Home 2019 Elections Better Human Story #8– Prepare for the Best

Better Human Story #8– Prepare for the Best


You can find the earlier entries in this series here.


In a comment on installment # 5  – the entry in this series that presented “the parable of the tribes – I was asked to “delineate specific steps that we can now take that would lead us in a different direction,” i.e. a direction that might create a better world for our children and grandchildren.

My response indicated that I’d deliver something relevant in future installments, but also that the nature of the brokenness of the world is such that “there is no simple formula to get us from here to there. The journey will be like how to get from one mountain to another mountain: one can see the overall direction one must go, but nonetheless, figuring out where to put one’s foot next is always going to be its own challenge.”

Which means that the “specific steps” always have to deal with “the dynamics of how brokenness and wholeness are battling in the present moment.”

(At which point I cited my own record of having recommended that kind of “specific steps” in relation to the crisis in America over the past thirteen years, steps I believe would have served well to turn the battle between the forces of brokenness and those of wholeness in a better direction.)

But in addition to the always important question of where to put one’s foot next in the journey from one mountain to another, there’s another approach as well, one that involves looking at the two mountains as if from a satellite image.

Here’s what I propose with respect to that satellite-eye view.

It’s something I wrote as an op/ed piece to run in the newspapers in my congressional district. It’s a conservative district, and I had no idea how the conservative readership would take these ideas. But I wrote it also for that minority among the readers, i.e. the liberals who I know appreciate my efforts (and who tell me of their pleasure at my putting challenging thoughts in front of their Republican neighbors).

Where There is No Vision, the People Perish (Proverbs, 29:18)

With times as dire as these are — with dark turmoil in our politics threatening the survival of American democracy; with naked greed impeding our response to climate change; with brutal authoritarian regimes in Russia and Turkey and the Philippines; with tens of millions of our fellow citizens buying a world of falsehoods — with all that, it may seem odd to raise the following question:

What, ideally, would we want the human world to look like 500 years from now?

But what is most odd is that we barely ask that question at all.

Why is that so odd?

The first point to be made is that we should know that things will change—a lot. Consider how different our world is from the world of Henry the VIII, who was 500 years before us. Is there any reason to think that the transformations over the next 500 years will be any less profound?

Second, should we not assume that where humankind finds itself 500 years from now will depend a good deal on what we do in the meanwhile? (Consider, for just one example, how much better the results were from the choices made by the victors after World War II than those made after World War I.)

Some decisions made by nations – and other actors – represent important forks in the road.

Third, it is abundantly clear that some among the paths humankind might take would be disastrous. In particular, human civilization could reach a dead end unless humankind finds a way 1) to live in harmony with our planet, instead of destroying it, and 2) to eliminate the possibility of catastrophic warfare involving weapons of mass destruction.

Regarding the first of those potentially civilization-ending possibilities, the long-run survival of civilization requires that humankind learn to live in complete harmony with the earth. Otherwise, civilization will destroy the foundations of its own existence.

We cannot continue to be reckless with the earth, like early civilizations that spread deserts, and like modern civilization that has destabilized the earth’s climate system and unleashed the earth’s sixth great wave of extinctions.

Unless we become more responsible and more respectful in our relationship with the earth – on which we depend for such life-necessities as the food we eat and the air we breathe – human civilization will inevitably bring itself down.

Secondly, civilization needs to build a different kind of order, one that assures that no one has the capacity to end civilization by pulling the nuclear trigger (or otherwise wreak destruction on global civilization from war-technologies not yet invented). We survived the cold war, but it could have been otherwise.

It stands to reason that, given enough time, whatever can happen eventually will happen. Which means that the magnification of humankind’s destructive powers mandates that a global zone of peace must be created, with peace developing deep roots.

These two challenges should suffice to make it clear: a civilization different from today’s will be required if the long-term human future is to be bright.

In addition to these challenges that the civilization of the future must meet, there are also the transformations that we ideally would want for the world our descendants will inhabit: a humane world that is just, healthful, respectful of human dignity, and nurturing of people’s best potentialities.

Once we envision that optimal human future, and note what in our present world will have to change to grow into that desired future world, we can ask: how do we get from here to there?

But, unfortunately, we are not thinking that way. We do not seek to envision that desired future, and we barely consider how we get from here to there. Instead, we are just mindlessly backing into an uncertain future.

Do we assume that just dealing with the immediate, not thinking beyond the next step, represents a sufficient strategy for the human future? Do we assume that the future will take care of itself?

Surely, we shouldn’t.

The fact that civilization might have come to an end in October, 1962, proves that the present global war/peace system is fraught with peril. And the fact that we now confront the perilous challenge of climate change demonstrates that thinking about things only in terms of the next quarter, or the next election, is entirely insufficient to meet the challenge we face.

We need to visualize our desired long-term destination. And then we need to ask: given that hoped-for destination, and given what we know and don’t know, what are the next good steps to take to help us move in that direction?

