My thanks to Lowell for allowing me to post here on Blue Virginia the first several installments of this new series, whose message — though it is relevant to the concerns and values animating Blue Virginia — has a scope that goes well outside this site’s proper focus.
Would You Be Interested?
Would you be interested in hearing about a way of understanding our humanity, and the story of our species on this planet, that
- • Explains much about the overall trajectory of human history; and, in particular,
• Provides a basic insight into why our history has been as tormented and destructive as it has been;
• Presents a useful and highly plausible way of comprehending the nature, source, and modus operandi of what has traditionally been called “evil”;
• Shows persuasively that human history should not be seen as human nature writ large, that the ugliness we see in history is not evidence of an ugliness inherent in humanity; and thus, with the case it makes, that we are likely far better creatures than most of us believe,
• Enables us to envision much brighter possibilities for the human future than are current in most contemporary thinking;
• (And most immediately, explains how a destructive force has gained great power in recent times in the American political system, leading to the election of a man whose rise to the presidency would previously have been unthinkable);
–a way of understanding that does these things in a secular framework that builds logically upon some of the best available knowledge:
- what evolution tells us about the development of life on earth,
what history and anthropology tell us about human societies, and
what psychology tells us about how human beings get shaped by their experience?
If your answer to that question is yes, then you are one of the people for whom I am writing this series. For my aim in this series, which begins with this piece, is to deliver to you that “way of understanding,” that theory, that human story.
An Era of Fragmented Vision
If you are interested in that kind of Big Picture way of understanding, you are also, I believe, in a minority in the climate of thought of our times.
Consider: what kind of “story” do we as a culture today tell about ourselves? What sense do we make of the forces or processes that over long stretches of time have borne us forth to be what we are and where we are – as a society, as a civilization, as a species – today?
For most people in contemporary society – at least in its secular components–there’s no real story at all. Just “one damned thing after another.”
It is not just the large component of less educated or less intellectually motivated people that is characterized by this absence of a sense-making story of our kind. Even among the more intellectually inclined, the interest in Big Picture insights is much reduced from where it was, say, a half century ago.
Back in the 1960s – the decade of my own main intellectual formation – the explanatory systems of Freud and Marx provided frameworks through which many thinkers perceived the human story.
These frameworks have since lost much of their prestige and authority. But my point here is not to discuss those ideas, but rather to observe these two striking aspects of the intellectual environment of our times:
• While those Big Picture ideas have receded, nothing much comparable has arisen to take their place.
We have accounts that make connections (specific links, like how the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I planted the seeds of World War II), and some that delineate larger patterns (like the rise of the city states, or the Industrial Revolution).
And we have the essential idea of biological evolution, and the basic perspective of evolutionary psychology that derives from it.
But in the contemporary intellectual world, there has arisen no account that can illuminate the meaning of the overall shape of the human story.
• Even though the absence of any overarching ideas to make sense of the human story leaves an important void in our understanding, people lacking such a story are nonetheless not looking for something to fill that void.
That is why I welcome you rare birds – or at least not-so-common birds — who answered yes.
Because, as I will argue, that void in understanding – the absence of a valid and meaningful story – can be very dangerous for a civilization.
It is important not only to get a “good story” to make sense of ourselves and our world, but also to recognize that there are impediments standing in the way of a good story being absorbed and put to use by our contemporary culture.
The Danger of Not Seeing Things Whole
What does it mean for cultural system if most thinking people neither possess nor seek a Big Picture that makes sense of the human world?
The meaning of things becomes clear only in the context of their interconnections, how they are part of a larger whole. We ourselves experience such meaning only to the extent that we experience those connections and that wholeness, and that we experience our own connection with them.
What we don’t see cannot guide us. What we don’t experience cannot motivate us.
Which means that the lack of such perception and such experience of wholeness helps open the door to the forces of “brokenness” – a force (as I will show) that behaves much like what has traditionally been called “evil.”
That picture of the lack of an encompassing vision of things characteristic of our times, therefore, helps to answer another major question addressed in that “way of understanding” that I began to describe above: namely:
How has it happened that — in America in recent times — so much power has been wielded so destructively?
