I realize that in this Series, I am asking the reader to do some work—more work than even readers of more than the usual level of intelligence are usually asked to do in these times. In my years of publishing essays on the Internet, I’ve been advised that even op/ed-length pieces are “too long” for many readers. The entries in this Series are multiples of that.
So I imagine that, for many, the question arise: Are the rewards for undertaking this kind of “study” sufficient to make it worth the effort?
This installment and the next will provide some of my reasons for thinking the answer to be, “Yes.” At least for many.
Good for the World, Good for Oneself
I will not dwell here on what has been said in earlier installments about the benefits of seeing our species in a much more hopeful way. Less feeling of guilt and disgust about the record of our kind. A more optimistic view of the possibilities for the human future– an optimism arising from understanding that the ugliness of history is not human nature writ large.
To go beyond that (not trivial) benefit of seeing the world through the perspective I’m offering, the best way I can answer the question, “do the benefits outweigh the effort-costs?” is to tell you what this “integrative vision” has done for me.
(And to invite you to consider how something equivalent – suitable to your gifts, your situation, your deepest concerns – might be available for you.)
For me, the rewards have been at three interconnected levels. I’ll present them briefly first, and then expand on them—in this installment and in the next:
- First, it has allowed me to see — better than most, more deeply than I otherwise would — what’s going on in the world. And that seeing, in turn, has enabled me to understand better where I might best ply my energies to serve the world’s need. My strong feeling is that though my impact has been more limited than I would like, my acting on the basis of this “better human story” has been of benefit to our troubled world.
I believe it would do the same for many others who could utilize this “seeing” in their own ways. I expect that for all of us, the better we understand the ways in which the world is broken, the better we can find places to move the world toward being more whole.
This could be called the “altruistic” benefit.
- Second, the nature of what I’ve seen, looking into the deep nature of the human drama, has given me an impassioned sense of mission, over most of the years of my adult life.
This “man on a mission” feeling has always been important to me. I can hardly imagine preferring a life without that deep sense of purpose. Even if that other life gave me all those other goodies (like recognition, good regular income) that my path has failed to bring me in any great measure.
I recognize that not everyone feels a similar need for a deep mission. (Not everyone is looking for a heroic task.) But for those for whom it is vital to feel that they are engaged in some deeply meaningful work, connected in important ways with their core values, I believe this “integrative vision” could play a similar enriching role.
- Third, the ways I’ve seen the deep interconnectedness of things – the ways I’ve seen things Whole – has afforded me a path into some deep contact with the sacred.
Almost all of the spiritually deepest, most numinous experiences of my life have been in conjunction with perceiving some significant part of this “integrative vision.” Whatever limitations there have been to my contact with the sacred seem to me to have been functions of my own limitations as a human being. My sense is that the vision itself can take a person as deep into the luminous level as that person is open to.
I am not claiming, of course, that this “integrative vision” is the only route to a deep sense of mission, or to contact with the sacred. Only that it is one way, that it has been the means that got me there. And I can envision how it may similarly work well for others who want more of those things in their lives.
The Path It Has Led Me On
It is difficult to separate, in my own life, the “seeing what’s really happening,” the “knowing where to apply my energies in the world,” the “being a man on a mission,” and the being inspired by “the sacred.” They all have happened together, so I’ll discuss my experience with all of these together.
I don’t claim, of course, that I’ve seen all of what’s “really happening.” But I do feel, with conviction, that I’ve seen some important dimensions of it. Besides the Very Big Picture, of which I’ve already presented some pieces in this Series, perhaps the piece of it that will be most persuasive is that narrower part of that picture: the crisis that has beset America in our times.
“Most persuasive,” I am suggesting, because since the election of Donald Trump, many people have approached me to say something like, “Now we can all see what, for years, you’ve been warning us was threatening.” So it seems that piece of the picture is more recognizably valid.
I don’t know if I’d win a contest judging who has seen most clearly this gathering darkness in our nation, but it’s a contest I would be glad to enter. Admittedly I may well be biased. (Of all the interpreters of the events of our times, I am the one with whom I agree the highest percentage of the time.) But I’d happily offer up my publicly-available paper trail, i.e. my work over the past quarter century (the story of which I introduce momentarily), but more especially over the past thirteen years (to which I’ll turn in the next installment), for comparison with the competition.
In any event, wherever I stand in that larger picture of American Cassandras, in terms of the “Good for the world” part of the benefit, this much I would claim with some confidence: American would not be in the terrible shape it is in now had a larger proportion of Liberal America been able or willing to see what I have seen.
