolution. “Tribalism, it’s worth remembering,” Sullivan notes, “is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience.”

Sullivan maintains this wasn’t a problem, until recently. “Tribalism only destabilizes a democracy… when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole; when it turns rival tribes into enemies.” It’s also easy. “One of the great attractions of tribalism, is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on.” A condition that Animal Farm and 1984 author George Orwell characterized as a propensity for self-contradiction and indifference to reality. [2]

Today, American tribes are much more about “what we stand against,” than “what we stand for.” As a naturally superstitious species, our polarization is accentuated by a conspiracy theory mindset nurtured by the internet. As Walter Quattrociocch notes, this mindset is a kind of “quasi-religious mentality.” Where we again occupy a mental space, “a bit like the dawn of humanity, when people attributed divinity to storms.” What he characterizes as our Age of Credulity. [3] Fodder for tribes.

In an On Being podcast, The Righteous Mind author, Jonathan Haidt takes the tribal notion a step deeper into the realm of Richard Dawkin’s selfish gene. [4] But with one of two expressions, each having been essential for human survival. Elsewhere differentiated by selection of individual traits favored by Dawkins, or selection of community traits as offered by E. O. Wilson (much to Dawkins’ irritation). For Haidt, liberal or conservative is a function of one or the other of these encoded behaviors. Haidt has even revealed two of their most defining differences with simple tests of imagery. When viewing dots on a screen, his conservative subjects preferred the dots be cast in an orderly fashion. Liberals preferred a variety of distributions. Order for them, it seemed, was equivalent to confinement, hierarchy, and potential abuse of authority.

For Haidt, the more freedom and prosperity people have with markets that cater to wants, including bias-reinforcing media echo chambers, the more our two personality traits will self-segregate like some chemical distillate. “So progress,” host Krista Tippet remarked, “leads to incivility.”

Haidt’s hope for remediation is a revival of civics education on America’s long history of Left and Right with the pairings each is most concerned with: order or reform; stability or change; belonging or autonomy; freedom or equality; responsibility or rights. Having abandoned civics education, these are mysteries of the dark arts in America.

From the same classical-liberal camp of Europe’s Enlightenment we can dig beneath the psyche's surface to a time when these competing priorities became hostile thanks to divisions created by the 1789 French Revolution. Which allows for an interesting implication: that America’s culture wars are the extension of a 220 year conflict without (fortunately) a winner. Such are the implications of Yuval Levin’s Great Debate: Edmond Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. Per Levin, “If political ideas are applications of philosophical ideas—of some understanding of what is true and good in life—then serious political debates must be rooted in different philosophical assumptions.” [5] Arguments between Burke and Paine that set our modern stage were about the priorities those assumptions warrant. Balance was and remains the hard part. Too much order is authoritarian. Too much change is destabilizing.

While Paine courses through my blood, I found Burke more convincing. Burke is not opposed to reform, but to save tradition he wants change to be gradual. A pace the community psyche can absorb over slow time so as not to threaten personal bonds. Society for Burke is about people living with others, indebted and responsible, not demanding and entitled. Society has been a centuries-long experiment to find the best way to live. (See the evolution of law commencing with Ur Nammu 2100 BC.) For Burke, we should not dispose of that learning for a return to square one based on some abstract proto-society of the individual alone in a hostile wilderness that so enamored Paine.