Or, to put it in a different way (and to quote from my 2015 book WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World—and How We Can Defeat It),
What explains why it is that – in America in recent times – “the power of greed has increased; the power of the lie has increased; the power of blind rage has increased; the power of the spirit of conflict has increased; the power of the lust to dominate has increased”?
As so many people now recognize, the United States now faces a crisis arising in the American power system. The ugliness in our political realm has escalated to a level not seen in living memory. The nation is facing what may well represent the greatest threat to our constitutional order – and one might say to the spirit of the nation — in our history, and almost certainly in the past century and a half.
Millions of people – in the wake of the election of 2016– are suddenly activated to fight against the force that has ascended now in such undisguised form. Which is good.
It would have been far better, however, had this perception and this activation occurred sooner, before the force of brokenness had seized so much power.
But so many people, not making the connections that revealed the nature of the forces at work, did not perceive the meaning of the news –the patterns behind the news — being presented to them daily, which looked too much like “one damned thing after another.”
Good Story Matters
Since the fall of 2004, I have done everything I could to warn my fellow citizens about the destructive force I’ve seen rising on the political right in America.
(That work – which began with the publishing (on the web) of a couple thousand essays, and led into my conducting a two-year campaign for Congress as the 2012 Democratic nominee running against a “representative” of the dark force that I saw gaining power – culminated in the publication in 2015 of the book mentioned above.)
As that book abundantly shows, my seeing what I’ve seen about the crisis in America was an outgrowth of that “way of understanding” that I’ve worked to develop since 1970. And, conversely, my analysis of what’s gone wrong in America in these times has become an integral part of the overall integrative Big Picture that I’m offering here in this series.
“It’s all very well in theory, but…” people sometimes say, preparatory to indicating that even good theory has no genuine connection with reality. But it was because of a theory that civilization could move to the edge of a precipice by entering the age of nuclear weapons. And, I would suggest, the lack of a good theory – the lack of a way of seeing the forces and patterns that shape the human world — has played a role in America’s descent into the age of Donald Trump.
NOTE: Do you want to follow this series? If so, please sign up for newsletter here to be informed whenever a new entry in this series is posted.
Are there people you know who would answer “yes” to the question with which this piece began? If so, please send them the link to this piece.
- I realize that so far I am talking about this “way of understanding” without presenting that understanding – that “better human story” — itself. Those who do not want to wait for me to get into that nitty-gritty in future installments can plunge into it right now by clicking here. That link will take you to the first chapter of my book, first published in 1984, The Parable of the Tribes. It lays out, systematically, the main idea that launched my life’s work. This idea – which claims to explain much of the problematic aspect of the human story –- provides a major piece of the foundation for the answers I am offering to the questions with which this piece began.
NOTE: The comments that follow, below, are from people I’ve asked to serve as my “co-creators” on this project, i.e. to help me make this series as good and effective as possible.
They are people who have known me and my work. And my request of them is that –when the spirit moves them to contribute – they add what they believe will help this series fulfill its purpose and give the readers something of value. I’ve invited them to tell the readers what they think will serve the readers well, and to pose questions or challenges they believe might elicit from me what I should be saying to the readers next.
I am grateful for their attempting to help me find the right path.
I’ve always felt intuitively that we humans are inherently good, that is to say compassionate and altruistic, rather than destructive. Yet, we repeatedly see, throughout human history, the ugliness you reference. If you can articulate for me a theory that ratifies my intuition that this ugliness is not inherent in our nature, a theory that could provide a ground to “envision much brighter possibilities for the human future,” I would be most grateful.
Andy Schmookler responds:
What I can provide, Fred, is an important piece of what you wish for. But I can’t promise to get you all of it.
It is hard to established what our inherent “human nature” is, and how that relates to what we regard as “good” or “evil.” Based on the archaeological, anthropological, and psychological evidence, as I’ve weighed it for more than 40 years, I’ve come to hold a reasonably favorable picture. But I am not going to make great claims about the accuracy of my beliefs.
