Martin Luther King (paraphrasing Theodore Parker, Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist born in 1810 who called for the abolition of slavery) used to say (and Barack Obama has often paraphrased him
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
That nicely frames the question I want to pose:
Here, at the opening of the Trump Era, is American culture (and the culture of the world) evolving
If you know me, you know my answer. Look above for the Sea Change thread.
But here's a quick summary for late bloomers.
Sea Change: Cultural Evolution in the Early 21st Century
We’re living in a critical transformative period characterized by a steady decline in influence of some of our most familiar assumptions, values, and models for understanding. We’ve come increasingly to question and challenge patriarchy, the legitimacy of war, ecological exploitation and pollution, racially-based policies, injustice, religious exclusivism, and imperialism. At the same time, we’ve begun to explore and even to give our hesitant allegiance to newer or rediscovered values including human rights, social justice, ecological sustainability, care for the Earth, non-violence, and interreligious harmony. What’s it like to live at a time when the influence of the declining values is roughly equal to that of ascending, emergent values? Well, it’s a lot like now.
It’s what I call a “Sea Change” and I’ve already spoken a bit in other presentations this week about the implications its implications for tomorrow’s world. Its an extraordinary and promising dynamic in 21st-century cultural evolution. But it’s not all roses. It brings in its wake the turbulent phenomenon of resistance to change – the backlash whirlpool or what I call “the eddies.” We’re living through that now.
I promised to talk about what Trumpism could do to the U.S. and the world. I want to apply a big picture analysis to this question. I'll list the areas that concern me most deeply, but rather than drill down into the specifics of each one, I'll try to show how they fit into a larger pattern, which we can analyze.
The cultural-evolutionary Sea Change which I so strongly affirm has three essential core dynamics, each one gradually (and sometimes, like now, rapidly) emerging as critical to basic human values. I have long abbreviated them as “P, J, S,” and I’m happy to say that that short form is catching on all over. They are:
and non-violent conflict resolution.
J: Social and economic justice
and universal human rights.
S: Ecological sustainability.
Now, let’s consider Trumpism as Resistance to Cultural Evolution, and ask what it could do to P, J, and S here and around the world.
Countering Peace and Non-Violent Conflict Resolution
Undermining Social and Economic Justice and Universal Human Rights
Straining Ties with Allies and Rivals as well
Dangerous Flirtation with Putin
Widening the Divide with World Islam
Undoing the Iran Nuclear Deal
Waging Preemptive War (on N. Korea and / or Iran)
Subverting Ecological Sustainability
Feeding the Fires of Racism, Islamophobia, and Cultural Intolerance...the Dalliance with the Alt-Right
Encouraging Misogyny and Violence Against Women
Exacerbating the Wealth Gap (lifting the 1%)
Energizing the Religious Far-Right...Dominionism and Traditionalism
Playing to White Nationalist Minorities (here and Around the world)
Moving Toward a Police State
Weakening the Struggle Against Climate Change
Furthering Environmental Degradation
Catering to the Oil and Coal Industries, ignoring the Cultivation of Alternative Energy Sources
These are all real possibilities. You’re right. They are terrifying.
But in complex situations like these, counter-evolutionary eddies
can and do energize what I call “emergents,” maturations of the progressive evolutionary movements that triggered the backlash in the first place.
So, let’s move on to the latest chapter in the story of cultural evolution and its adversaries.
Trumpism as a Strange Attractor
In Chaos (or Complexity) Theory, a dynamic kind-of-equilibrium is called a Strange Attractor
, an equation or fractal set representing a complex pattern of behavior in a chaotic system. The difference between an Attractor and a Strange Attractor is that an Attractor represents a state to which a system finally settles (imagine a rolling marble finally coming to rest the bottom of a bowl), while a Strange Attractor represents some kind of trajectory upon which a system runs from situation to situation without ever settling down. The key is that the dynamically changing system displays complex repeating patterns, although no particular state of the system is predictable. We can, however, speak confidently about states the system will never
occupy. (The Attractor describes a static situation; the Strange Attractor describes a dynamic one.)
