Dialogue is a life or death issue

Dick Polman (with whom I disagree politically) remarks on the increasing difficulty of people who disagree to engage in any sort of dialogue:

As I survey the political landscape, in the midst of a career change, it's clear we have entered an era in which nuance seems quaint. "Blue state facts" clash with "red state facts."

W.B. Yeats wrote, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," and indeed it appears that our new century does not empower the voices of moderation.

For many who fit into the politically homeless camp, the center cannot hold because there is no center. Libertarians like me are quite used to agreeing with neither "side" and not being anywhere near any identifiable center. I honestly can't tell you what the center is, as there are too many passionately held ideological viewpoints which get in the way by condemning any deviation as the "other side." Which means that if you think for yourself, you can end up being on the other side of someone's other side on every issue on which there is a side. (Such a status may be many things, but it certainly cannot be called a "center.")

Polman offers a slim ray of hope:

Today strong partisans lead each party; goaded by bloggers, they often view compromise as surrender.

All told, I've painted a grim picture. The other day, I phoned an expert who tracks our national mood - Gary Jacobson, at the University of California, San Diego - and asked, "Is there any hope?"

Yes, he said, the future rests with the voters of 2008:

"There's not much chance the polarization will be reversed soon. But a lot depends on who we nominate next time. If it's Hillary Clinton and a Republican who is close to Christian conservatives, then we'll have more polarization. But if it's someone like a John McCain and a Mark Warner, we'll have a less polarized climate."

In the end, Jacobson said, "there's always reason to hope, because we have survived this kind of thing before. After all, we did have a civil war."

I'll leave alone the "goaded by bloggers" part, as I can't remember the last time I goaded anyone. As to civil war, though, I can't remember how many times I've said that I don't want another one. I'd do almost anything to prevent such a thing. Is being against a new civil war now centrism? If so, then call me a centrist.

I find it ironic that the attacks of September 11, while initially triggering a sort of consensus resembling national unity, ultimately soured the national mood into the most bitter and recriminatory one I've seen and I'm including the Vietnam War era, for there was more national unity then, as well as more dialogue. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, were more capable of being friends then than they are now, and I think that's a crying shame. (I'll never forget how quickly I lost friends for developing new ones on the wrong "side," but that's another topic, and a very sore and sensitive one.)

The problem I have engaging in dialogue begins with an inability to define what is being discussed. When ordinary words like "family" and "consumer" become hyperpolitical code language, when words like "environment" make no sense, I don't know how to begin to have dialogue.

Yesterday I learned a new phrase: "living economies." The people talking about it were all in favor of it, but the way they were using it made my antennae go up, because it sounded like vague code language with a special meaning for activists, and probably some sort of an agenda. Like "family values." Or "reality based community." Otherwise inoffensive words strung together. But just try to define them using a dictionary! Such phrases are more than words. They are expressions, and they denote entire philosophies. Movements.

And, boy, the phrase "living economies" did not disappoint. As code language goes, it's a real gold mine. Books have been written on the subject and of course there are innumerable web sites devoted to it.

The crux of "living economies" (the plural of economy is no accident) is that the world is being dominated by "The Empire" which consists not of economies, but of "The Suicide Economy." This is run by large global multinational corporations which place profit ahead of humanity. The reason it is called a Suicide Economy is that it is "unsustainable." "Living economies" by contrast, are "sustainable."

If you like activist phraseology and code language, you need look no further than the term "living economies." These two simple words have been transformed into a veritable hive of rhetorical activism -- the inside of which literally teems with slogans like the following:

The Local Living Economies Movement is about:

* Maximizing relationships, not maximizing profits
* Growth of consciousness and creativity, not brands and market-share
* Democracy and decentralized ownership, not concentrated wealth
* A living return, not the highest return
* A living wage, not the minimum wage
* A fair price, not the lowest price
* Sharing, not hoarding
* Life serving, not self-serving
* Partnership, not domination
* Cooperation based, not competition based
* Win-win exchange, not win-loose exploitation
* Family farms, not factory farms
* Bio-diversity, not monocrops
* Cultural diversity, not monoculture
* Creativity, not conformity
* Slow food, not fast food
* Our bucks, not Starbucks
* Our mart, not Wal-Mart
* Love of life, not love of money

The purpose of this post is not to debate or fisk the above, but to demonstrate the difficulty of dialogue.