What I do claim, however, and can establish in what I believed to be a logically irresistible way, is that the ugliness visible in human history can be explained without any need to postulate anything dark in human nature. And I expect that being persuaded of that will lift at least a good part of your burden.
This series will get to that demonstration soon, after a few other pieces of this “integrative vision” get laid down.
If you’re impatient for that demonstration, you can use the link above, at the end of the present essay, and see how The Parable of the Tribes shows why any creature – regardless of its nature – that broke out of the niche in which its species evolved biologically, would plunge into a destructive social evolutionary process like that we see over the millennia of the history of human civilization.
The face of humanity that we see in the history of civilization is as ugly as it is because that inevitable social evolutionary process will both injure the creatures caught up in it, thus inflicting brokenness upon their inborn nature, and exploit that brokenness in ways that magnify that brokenness.
So however good we are by nature inclined to be, I will show, we should understand that the all the human brokenness we see in our world not as human nature writ large but rather as the inevitable consequence of our species having stumbled – simply as a consequence of our intelligence and creativity — into an impossible situation.
This is a very nice invitation to the dance of understanding. You’ve got the right ingredients for a narrative of the type you’re aiming for. But I would have preferred a different order of presentation, one that might have invited more people into the fold.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve learned that you always need to start where people are. And where many people are is dismayed, frightened, and outraged at the direction they see this country going. So I would have recommended you begin with the immediate evil —which is what people are focused on.
Right now, I find that more people in more places all over the world are politically attuned and active than any time I can remember in my 74 years. The women’s march, for example, took place all over the world. Facebook teems with political dialogue. People have come alive, and we are having some impact.
Now we need to understand more. Many do not seek the bigger picture but are caught up in the moment of reacting to TrumpTweets and trolls, wobbling between hope and despair, encouragement and fear. But I think we will be well supported by seeing a larger picture, so we can retain our balance amidst the chaos this Administration deliberately generates to distract from what is going on.
To see what is going on, people need to step back and see a larger picture. So moving from the present moment, you could back up to the intermediate picture – what’s been happening. This is what you’ve been explaining since 2004: what the Republican party has been up to.
It’s true that few have been listening these past dozen years as you’ve been warning about this destructive force that’s captured the Republican Party. But they might listen now. Many liberals have awakened from our slumber, and we are looking around. Your prescience these past dozen years will increase your credibility, and your bigger picture could help us respond now with more clarity and power.
Then, after you move back from the immediate crisis to the intermediate level, you could widen the lens back still further to the bigger picture—the answers to the big questions with which your piece now begins, about the forces that have shaped the human world.
Having begun with people’s immediate concerns, you can lead to something along the lines of, “Why did I see it and few others did? BECAUSE I SEE A BIG PICTURE. Anybody interested?”
Surely, it must be clear that we need to move from where we are now—in this nation and beyond. And I think you will be a good guide on that journey, having spent your adult life in the development of understanding the forces that move history.
And I hope that people will accept your invitation here. I just think that more would do so if you started with where their energy and concerns are right now.
Andy Schmookler responds:
You might be right, Ed, about starting with the immediate crisis and then pulling back by degrees to show the larger picture. But I have good reasons to believe you’re not.
Over the course of more than a decade, I’ve been trying to lead people from the immediate story – what’s happening now that grabs people’s attention – to the larger story, and have had ample opportunity to observe what does and doesn’t get attention and generate enthusiasm. The more I stick with the concrete and immediate, the more “successful” I am.
Even pointing to the intermediate levels seems to leave behind most readers out in the political blogosphere.
For example, I’ve written dozens of pieces about Donald Trump since July of 2015, shortly after he declared. Often, I have tried to show that Trump has become important only because enough of the base of the Republican Party has wanted to make him important and, in turn, that the base has responded favorably to such a man only because for a generation the right-wing media and the leaders of the Republican Party have systematically worked to shape the patterns of thought and feeling of their followers into the form that Trump then stepped in to exploit.