The relevance of that point in the present context depends on a second claim—one I believe to be true, but is rests on more subtle evidence and is less easily shown. Namely, that what ability I’ve had to see well the gathering danger in America is substantially due to that “integrative vision” I’ve spent my life developing, and that I am trying to convey in this Series.
In other words, in one way after another, my life’s work of trying to understand the interconnections at play in the human world brought into focus the rising force of darkness in the American body politic.
Here’s some of that story.
Rush Limbaugh and the Poisoning of the American Mind
As I indicated, I’m mostly going to skip the period between 1970 and 1992, although that was the period that set my life-mission in motion. Those were the years during which, much of the time at least, I was on fire with the Big Picture concerning the destructive dynamic into which civilization had trapped our species and the suffering and the damage we have suffered as a result.
(That Big Picture came in two main pieces. The first, of which I’ve spoken much here already, was The Parable of the Tribes, conceived 1970 and published 1984. The second, Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War, conceived 1983 and published 1988. That one will be relevant later, in this Series, providing some of the main connections within the dense network of cause and effect that generate forces that act like the traditional notions of “good” and “evil.”)
Instead, I’ll begin with 1992, which was the beginning of a new, more specific mission. This mission was less on the broad, overall saga of humankind since the dawn of civilization, than on what has been happening specifically in the system of American civilization in our times. (And on the dangerous portents for where our nation might be heading.)
It was only later that I understood how what I saw — starting then, in 1992 — was only a piece of the larger “destructive force” that was rising on the right. The piece that alarmed me in 1992 was the rise of Rush Limbaugh as “the Godzilla of talk radio.”
I first heard Limbaugh while driving with my family through South Carolina. I imagined that the man spewing this venomous discourse – he spoke of “eco-fascists” to demean people concerned about the environment, and “femi-Nazis” to denigrate those seeking equal treatment for women – was some sort of local radio personality in this notoriously reactionary, and historically most secessionist of the states of the Confederacy.
Appalled though I was at what I heard, I had no idea how much poison this particular voice was injecting daily into the American body politic. Not until months later, when a station I’d thought of as mainstream and family-friendly (WMAL in Washington, D.C.), changed its programming to include regular hours of Limbaugh’s toxic program broadcasting into the nation’s capital. It was then I learned that Limbaugh was a national phenomenon, holding forth on hundreds of radio stations to millions of Americans.
What drove me then was the thought that the kind of conversation Limbaugh was conducting is emphatically not what the nation needs. It degrades the consciousness of its audience– pandering to their prejudices and inflaming their resentments. Limbaugh struck me as fundamentally dishonest, playing fast and loose with the truth, showing no intellectual integrity. And his discourse worked to drive people into a way of thinking and feeling that can only foment conflict among the American people.
Even though I saw, in Rush Limbaugh’s kind of divisive discourse, only one piece of the destructive force gathering on the right, I felt from the outset that Limbaugh’s conversation posed a danger to America’s political health.
The threat from Limbaugh (and the rest of the dishonest and rabid right-wing discourse that followed him) troubled me enough that I dedicated myself to doing everything I could to counter his pernicious influence on the national conversation. I envisioned how the habits of thought and feeling that he was teaching could corrode the basis of a functioning democracy.
For a decade, the heart of my work in the world was fostering good talk-radio conversations that would teach a different way of dealing with the search for truth.
I of course never became remotely as big as the talk radio’s “Godzilla.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying. With determination, I promoted myself as best I could, but was only able to become more of a Tweety-bird of talk radio. At the maximum, I did regular radio shows (by phone) as a regular guest in a handful of states. And in my own (very conservative) area of Virginia, I was on the radio (as a guest on one show, and on my own program) for twelve hours a month.
(The closest I came to “the big time” was being invited to audition to host a show on one of the public radio station’s in Washington, D.C.—WAMU, but not getting the spot because I lacked the smoothness of a radio professional.)
At the time of the debut of my own show in Harrisonburg, VA, the newspaper article about me and the program ran the title, “The Not-Rush-Limbaugh Show,” a phrase that I had used in the interview. By that, I did not mean what some had encouraged me to do: a show that did, from a liberal point of view, what Limbaugh did from the right. To me, what was the opposite of Limbaugh’s kind of conversation was not about liberal vs. conservative, but about honest vs. dishonest.
At the opening of each of my shows, I articulated my ethic: “Let’s talk with each other in a spirit of genuine inquiry, and mutual respect, as if we might actually learn something from each other.”
I approached this radio work with a real passion—a man on a mission.
