A Circle in the Woods: Division by Design
An Open Letter to My Fellow Citizens
“The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.” - Wendell Berry
Our nation has always been divided by cultural and political affiliations and loyalties. We have always had profound differences of opinion with the potential to flare up in both physical and emotional violence. However, there is a unique confluence of forces at work today conspiring to turn our divisions into chasms, our disagreements into irreconcilable hatreds. We suffer from division by design.
There is money to be made and power to be amassed from the carnage of our “culture wars,” money and power that we seem eager to cede to sneering angertainers and the narrow interests who bankroll them. These individuals may pose as defenders of the one true faith (whether Judeo-Christian / Capitalism or Progress) but, in reality, their loyalties are only to their own egos, market share and profit.
Two decades ago the cultural critic, Robert Hughes wrote about this toxic blend of resentment and anger in our politics in his book, The Culture of Complaint.
“Polarization is addictive” he observed, “It is the crack of politics - a short intense rush that the system craves again and again, until it begins to collapse.”
Centuries before Hughes, the conservative sage Edmund Burke noted that, “It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.”
While the “culture of complaint” may not be a new phenomenon, its purveyors have rarely enjoyed the market dominance that they have today. Like so many arsonists for-hire they happily fill the airwaves and internet with flame wars.
The profound disconnections flowing from our polarization are wreaking havoc within the venues that traditionally helped us work through or at least work on our differences in a civil manner. Our political system is devolving into a winner-take-all game divorced from results (or at least divorced from results for the public good, behind the smoke pouring from the carnage of the culture wars a bounty of private goods are being cached away.) The market, that ostensibly neutral arbiter, celebrates and rewards disruption not job creation and stability. Our educational system is “broken,” scientists rail against religion, the religious disbelieve science and we all rush to embrace technologies that relentlessly distract and track us. Viral vitriol fuels a noxious blend that is one-part entertainment, one-part indignation and one-part dread. Is it any wonder that bleak dystopian and “end-times” games, movies and literature appear so often on our best-seller lists?
Given all of these trends, it is not surprising that we are retreating into the ideological comfy couches offered by the angertainers. Our news and information sources are now neatly segregated into competing cheer leading squads – creating a kind of info-tribalism that fiercely stokes our outrage while gently stroking our prejudices. Differences of opinion now stem from differences of fact. We have created alternative and competing universes of “truth.”
In this age of seemingly dysfunctional institutions, economic uncertainty, divisiveness and mass distraction, the reclamation of civility and balance in our culture has become a matter of personal urgency. Why personal? Because the first steps towards renewing our institutions, and our nation, have to come from individuals – you and I and those we know. However, since we have segregated ourselves into color-coded enclaves (both virtual and real) even the bonds of friendship seem inadequate to the task at hand.
Despite the fact that our circles of friends and even our families seem as divided as our nation, they still represent the arena in which we have the greatest impact on others. It is among our families and friends where the human virtues: kindness, patience, compassion, gratitude and, yes, love are best practiced. And, it is within these same circles that our vices wreak their most devastating toll. Greed, suspicion, jealousy, and pride are much more destructive forces than any cultural affiliation or political ideology. Both conservatives and progressives praise localism in differing ways, and there is no locality as compelling or as critical to our success as “home.”
But, why should we assign ourselves the seemingly hopeless task of healing our cultural rifts? Wouldn’t it be easier, and frankly, more fun, to simply surrender to the team mentality and cheer our team on to victory?
Here, I think we need to imagine what total victory might look like if either side actually “wins” the culture wars.
Inevitably, both progressives and conservatives imagine that their long sought after victory will resemble a kind of paradise:
Progressives dream of a nation ruled by reason and devoid of benighted and archaic beliefs. All will be just, equal and fair. Each and every individual will be self-fulfilled. Diversity will be honored, the food will be organic, and exciting new experiences will abound.
Self-identified conservatives dream of stability, order and custom, a nation bound by traditions and empowered by an industrious self-reliant people. Patriots rule, loyalty is the norm, everyone says “Merry Christmas,” and our lives will unfold in a kind of righteous predictability.
Of course, in our resentment fueled culture wars, total victory for either team is much more likely to be nightmarish.
Imagine a victorious progressive state where millions see their most beloved traditions not just mocked, but banished to the “garbage heap of history.” In this liberal Elysium, to question change in any way is seen as a form of “intolerance” which must not be tolerated and the apprehensions of those who resist “progress” are diagnosed as symptoms of an illness in need of prescriptive re-education.
Of course, in the hyperbolic world of the Tea Party and talk radio we already live in this bleak reality.