There are, of course, more steps to go after that—the forces that came together to shape the Republican Party into what it has become over the past generation. But the evidence – in terms of numbers of readers, and the nature of the comments – suggest that people were more interested in whatever was the latest thing in the news about what this particular man had said or done.
You suggest, Ed, that the upsurge of activism in Liberal America makes people hungrier for a deeper understanding. I have my doubts that the activation has that effect. It is easier to change the emotional level – the activation from the evocation of fear – than to change patterns of thought, and beyond that people’s basic sense of what constitutes a good picture of the world.
In our times, from what I can see, most people do not see the world as a place dense with interconnections. It’s like there’s been a shipwreck, and the various pieces of the ship are floating around on the surface of the sea, and those who discover the pieces don’t conceive of anything like a ship that those bits of wood and canvas once constituted.
I agree that people are now quite concerned with what the election of Trump has brought to the surface. But I don’t believe that such intense concern translates into an opening for conveying an integrated, three-dimensional picture of a destructive force—a force that has been ascendant in America over the past generation, gaining in power by exploiting even deeper and longer-standing aspects of brokenness in American civilization.
So I think what makes sense is to go straight for those people who, upon reading my opening question at the beginning of this essay, answer “Yes.” And to try to make the journey seem promising enough, and interesting enough, that they’ll come along and see whether the series will deliver on its promise.
All that being said, however, just in case you are more right than I have supposed, I have added that last item in the opening list of things I claim to illuminate.
“What we don’t see cannot guide us. What we don’t experience cannot motivate us.” But, inspire or motivate us to . . .what? I see that having the “Big Picture” can be enriching and even, some would say, improve the human condition, but I would not go so far as to say that it leads to brokenness and evil.
Andy Schmookler responds:
I meant for my point about the costs of lacking a Big Picture to be understood more narrowly, Margee. I did not mean that in general the lack of a Big Picture understanding of the world makes people contributors to “brokenness and evil.”
What I meant was more particularly that in our times, that lack – in much of Liberal America, as a force of destruction was arising on the other side of our political divide – prevented people from understanding “WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST.”
At one point in my book with that title, I ask what it is “that expresses itself in all these ways”: that preys upon the vulnerable, that makes a fight over everything, that divides groups of people against each other, that tramples on hard-won structures of justice and good order, that sacrifices the greater good for selfish advantage, that deceives and manipulates to exploit those who support it.
The purpose of that question was to point to the larger reality all those things add up to: a destructive force, and in particular one that has taken over a major component of the American body politic.
The fact that Liberal America has spent rather little of its attention, over the past however-many years, looking at that “connect-the-dot” reality is reflective of the lack of a habit of looking at the Big Picture.
And that lack has indeed proved a major reason for the ineffectuality of Liberal America in confronting this destructive force, while that force has been consistently attacking – on numerous fronts – everything that Liberal America holds dear.
I’ve used an old saying from baseball: “You can’t hit what you can’t see.” And also, that people are not likely to see what their map of the world does not make provision for. Like a “force of destruction.”
I think of an image from some old movies that I’ve seen: the explorers are trying to find some beast they’ve heard about, and they are at a loss. They are standing in a depression on the ground, which to them looks only like a low spot. Then the camera draws upward and one sees that the depression in which the explorers are standing, in their befuddled state, is a giant footprint.
The opening invitation here—the evocation of a dream, really—is extremely attractive. Though the agenda that follows is explicitly secular, this dream—of a story that includes everything and answers all the most pressing existential questions—is the dream that has propelled the great religions of the world at their often explosive launch moments. More about them in my final comment, below.
I have three brief comments in all.
First, though the challenge here far transcends academe, the dearth of academic effort in recent decades is not quite as extreme as you say. Recent years have seen the coinage of both “deep history” (my favorite exponent here is Nicholas Wade in Before the Dawn) and “big history” (associated with David Christian, whose work has now attracted Bill Gates). Neither of these aspires, quite, to accomplish all that you hope to accomplish with your “big picture” story, but there is at least some significant overlap.
