Wednesday, March 22, 2017

How did we get into this mess?

The mess I mean is a radically divided nation, with waning trust in once sacred institutions, disregard of fact-based truths, hateful name calling along with an uptick of violence, a surge in authoritarian destructive populism, led by a man who shows no evidence of integrity or any moral core.

Three books have helped me understand what the hell is going on in my America in this Time of Trump.

The Age of Anger: The History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, and Homo Deus: A History of the Future, Yuval Noah Harari. These are learned, insightful reflections on history, our present situation and how we got here.

Mishra tells me that humanity has been here before when what we call the West, Europe and North America, began coming to terms with modernity, its myths and assumptions, in the 19th and 20th centuries.  He analyses those myths and assumptions and how they fostered not only industrialization, colonization, and the expansion, accumulation, and concentration of wealth, but also nihilism and resentment. Now the 21st century is experiencing modernity with all is positives and negatives spread across the globe.

Snyder teaches some lessons learned from the development of populist authoritarianism (e.g. Trump, LePen, Duterte, Putin, Orban) learned from the 20th century (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin) and what we need to do to keep from becoming a totalitarian state. Thinking for oneself, maintaining civil society, speaking out, opposing paramilitary groups are some of those lessons. In his final chapter, he demonstrates how the study of history, which is necessary to free ourselves from history, must not degenerate into the history of inevitability which is history determined by natural or divine law with a predetermined meaning or into the history of eternity with cycles or events that repeat themselves over and over. Both these are opposed to true history that unfolds through the activities of humans in dealing with events of nature (e.g. an erupting volcano or tidal wave) or consequences of human behavior (e.g. climate change, wars, imagination).

Harari demonstrates the importance of myth or the network of stories by which humans create the meaning to guide their thinking and behavior. With homo sapiens evolved the capacity to organize  on a vast scale through symbols (constructed images and metaphors) woven together for massive cooperation to change the environment. While knowledge of the environment provides control over the environment, religion (myth and rituals) provides the bases for order and meaning. Harari shows how, throughout the history of homo sapiens, the creation myth or foundation story has evolved affecting human culture, economy, and politics. The religion of modernity is humanism that grounds the belief in free markets, republican forms of government, a morality of human rights or in other words "liberalism." (He also suggests that, because of the advancements of science and technology, we are moving to a new religion that will found a new humanity--homo deus. But let me deal with that later.)

We Americans claim to be practical rather than philosophical. We would rather deal with or change the world, rather than contemplate it. The three writers, however, tell us that to be practical we must also understand the story that is the context of our theory and practice. The Protestant Reformation that moved revelation from the Church and State to personal feeling, the Enlightenment that rediscovered Reason, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions that developed new technologies, the Age of Revolution and Republicanism that uncovered human rights, all contributed to the myth or story that underlies modernity. But that myth is undergoing change by our own actions.

We are in-between stories. This is confusing and frustrating for those of us who are living by our old-time religion. Here is a source of the resentment that alienates so many of our fellow citizens who have accepted the myth, the American Dream, and have been prevented from attaining it.

I for one do not want to throw out the baby with the bath. I appreciate the Enlightenment and its victory over superstition, science and the new tradition of skepticism, the expansion of knowledge, the enhancement of life through advanced technology, the spread of human rights, and the evolution of social justice and compassion. But modernity with its myth of inevitable progress, its myth of economic liberalism and free markets, its myth of race and nationalism, its myth of absolutes and certainty are leading us to self-destruction. We need to surface and criticize modernity's assumptions to overcome the contradictions and conflicts they are creating.

Our economy which measures success by the accumulation of wealth that can be monetized, our politics which rewards leaders who pretend to have all the answers, and our culture which yearns for absolutes and demonizes outsiders threaten to determine our future. But if we recognize that these are self imposed boundaries and fictions, we will know that we have it in us collectively to tell a new story by which we will renew and create who we are and want to be. And get us out of the mess we have made of ourselves and our world.

We need to dispel the modern notion that history is some inevitable flow whose direction we can join or some recurring cycle we can anticipate. We can liberate ourselves from history by taking responsibility for our future. That is the new story we need to write.

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