I reached perhaps several thousand people on a regular basis—hardly Limbaugh’s 20 million dittoheads. But it did give me an experience that I’d never had before (or since, for that matter)—seeing that I’d actually had an impact on a community.
Over the course of the decade, on the shows where I was host, and on those where I appeared as guest, the discussion of ideas – even of issues controversial in a liberal-vs.-conservative way – did become noticeably more civil as the mostly very conservative audience in the Shenandoah Valley engaged with me. My wife noted how often people would say, “I often don’t agree with Andy, but he makes me think.”
And that response was good enough for me. It was the practice of trying to find the truth together, across our divisions — not my positions on specific issues — that I was trying to teach.
(Although I was disappointed not to gain a larger stage, I counseled myself with words I’d heard from my theater-loving mother, quoting Constantin Stanislavski: “There are no small parts, only small actors.”)
Polarization as a Form of Brokenness
The other thing I was doing during those years of the 1990s was writing a series of several books based on the idea that one important form of brokenness occurs when society becomes polarized in the realm of beliefs about subjects of a public nature. (Limbaugh and his ilk were fostering this kind of brokenness. talking about things as if one side possessed all the truth while the other side was the evil enemy, deserving only of contempt, whose views were unworthy of consideration.)
In those books, I tried to show in a succession of ways that an important form of wholeness is achieved by finding the higher wisdom in which the half-truths of the polarized sides (in this case liberals and conservatives) can be integrated.
Thinking of things in terms of “wholeness,” and analyzing the forces that break things apart, had been central to my thinking from long before. (The penultimate chapter of The Parable of the Tribes bears the title, “The Parable of the Tribes and the Loss of Wholeness.”) That helped bring the problem of polarization into focus.
Although my “Not Rush Limbaugh” radio work reflected my awareness that the political right was working to polarize the people, my lack of clarity about the asymmetrical nature of the rising brokenness damaging America led me to focus instead on the symmetrical way in which people can drive each other further toward one-sided extremes.
One of my op/eds of that era (1996), titled “The Dance of Polarization,” concluded, in this way:
The idea that “the truth lies between the extremes” would be the cliché it appears to be if it meant only the need for a mechanical compromise, a splitting of the difference. But the real truth lies not between but above the extremes. The great spiritual leaders of humankind — a Buddha or a Jesus or a Gandhi or a St. Francis or a Dalai Lama — are people who have integrated values that seem to be in tension into a form that is not just a compromise on a lowest common denominator. At their level of integration, one might be at once freer than the libertines and more disciplined than the straightlaced. One might be both a better warrior than the hawks and a better peacemaker than the doves.
The best resolution of our culture war is not to be found through our present mode of conflict. Neither is it to be found in mere centrist political compromise. The real challenge is for both sides to work together toward an integration at that higher level where opposites no longer seem so irrevocably opposed, where the expressions of our liberty and the requirements of our civilized order achieve a fuller harmony.
No easy task. But the more quickly we can move out of our stance as partisan combatants into a position from which we can see how we are in this dance of polarization together, the sooner we can get to the real work.
And in a series of several books (only one of which got published), I set about trying to do that “real work.” That work involved a respect for the complexity and multi-dimensionality of the truth. Unlike with The Parable of the Tribes, I was not drawn to that mission by the feeling that I had some big, blinding truth to tell. Rather I came from a spiritually different place– a humility that seemed required for the quest for the truth about important questions that can divide us, divide people of good faith seeking meaning and value in their lives and society.
These books were all structured as processes of inquiry, in contrast with my previous mode of delivering some already-arrived at big Truth. I sought to unfold that inquiry from some starting place suitable for America-as-it-was and moving at least some steps toward some “higher wisdom” that honored the best in the values and principles held by both of the polarized sides.
(Some of the ideas developed in those books will appear later in this Series. One of these books was published—with the subtitle A Quest to Bridge America’s Moral Divide . And another of these books – titled, The River and Its Channel: An Unfolding Tale of Flow and Control, and lamentably never published — will soon be posted on the “Better Human Story” website.)
As I dealt with callers to my radio show I was still in the business of building bridges.
Then the force that had given us Limbaugh had more fully hijacked that part of America that was once legitimately “conservative” — and put Rove-Bush-Cheney into the bully’s pulpit. When I saw that the conservative political culture one could previously engage with in good faith was now permeated by bad faith, I realized that the time for building bridges had ended, and the time for waging (political) war had unfortunately been forced upon us.