Second, your “big picture” story necessarily competes with other stories that, though not good enough on your terms, are good enough on their own terms. Sometimes, as Yeats knew, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And even among people who are plausible political or ideological allies, a host-guest tension seems inevitable. John would like Mary to fit into his big picture, but Mary—while acknowledging that there is “much merit” in what John says—prefers to have him fit into her big picture. John welcomes Mary as his guest but declines to acknowledge her as his host, and vice versa. I make this observation not to undercut the project, only to note a dimension that it must inevitably encounter, the more so when and if it begins to attract widespread attention.
Third, though the agenda is to create a new and better secular story, the old religious stories are still around. Worldwide, they command much wider allegiance than does even the default “one damned thing after another.” Even in the United States, the religions are very far from dead. Naturalism, to be sure, is the tacit assumption in virtually all of American intellectual life, and it follows from that assumption that religion as a practice, a practical matter, must be on its way out or gone already. One has been accustomed for decades to hear pronouncements to that effect. And yet as the corpse of religion continues to walk, the alarums seem sometimes to come mostly loudly from those very quarters otherwise so certain that the thing is dead, dead, dead.
Why bring this up? Simply because any new, secular, “big picture” story must compete not only with other secular stories, including “one damned thing after another,” but also with these strangely durable religious contenders. You are plainly quite well aware in your opening statements that the propagation of a story and its inherent adequacy are distinct and different challenges. For the moment, I have addressed myself to the former challenge.
Andy Schmookler responds:
Starting with your third point, Jack: I certainly recognize that many in our society, and our world, do have stories—“the old religious stories.” I tried to signal that recognition in the essay above with the phrase “at least in its secular component.”
The next piece in this series will focus more intently on the role of the secularization of much of the modern liberal/intellectual worldview, and on the “empty spaces,” once filled by traditional religions, that process of secularization has created.
It is those with a secular worldview that I am most addressing here, claiming that there is an intellectually honest and secular way to fill some of those most vital “empty spaces.”
As for the problems my “integrative vision” might face from competitive Big Picture views, if my efforts succeed to get attention in those precincts, I would welcome that new set of challenges as a refreshing change from being simply ignored. At this point, I’ll just say that I am not aware of any other Big Picture views of the human story that provide meaningful answers to the questions that I am seeking – and claiming — here to illuminate.
I wonder if the decrease in interest in big frameworks for explaining the human story is the result of the increase in people’s access to vast amounts of information on the Internet. With a quick search, one’s initial questions are often satisfactorily answered so that the deep thinking and connecting “muscles” of the brain may be exercised less.
And I’d like to ask: As you examine the human story, what will be the object of study: the individual or the group, or both?
Andy Schmookler responds:
I think you’re onto something about the abundance of information. I think of it in terms of stimulation. People don’t like to be bored. In the past, the circumstances of life required people to spend a good deal of their time in situations where a feeling of meaningful engagement required that they tune into some deeper place within themselves to experience something stimulating. (Imagine you have hours to spend watching over one’s flock of sheep, or you are sitting in the Greyhound Bus station with nothing to do but wait.) The main alternative to boredom is some kind of deep reflection. But now, more than ever in history, people have access to high-stimulus input from outside themselves—not only the Internet, but video games, hundreds of TV channels, etc. So people form the habit of turning to the easy stimulus, and have less reason to form the habit of contemplation to get to a deeper spiritual space, or to find answers to the big questions.
On your second question, in this series I will try to show how interconnected the individual and socio-cultural levels are. At this point, I would say that many of us do not recognize the extent to which we are the fruit of the world. We do shape ourselves, but before we can do any of that, the “we” that does the shaping has already been shaped by the forces around us. And perhaps it will not inappropriately let any cat out of the bag for me to say that I believe that the most illuminating way to understand “evil” is as a coherent force that works in the world, and through people, rather than something that originates in individuals and is to be seen in terms of “evil people.”
I totally agree with the importance of underlying theory to make sense out of the world we see. And, having followed your work for many years, I think your framework is incredibly important because it explains how we got here and how to fix it to return to wholeness.