Our conservative paradise, on the other hand, feels more like a backwoods Bible-land hell to progressives:
Ancient myths are taught as literal truths, their dictates enforced as law. Expressions of either cultural diversity or distinct personality are suppressed, gays and lesbians are sent to conversion camps and women are expected to be subordinate in all things. The arts, science and new ideas are censored or proscribed, gun ownership is mandated and ritual displays of clan loyalty are obligatory (don’t get caught without that flag pin on your lapel!)
If you watch MSNBC, you might think this Christo-Orwellian state already exists, in Texas.
Of course these are stereotypes, perhaps some are a little closer to the truth than others, but we assume, as most reasonable people do, that we can see through them. We congratulate ourselves knowing that we are more intelligent and have keener insight than the herd. In our enlightened and properly informed state we recognize the humanity hiding behind the cartoon-like figures used as bogey-men by hysterics.
Or, do we?
While most of us assume that we are immune to propaganda and prejudices, what happens if the shit really does hit the fan? What will we do if our hyper-linked and uber-fragile civilization suddenly unravels? Will we blame our socio-political team mates? I doubt it. No, a total economic and political melt-down would just be seen as evidence of the recklessness if not the final betrayal of the “others.” In this scenario, our opponents will not just be wrong, we will consider them evil - and when dealing with evil ends tend to justify means. Final betrayals beg for final solutions. Won’t our Red and Blue teams descend into warring tribes?
The greatest conservative insight, an idea at the center of the philosophy of Edmund Burke (and this essay) is very simple: things can and do fall apart. This thing we call civilization is not the norm, it is not a given, it requires tremendous effort to maintain and conserve.
Burke famously observed that, “The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.”
These are words that perfectly encapsulate our times. Our great and proud nation seems to be in the midst of a nervous breakdown that is completely self-inflicted. And this is happening at a time of relative prosperity and peace – despite the horrendous “made for television” violence we are enduring.
We need to ask ourselves, what would happen if things actually did unravel - if the economy and our institutions actually collapsed? In late 2008, we came very close to seeing just that. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the global economy came perilously close to unraveling. Remembering that cascade of revelations and disasters, it is not too difficult to imagine one or two more dominoes falling that would have undone… well, everything. Instead of the Great Recession, which helped give rise to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, a worldwide depression would have spawned unimaginable chaos: rioting, warfare and a general descent into lawlessness and anarchy.
As I have noted, this scenario haunts the darker corners of our imaginations and the media. “Doomsday preppers” and survivalists now star in their own television series, while conspiracy vendors garner enormous audiences, in part, by preying on our sense of vulnerability.
Where would we turn if the worst did happen? Who would we gather around us in defensive circles? Wouldn’t we reach out to our families, friends and neighbors? Wouldn’t their safety be our greatest concern? And, wouldn’t we view them as our most reliable first line of defense?
These small social circles do represent a kind of psychic disaster safety net, but we would be surrendering to paranoia if we view them solely through that gloomy lens. In a time when civility is slipping from civilization, those people we know and interact with also present our greatest opportunity to extend the boundaries of peace and order.
Amid all of the anxieties that haunt us and the clamor of angry voices, there exists within most of us a deep-seated longing to actually make a positive difference in the world around us – to be restorers and, yes, conservers of our familial and cultural inheritance. I am heartened by the studies that indicate that the so-called Millennial generation is motivated by opportunities that provide “meaning” and “purpose” not just material wealth and status. Many young people are looking for ways to have an “impact” and “move the needle” on the larger issues that confront us.
Some of my fellow Boomers recognize and admire this aspirational impulse. However, our generation seems to have preferred poking sticks to moving needles. The two camps of the Boomer tribe have taken the nation on a dizzying pendulum ride swinging between care free (or careless) innovation and shocked revulsion. Still, it is not too late for us to begin to clean up our own mess. The time for reflexive outrage is long past. The Millennials are right, it is time for impact.
We can begin by climbing down off of our pedestals and acknowledging that our culture and our times are not as unique and as we think they are. There are certain fundamentals that we share with all of the civilizations that have preceded us.
The angst that gnaws at our global technocracy illustrates a deep-rooted dread that that has shadowed every culture from Babylon and Egypt to ancient Greece and Rome. The great myths and stories of humanity reflect this persistent danger: the forces of darkness and chaos always encircle and press in on the clearings of light (civilization itself.) Most of the great heroes and gods of lore, from Zarathustra to the God of Genesis, are figures who have confronted the primordial tumult of the wilderness and delivered us from the evil of disorder.
