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The Big Picture

It’s true. I’m obsessed with trying to clarify the Big Picture, referring to the full view of our human situation not only inside our ethnic and national pocket cultures, but on the planet and across evolutionary time. Much of our difficulty at present, recurring through history as we tend to get snagged on the same things time and again, is a complication of losing the Big Picture and fixating instead on the troubles at hand.

It’s not that we should ignore these more local troubles and revel philosophically on only abstract and universal, but practically irrelevant things. What I mean by the Big Picture is a frame large enough to include what really needs our attention, fitted with a lens that helps us see the depths of detail and lengths of time required for making wiser, more creative and responsible choices.

In this post I introduce the idea of “culture blocks,” as distinct sets or paradigms of belief, value, and aim that drive the larger process of meaning-making and world-building unique to our species.

Culture can be usefully defined as the invented and almost completely imaginary construction of shared meaning that is downloaded into the consciousness of each new generation. Its construction is managed through a network of traditions, institutions, and ideologies that conspire to channel our animal instincts into outlets and expressions which not only help us get along, but also inspire the realization of our higher potential as a species.

The idea of culture blocks came to me recently as I’ve been reflecting on the strange culture wars breaking out among conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, between those who fantasize a utopian future and others awaiting the apocalypse. As one side looks with bafflement and outrage at the other, neither can understand how anyone in their right mind could subscribe to such ridiculous, delusional, and dangerous notions.

It’s not simply that they cannot agree on something they both see clearly, but that they are looking at entirely different things – or rather, that they are interpreting their situation through completely different paradigms. If your vantage point is located in a different culture block than the other guy, you will not only see things differently but your paradigm will be filtering for a very different reality.

Let’s get my model in front of us and try to make sense of it.

The first culture block is Morality and Religion. My arrows are indicators of time and influence, and the one coming to Morality from the left makes the point that it is probably the first element of culture to arise, with its principal line of influence coming from the past.

Morality is the set of behavioral codes that a people follow in order to get along and enjoy the benefits of social life. Each new generation doesn’t have to figure these codes out for itself, but instead receives them by instruction and example.

If morality carries the consensus on how we ought to behave, Religion anchors (or ‘links back’, religare) these social concerns to the deeper mystery of existence – not only of our provident support in the great web of life, but of that grounding mystery where awareness drops away from personal and temporal concerns into the timeless uplift of being-itself.

Religion carries our intuitions of the grounding mystery into metaphorical expression as myth. Its sacred stories serve as veils of meaning draping a mystery that cannot be explained but only revealed (literally unveiled) in each dramatic recital.

Deep within ourselves we hold a preconscious and ineffable intuition of essential oneness (communion), and religion’s first task is spinning the narrative thread that can guide us down and back again where this intuition can be applied to daily life.

Historically religion has served as the line of influence to a third element of culture, and the first in my second culture block of Politics and Economics. The arrangement of power and authority that preserves morality is given divine warrant and effectively removed from merely secular debate.

Chieftains, kings, priests, presidents, and “the people” themselves are honored as endowed by god with the right to rule. By tying political power and authority to god, who personifies the deep source and support of existence itself, government is provided the ordination it needs.

Especially as society grows larger and more complex, the distribution of wealth and access to natural resources becomes an increasingly pressing concern.

In every example we have from history, those with wealth and resources are either in positions of political power and authority, or else use these to manipulate political leadership in their favor. The one with the gold, rules.

The third culture block is Technology and Science. As necessity is the mother of invention, the need for resources has been a major driver of new technologies. Tools, instruments, machines, weapons, and sophisticated infotech are innovations that typically have their beginnings in the quest to do more with less, to turn a profit or achieve an aim with less investment of time, energy, capital, and labor.

When technology for the manufacturing of tools got repurposed into instruments for the acquisition of knowledge, the scientific enterprise was born. Technology and Science have been co-evolving for millenniums, and the resulting alterations to our cosmology (or model of reality) over that time have been truly revolutionary. By formulating and testing mathematical explanations of order on all scales of magnitude, our knowledge of the universe has grown exponentially.

Now we can place the three culture blocks side by side on a timeline to complete my picture. Each block serves to connect society to a dimension of time: Morality and Religion to the past for anchorage; Politics and Economics to the present challenge of government; Technology and Science to the future of progress.