But what I feel I need now – as an antidote to our current depressing situation – is a vision of wholeness, of non-brokenness, to inspire me to grapple with this brokenness I see.
Andy Schmookler responds:
Boy, do I know what you mean, Livvie!
For the past couple of years, I’ve felt something quite similar—feeling worn down from my more than twelve years fighting the battle against the dark and destructive forces rising in our nation, wanting to focusing on the good, the true, and the beautiful instead of the evil, the lie, and the ugly.
The next piece here will provide a beginning to what you’re asking for—“a vision of wholeness.” And the one after that will connect the “integrative vision” with that part of wholeness which I’ve been inspired to explore for the past year—a part of our lives worth celebrating. I’m talking, as you’re in a position to have guessed, about “The Sacred Space of Lovers.”
More generally, I believe it is important for all of us, to be able to fix all the brokenness we see around us, to connect ourselves as deeply as possible with Wholeness. In my book WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, a little section (pp. 56-59) bears the title, “Love of Wholeness May Have to Come First, Before Fighting Brokenness.”
That idea came to me out of my own experience. The two times in my life (1970 and 2004) when I felt most strongly called to battle brokenness both followed upon the times in my life when my spirit and mind had been most kindled with a vision of Wholeness.
I hope you’ll continue to ask here for what you need in terms of inspiration. My life-long penchant has been to focus more on the problems that need solving than on the beautiful things worth celebrating. So your inviting me to give you what I can of such a “vision of wholeness” could help correct any such imbalance.
This written as a result of comments I encountered from the conversation community of opednews.com
Someone has privately
communicated with me that he saw this piece as a “teaser” that did not
yet deliver “the meat.”
While it is true that the opening part of
the piece is a scenes-of-coming attractions, which will be shown in the
course of the series, most of the piece is a
characterization of the consciousness (the intellectual habits and maps)
of America in our times.
I make there two rather non-trivial assertions
about the consciousness of our times.
First, that we as a culture are not interested in seeing things whole, in making sense of the big picture.
And second, that the consequence of this failure to see things whole have been disastrous– the rise of a destructive force that has
inflicted great damage on America, and now with the presidency of Donald
Trump is inflicting even deeper damage (and striving to inflict still
Those are not small points. I feel confident there’s much truth to both, and I don’t expect that everyone will respond with agreement right off the bat. Easy agreement would signify that those points hardly needed to be said.
I regard those two points as meat. And it was meat that I deliberately chose to help bring people into following what what is to come.
These points challenge people to examine what they accept about the intellectual habits of our time, and what they practice in their own relationship to their world.
For example, one of the commenters above faults me for writing this long of
an article when I should summarize the whole thing, since people have
“the attention span of a bug.”
Well, what if that attention span is part of the problem?
What if the inability or refusal to do the work necessary to see things more whole, and not just one damned (entertaining?) thing at a time– what if that was part of what needs to change in our culture. That is, needs to change if we are to be able to turn our civilization around, away from the path of destruction and degradation that we have seen for some time now in our political system, and make America more whole again.
away from the current path of destruction and start making America more whole again?
Anyway, this was the meat I chose for openers. Because what I’m doing is inviting people to do a little work of a kind that is not much done in today’s culture. Some sustained, systematic attention as required in order to be able to see something that’s important.
I make the claim that what’s coming is important. How should you deal with that claim?
I ask you: Looking at me, and at what I claim: is there obvious reason to dismiss the claim as too improbable to be taken seriously? But if the claim were plausible, — if there’s reason to think that the claim could be true – true that there’s a Big Picture here that could help in important ways fulfill our desire to make the world more whole — — would that possibility be reason enough for you to check it out?
The meat in the article is part cultural interpretation. But it is also partly a challenge to readers to overcome a kind of sloth and fragmented thinking that has grown too rampant in our times– too rampant to allow us to see very well what’s really going on. To see the ugliness in its full glory. To see the big picture and the nature of the forces that are embattled.
Has the American power system EVER looked this pathological?
How did we let it get this bad? How could we have acted differently?
Shouldn’t the battlefield be seen more clearly than it is on our side?
Try this series.