(Oh, and that little accomplishment of mine with that radio community, that greater civility of discourse more in a spirit of genuine inquiry? Well, all that got swept away — once Karl Rove and his president, W., came along with all their divisive and manipulative fear-mongering — like a wood-frame house by the beach getting wiped out by a tsunami.)
Limbaugh had been a pernicious kind of John the Baptist preparing the way for something greater than he that was to come.
In the 90s, I was just focused on the man preparing the way. Only in retrospect did I see the larger web of components were coming together. But also in retrospect, I think it was not nothing to see the danger that Limbaugh posed.
Had that danger — from Limbaugh and the other emerging propagandists of the right — been more widely recognized and met, our America might well be in much better shape than it’s in now. I was but a marginal person, working with a minor community in an out-of-the-way part of rural Virginia. But my sense of the workings of wholeness and brokenness, of how poisons can flow through systems, did make visible to me a fight that needed to be fought. A fight for integrity in the search for the truth.
(That’s an integrity now breathtakingly absent from the man whom millions of people — like those with whom I was engaging on the radio on my Not-Rush-Limbaugh Show — have put into the Oval Office.)
Just days ago, I included in one of my op/eds this statement:
When Rush Limbaugh began his poisoning of the minds of his “dittoheads,” demonizing “librels,” Liberal America forfeited that battle, leaving millions to be indoctrinated into regarding the people on the other side of the political divide as scum of the earth.
Now, with the Oval Office occupied by a man [Trump] whose disregard for truthfulness is extraordinary, and whose penchant is for picking unnecessary fights, we reap the harvest of the habits of thoughts and feelings that the likes of Limbaugh sowed.
Before long, we might well get rid of Trump through impeachment. But one thing that we will not be able to impeach: the tens of millions of Americans who could look at a lying bully who takes pleasure in violating norms of decency, and regard him as the kind of man to whom the powers of the presidency should be entrusted.
Such are the consequences of not seeing the forces at work, and not fighting the battles that need to be fought. Such are the reasons why a vision of those forces — such as I am trying to present in this series — can be good for the world, can reveal a worthwhile mission, and can bring one into contact with deeper realities that lie beneath the mundane at the heart of our human story.
In the next installment, I will continue this story of what this “integrative vision” has done for me– starting with my experience, in 2004, of finally seeing the rising force of darkness in all its ugliness and destructiveness.
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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.
I like the way you have “integrated” your personal life experience and history with the sharing of the truths you have discovered over the past couple decades of history. I particularly resonate with your quote included from previous writings, “But the real truth lies not between but above the extremes…” and “The real challenge is for both sides to work together toward an integration at that higher level where opposites no longer seem so irrevocably opposed…” I think you have captured well the reality of truth being multi-dimensional and less rigid than what many of us might suppose.
Looking forward to reading more.
Karen, I am so glad you appreciate the way I’ve woven here my personal experience together with the larger points central to this series.
As I indicated in an earlier installment (first half of # 4), my intention is to subordinate entirely any personal agenda of my own to the purposes of the series itself—i.e. to convey as effectively as possible that “integrative vision” that might be of value to our too-broken world. So when it comes to telling elements of my own story, I work hard to make sure it’s for the right reasons. (One knows best what one knows from having lived the experience, for example.)
So your liking the way I’ve “integrated” my history with the larger truths gives me welcome reassurance. Thank you.
In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10, a lawyer challenges Jesus:
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that he should love God with his whole heart and his neighbor as himself.
“But who is my neighbor?” the lawyer counters. Jesus then tells the story of a man beaten, robbed, and left for dead at the side of the road. Two travelers see his body but pass by. A third, a Samaritan, comes to his aid.
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks.
“The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer answers.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus concludes.
I re-tell the story of the “Good Samaritan” because that closing line, “Go and do likewise” (in the more famous King James Version formulation, “Go, thou, and do likewise”) points up the difference between agreement and conversion. Jesus initially answers a Jewish question with a classically Jewish answer, a Torah answer. When challenged, he then radicalizes the classical answer and challenges the questioner to adopt the radicalization as a rule for his life. Jesus’ command is do likewise, not just think likewise.
In this installment, you as narrator are in the role of Jesus, but the Andy Schmookler whose story since 1992 you narrate is more nearly the exemplary Samaritan of the story. If we, the audience for this story accept it (are in sympathy with it, respond to it, see how it flows from a worldview implicit in the Parable of the Tribes), then—despite your disclaimer—we hear an unspoken “Go, thou, and do likewise.” The payoff of the “better story” is to be a better life, and here, for our instruction, is a modestly but pointedly presented example of the better life that flows from the better story.