But if we’re to reference the earliest living state as “natural man” from which to extrapolate society, as Paine seeks to do, then based on what we now know, isn’t the first proto-society mother and child? Before Hobbes, Locke, and Paine were individuals in a struggle with nature, they were utterly dependent on mother for survival. To the infant, she must be something like God, providing not only sustenance for the body, but some form of meaning through the infant’s own value reflected from the mother. Does this fundamental arrangement lead the growing child to a sense of entitlement and rights, or debt and responsibility? With foreknowledge that individualism’s evolution would lead to the former, and a stronger view of indebtedness, our Founders might have given us a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

While Burke is too tolerant of transgressions by those in power, Paine is anything but. And not without cause. Paine’s witness to corrupt power makes justice and equality his central concern with perpetual reform a requirement of moral societies. If government fails to be the guardian of rights, Paine’s urge is to burn it down, reboot from that time before social relations and hierarchies. As though such a clean slate could exist in reality without a multitude of leftover alliances. Paine seeks to apply the scientific method to civilization, but it can seem like a surrogate for an axe to grind. Like the scientist’s mathematical model, idealized by perfect spheres and unperturbed parabolas, in the field the scientist finds his model an approximation. A myriad of unmodeled phenomena, from the winds of change to irrational human behavior, yield a different answer. While the scientist adds those phenomena for a more precise solution, Paine seems little concerned for lessons learned that Burke would rather preserve. Both sides have valid arguments, and each goes too far. But we’re better for having both than only one or the other.

And richer still for the great debates between Plato and Aristotle over many of the same Western dichotomies. While this ancient duo roams over wider terrain and they crisscross with Burke and Paine, their disputes elucidate “what is true and good in life.” Their philosophical ideas converted to application-as-politics were the West’s first contest between pairs of opposing priorities for the same cause: the best way to live.

In Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light we find Plato’s Republic “…is all about raising that collective order to the highest… [making] the individual’s health and happiness dependent on the larger political community.” [6] Like Burke, “Plato’s philosophy looks constantly backward, to what we were, or what we’ve lost…” While, like Paine, Aristotle’s is “a philosophy of aspiration.” “Steadily looking forward, to what we can be, rather than what we were.” [7]

And yet, for Plato, now crossing paths with Paine, our existence is a cave of illusions to be escaped from for higher principles. Plato’s politics was a quest for “a foundation more elevated and certain than custom, public opinion, and majority rule.” [8] But for Aristotle the pragmatist, as for Burke, what’s so bad about the cave? It’s what we have, where we are, in the here and now that matters most. Let’s work with that.

For over 2000 years the West has debated what is true and good in life, and ultimately from this, speculations about the best way to live. I’m struck by the repeating theme of duality, and I wonder, is this an inflection of the old mind-body problem? And is the mother and child its first biological expression? What the body needs as material; what the mind needs as meaning.

Fundamentally different, the two require different things. Our bodies are in constant competition with the world outside, or think they are. Our genes don’t know there’s another meal in four hours, they want to gorge. Hence, America’s obesity epidemic. Our body’s concern is with the material world. But the mind has other worries. Especially once age and experience with The Great Reality is recognized for what it is. When despite our myriad of distractions it finally dawns on us that each is biodegradable. Who wants an early start in the recycle? As pastor Forest Church once said, religions are a result “Of being alive and having to die.” [9] Our mind knows this and demands a solution. Competition between the material world with existential realities, clouded by hormones, and tamed by age is bound to have different outcomes for different people over time, and thus, which tribe they swear by. While America’s current, perhaps permanent political vulgarities could convert the Pope to a nihilist, fortunately, we have the treasures of Plato, Aristotle, Burke, and Paine. Down in the dark, beneath the American psyche where foundations of substance lie, some of it’s not so bad.

Until next time, Monday, January 1, 2018


[1] Andrew Sullivan, America Wasn’t Built for HumansSeptember 18, 2017, New York Magazine
[2] George Orwell
[3] Walter Quattrociocch, Inside The Echo Chamber, Scientific American, April 2017
[4] On Being
[5] Yuval Levin, Great Debate: Edmond Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Basic Books, 2014, pg. 43
[6] Arthur Herman The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, Random House, 2014, pg. 62
[7] ibid pg. 52
[8] ibid pg. 28
[9] Bill Moyers, A World of Ideas, Doubleday, 1989
Revised, 2/17/19. Grammar, and mixed up references.
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Published on November 06, 2017 19:51
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