Perhaps we could begin that process by working to understand – to figure out what it says about our present civilization – that we almost wholly fail to ask what an optimal future civilization would look like, and to steer our course with that in mind.


This is the way that “the parable of the tribes” leads one to think.

If we see the human story only in close-up – the daily newspapers, and even in the perspective of what is generally called “history” – we will envision our future as necessarily just “more of the same.” We know enough to know that in the past people lived without controlling electricity, let alone that they didn’t have smart phones. But before modern technology, the world was still full of wars and cruelty and people filled with a lust for power. And so we will assume that whatever “progress” we may make, the basic contamination of the human world with brokenness will be true in perpetuity.

We will assume, with the (18th century) German philosopher Immanuel Kant, that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

But if we stand back and look at the human story from a greater distance, and behold civilization as the problematic break-out from the order created by life over billions of years – an “experiment” that the system of life just blindly wandered into — a whole other set of possibilities becomes conceivable. Humankind has been navigating in this out-of-control rapids for a mere ten millennia. Gradually, in various ways, we knit together forms of order to contain the anarchy that was inevitable from that break-out and that has continually dashed humankind against the rocks.

It becomes possible to see what we have traditionally called “history” not as our irrevocable fate, but as a time of disorder that may prove but an interval of disorder sandwiched in between two eras of order: the first era of the “natural order” that created us and out of which we emerged, and the second era being of a new kind of order– one to contain the brokenness and to re-establish wholeness by the creature’s design.

A more harmonious partnership between civilization and nature (nature both around and within the human being). Like designing a garden.

It makes all the sense in the world to “prepare for the best,” because the long-view suggests that the best is not only conceivable, but it’s what we quite likely need if we are to avoid the worst, which is what “more of the same” quite plausibly could lead to.

Prepare for the Best as a Personal Ethic

The “parable of the tribes” also was the beginning of my living by an ethic of “prepare for the best.” By which I mean, in this instance, to strive to achieve the best possible scenario for how my work might impact the world. Swinging for the fences.

Earlier installments here (especially # 4)  presumably conveyed some notion of how boundless my ambitions were for that work. I wasn’t sure at the outset if I had the ability to bring it off, but I strongly hoped – and as young and naïve as I was then, I expected — that if I did bring it off, it would change people’s thinking, and thereby change the course we would take as a nation and as a global civilization.

(The closest it came to realizing any such ambition is that a group at the Pentagon, in the 80s, was enthusiastic about the parable of the tribes and had me come in and talk about the ideas. These men were at the rank of colonel, and – a few years later, as the Cold War ended — I figured that if, somehow, the idea had managed to percolate up another level or two, maybe American decision-makers would see what a huge historic opportunity for humankind they’d been dealt. Maybe they’d make the most of that opportunity – the release from the global logjam imposed by forty years of intense superpower competition — to take steps toward reorganizing the world to diminish intersocietal anarchy and thus the reign of raw power.)

Of course, such high hopes were disappointed.

But nonetheless, ever since, whenever the “spirit” has called me to do something, I have continued to prepare for the best. The place of “ambition” in my own character doubtless has something to do with it. But there’s another important dimension to it: when the spirit moves me – when I’ve felt called to some endeavor through contact with the sacred — it kindles a fire that deepens the motivation. The passion that arises in me — when I see the sacred in danger – drives me to want to do everything possible to protect it.

Everything possible means as big an impact as possible. If my goals are limited, that virtually assures that my impact will be as well. (If I square around to bunt, there’s no chance of a home run.) I must at least make the attempt to achieve the best plausible scenario.

Not that it has been a rational process for me. More that it is a natural outcome of the feelings that the fire has kindled in me.

Each time such a fire has been kindled, I’ve envisioned (and then pursued) goals so ambitious that you’d think I was the lead character in some biopic. You know, one of those movies they made in the 30s and 40s where we follow our hero from his modest beginnings up through his becoming someone you’d make a movie about – because he was the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, or because he became an American institution for writing and performing songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Over There.”

My hoped-for scenarios are not less plausible than the success of these biopic heroes appear to be as we see them early in the films. (My hopes seem no less likely of fulfillment, for example, than the chance that Charles Lindbergh, the fly-boy schlepping mail-bags around the Midwest, would someday have four million people turn out on the streets of New York to honor him in a parade decorated by tons of confetti.) Many with high ambitions fail to fulfill them, but only the ambitious make the effort that gets portrayed in those biopics.

Another example of an endeavor in which my ambitions at the outset might have fit into one of those biopics – and there are at least a half dozen such swinging-for-the-fences episodes by now over the past almost half century – was my running for Congress in 2011-12. I ran against a Republican incumbent in a 2:1 Republican district. (Rural, conservative, traditional Shenandoah Valley.) This 20-year incumbent (Bob Goodlatte) represented only poorly (mostly through mere gestures) the interests of the people of this district, but of the fundamental dishonesty of the Republican Party of these times he was an excellent representative. My campaign slogan was “Truth. For a change.”