There is nothing either intellectually or morally wrong with this and much that is admirable about it, but if one feels, as I do of myself, that one has been reading and thinking about such subjects for years, patiently assembling and progressively revising a personal worldview, implementing it along the way as has seemed possible or necessary for integrity’s or charity’s sake, then one may feel crowded when something more seems requested for an alternative worldview than sympathy, fellow feeling, or qualified intellectual agreement.
Now, to be sure, the lawyer who challenged Jesus felt crowded by the response he got. Jesus told this story (or Luke wrote it and put it artistically in Jesus’ mouth) on the threshold of one of history’s more extraordinary waves of conversion, but the lawyer in the story (we may guess) was not eager to be at the front of the line. He was already a good Jew, with a worldview and a moral code already in place. He had defensibly good reason to say, in the Aramaic equivalent of colloquial American English, “I don’t need this.” And yet conversions do come about, sometimes mass conversions. You dream of a mass conversion that could (I use the phrase in all seriousness) save the world, and I don’t disparage that cause for a minute. But that’s about as far as I go: I don’t convert to it.
I remain, in other words, something like the lawyer in the Gospel story. For that matter, leaving your story aside for the moment, I am as a Christian challenged by the story of the Good Samaritan itself, put off by the thought that I must engage more generously in charitable works than I do. I do want to be Christian but not all that Christian, thanks anyway, or so I am forced to conclude about myself. I am not about to stop and take charge of the next sprawled homeless Californian that I drive past. I go so far and no farther. But, back to your story, I am not inclined to take it any more powerfully to heart than I take Luke’s.
Challenges of a deep sort may come to any of us from the most varied quarters. Rainer Maria Rilke ends his poem “On an Archaic Torso of Apollo” with the famous line, “You must change your life” (du musst dein Leben ändern). Rilke somehow derived an existential challenge from the aesthetic experience of viewing the statue. Isn’t it true that you would like your work to stop people in their tracks the way that that statue stopped Rilke? Rilke, of course, wanted his poem to do what in the poem the statue does. Nothing great in this world has ever come about without ambition.
Earlier in this series, you have expressed frustration that while no one has refuted any of the claims made in The Parable of the Tribes, the work has not had the major impact you had hoped it would have. But I repeat that the Jewish lawyer, listening to Jesus’ parable, did not have to disagree with it or refute it in order to say to himself, “I don’t need this.” In this episode, as you speak of yourself and your recent life, you seem to become a kind of human epilogue to your parable, illustrating what the parable, the “better story,” would mean as enacted or implemented in an individual life. Here, too, one can respond with sympathy — as you will recall, I contributed to your congressional campaign – and yet stop short of the conversion that seems to be called for. I sent a couple checks to your campaign; I was a sympathizer, a supporter; that’s all: I did not cross the country and become a campaign worker. In the past election, I contributed to Bernie Sanders at the start but tired of his campaign was more than a campaign, that it was a great cause, a “revolution,” and so I switched to Hillary Clinton, but in either case I did not go beyond moderate financial support, and perhaps now, with Trump as president, I am paying the price we all are paying. A congenital moderate is your correspondent, clever but guarded, and thus, over the years, a disappointment to many.
And with that, having responded somewhat personally, however disappointingly, to the personal story you tell in this installment, I think I have said about all I have to say about this installment.
Jack, I find your comment very fascinating – and unexpected in its direction – and I thank you for it. At the same time, I believe you misconstrue what I’m doing in this piece.
That misunderstanding can be gleaned from your use of the word “requested” in your statement that “one may feel crowded when something more seems requested for an alternative worldview than sympathy, fellow feeling, or qualified intellectual agreement.”
It is not a request I am making here, but rather an offer.
In this piece, there are a lot of things going on, but the basic purpose underlying them all is what I announce at its beginning: I am wanting readers to stick with the series, despite the work it requires. So, acknowledging that demand on the reader’s energy, I am making the case for why that effort to take hold of this “integrative vision” could be well worth the reader’s while.
The way I make that case is to show how what that vision has done for me, and to invite the readers to consider how it might do likewise for them in kindred ways. If you want more of these things in your life, this series may help you get them: 1) seeing the world more clearly, and at a deep level; 2) because of that seeing, being able to see what it is that needs doing; 3) which leads to having a deep sense of mission; and 4) the nature of that deep seeing is such that it provides a route into contacting the sacred.
That’s the offer.
Basically, what I’m offering is the SEEING — a kind of seeing that is constructed of intellectual insight, while also containing the dimensions of wholeness and brokenness, good and evil.