But, what does Zarathustra have to do with us? Surely, we are not all fit for epic struggles, right? Neither you nor I expect our stories to be inscribed in clay tablets and sung down through the ages. But, what can we do to ensure that our children and those who follow will have a clearing to stand and sing in?
Once we have climbed down from the pedestal of our prideful modernity we must confront its most arrogant myth: that we no longer need myths.
When most of us hear the word “myth,” we translate it as “lie.” Blue Team culture warriors believe that reason and science trump belief in “made up stories,” while Red Teamers adhere to the literal truth of their stories while disparaging the literal truths of others. Put another way, myths are for children or heathens.
Whether we think of them as lies or literal truths, we all recognize the narrative quality of myths, and whether we acknowledge it or not, we all live in a web of stories. Our dilemma is that the stories or myths which helped bind us together in the past no longer seem to have that capacity. When we gather within our Red and Blue circles our competing stories are sitting there with us, reassuring us of our truths while snickering at the outlandish tales of the others. Our competing stories are not only unintelligible to one another, they seem simply preposterous:
“The world began with a big bang? Ha! Well then, what blew up?”
“The dinosaurs all died in the flood? What did Noah have against them?”
Jordan B. Peterson is a Professor of Psychology as the University of Toronto whose book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, carefully analyzes the underlying structures of myths to get at their deeper meaning.
In his book, Peterson argues that, “The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive.”
Science and reason are based on quantifiable perceptions, what we can see and measure. Hardened Blue teamers scoff at what can’t be seen, “Soul? What’s that? Where is it? How much does it weigh?”
Peterson underscores this point, “We do not understand pre-experimental thinking, so we try to explain it in terms that we do understand – which means that we explain it away, define it as nonsense.”
So if the truths and rewards of a myth can’t be counted or perceived, what is it that attracts us to them? And, how can myths be places “to act” when they appear to so many of us as simply hallucinatory relics?
Peterson describes our everyday reality as both an actual physical space, a stage, and as the drama unfolding on it: “The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however – myth, literature and drama – portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds…”
According to Peterson, the domain of the mythological is, “the world of value- what is and what should be…”
What should be? Isn’t that the bottom line question of the culture wars?
Our struggles are about what we value and the tensions between what is and what should be. This is the realm of action and morality.
And it is on this dramatic stage that all human myths, and ultimately our moral struggles, are defined. Peterson explores the archetypal roots from which all of humanity’s great myths have grown, “The world as a forum for action is composed, essentially, of three constituent elements, which tend to manifest themselves in typical patterns of metaphoric representation. First is unexplored territory – the Great Mother, nature, creative and destructive, source and final resting place of all determinate things. Second is explored territory - the Great Father, culture, protective and tyrannical, cumulative ancestral wisdom. Third is the process that mediates between unexplored and explored territory- the Divine Son, the archetypal individual, creative exploratory Word and vengeful adversary.”
Notice how comfortably our red and blue tribes nest within these ancient archetypes. Tree huggers and cultural innovators celebrate nature and creativity, The Great Mother, while the “religious right” and social conservatives hew to the stern warnings and dictates of The Great Father.
But where are our contemporary heroes, the mediators?
There is no denying that our threatened planet desperately calls out for mediators between the natural world and the rapacious machine of our civilization. But let us first concentrate our attention on the internal struggles within the “explored territory” of our individual circles and our nation. We need more mediators in the forums where we actually live.
Our infighting about Peterson’s “known territory” is so intense because of its immediate and personal nature. We all order our lives and self-images around what we know and idealize. And what we idealize, we view in some way as sacred.
Peterson explains, “The known is explored territory, a place of stability and familiarity; it is the ‘city of God,’ as profanely realized…
…‘Narratives of the known’ – patriotic rituals, stories of ancestral heroes, myths and symbols of cultural or racial identity – describe established territory, weaving for us a web of meaning that, shared with others, eliminates the dispute over meaning. All those who know the rules, and accept them, can play the game- without fighting over the rules of the game. This makes for peace, stability, and potential prosperity – a good game. The good, however, is the enemy of the better; a more compelling game might always exist.”
And, I might add, in our distracted times, more compelling games do exist. They are always beckoning with carefully coded siren songs, each tailored to our individual whims and engineered to intersect our distinctive paths through the mega-data. Compared with the literal buffet of “better” gratifications offered to us, “weaving a web of meaning” to be shared beyond the confines of our reflective teams sounds impossibly dull. How can we create shared meaning when we won’t even lift our eyes from our mobile screens when we talk to one another?