Together religion and science compose the narratives (i.e., religious myths and scientific theories) that weave our social construction of meaning. By this map we chart our way of life.

An interesting dynamic has been unfolding over the past 2,300 years or so, as updates and revolutions in our scientific model of reality have completely reconstructed the cosmological frame on which religion draped its great myths. The transformation from a vertically oriented (up and down) three-story universe to a radially oriented (out and across) expanding cosmos has complicated our ability to take the myths seriously anymore.

Many are siding with science and against religion, while others are insisting that the myths aren’t myths at all – now a synonym for superstition and fallacy – but rather factual accounts of supernatural realms, metaphysical entities, and miraculous events.

As I have tried to show in other posts, both sides are misinterpreting what originally were (and still are, if we can recover our spiritual intuition) metaphorical depictions of the essential oneness in which we live and move and have our being.

Back to my starting observation about the back-and-forth misunderstanding between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, dreamers and doomsayers. While many of them have important things to say, they may not realize that they are using very different filters (i.e., paradigms, or my term culture blocks) in their constructions of meaning. Consequently they can’t understand each other, which removes any possibility of reaching agreement and living in peace.

Perhaps if we can engage in dialogue fully conscious of where (i.e., in which block) our beliefs, values, and aims are located, we might make some headway together. And by acknowledging that our preferred vantage point is not the only place from which an intelligent perspective can be held, the larger discourse of culture has a better chance of including us all.

 
 

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The American Bipolar Disorder

During the insufferably long campaign circus leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election I offered a perspective on what I believed was the real choice then coming into focus. It wasn’t between Clinton’s domestic and Trump’s international priorities. Nor was it over someone who exposed security secrets of our country, or someone else who denigrates women and minorities. Our decision in November was going to be, really for the first time with such clarity in the history of American politics, whether democracy or capitalism would carry us into the future as a nation.

Everyone knows that our political system was originally set up according to the foundational principles of democracy – empowering citizens to elect their own representatives, assemble around causes that matter to them, protest bad decisions and abuses of leadership, and even to remove incompetent leaders from office as necessary. Democracy’s antitype is monarchy, where one individual rules over all.

As the values of autonomy, reason, and creative authority broke through the thawing ground of the Middle Ages, the imperial arrangement of top-down control became increasingly intolerable. The republican form of democracy instituted among the early colonies and states of America still acknowledged a need for high-level vision and leadership, but it would be ‘the people’ who put them in office, not bloodline, usurpation, or a deep purse – well, okay, that last one has always been more about maintaining an illusion of our equal access as citizens to high political office.

In actual practice, however, political influence most often goes to where the money is – and this makes a good segue to that other force shaping American society. Technically not a political ideology, capitalism is rather a way of organizing (and justifying) an economic system centered in the values of liberty and privacy, where a free (i.e., only minimally regulated) market allows for the production, distribution, and exchange of wealth by individuals and corporations. This was originally a very logical correlate to democracy, sharing its concern that wealth (rather than power) should be liberated from the hands of one or a few and made available to the many.

The framers of our US Constitution were strong proponents of capitalism, and the so-called American Dream has always been more about economic than political aspirations. People do come to America to escape political oppression and persecution in their home countries, but ultimately what they hope for is the opportunity to build their wealth and become financially independent. Early on the role of government was to be minimal, and its interference in our individual pursuit of happiness – long mistaken as the natural consequence of economic success – was carefully sanctioned. America is still for many the Land of Opportunity.

Even in my brief characterization of democracy and capitalism it should be obvious that these two ideologies, one political and the other economic, are driving in opposite directions. As I pointed out in Change Your Lens, Change Your World, their opposition originates in the fundamentally different ways they prioritize the individual and the community. Democracy puts priority on community and regards the individual as a responsible agent in its formation and health, whereas capitalism puts the individual before community, which quickly becomes a mere aggregate of self-interested actors.

In the 2016 Presidential election we had a choice between an advocate of democracy on one hand and an advocate for capitalism on the other. The winner was capitalism.

