What follows is a navel-gazey personal essay. If that’s not your thing, move along.
By nature, I am an introverted, thinky person — in the Myers-Briggs personality schema, an INTP, if that means anything to you. Or a Virgo, if that’s your cup of tea. An analyzer, dissector, chopper-upper, drawn to flaws and inconsistencies like itches that need scratching. I like to take ideas apart and put them into new configurations, like Legos. It’s fun! Nonetheless, for me, one of the notable aspects of 2011 has been a growing awareness of the limits of that sort of thing.
Obviously, I’m a fan of reason and opposed to error or deception. But there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are captured by this rational vs. irrational dichotomy.
I can’t help feeling lately that the developed world generally and the U.S. specifically (and U.S. politics even more specifically) are in a kind of slow-decline funk that no amount of rational analysis will cure. There are the proximate reasons for the funk — economies slumping, middle-class security evaporating, income inequality widening, the Obama Hope Bubble popping — but in the background, I think, is also a looming awareness that we are, in various ways, on a ticking timer. What we’re doing can’t last. Our model of development, which is now spreading like wildfire in developing countries, is premised on eating our seed corn, borrowing wealth from the future to fund consumption today. Climate change is the most iconic example, but it’s not the only one. Future generations will inherit a planet under increasing stress, with billions more people, resources running short, and a number of biophysical systems drifting badly out of whack.
This is not a pleasant revelation. No one likes the idea that their families and tribes and identities are enmeshed in systems built on injustice. No one likes being implicated in the consequences of decisions that they did not make and have only a tiny role in perpetuating. Americans, in particular, recoil at the idea that their privileges and lifestyles are not the result of pure pluck but are, in some sense, bought with borrowed wealth, borrowed time, borrowed lives — and that they owe something back.
Not surprisingly, there’s been a metric ton of blowback. This is most clear in the spasms of nationalism, revanchism, and ressentiment from the Tea Party, which is, not coincidentally, drawn from the very demographic that most benefits from current systems. But it also manifests in dozens of more subtle and workaday forms of status quo bias. It’s just difficult to consciously grapple with systemic failure, especially when the systems in question are so huge and have so much momentum that they seem impossible to slow, much less transform. Denial, anger, and retrenchment are predictable reactions, and contra the Talk Soothingly caucus, I don’t see any way to avoid confronting and working through these reactions. We’re going to have to muddle through something like Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief if we want to come out the other side.
But we need to recognize these reactions for what they are: visceral responses, from a place far deeper than the frontal cortex. Threaten someone’s way of life and you activate their lizard brain, their fight-or-flight instinct. Rational analysis — demonstrating the unsustainability of our current trajectory with charts and graphs and facts — is not enough. I mean, it doesn’t feel like enough, does it? Here we are sliding ever further into dysfunction and the internets are practically choked with people analyzing why it sucks.
We just don’t seem to know what to do — not on individual questions like oil pipelines or health care mandates or payroll taxes, but big-picture wise. What kind of people are we? What world are we trying to build? What does America mean now? Without any larger shared vision, we just fight the old fights, on the old terms, deploying values, narratives, and policies left over from the past.
What we need now, more than ever, are not critiques of the extant but models of the new — new institutions, new social practices, new identities, new purposes, new ways of measuring and valuing what matters. If we’re ever going to get off the sinking USS Fossil Growth and into lifeboats, we need to know where we’re heading. A new North Star.
We need people who can make a prosperous, enjoyable, sustainable world vivid and real. That will be the work of creators and dreamers, not logic choppers. It will mean acts of social and economic entrepreneurship, art and storytelling, irrational hope and optimism. It will involve lots of experiments undertaken by people unwilling to be constrained by the limits of the “realistic,” people who are willing to try, to risk failure or absurdity.
Such acts of creation are inevitably messy, impure, unpredictable, and non-linear. When rational analyzers like me are confronted with them, the urge is to immediately set to categorizing, boxing, dissecting, finding flaws … and too often diminishing or mocking. (I wrote about this a bit with regard to my reaction to Occupy Wall Street.) It’s my nature.
I can’t change my nature, of course, and neither can you. Which is fine — everyone has their own strengths and their own role to play. But in 2012, my resolution is to try to at least restrain that ravenous critic in my head, to give the dreamers and chance-takers a little more room to breathe.
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