When I felt “called” to launch this campaign, the “prepare for the best” image that I envisioned, and that inspired me, was not so much that I would unseat that incumbent, though I did my best to do that. Rather, the hoped-for scenario was that I would be able to take my message national. (In other words, running for Congress was a continuation of the same mission that had inspired me to write my blog NoneSoBlind some years before, but casting that mission into a new form.)

Here’s how I imagined my campaign getting my message national exposure: I figured that a candidate like me, running in a district like mine, with a message like mine, could make an excellent story. (I’ve read plenty of such “profiles” with less intrinsically interesting meat on them than that.)

I could imagine such a story being written up for New York Times Magazine. I could imagine getting an interview on “The Rachel Maddow Show.” (And if that went well, my history with guest appearances on radio suggested, that first interview just conceivably might lead to more such appearances.)

I still believe all that was quite plausible. But it didn’t happen.

(I did have one shining moment of “going national”: a six-minute speech I gave at a big political banquet just happened to get recorded, and then the video of it, posted on Daily Kos,    went viral. That brief speech, by the way, contains within it – by implication – some substantial chunk of my Big Picture.)

No biopic for me. I fell short.

The campaign was eminently worthwhile on the smaller scale of the District, however. It was a great experience for April and me, and our effort was much appreciated by our side of the electorate. No home run, but a clean single (if not a stand-up double).

Most of the time, for all my swinging for the fences, I don’t strike out—even in terms of impact. I try to design my undertakings so that the limitless ambition is not (to change the metaphor) like trying to jump across a 100-yard chasm, i.e. an effort in which to fall short is to plunge into the abyss. Rather, I try to design my leaps so that even if I fall short, I’ll land respectably.

Nonetheless, in terms of its emotional requirements, this “prepare for the best” approach has its problems. To pursue the highest ambitions, despite the high probability of their remaining unfulfilled, is a recipe for disappointment. Sometimes, falling short feels like failure, and I hate the feeling of failure.

Dealing with all that disappointment has been one of the great challenges in my life.

The fact that I continue to swing for the fences, despite failing to hit the home runs, and despite my abhorrence of the feeling of failure, points toward another way this path grows out of the contact with “the sacred.” It’s about resilience.

As I said above, the love of the sacred helps explain the “why” of the “prepare for the best” approach. But it is being “fed” by the sacred that helps explain the “how.”

For all the disappointment, and the real pain that it has often brought me, whenever I renew my contact with the sacred, my well gets fed by an underground spring.

Returning therefore to the question of the benefits of taking on this “integrative vision,” if it can bring you to greater contact with the sacred, it will fortify your own spirit, and that will make you stronger in your service to your own most sacred values.

What “Prepare for the Best” Means with This Series

This series is also a “prepare for the best” mission, but in a somewhat different way.

In all my previous missions, my hoped-for scenario involved more or less immediate impact. (With The Parable of the Tribes, I knew it would take me years to bring the work to full fruition, but I hoped that once it was out into the world, it would swiftly make a “splash”—i.e. that it would quickly have an impact on people’s thinking, and eventually on people’s actions.)

The project on which such hopes for immediate impact most dictated my course of action was with the publication of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, in 2015. It was, in fact, a self-publication –my only self-published book — because I thought it important for that message to get out into the nation in time to have a chance to impact the 2016 election. And self-publishing the book was the only way that could happen.

I knew this was a long shot, but it turned out to be an even longer shot than I’d figured because I under-estimated how virtually insuperable are the obstacles for getting attention to a self-published book.  (E.g., the New York Times won’t even consider reviewing such a book.) So, although I did write and publish that book in time to affect the election, I had no way to reach a readership large enough to matter — in terms of the national conversation I was hoping to shift.

It was actually the failure of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST that set the stage for this series. (Yes, I hate to say it, but the f-word – failure – does apply to that effort. No home run, not even getting on base.) Here’s how this series grew out of that failure.

I’m in my 70s now, and I’m compelled to recognize that the time is not that distant that I’ll no longer be around. Imagining that time, I can see that the ideas in The Parable of the Tribes might survive me. They are out there. But the larger “integrative vision” – which contains the parable of the tribes as well as all the other parts developed in the past 35 years—that vision has previously appeared only in WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST. And that book has not been disseminated widely enough to prevent its having essentially disappeared from the world a generation hence.

So I found myself thinking: if I died now, that “integrative vision” could be lost forever.

And if that vision could be valuable for the world – if it’s true, as I feel in my gut, that this vision has the potential to help the world grow in more whole directions — its simply disappearing (and thus going to waste) would not be OK.

So I asked myself, how can I prevent its extinction? And that led to my thinking about the possibility of doing this series.

As part of that thinking process, I had a conversation with my friend (and member of this series’ co-creators group) David Spangler. It was that conversation that resolved my doubts about embarking on this “Better Human Story” effort.