Despite our digital distractions and the formulation that myths = lies we unconsciously yearn to share our story with others. Every society needs a collective narrative to live by. We all instinctively know that meaning matters. It is the longing for belonging that the forces of division prey upon as they bait our trails with “us versus them” candy. Unfortunately for us, fear and loathing seem to provide meaning in a more efficient and entertaining manner than compassion and love.
Robert Pogue Harrison is a Stanford University Professor who has done his own exploration of the forests and clearings of mythology. In the opening chapter of his book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, he brilliantly synthesizes the work of the eighteenth-century Italian theorist, Giambattista Vico who had, according to Harrison, applied to ancient myths a kind of “…genetic psychology that led him deep into the forests of prehistory.”
Using Vico as a guide, Harrison leads us into those same forests as imagined by different cultures down through the ages. Harrison’s work is so richly textured that I cannot do it full justice here, but there is one point that he repeatedly makes that deserves our attention. This idea comes in the form of a warning in his analysis of the mythological Greek god and goddess, Dionysos and Artemis, as they are portrayed in Euripedes great tragedy, The Bacchae.
Dionysos and Artemis are associated with the wild “creative and destructive” forces of nature, Peterson’s “unexplored territory.” According to Harrison their stories, “…come together in the shadows of the Cithaeron forest, the abyss of precivic darkness from which civilization is merely a deviation, and a precarious one at that.”
Civilization is a precarious deviation from the abyss of darkness.
We need to repeat this phrase like a mantra in these times when the abyss of darkness seems to be leaning over our collective shoulders.
Michael Benedikt is a former neighbor of mine; he is an architect who inhabits the world of ideas but is also firmly connected to the objective blessings of place and practice. In his book, God is the Good We Do Benedikt proposes a theology that highlights the necessity of human action to bring God or goodness to life. His book is itself a form of mediation between the opposing camps of our time. I have moved to another neighborhood since I first read his work, but his ideas have followed me.
At first glance, Benedikt’s “Theology of Theopraxy” or “God practice” might seem like just another form of human vanity. After all, “I bring God into existence through works of goodness,” seems akin to “I am God.” And of course, in the heated fulcrum of the culture wars this sort of talk will attract the attention of heretic hunters and the withering ridicule of those who cringe at the use of the “G” word.
Still, Benedikt’s voice has the kind of quiet gratitude that we would do well to remember within our circles. Several times in his book, he invites us to catalogue the evidence of human enacted virtue and goodness surrounding us.
“Recall the hells-on-earth that dot human history,” he suggests. “Bring to mind the ones that exist right now somewhere on the planet. Now look out of your window. Every bird not shot, every walker not carrying a gun, every car waiting patiently for a traffic light to change, every repairman writing up a job fairly, every person dying in a fresh hospital bed rather than on a battlefield or in a gutter, every street that is swept, every bush that is trimmed, every toddler studying a worm… is God evidenced and instanced.
Look at these things and be glad. Rejoice at peace and decency. See for the most part that your “cup runneth over” and more: that by your actions you are one reason for the cup “running over” for others.”
When I read Benedikt’s litany of goods, I get the physical sense that I am, indeed that we all are, standing in circles of gathered light, “the light of stars becoming light of another sort,” in Benedikt’s words.
At the center of our cleared circle burns a small camp fire, the same flickering fire first sparked and tended by our ancestors who huddled together hundreds of thousands of years ago. We ring the fire and hold our fear of the darkness at bay through the stories we tell to those we love and need. Even more important are the times when we fall silent and listen to the stories told by others, for in so doing we are bearing witness to our shared humanity with all of its vulnerabilities and joys, its wonders and its tragic inevitabilities. Fortified by each other’s stories our ancestors dared face a world of tooth, claw and tusk. We can do the same.
Our contemporary circles in the woods may not be threatened by hungry predators, but we are preyed upon none-the-less. Stalked by those who profit from our fears we are seduced and baited by story tellers of a different sort: the peddlers of resentment who tempt us always to withhold our light and hoard it away with our grievances. But we shouldn’t think of our circles as just defensive rings. They can be and have been so much more.
As we face one another around social circles – whether virtual or real, it is not only our friends and our fellow citizens that we face, we also face a choice. What we add to the light and warmth of the communal hearth is up to us; it is a decision we make countless times every day when we choose patience over pushiness, compassion over callousness and civility over the easy pleasures of outrage.