In this post I’d like to expand our frame to the bigger picture, where the genetic codes of democracy and capitalism are placed on a continuum. Along that continuum are key terms that name distinct modes of human relations. Staying in the middle of this continuum where the tension is more easily managed, but where things can quickly snap and fly apart in opposite directions, are the modes associated with democracy (cooperation) and capitalism (competition).

Of course, the modes of cooperation and competition go beyond politics and economics (think of sports and games, for instance), but I’m trying to diagnose the peculiar form of bipolar disorder that our nation struggles with, so our focus will stay here.

Democracy is basically a political philosophy affirming the primary value and critical role of individuals as co-operators. They work together in a spirit of mutuality – certainly not without some lively competition among their different views and interests – for the purpose of managing a government that upholds their freedoms and clarifies their responsibilities to the community. Together they seek equity, agreement, and alliance around the concerns impacting their shared quality of life.

While equality is the unworkable goal of everyone having an equal share of wealth, access, and influence, equity is closer to Marx’s principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” (It’s important to remember that Marx’s call to revolution was against capitalism and its abuses, not against democracy.)

Farther to the polar left on our continuum is the ideal that democratic visionaries have frequently entertained and tried to realize. Communion is a mode of human relations that comes as close as possible to negating individual differences in the solvent of oneness. When the tension snaps, we are left with a state of being where no distinctions remain, there is nothing for our minds to hold on to, and we are submerged in a mystery that cannot be named. Mystics devote themselves to diving in and letting go, but many of them are notorious misfits when it comes to relating well with others.

On the other side of center, capitalism is an economic philosophy that – particularly in the model of Adam Smith – regards individuals as competitors for a finite quantity of market share and wealth. They could be said to cooperate within the rules and regulations of that market, but their primary interest lies in improving efficiency, gaining an advantage over rivals, and achieving excellence in the product or service they offer. Competition provides opportunities for self-improvement, and the matching appetites of opponents drive their mutual pursuit of excellence, taking the lead where they can.

Farther out to the polar right of our continuum is a mode of human relations which amplifies the differences to such a degree that relationship itself is on the verge of extinction – this time not by dissolving into communion but by bursting apart through conflict. This is where competition loses all sense of rivals cooperating on a field of rules, incentives, and goals and becomes instead a ruthless winner-take-all crusade to crush each other. In conflict, opponents refuse to acknowledge their common ground or shared values – if they can even see these anymore.

In this blog I frequently reflect on what I call ‘genuine community’, which could sound as if I favor only the value-set to the left of center – in other words, that I support democracy and have only bad things to say about capitalism. With my incessant interest in spirituality and our more mystical sensibilities, you might also think that I’m not only left of center but a far leftist when it comes to where I believe we should be. Wouldn’t that be something? All of us submerged in the warm bath of mystic union: no self-regard, nothing to upset us, and no aspirations for the future ….

In fact, my understanding of genuine community is not centered exclusively in communion but includes all four modes of human relations. Yes, even conflict will happen in genuine community as the competing interests of individuals and groups flare occasionally into aggressive confrontation. But a healthy community is capable of containing conflict, marshaling the patience, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, and goodwill necessary for constructive dialogue to take place.

In time, and inside the ground rules of constructive dialogue, opponents discover their common ground and begin working together – first for themselves but eventually for a greater good.

According to this perspective, America is healthiest when democracy empowers its citizens to cooperate in government and community life, at the same time as capitalism provides them with a competitive field where they can sharpen their skills and realize their dreams of prosperity. As a friend of mine recently commented, an ideal situation would be where just-left-of-center Democrats and just-right-of-center Republicans engaged in dialogue, advocacy, and compromise for the wellbeing of all Americans.

Our problem – and this is the heart of our bipolar disorder as a nation in my opinion – is rooted in our apparent inability to stay closer to the center where a healthy balance could be managed. The Republican party is falling farther to the right as the Democrats fall farther left, and the farther apart they get, the less able they are to find common ground and work effectively together. Such extremism (both right and left) throws the larger system into divisions that no longer know how to ‘reach across the aisle’ – so far into opposite ideological directions have they gone.

Now, we should carefully consider the likelihood that our national disorder is really only a projection at the societal level of an imbalance within ourselves individually. Perhaps we have lost our center and that’s why the politicians we elected can’t be the leaders America so desperately needs.

 

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