David agreed with me on this (a point I made in the first installment): the intellectual climate of today (in America at least) is not receptive to Big Picture ideas. He himself has observed that. But ways of thinking change, he said. And for that time “when a new tide comes in,” he said — i.e. for a possible coming era when people feel a need for something like what my “integrative vision” provides — “it’s important to get the ideas out there.”

Above all, what that conversation did was encourage me to shoot for a new kind of “prepare for the best” scenario: I launched this “Á Better Human Story” series as a seed being sent out into the future.

For an immediate impact, what would be required is some kind of “catching fire” in the minds of many. At least many thousands of people would have to jump on board. Maybe many tens of thousands.

But for a seed into the future, I am guessing, all that’s needed is a couple of hundred people who absorb the ideas with enough seriousness that, if that “tide” has come in, say, twenty-five years from now, the ideas will be sufficiently present in the cultural system to germinate in that then-more-receptive intellectual climate.

That goal –to find a couple of hundred people serious in the right ways — doesn’t sound impossible. Even in an era where people don’t hunger for deep understanding of the Big Picture, even with an intellectual culture that doesn’t think in terms of putting the pieces together, there are some human anachronisms running around. (Anachronisms in being either behind their times, or ahead of their times, or both.)

Like the Marines, I’m looking for “a few good [people].”

(It should be noted that it is because my goal is to find a relatively few good people of that kind –serious, with muscular minds — that I’ve thought it fitting to write entries of some length, rather than to cater to the current penchant for the quick-and-dirty. Brief is fine. But in trying to convey a vision that requires assembling plenty even of bigger pieces to create the whole picture, making each piece fairly substantial seems the only sensible strategy of presentation. And I figured that the people I’m looking for—i.e. those who might carry a seed of visionary thought into the future—are not the kind of people who will blanche at having to read something longer than an op/ed.)

Seeds into the future. No expectation of big splash in the present.

Still rather iffy. Will there be such a future intellectual climate, in which people feel a need for what this “Better Human Story” provides? And if such a time did come, will the ideas in this series be sufficiently present in enough people’s minds to be brought into the conversation?

Iffy, but not impossible. And that fence-in-the-future is what I’m swinging for here.

Should I Be Swinging for a Nearer Fence?

But then my brother – the same brother (I only have one) who was quoted earlier saying “Liberal America can finally see evil, they can see it in Trump ” – has suggested I should not give up on having an immediate impact. He thinks that in this time, when people are seeing all the brokenness this president embodies, enough people will want to understand how something like this could happen.

How did America get to this place where such a man like this could be chosen, by the American electorate, to be president? How did things in America move so far in the direction of brokenness?

And, Ed says, “You provide an answer that works. Your ‘vision’ can take them one level down to see the nature of the force that brought us here. And for those who want to get to the deeper level, that explains how such a force arises and operates, you’ve provide that as well. You can give people a ‘box’ to put their current intense experience of ‘evil’ into.”

I remain skeptical. I’m skeptical about how many people in today’s America really care whether they see beyond Trump to the force of which he is a manifestation. Even more skeptical about how many care about understanding the deeper level at which a force of “brokenness” contends with a force of “brokenness” over which will shape the human world.

I’m skeptical because, time after time, I’ve witnessed how people respond, and don’t respond, as I offer pieces that both illuminate the immediate and use the immediate to point to the deeper level. Mostly, people note the former and seem not to notice the latter.

But then, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these times have moved people into places they have not previously been. Maybe a new appetite has arisen with such blatant brokenness now coming at us daily in such grotesque form.

The big crowds in the street that did not show up for, say, the theft of a Supreme Court seat – the theft of a Supreme Court majority – in 2016, have showed up now that Trump is president. New activism, and who’s to say that people are not ready to think in new ways as well?

So let me close by inviting you to consider, as you read — in the coming installments, my explanation of the nature, origins, and workings of evil – whether (like my brother Ed) you think there’s a more immediate “fence” to be swinging for. I.e. whether this vision — presented in some, presumably accessible form — could have a useful impact in this immediate crisis.

I’d like to know what you think about this “immediate impact vs. seeeds into the future” question.


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.


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.


Aaron Schmookler:

I find myself incredulous — and in turn, paralyzed somewhat by my feeling incredulous — at how many people still support Trump. I can’t comprehend how such nakedly fascistic behaviors and manipulations can be permitted to stand. I can’t comprehend how the other branches of government — like the legislature — essentially continue with business as usual instead of stopping everything to communicate to the White House that this will not stand.

And, when I find myself staring, mouth agape, I remember something I learned in my training as a hang-glider pilot — “Positive Target Identification.”

If you [as a hang=glinder] are coming into a large field with a single tree, if you think, “Don’t hit the tree. Don’t hit the tree,” and stare at the tree in order to be sure you’re avoiding it, you will fly straight into the tree.

The way our nervous system is constructed, we go where our attention goes.

Which is not to say ignore the tree. We must be aware, cognizant, alert to the tree. At the same time, it’s critical to have and to hold a specific and deliberate vision.