For the sake of our own present-day clearing, the feverishly pulsing circle in the woods that we call America, I suggest those who are intent on passing on our genuinely rich inheritance adopt the circle in the woods as our story... embellish it with as many clichés as you like or can stand, but we desperately need more hospitality, peace-making and community building. Despite the tendency of many of our cultural elites to view everything from a safe and ultimately sterile ironic distance, we actually do need “keepers of the flame” who add to the “circles of light.” At the very least, we can choose not to lob bombs into the bonfires of our over-heated culture.
Myths that “weave a web of meaning” are myths that are practiced. And just as so many of us are happy to practice yoga, video games or golf we owe it to those who will follow us to practice the virtues enacted by our forebears. We still bask in the glow of their gathered light; a flickering light that we can shelter with our cupped hands – or snuff out in a fit of spite.
So, let us cast a circle around those whose lives we actually touch in the places where we actually live. This means clearing a space amidst the anger and noise, a place where family and genuine friendship is a possibility despite our inevitable disagreements and tensions. I am suggesting making a conscious choice while fully understanding that we loathe choosing anything that might restrict our individual sovereignty and sense of entitlement. We resist meaningful commitments yet surrender to the constant barrage of petty choices that flatter us with the instant rewards of self-righteousness, amusement and indignation. We have been conditioned to rush after spotlights, our personal fifteen minutes of fame, not to humbly tend to the flames of a hackneyed story that never ends, a myth that reminds us always to practice virtues for the sake of a future that never arrives.
Virtue is an odd word; many of us recoil at it associating it with Puritanical or Victorian prudery. However, when sorted individually and named, the virtues possess a powerful attraction. We feel the instinctive pull towards compassion, forgiveness, patience, generosity, fairness, truthfulness, responsibility, justice, peace-making and loving-kindness in our own lives. Once you have stripped away their tribal facades, the world’s religious traditions can be seen as vehicles for the practice of these light-affirming virtues, even if they vary in which virtues they emphasize. We admire these behaviors when we see them enacted by others, and feel the almost physical warmth of their glow when we practice them within our own little circles.
I have always felt that gratitude is a foundational virtue, one that gives rise to so many others. Edmund Burke, points to gratitude’s sibling, humility, as another of the essential virtues. "True humility,” he says, is “…the low but deep and firm foundation of all virtues."
Humility, humanity, humus… yes, great things can grow from this “low but deep” ground. The shared vulnerability of our humanness first drew us together around the light of campfires; it is the acknowledgement of that vulnerability, our “from dust to dust” reality that draws us together still. And it is for our many small advances against the darkness that we have reason to give thanks.
Despite our seemingly endless complaints and bickering, we still have so much to be grateful for. By most standards, we live in a time of great comfort in a nation that remains among the most powerful and wealthy societies ever imagined. However, being wealthy and powerful is just one aspect of the American myth. The American dream has not always been equated with just material accumulation, the acquisition of fast cars, sleek gadgets and McMansions. No, another story has always lived alongside of that one and it is the story of freedom. Long before we labeled ourselves as “consumers,” we thought of ourselves first and foremost as “citizens.”
Freedom itself requires humility in that it calls us to reign in our passions. The maintenance of freedom depends on mediators and stewards not mask wearing anarchists or glowering “don’t tread on me” reactionaries.
Burke, who remains an oft-quoted but little understood hero of those who call themselves “conservatives,” had much to say about the dependence of liberty on the practice of self-control or equanimity among citizens. He recoiled at the violence and raw emotion of the French Revolution. In his "Letter to a Member of the National Assembly" published at the height of the revolution’s “terrors” Burke wrote, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,—in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity,—in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption,—in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.”
Here we find Burke’s one word distillation of the angertainers and resentment vendors of his time: knaves.
Burke continues, “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
And, of course, Burke was proved right. The same mobs that stormed the Bastille while shouting “Liberté” were soon genuflecting to their beloved Emperor / dictator, Napoleon.
The dramatic stage that is modern America has a large cast of petty emperors / empresses and dictators waiting in the wings. We owe it to our inheritance and to our children to resist their poisonous charms.
We can reach across the barricades or not, that simple choice will determine our shared fate. Choosing to reach out comes with its own price: we will be ceding our claim to the self-righteousness that we find so satisfying. Reaching out implies choosing a story that will make real demands on us, including the difficult task of confronting our own resentments and fears. And, of course, chief among our fears is the dread of choosing the wrong story.
I understand the anxiety about choosing; no one wants to be exposed as a hypocrite or to appear overly sincere in an ironic age. However, time is running short; we have wasted decades amusing ourselves with ritual warfare. It is time to embrace a different story, one that recognizes the interdependence of our extended tribe, our circle in the woods.
© Tom Spencer July - 2016