The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street -- two serious protest movements with urgent messages about the condition of the economy and the purpose of government -- do not currently communicate or collaborate with each other. What a wasted opportunity! Even worse, Tea Partiers and Occupiers often look at each other as opponents -- a ridiculous idea, since we are all protesting the same injustices and mistakes, and we all seek the same basic goals: an honest economy, a smaller government, greater freedom and greater opportunity.
It's time for the Tea Party and Occupy movements to begin working together. Throughout history, protest movements with common goals have benefited from collaboration even when they've disagreed on specific issues. The Tea Party and Occupy movements have a few major differences on principles, but we should not let this obscure the fact that our goals converge more often than they diverge. So why are we at each other's throats? Why isn't there a combined Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party gathering going on in every city in the United States of America right now?
I like to develop and improve my political ideas by talking to as many different people as I can, and I've already tested today's argument on a wide range of friends, co-workers and relatives. I discovered a surprising and encouraging thing: people who do not have much interest in either the Tea Party or Occupy movements are the ones most likely to dismiss the idea that they can work together, to declare that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are opposites.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a new book by psychologist Steven Pinker (I introduced it here last week, and it's on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review) that documents in exhausting detail how much less violent our planet is than ever before in history. The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell, one of my all-time favorite history books, is an illuminating look at how the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution began a new era of vicious ideological warfare in Europe that set the pattern for the genocidal horrors of the past century. War and politics, according to David A. Bell, have never before been as broadly destructive as they are today.
How can both of these books be telling the truth at the same time?
I had a chance to check out Washington DC's new Martin Luther King memorial earlier this week. A big opening ceremony featuring President Barack Obama and other significant guests scheduled for this weekend has been postponed for an approaching hurricane, but the memorial is open to visitors, and I found a large and enthusiastic crowd on the day I dropped by.
I was surprised -- maybe I shouldn't have been? -- that nearly everybody besides me who came out to see the memorial was African-American. This points to a disappointing fact I've observed before: even though Martin Luther King has now been enshrined in American history as a legend, a hero and a cliche, his great universal message of activism through nonviolent resistance remains largely neglected and misunderstood in America and around the world. The King approach to solving problems feels every bit as startlingly innovative and unique today as it did in the 1960s. The miraculous fact that King's patient, compromise-based approach can actually succeed in solving "unsolvable" conflicts remains widely ignored, even though the problems we face today are as severe as the problems King faced so brilliantly and successfully in his time. Most people would rather gripe, whine and fight each other than take a risk on loving their neighbors and trying to truly understand and cope with variant points of view.
Martin Luther King never had an easy time getting his peaceful message across. It's well known today that he and his fellow activists had to endure vicious taunts and provocations by their opponents, but King also took a hard beating, often for different reasons, in the allegedly liberal mainstream media, and another hard beating from many of his fellow African-American activists. Like any leader who tries to compromise and rise above the pettiness of simple hatred, he took it from the left and the right, from black and white, from north and south. An early John Updike short story called "Marching Through Boston", published in the New Yorker in January 1966, delivers a refreshingly direct look at how Martin Luther King was seen in his own time.
Socrates: When you speak of a person desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?
Socrates: Then do you think some people desire evil and others good? Doesn't everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?
Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose evil to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as evil?
Meno: Both, I should say.
Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes evils for what they are, nevertheless desires them?
Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?
Meno: Of course.
Socrates: In the belief that evil things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?
Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.
Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?
Meno: No, that I can't really believe.
Socrates: Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil, those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?
Meno: For them I suppose that is true.
Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring evils in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, those presumably know that they will be injured by them?
Meno: They must.
Socrates: And don't they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?
Meno: That too they must believe.
Socrates: And unfortunate?
Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?
Meno: I suppose not.
Socrates: Then in not, nobody desires what is evil, for what else is unhappiness but desiring evil things and getting them?
Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is evil.
Socrates: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them. In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.
Meno: So it appears.
-- Plato, Meno
I wish it were possible for me to write about difficult political issues without hearing in my head the exhausted groans of so many, many people I know who react to any type of political discussion the way they'd react to a pinprick. I have many political beliefs -- I proudly call myself a pacifist, a libertarian, a moderate progressive -- but perhaps my most deeply-held political belief is this: civil debate is always a good thing. Talking about politics is not a waste of time, and it doesn't have to devolve into the familiar noise of, as songwriter Stephen Stills once so aptly put it, "hooray for our side".
Not long ago a friend who writes for Litkicks asked me what kind of articles I'd like to see in the future. I said that I'd like more topical relevance, more political/social engagement (I said this partly because I knew this writer was highly knowledgeable in this area). But her response showed that I'd tripped some kind of trigger by mentioning the word "political". She wrote:
I'm not a big "espouse the party ideals" kind of person.
I was very surprised by this reaction. I wrote back that I already knew this, and that this was why I'd thought her contributions might be valuable. But her response points to a popular general perception that modern political writing is equivalent to party-line hackwork. This is really a shocking and disappointing development. Of course an article that follows a party line is useless, and of course I wouldn't want to run an article like that on Litkicks. To be useful, a political article must straddle a fence. It must address both sides of a difficult issue, and reach for a synthesis that might persuade some readers to change the way they think. That's the whole point of political writing, isn't it? But I'm afraid it's become a habit for readers to automatically dismiss political debate as pointless self-congratulation. This leaves many people like me, who'd like to sincerely debate controversial and important topics and learn from the experience, with nobody to play with.
T. S. Eliot is not obliged to love me. The topic of anti-semitism comes up often when this great poet and literary critic is mentioned, but I think it's a sign of our chronic over-sensitivity that we consider it a moral felony of the highest order for a poet to be a snob. T. S. Eliot has the right to hate whoever he wants.