My goal is to get people to look at the picture I’m presenting. I leave to them what path they will then follow. I have faith that there will be some to whom this vision can matter greatly, and I am doing what I can to get those people to check it out and see what it will do for them.
(Oh, and by the way, when you refer to “a worldview implicit in the Parable of the Tribes,” I just want to respond –for the other readers at least – is that there are more parts to this “integrative vision” than just the idea of “the parable of the tribes” (presented here in # 5). In the more than four decades since the p of t idea came to me, I’ve been working to develop those other pieces some of which are already in this series, and with some important pieces yet to come. I’d estimate that the p of t occupies no more than one-sixth of the total picture.)
I do not say, “Go thou and do likewise,” as did in the Jesus story you bring in. Because, unlike the nature of his teaching, what I am offering is not directly a way of being in the world. (“Love God with his whole heart and his neighbor as himself. “) I am offering a way of understanding, an intellectual structure.
My own experience says that this “way of understanding” can move a person toward the more direct teachings (“Love thy neighbor”) of the great spiritual leaders. It is a way of understanding that can evokes moral and spiritual passions, and can provide channels of thought through which those passions can flow.
My only request is that people try to see the the truths the picture shows. Some will see it well, some will not. Some will henceforth look upon the world through that perspective, others will not. Some will be moved to act differently, others will not.
At all those points, no one need feel “crowded” by me. I am content for the picture to be seen, and let people choose their own path from there.
I am very struck by your statement that your big picture view from the Parable of the Tribes enabled you to see — far sooner than most — what destruction was heading our way. I would really like to know more about how that bigger view enabled you to recognize decades ago what only now people can see.
I am also struck by how many people are still caught in seeing Trump as the problem — him as a personality. He is very good at drawing attention to himself and we are all still agog about what a piece of work he is. Many still don’t see the evil he is the figurehead for.
In a similar fashion, people are very insulting about those who still support Trump. They mostly call them stupid. This characterization feeds the problem in my view. You have described decades of manipulation of public opinion that has shaped peoples’ views. When you look at what they were manipulating — the worst part of people I think you say — what is that in them which is being manipulated? How does that fit into your overall view?
First, a propos of your referring to my “big picture view from the Parable of the Tribes,” let me underscore what I said to Jack Miles above: there’s a good deal more in this “integrative vision” than the parable of the tribes. (So I wouldn’t want the readers to think that, with # 5, they’ve seen the essence of what I’ve got to show here, and go away feeling done with it!) In the 47 years since I “saw” the parable of the tribes, I’ve explored a whole lot more about what I’m calling “the nexus of cause and effect,” the ways that the patterns of brokenness get transmitted through the system – in a diversity of forms and at different levels – in civilized societies through time.
So I need to postpone until future installments some of my answer to your question about how I recognized the brokenness earlier than most.
But for now, I hope it will suffice for now to say at least this much:
In the decade before I decided to try to counter Limbaugh, I had written two books on how the impetus of brokenness unleashed by “the parable of the tribes” damaged people, and how that damage fed more brokenness back into the civilized world. (One book had the title Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War; the other Sowings and Reapings: The Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human System.)
From the perspectives I developed in those books, I felt able 1) to recognize how Limbaugh’s discourse – with its feeding of resentments, and his toxic dishonesty – could train his listeners’ minds into habits of brokenness, and 2) how those habits would incline those people to support “evil” leaders seeking to pursue destructive purposes in the arena of power.
To address your other question, about what it is in Limbaugh’s audience (and subsequently in Trump’s supporters) that made them manipulable, I’ll put here a passage from a not-yet-published op/ed I’ve written in the past couple of weeks. (And I agree with you that “stupidity” is not the real problem here.)
The main theme of that op/ed as a whole is that the right-wing propagandists have accomplished something I never would have thought possible: i.e. to sell millions of people on a fundamentally false picture of the world, and to accomplish this in an open society where, unlike in a totalitarian system, people have ready access to far more honest sources of information.
I then go on to identify some of the vulnerabilities — already present in their target subculture, inculcated over generations – that these propagandists exploited: For example, and this is a quotation from the op/ed:
Many of the supporters of the right come from an American subculture in which an authority, once accepted, is not to be questioned. So once Fox News, for an example, persuaded people that they were “fair and balanced,” and that the nation’s real journalists were biased against their values, the people in that subculture regarded it as a kind of disloyalty to examine their trusted authority’s pronouncements with skepticism. Over time, the propagandists could use that pattern of feeling to teach their followers to suspend critical thinking and to respond instead with emotions that — while also gratifying the individual — serve the interests of the manipulators.