But we’re searching here for a useful metaphor
rather than an accurate mathematical formulation. In a metaphorical sense, a strange attractor
in a dynamic system (seemingly chaotic and apparently randomly changing) marks the transition from chaos
So, is Trumpism – at least metaphorically – like a strange attractor
? I’m arguing that, yes, Trump’s chaotic behavior ultimately discloses a fairly coherent value-structure (abhorrent as it is to many). Values can be understood metaphorically as strange attractors
, which “attract” complex clusters or patterns of behavior. Each act is unpredictable and seemingly random; but each falls within a complex zone of “possibility” defined by the attractor
, the animating value or value-complex.
Trumpist Islamophobia “attracts” anti-Muslim rhetoric and acts of physical violence
Trumpist dishonest Tweeting and egregiously false public statements by the president and his surrogates “attracts” new exponents of fake news, anti-science, and pseudo-history.
And on and on…
So, the republic is doomed, right? Trumpist “Proto-Fascism” will become full-blown Fascism and the result will the realization of the world sketched by George Orwell in 1984.
Not so fast….
It may just be (it certainly appears to be) that Trumpism, its devolutionary value complex, and the behaviors it generates together give rise to a far more powerful strange attractor,
one from which a far more creative – and evolutionary – complexity emerges.
Here’s my proposition:
1. Trumpist values are devolutionary.
2. They attract those who have already rejected or would never even consider the possibility of cultural evolution
3. But, conversely, they energize those who embrace progressive values-shift,
exponents of P, J, S principles, values, and behaviors.
4. The Neo-Reactionaries energize the reborn Progressives.
5. Where should we look for signs of a Sea Change?
a) To the Oval Office?
b) Or to the growing movement? To groups like Indivisible (Google “the Indivisible Guide”!)
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
The Cure at Troy (excerpt)
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
As you may have noticed, I’m returning these days to the theme of cultural evolution, the subject of my 2010 book, Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change. Cultural evolution is the slow, steady advance of humanity’s most essential cultural values (e.g, peace, justice, and ecological sustainability) toward a closer fit with reality. Thus, for example, “the arc of human history” bends toward peace, justice, and ecological sustainability and away from racism, sexism, hateful nationalism, and violent response to personal and societal identity crisis.
Hold it! (I can almost hear the chorus.) How can we hold out any hope for values-evolution, in the face of so much apparent evidence (these days) to the contrary? Well, the answer is to be found in the eddies of resistance to the cultural-evolutionary dynamic.
Eddies are counter-clockwise whirlpools of resistance in a flowing stream. One could almost say that they desperately try to reverse the prevailing flow. Cultural eddies (you’ll see how well the metaphor works) are counter-cultural vortices that struggle against the flow of cultural evolution. Here’s one example: “No, women should not rise to positions of authority over men!”
Cultural evolution, however, arrives in waves, cultural “value waves,” one on the way up and one on the way down. The up wave brings the promise of cultural evolution. Things get better, people get wiser, and the convergenge is toward cooperation. But then there’s the down wave, the backlash. Things seem worse, people get angrier, and there is only divergence.
The question of our age is simple. Will the falling wave swamp the rising wave? Or will the rising wave overcome? The older value set has inertia on its side; the newer packs momentum. I’ll always bet on momentum against inertia.
So, here’s a final thought for now.
Ours today is a continent divided not so much by a geographical, altitudinal watershed as by a seemingly unbridgeable cultural and attitudinal barrier. It does matter that certain regions of our land align with particular values-complexes. And it is significant that one can, with some success, predict the racial, social, gender, and even scientific (or anti-scientific) leanings of people from here as opposed to there.
But America is not really divided between the good and the bad, the bright and the dull, or the generous and the selfish. Our current dilemma is to be found in the eternal tension between hope and fear. Often it may seem that fear is winning; but it never truly can, for it springs from uncertainty and ignorance. Hope is always grounded in a clear vision of what is and what can yet be. And there’s the hope in hope.