The wholeness you describe — and the [opposing] force that comprises that “it” — must be described in detail. We and our countrymen must be able to envision [that desired destination] it. And not only that, we need to be able to believe it’s possible. And we need to see the path.

So I’m glad for the spelling out that you’re doing.

And, can we enroll our more conservative friends in that vision? If we can arrive together at an inspired vision for the future that holds American ideals (and pare out the BS from American conservatism’s vision from false values but allows them to see their conservative ideals included in the model) then we can rally toward something.

It’s vision, I think — inclusive vision — that can win people over their entranced allegiance to their “side.” It’s inspired vision alone that people can use to compare and contrast to the behaviors of our leaders.

Andy Schmookler:

Thank you for that, Aaron. Funny you should ask “can we enroll our more conservative friends in that vision.” I have just drafted a letter to send to the radio station in my conservative area where I have appeared in various ways over the past quarter century. (This was described in installment # 6.) The letter proposes that the station enable me to do a new show.

Here’s the key paragraph from that letter that relates to your point about enrolling conservatives in some sort of vision:

It would be a call-in show inviting Americans of goodwill to set aside, for the sake of this conversation, the matters over which we are in conflict, and see what we can agree on regarding what kind of America we want for our kids.

I go on briefly to say:

Our politics are supposed to be the way we, as a people, have such a conversation. But – for whatever reasons we might give – our politics are not functioning that way right now. (And, indeed, haven’t for some years.)

This radio show – which might have the name “The America We Want for our Children” – would be an attempt to foster the kind of constructive conversation that the nation needs, but is not getting.

In terms of whether the station will give me the space to attempt such constructive conversation in search of a shared vision for a better America, I’d say it is a long shot. But hey, I’m prepared for the best! J


Fred Andrle:

Andy, while I agree that we, collectively, don’t do anywhere near enough envisioning of the humane destination you encourage , I’d like to give credit to those who do so envision and act upon that perception.

I think that many share your goal of a future humanity in accord with the earth and absent strife and warfare. They are working toward such a future. For example, the climate scientists who have for years warned of the global warming risk. Scientists at the Byrd Polar Research Institute at Ohio State University have been measuring climate change and speaking out about the danger of human-caused warming for more than a decade.

In terms of issues of war and peace, there are numerous organizations whose goal is a conflict-free future, including the American Friends Service Committee – a Quaker organization, the Christian Peacemaker teams, and the Nobel prize winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Just a few of many I could name. I think they do far more than just  “… dealing with the immediate.” And I also believe millions of people unorganized “ … envision that optimal human future.” I think many act as a result of their contact with the sacred, just as you do.

Your presentation of an integrative vision has the possibility of increasing the number of those who share this goal, and may well inspire them to action. That’s all to the good.. We need many more people engaged in this work in order to bring about the humane future you are dedicated to working toward.

Andy Schmookler:

You are certainly right, Fred, that many people want and are working for such things as ecological harmony and world peace for our future. I never intended to imply otherwise.

But that wanting and that working do not equate to truly envisioning that better future. By which I mean, providing a vision of that future that inspires us toward ideal (but conceivable) possibilities.

 (BTW, I do not claim that I have offered much in the way of such inspiring ideal pictures much myself.)

It is the matter of inspiring us about that possible better human future that is the core issue here. And my point was that we as a culture/society/nation devote nearly enough time and creative energy to it.

In America in our times, we have almost no conversation about where we want to be a generation from now, let alone in 500 years. When Jimmy Carter was President, he set up a group to look into the future. (I sought to work with that group, back in 1979.) Has any president since then taken the future that seriously?

When was the last time any of our leaders presented an image of an American future (more than a couple of years ahead) that inspired us to strive toward that ideal?

Such images of an ideal are possible, and they can be powerful. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech worked in such a way:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

FDR provided a vision that inspires with his “I See an America” speech:

I see an America where factory workers are not discarded after they reach their prime, where there is no endless chain of poverty from generation to generation, where impoverished farmers and farm hands do not become homeless wanderers, where monopoly does not make youth a beggar for a job.

I see an America whose rivers and valleys and lakes—hills and streams and plains—the mountains over our land and nature’s wealth deep under the earth—are protected as the rightful heritage of all the people.

Images of the ideal future. Images that inspire. We have way too few of them.


Jack Miles:

I am quite taken with the phrase “prepare for the best.” In a context of world conflict (and the Parable of the Tribes is centrally about conflict), preparing for the best would be preparing for friendship with your erstwhile enemies. Such preparation begins, of course, in the imagination: imagining the paths that amity would take as it replaced enmity.