Another aspect of the subculture is that there is a strong desire to fit in harmoniously with a community of belief. It is orthodoxy, not diversity, of opinion that is valued—particularly on the community-defining matters of religion and politics. To disagree with one’s community is risk ostracism, Although history has moved away from burning heretics, the pattern of feeling behind that practice has not disappeared. Therefore once a community of belief got established on the right – like Limbaugh’s millions of “dittoheads”—there was a powerful emotional reward for staying aligned with it.
The other side of the coin from community-solidarity is a tendency toward hostility to the “Other”– that is, toward those on the other side of some important-seeming divide. The “Other” could be another race, another religion, another nationality, or – in recent times – the other political party. This tendency has been utilized to discredit all potential sources of information that come from outside the community of shared belief. People can be taught, in effect, “Trust only us.” A generation of such training has apparently made it possible for the current president to persuade his followers that only his version of the news can be trusted, while all the other news — from journalists across the globe — should be dismissed as “fake.”
Andy, this is a highly personal account and therefore I read it as that, so I absorb it rather than respond.. At first I thought I had no commentary. But as I read, I realize that a way I look at the Limbaugh/Trump phenomenon is relevant.
Limbaugh and Trump share a number of tactics. You state that Limbaugh TEACHES that the other side of the political divide are the scum of the earth; that he poisons the MINDS of people through indoctrination [emphasis added]. My observation has been that Limbaugh and Trump are both haters who will often spew one-line statements. They are speaking from their hateful feelings and not from their minds.
The “ideas” that come forth are not rational, reasoned RESPONSES but rather highly emotional REACTIONS. As a psychologist, I have learned that hate is usually derived from fear, or more circuitously from a feeling threatened by something that might happen if the other philosophy were to come to fruition.
I certainly recognize that my hate of Trump comes from fear of what his retributive “philosophy” will produce.
Trump and Limbaugh prey on our insecurities/fears. So when you speak of “habits of thought and feeling” I believe these are strongly induced and reinforced by insecurity and hatred that are inflamed, rather than taught. The teaching is brought in as rationale later. When Trump or Limbaugh snarl, use derogatory language, call names, and use coarse language, they are triggering that fear-hate biological, emergency response.
So, my sense is that Trump does not poison minds so much as he harnesses fear and hate, by tapping directly into that sense of the “unfairness” of being disenfranchised. His snarl and insults ignite simmering hate WITHOUT engaging the mind ( or the sequential thinking of the frontal lobe).
Bernie Sanders also appealed to the emotions of the disenfranchised. but he does also appeal to ideas. Emotions flare immediately and intensely, whereas ideas take root upon reflection. Ideas take more effort to encompass intellectually than do emotions, which come about through at-the-ready neurotransmitters.
So when you speak of “habits of thought and feeling” I believe these are strongly induced and reinforced by insecurity and hatred that are inflamed, rather than taught. The teaching is brought in as rationale later. When Trump or Limbaugh snarl, use derogatory language, call names, and use coarse language, they are triggering that fear-hate biological, emergency response.
Hate is an emotion that emerges suddenly, quickly, violently, and not through a reasoning process. I believe that hatred is usually induced by fear. Fear ERUPTS, it is not always inculcated (although it may be sometimes). Fear is an evolutionarily/biologically-driven sudden emotion which puts into action the famous flight-fight- or freeze reaction. We hate what we fear. We hate what makes us feel insecure. Trump and Limbaugh prey on our insecurities/fears.
Love, compassion, aspirations toward wholeness are not quick triggers in the human psyche. They are slow, built-up through accretions of experience and provide protection against the insecurity and fear and motivation toward wholeness. It is an uphill battle, as fear provides survival in the immediate, but love and compassion I believe, are crucial to the integrational and conceptual vision you expound. They contribute to the thriving after the survival of the species.
Having said the above, I realize that part of your disappointment that you have not caught on in a big way is because, as passionate as your mission is, you are engaging minds through logical, knowledgeable persuasion. You do have an integrative vision, and I appreciate very much the assertion that truth lies not between, but above the poles, and that integration, rather than compromise, is the productive goal. This is an intellectual endeavor. although I know the emotional drive is very much part of your mission. It may be more wise, but it is not as easily spread as are the emotional goadings.
Thank you, Gail, for your thoughts about hate and fear. I’ll confine myself to two quick points.
