A Tale of Two Warriors: Part I– The Problem of Power


    the parable of the tribesIt is just over thirty years since my book, The Parable of the Tribes, was first published by the University of California Press. My editor there and I searched for months for the right cover art for the book, and ultimately it was he (Jack Miles, who would later make a very big splash with his own book, God: A Biography) who came up with the winning idea: a most ancient rock painting from the Sahara in Algeria.

    Here’s the cover of the book (image on the right).

    The subtitle of the book, as you can see, is “The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.” And the core idea of the book is that the inevitable lack of regulation of the interactions among human societies, after the breakthrough to civilization, led inevitably to the spread of “the ways of power” (i.e. whatever cultural forms give a society an advantage in the intersocietal struggle for power) throughout the human system.

    Here, in that ancient rock painting, we see clearly illustrated that problem of the struggle for power, with the landscape divided between the bold and more numerous pursuers and the harried and fewer pursued. It serves as a good illustration of the point I make at a pivotal juncture in the presentation of this “problem of power”: “Imagine a group of tribes,” I wrote, “living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace?”

    The book designer then made the excellent decision to take one of the attacking group of warriors, rotate him slightly, and put him on the spine of the book as the book’s emblematic figure.

    This warrior, even by himself, stood as a fitting emblem of the problem I was writing about, the problem of power facing humankind over the millennia of the troubled evolution of civilization.  

    P of T warrior

    A few years after the publication of The Parable of the Tribes, when it came time to print up stationery and business cards for myself, I adopted that figure as my own emblem. True, that figure was the emblem of the problem of power I had felt called to combat, but it was also emblematic of the highest achievement of my first forty years and, moreso, a symbol of my calling, which is to work to solve the problem that this warrior figure represents.

    So this warrior became enmeshed with my own identity.

    And now, here comes my new campaign, to which I have given the name, “Press the Battle.” On September 9, I will be launching here on Blue Virginia the initial vehicle of that new campaign: the first of a series of articles intended to “Light a Fire in Liberal America,” with the goal of getting our national conversation to confront the dark central realities of the crisis in the American power system.

    I have worked with a designer to create an icon for the campaign, and to serve as a graphic for each of those articles. This icon is built around this new figure of a warrior:

    icon for press the battle

    This image in itself is intended as a challenge to Liberal America. And like most challenges, it has evoked some objections.

    More about that in Part II.

    • InkedProfessor

      The image of tribal warfare on your book’s cover seems appropriate, given the book’s treatment of societal evolution.

      But while I agree that “Liberal America” needs to have a fire lit under us, I question the use of Soviet social realist-style, uber-masculinist “battle” imagery to symbolize this campaign. There is already so much bellicosity and nastiness in what passes for public “discussion.” (I note that the “Barbarian” entry directly under your post mentions none other than Rush Limbaugh–one of the worst offenders in this regard.)

      You note that the “problem of power” is when one group doesn’t choose peace. A political example of this that comes to mind is GOP figures’ speaking of a “culture war,” which implies an enemy that must be killed. Yes, theirs is too often a violent rhetoric, but we have to be better than that.

      To energize contemporary progressives in public debate, I wish that we could re-conceive power in a way more along the lines of an MLK. Or a positive slogan (e.g., MSNBC’s “Lean Forward”), and organizing that got me “fired up, ready to go” with the Obama campaign.

      Good luck with your project.

    • InkedProfessor

      is a caricature of the left that we’ve fought since Adlai Stevenson. I am best energized by progressives (e.g., Rachel Maddow) who offer rhetorically strong arguments against conservatism without resorting to the use of violent metaphors. (Interesting back story on the image. It kinda reminds me of a retro Spartacus League poster.)