Joseph Nye, in international relations at Harvard, attracted quite a bit of attention with his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. In effect, Nye invited his readers to recall that if, after von Clausewitz, war is politics by other means, then the end goal is properly understood to be not military victory but political success. But one can achieve political success, circumventing war, by becoming the friend that everyone most wants to have rather than the enemy that everyone most fears. According to some recent reports, China—with an elaborate program of “foreign aid,” to use the American term of the post-WWII era when American influence was so pervasive—is pursuing a kind of “soft power” agenda, especially in Africa. On the one hand, it presents the “Chinese way” as the best way, just as the USA presented “the American way” as best. On the other hand, it offers friendship accompanied by material incentives. Whether American foreign aid half a century ago or Chinese development today really served or serves the recipient more than it served or serves the donor can, of course, be questioned and often enough has been questioned. But at best, such efforts by promoting friendship, either turning past enemies into current friends or bringing strangers into friendly relations, are preparations for the best.

American soft power surely must be at low ebb just now, and one must wonder about even American hard power. The political ends that would have been served by military victory in all of our most recent post-World War II wars have not been met. In one word, we have not won; our vaunted military “team” has suffered a string of effective losses. And yet we remain the enemy that everyone most fears, a trend hugely exacerbated by the election of Donald J. Trump. Our short-term hope must be that the tide beginning to flow against him will grow stronger, yielding a greater opening for liberal alternatives including your “better story”:


Andy Schmookler:

I found your comment, Jack, quite eloquent and lovely—right up to the point where you say that “we remain the enemy that everyone most fears.”

If that is to be taken, as it seems that you intend it, to be about a long stretch of time and not just with Trump as president, that does not feel true to me. Two major areas of the world where the United States remains the friend that other nations and peoples most rely upon include: Europe, where Trump’s reluctance to endorse the collective security commitments of NATO caused distress across Europe, especially among those closest to Russia, which has already impinged upon two of its neighbors; and Asia, where a variety of nations around an ambitious China (which is building military islands in the disputed South China Sea) look to the United States as a check to their powerful neighbor.

But that aside, I really like your emphasis on making the priority to achieve political ends (rather than to gain dominance), on cultivating soft power, and on making friends around the world in order to replace enmity and conflict with amity and the ability to achieve common goals.


Ed Schmookler:

When I read your piece, what stands out the most for me is your pointing  to the “well”  — to the sacred.

As you say, there is no way we can see what will come. We can, however — as you also say — use our vision to know where we want to go.  To work toward our best future, our vision needs to be grounded in our deepest values:  in the sacred.

Envisioning our future begins with understanding our present.  We can see where we are now.  We can see it either superficially or deeply — reactively, or with a deep sense of understanding of what is most important to us.

The demented occupier of the White House helps us to see more clearly what our values are not and therefore also what they are.  He is also a master of distraction, arousing hatred, fear, and reactivity, while robbing the poor and middle class and giving to the rich.

If we are to move forward clearly, we must know where we want to go.  And the way away from distraction, reactivity, and brokenness is to root ourselves deeply in what is sacred to us, and to let ourselves be guided by that.

Andy Schmookler:

I’m very glad, Ed, that you’ve stressed the importance of rooting “ourselves deeply in what is sacred to us, and letting ourselves be guided by that.” My guess is that in the historical “battle between good and evil,” that approach has driven much that has advanced “the good” in our world.

(There is also, however, the problem that with broken people, the perception of “the sacred” can become profoundly entangled in brokenness. “Blood and soil” represented a kind of expression of some people’s sense of what’s sacred.)

Another point you make that I want to emphasize: how the profoundly broken person now occupying the American presidency “helps us to see more clearly what our values are not and therefore also what they are.”

I don’t remember whether you and I have talked about this, or if this is just another episode in our long history of finding that we’ve been thinking independently along much the same paths. But this was the main idea that came to me in the early weeks of the Trump’s presidency: that Trump creates an opening for leadership to arise to inspire us Americans to a vision of our ideals, using all the dimensions of those ideals that Trump is assaulting.

I actually tried recruiting a young Democratic figure – who had gained semi-prominence at a national level – to play that role: leave to others the job of going directly after Trump, and instead to move swiftly from the visible violation of our norms and ideals to displaying, explaining, and celebrating those ideals. (This fellow, as it happens, took on a different – and also important – mission having to do with protecting Americans’ right to vote.)

What I ended up doing instead was writing a piece with the title “Trump and the American Spirit: Turning This Lemon into Lemonade.”   This piece was published at the beginning of June.

I introduced the piece this way:

I believe strongly that even apparently implacable “realities” can be transformed by creativity at the level of the spirit. Which means that when one is in a “bad situation,” the challenge is to look for ways in which the unfolding of the situation can be re-routed onto a more positive path.*

The presidency of Donald Trump is surely such a situation, calling for some transformative move, at the level of the spirit, that can turn our national crisis to good ends.

And the main idea I put this way:

Use all the ways that Trump tramples on American norms and ideals to highlight and promote those norms and ideals. Awaken the American people to those components of our heritage that have done important good, explaining how they have worked over the generations to foster the blessings that Americans have enjoyed.

And then I went on to illustrate how this might be done with respect to a couple of vital American norms already under attack from Trump, such as an independent judiciary and a free press.