First, regarding the statement that “Trump and Limbaugh prey on our insecurities/fears,” yes that is true. (See my third bullet point right above, in my answer to Ed, regarding “hostility to the Other.”) When you say that these are “inflamed rather than taught,” perhaps you are saying that, rather than creating something wholly foreign to their followers, there was already a spark there to be fanned into a bigger fire by their inflammatory rhetoric.
But an essential point I wish to emphasize is that the hatreds and fears can be a larger or smaller part of the picture, depending on whether they are fed or dampened. The force of brokenness in our era has worked continually to feed them. So they have grown in power in that part of the body politic to which the demagogues speak.
Which connects with a central point that will be coming soon: which is that, in any given society, the balance of power between the forces of wholeness and those of brokenness can shift considerably (in either direction) over time.
Finally, addressing your final point, which is that “This is an intellectual endeavor,” and that this does not spread as readily as the “emotional goadings.” You are surely right. And I accept that. I will be articulating soon more about my goal in this series. It is ambitious in its way, but it is not ambitious in the sense of trying immediately to “catch fire.”
Like the Marines, I’m looking for “a few good [people].” Meaning people with the kinds of good minds that can grasp and hold something of an intellectual time that, over time, can exert a force of a slower kind.
I want to plant seeds that will endure and have a long-term impact. John Locke died in 1702, but he is frequently cited as having helped to inspire the founders of the United States much nearer the end of that century. His endeavor, too, was an intellectual one.
The societal polarization is certainly real and extensive. As one example, Trump supporters/opponents have a very hard time understanding one another’s motivations. What can I do, on an individual basis? I can recognize that each person is a precious human being who has reached their conclusions about life and its many components as a result of their upbringing, experience, and, perhaps, genetic inheritance.
I will then hopefully be able to communicate compassionately with a fellow human being who is deserving of my respect and who will face the same end as me: the loss of everyone and everything loved and cherished, in death. That’s alone a good reason for compassionate consideration of another and his/her opinions, even if I find some of those opinions objectionable.
I can communicate with kindness, and remain open because there may be something I can learn, even from someone with whom I radically disagree. I can do this person-to-person, and in my more formal communications like letters to the editor, calls to congressional offices, etc.
I can work to cultivate my compassion, and I can be aware that I might have a very tight grasp, even a self-righteous grasp, on some of my opinions. I can work to loosen that grip and therefore be more truly open to listen to the views of others, and respond on the basis of our shared humanity.
Andy, I think you communicated this way as a guest on my radio show for over a decade. There may be little we can each do to bridge the current divide, but we can do something, however small our influence. As the song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
Fred, your compassion and kindness and desire to remain open to people with whose opinions you radically disagree are commendable. Perhaps they can be of help in healing these broken times. But I believe that at present they are tangential to the nature of the problem we face as a nation.
Yes, I believe in those things, and you are right that I communicated that way on your radio show in my appearances – over 100 of them – over the course of a decade. But our discussions were not dealing with matters on which our interlocutors’ thoughts and feelings had been deliberately manipulated by a coherent force of brokenness. The callers were not coming from a false picture cultivated in their minds by people working in bad faith, deliberately inculcating pernicious falsehoods in their minds and make impossible constructive communication across the divides they were creating.
After many years of talking in constructive ways across our political divide “as if we might actually learn something from each other,” I found myself — in my venue with a conservative audience, and dealing with issues pertinent to the interests of the destructive force — blocked from any truly constructive engagement on the issues, when the conversations foundered on those falsehoods.
Where do you go, for example, with a conversation when someone’s premise is that the president (Obama) was born in Kenya and thus not a legitimate president? You can’t disabuse them of that belief. And you can do nothing constructive by accepting that belief. You’re stuck.
I spent more than twenty years in the business of building bridges. (One of my long associations was with a group called “Search for Common Ground.”) But then there came a time in America where good faith has yielded to bad faith, where even decent people on the other side have had their minds turned into channels for the Lie, and where building bridges is no longer the task at hand.
Maybe you can do some good to simply have good, caring human contact– staying away from the division. But I see no sign that these present divisions can be reduced on that person-to-person basis.
In the course of human events, different kinds of situations arise. And to be able to deal with the diversity of challenges, we need to have a variety of tools in our toolbox. Sometimes what is required are the tools of bridge-building. But sometimes they become tangential to the main task at hand.
Sometimes what is needed are the tools of battle. A battle not so much against the people who have been manipulated to foster the polarization, but more against those who have deliberately and knowingly created the divisions through their words spoken in bad faith. And even more directly against the larger force of destruction of which they have become the channels.
We now live in such a time.