He never hurt anybody, and I never saw any evidence that he wanted to. I love his work, his Dante-esque vision, his moral seriousness, his (yes) sense of humor. If he met me, maybe he'd hate me because I'm a Jew. He'd probably also hate me because I'm a modern American hipster slacker, a fast-food eater, a casual dresser. Who cares? It doesn't mean he wanted to Holocaust me to death.
Wednesday's post about the lack of international/intercultural communication on the Internet got my wheels turning. I think there's more to this topic.
Cultural insularity is the world's status quo, and there is currently no momentum at all towards a global language. Sure, the Esperanto organization still runs annual conferences, but we all know Esperanto was a well-intentioned dud. It was founded in 1887 with the publication of a book called Lingvo Internacia by Lazar Zamenhov, a Polish Jew. The movement was a hit, but the language never took root, and by the time Zamenhov died in 1917 Europe was in its worst depths of violence. The Great War provided insurmountable proof that Zamenhov's ideas about global peace through global communication were naive. (His children were then persecuted and murdered during World War II for being Jewish, being Baha'i, and being related to Lazar Zamenhov).
Why, in our web-connected age, do we still exist in information silos defined by nationality and language?
This is, for me, probably the greatest disappointment of the Internet era. (Okay, the fact that I didn't get to keep my million dollars of dot-com stock was my biggest personal disappointment, but that's a different kind of disappointment). An incredible technological unity has been established all over the world -- from my office computer to Africa and Asia and South America and everywhere on this planet, we all speak HTML and Unicode and TCP-IP and HTTP. So why isn't there more global cultural interchange going on?
Unless you're color-blind like me (yes, I'm color-blind, and yes, that probably does explain the color scheme here on Literary Kicks), you probably see two different color chips in the photo above.
Well, I don't. Neither did my brother Gary (who is also color-blind, naturally, since it's a deterministic genetic trait, and I'd really like it if people would start calling us "color-capable" instead of "color-blind", but that's another topic) this weekend when we both played poker at the Gulfstream casino in Miami, Florida. I have no idea what colors you see when you look at these chips. But what Gary and I both see is one tan-green-orange-gray chip that says "$25" and another tan-green-orange-gray chip that says "$5".
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who worked closely with Sigmund Freud before founding his own school of thought, composed a short book in 1957 that was translated into English by the Atlantic Monthly. The Undiscovered Self may have been Jung's answer to Sigmund Freud's similarly late-career consideration of world politics, Civilization and It's Discontents. The great ethnologist and psychologist wrote some surprising things about modern Western government in this book's opening chapter. Referring to the global conflicts of 1957, he describes the way these conflicts ripples through the social structure of every nation in the world:
What is the significance of that split, symbolized by the "Iron Curtain", which divides humanity into two halves? What will become of our civilization, and of man himself, if hydrogen bombs begin to go off, or if the spiritual and moral darkness of State absolutism should spread over Europe?
Jung writes (in Nietzschean tones, but in the language of psychology) of the conflict between the "subversive minorities" (which may be presumed to refer to ideological or economic as well as ethnic minorities) and the "stratum" of established power. He writes of what happens when an entire society -- not the individuals within the society, but the society itself, begins to go insane:
Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason's having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies.
The amazing thing is, Sarah Palin hadn't even been born when Carl Jung wrote these words. Some things never change, but the more things stay the same, the more I wonder if things around the world might go better if more people read Carl Jung (and Sigmund Freud, and William James and other classic psychologists) and more often thought about the deeper undercurrents that affect our so-called "rational democracy", not just in 2008 but always.
Jung's most unique contribution to psychology was to focus on our public shared self, the foundation of a "collective unconscious" that each of us carry within us. Since the 2008 Presidential election has been so intense and so emotional for many Americans, we may have been feeling the extra pull of the collective unconscious lately. Why do we feel so strongly about the things we feel strongly about, and how is it that other people can feel differently? In the end, are we really just fighting between tribes?
Well, you take a look at the electoral map and tell me.
I'm no more able to rise above my cultural background than anyone else -- I'm a blue-state cliche, a pacifist socialist Buddhist Jewish pro-choice liberal married Saturn-driver with kids and a software job who watches Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow because I like to. I hate being a cliche, but this is who I am. I know many red-staters live out their cliches with all the conviction in the world too. Even when we manage to reverse our ingrained trends and adopt contrary political beliefs, we carry our cultural heritages within us in an endless number of ways.
As we await the final outcome of this slightly crazy election season, let's pause to think about the electoral map in a different way. Whether we grow up in a red state or a blue state, that color runs deep inside us, and sometimes when a bunch of people are arguing about something, they may actually be arguing about something completely different, though none of them manage to figure it out. I have a feeling this happens a lot. It's worth a moment's reflection.
Here's an idea: strip all the ideology away and see if the 2008 election boils down to anything. Here's what I think you'll find: a fight between tribes. Look at the map -- there are no ideas there, just rivers and mountain ranges and time zones. So, America, why are we in the tribes we're in, and what can our tribal affiliations tell us about ourselves?
I don't know the answer. Carl Jung might have some ideas, or maybe you do.
This is the final installment in the blogging experiment "Big Thinking", in which we tried to gain perspective on various topical issues during an exciting electoral season by examining the ideas of Thoreau, Wittgenstein, Kundera, Tolstoy, Plato, Mill and Jung.
Literary Kicks endorses Barack Obama for President. California, stand up for gay civil rights. John McCain, don't let the door hit you in the ass. Thank you, readers and commenters, for being a part of the "Big Thinking" project.