Part of how something like Trump can happen, I believe, is that too many Americans lack the basic civic education to enable them to understand how America was set up, and how the good qualities of the lives of Americans over the generations have depended upon the valuable components of that set up.

So what seemed called for was a message of both education and inspiration, so that fewer people would be accomplices of the brokenness and more people would rally to defend the wholeness that has made “liberty and justice for all,” if not a reality, then at least more of a reality than most of humankind has experienced over the millennia.


Gail Goldberg:

There is such great crisis in these issues, that I would urge you, and all of us, to work for the immediate future, and someone like you, with an integrative vision, to work for both the immediate and the long-run.

You remind us of 2 apocalyptic dangers. (BTW, I believe there is a 3rd, which may be only somewhat less apocalyptic, but nevertheless an insidious erosion).*

I imagine that April must also feel frustration that folks do not make themselves knowledgable and do not fully grasp the dangers of climate change. This must surely have to do with the unfortunate fact that we were not evolved to feel and make choices about the future, even though some, not enough, among us are able to think about it.

Even Al Gore’s vivid (seemed so at the time) Power Point movie did not rivet people’s decision-making attention to significantly enough change individual behaviors or move enough folks to demand government ones. This is because we are so geared toward immediate gratification as individuals, and there are not enough rational choice-makers. The ambient attitude seems to be, “global warming is not going to change MY life, not that much. My kids and grandkids? Someone will have figured it out by then.”

In our environment of evolutionary adaptedness, it did not matter that our decisions were based upon the present and the near future, and in fact it was an advantage.

Most of us don’t remember the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as it happened. But now that nuclear destruction is again being threatened, we readily call up images of those old pictures and newsreels and remember the sickening death toll and equally sickening statistics about illness and mutations. And now we know it would only take minutes for it to happen again.

People are scared, and they could get more scared if those images and statistics were presented again. The reason the large majority of people won’t effectively demand change in this instance is that most of us believe that our little voices cannot make change at the governmental, let alone global level. In the two cases described, the distance between our decisions and impact is too great to bring sufficient people to action.

I am saying that MOST people need to feel the immediacy of impact in order to get motivated to do anything about it. Sometimes the immediacy can be brought about by artificial means. I remember, for instance, people in New Jersey telling me, with resentment, they “had to” recycle in order to avoid being fined for having recyclables in their trash.

But negative motivation only works to change small behaviors. Systemic change may require that individuals become inspired by a vision of wholeness, with fear as a counterbalancing impetus. Pictures of dead lakes, projections of death tolls, flooding, loss of biodiversity, when brought into the senses of vision, hearing, and also visual imagination have an emotional impact that information and statistical or theoretical projections cannot.

I understand the power of denial, such that these sensory depictions can be labelled ‘alarmist.’ Nevertheless, our primitive processing is more potent than is our cognitive processing for most of us, as propagandists know full well. Remember the difference it made in people’s attitudes toward Viet Nam when rows and rows of pictures of the dead were posted in – was it Life – magazine? Numbers and statistics did not have a small fraction of the impact.

I have said this before, Andy. What I think might be helpful is if you take your prodigious ability to recognize and articulate the Big Picture, and partner with someone who understands your vision and is equally talented at communicating in a way that “the masses” can grasp, emotionally and cognitively, although the cognitive part will be partial. You need the folks with IQs of 80-119 too, even after the germ is planted with 200 of 120+.

In “What We’re Up Against,” you envisioned small working groups growing and spreading your ideas and vision. These groups may take on some of these strategies of emotional communication to further promote your thinking and inspire action.

*I will not elaborate here but there is a lot of evidence that the erosion of the human potential is coming about through the genetic and individual impact of pollutants like aluminum and other metals, differential reproduction rates, poor nutrition and obesity, opioids, and other chemicals. Birth defects and high/low birthweights are increasing, as are babies born addicted.

Andy Schmookler:

Thank you, Gail, for these encouragements. A couple of points you make that I’ll address briefly.

It is true, and important, that the powers we humans now wield go way beyond anything that was true during the time in which we evolved biologically. And you are certainly right that such a mismatch must be a source of some of our difficulties in responding appropriately to long-term challenges.

Nonetheless, or at least so I understand, the Iroquois tribe of Native Americans made their decisions in a very far-sighted way—requiring that thought be given to how a course of action would affect the “seventh generation” from the present. Which would seem to indicate that we humans are at least capable of taking the needs of the distant future into account, and not just being slaves to our orientation toward gratification in the present.

Another point you make: that I should “partner with someone who understands your vision and is equally talented at communicating in a way that “the masses” can grasp…”

My first response to this is: I’d love to have such a partner. Over the years, no one has stepped forward. (Well, back in the 80s, there was someone who wanted to make the P of T into a film, but that project never got off the ground.)

A second response is that, after thinking about this for years, I do not believe that what I have to offer actually can be made that simple. Or, to put it another way, if you make it simple, you get to a proposition that is either already out there, or that will not be persuasive.

An example of “already out there”: nobody needs me to put the idea of “sustainability” into the culture. That important idea/value has been out there for decades. My “integrative vision” provides a large overall context that helps clarify the necessity for sustainability. But that gets us back to the complex picture.

An example of “will not be persuasive” could be the statement – comprehensible to the masses—that “history is not human nature writ large,” or that “the destructiveness we see in history is the result not of human nature but of humankind being put into an impossible situation.”

I believe that a great many people could understand what those statements assert. But that their thinking would not be affected because they’d be dubious about their validity. Persuading them would require their following the logic that makes that conclusion irresistible. And that, again, gets us back to the complex picture.

As I wrote in WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, I believe that complex ideas can become general in the society if there are enough people who have done the work to understand them to disseminate them to others who would accept them on faith.

I’m not sure how well my ideas can be popularized to reach directly to the many. But boy, I sure would be delighted for someone with such skills to try!


Philip Kanellopoulos:

In ‘The Parable of the Tribes’, you wrote of the reasons people don’t typically seek an answer to what determines social evolution. I believe one answer you gave is that they think they already know the answer. This is possibly related to the reason why more people don’t imagine a future centuries ahead. Perhaps many have begun to imagine future and found it lacking, or have been frightened to imagine it, due to their flawed, or at least incomplete, conception of human nature. Perhaps any potential they do see simply isn’t good enough in their eyes to warrant human survival. Obviously, to the extent this is part of the problem, a Better Human Story has incredible potential to help save us. It represents practically a new mythology, a new story we can tell ourselves about who we truly are — a species worth saving.

I agree that our political system is as broken as it’s been in at least a century. However, is it possible that the greater brokenness visible now is reflected more in our governing institutions — the state and its corporations — than in the American electorate itself? The economic and political inequality that plagues America is evidence of the brokenness, certainly, but may also be the leading cause of its increasing dominance within the halls of government and in the media. After all, Mr. Trump was and is one of the least popular politicians in American history, while Mr. Sanders — a decent and honorable man and a social democrat — is currently the most popular politician in America.

Regarding seeds into the future: Since I first read ‘The Parable of the Tribes’, I’ve felt your work was ahead of its time, because of its revolutionary nature. It’s not especially surprising to me that the monumental importance of your ideas wouldn’t be immediately understood by establishment institutions and liberal Americans of some modest privilege. Unfortunately, your work hasn’t served power, and I mean that as a compliment. Is it possible that the people most receptive to a Better Human Story will likely be those who’ve been most marginalized by the currently dominant stories? When I first encountered ‘The Parable of the Tribes’, I was desperate for a better sociological model, because I felt the dominant model was frankly destroying me. If I had never experienced a crisis of faith in conventional wisdom, it’s likely the singular significance of the Parable would’ve been missed as my incurious mind overlooked it altogether.

My outside impression is that your own politics might perhaps best be described as left-of-center, certainly not radical-left by any means. And yet it seems at least conceivable to me that people who are politically radical — say, those who’ve rejected capitalism (i.e. the extraction of profits from businesses by a separate economic elite) — for better or worse, might be particularly receptive to rejecting other knowledge they’ve received from the culture as well, other knowledge such as sociological models more conventional than the Parable specifically and a Better Human Story more generally. Anyway, that’s been my individual, personal experience. Because young people evidently have a more favorable impression of socialism than of capitalism — again for better or worse, and however they might actually define those terms — I believe a Better Human Story may indeed find an even more receptive audience among upcoming, possibly more radicalized generations who may be more open to new paradigms.

Andy Schmookler:

You may be right, Philip, that people doing well in the mainstream society have an incentive (presumably unconscious?) not to understand something like the Parable. I don’t really understand why that would be: even if my ideas are in some way, as you suggest, “revolutionary,” my idea about how things should change are not those of a revolutionary. If I ran the zoo, I don’t imagine what I’d propose would strip people in “establishment institutions and liberal Americans of some modest privilege” of their ability to live decent lives.

But you may be right that it is the more marginalized people who might be more receptive to ideas that show how powerful the force of brokenness has been in shaping our civilization.

One problem is that many of those who are least “privileged” are also least educated. Which brings us back to the problem of complexity. Of course, there are people who are well educated and are among the marginal. (Me, for example.) And it’s possible they make up the most fertile ground for my “seeds” into the future.


Previous Entries:

# 1– A Better Human Story

#2– How “the Good” Emerges Out of Evolution

# 3– The Sacred Space of Lovers

#4– Humankind’s Perilous Step into Terra Incognita: The Rise of Civilization

#5– The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution

#6– The Pay-Off for Taking on this “Integrative Vision”: Part I

#7– The Pay-Off for Taking on this “Integrative Vision”: Part II


Sign up for the Blue Virginia weekly newsletter

Previous articleThe Wandering Canvasser Visits Manassas City
Next articleAnatomy of a (Fake) Culture War Dust-Up: ESPN/Robert Lee Edition