If I'm leaving Starbucks with a cup of coffee and someone says "Our bucks, not Starbucks," where would I even begin?

Creativity, not conformity? How do I know what those are? Am I being creative if I write a blog post when I'd rather lay back and contemplate a beautiful Sunday afternoon? Or am I being conformist? Or am I conforming to the dictates of my inner creativity? How the hell should I know?

I'm not in a foul mood right now, but sometimes I get in foul moods, precisely because I find it irritating to be scolded, lectured, badgered, by people who don't seem to understand the implications of their own demands. I can think of few things more degrading than being scolded for non-creative "conformity" by someone whose rote use of an unoriginal phrase scripted by someone else implies, well, non-creative conformity!

I mean, really! What could be less creative than condemning "conformity" and pronouncing yourself "creative" based on a slogan written by someone else? Were I in a foul mood, hearing such a thing might make me very proud to call myself a conformist! But how do I get to conformity in its fullest sense if I detest following others? It's a daunting task. And how can I conform without following? Create what? Conform to what? Maybe I should always place "brands and market-share" ahead of "consciousness and creativity"?

Unbeknownst to me when I started this essay, I have been misusing the word "creative." In the context of the Living Economies people, it means belong to a group called "cultural creatives," which has its own philosophy:

The Cultural Creatives care deeply about ecology and saving the planet, about relationships, peace, social justice, and about self actualization, spirituality and self-expression. Surprisingly, they are both inner-directed and socially concerned, they're activists, volunteers and contributors to good causes more than other Americans. However, because they've been so invisible in American life, Cultural Creatives themselves are astonished to find out how many share both their values and their way of life. Once they realize their numbers, their impact on American life promises to be enormous, shaping a new agenda for the twenty-first century.

Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson tell how people departed from Modern or Traditional cultures to weave new ways of life. Three Americas are struggling to define what the country should be: Traditionals, Moderns and Cultural Creatives. The authors show how each one emerged historically, and how the Cultural Creatives in particular grew out of the social movements of the Sixties right up to Seattle's WTO demonstrations, and from the consciousness movements in spirituality, psychology and alternative health. They conclude that all the different kinds of movements are converging now, with the Cultural Creatives at the core.

What makes the appearance of the Cultural Creatives especially timely today is that our civilization is in the midst of an epochal change, caught between globalization, accelerating technologies and a deteriorating planetary ecology. A creative minority can have enormous leverage to carry us into a new renaissance instead of a disastrous fall. The book ends with a number of maps for the remarkable journey that our civilization is embarked upon: initiations, evolutionary models, scenarios, and the elements of a new mythos for our time. The Cultural Creatives offers a more hopeful future, and prepares us all for a transition to a new, saner and wiser culture.

Well, gee whiz! All this time I've spent using the words "culture" and "creative," and I had no idea what I was talking about.

See what I mean about the difficulty of dialogue?

The "cultural creatives" of behind the big Seattle demonstrations against the WTO are much praised by a man named David C. Korten in an interview here. Dr. Korten is a Vietnam veteran who has seen the light, and is one of the principle movers and shakers in (and a founder of) the Living Economies movement.

Those who want to get into depth beyond a list of slogans probably couldn't find a better place to start than with his introduction to the concept:

Having reached the limits of an Era of Empire, humanity is compelled to accept responsibility for the consequences of its presence on a finite planet, make a conscious collective choice to leave behind the excesses of its adolescence, and take the step to species maturity. It is the most exciting moment of opportunity in the history of the species.

The Era of Empire embraced competition and domination as its organizing principles, hierarchy as its favored organizational form, and ultimately chose money as its defining value. It has led to the emergence of a global suicide economy otherwise known as the corporate global economy that is rapidly destroying the social and environmental foundations of its own existence and threatening the survival of the human species. It is the Era's final stage. (Bold italics in original)

Final stage? Is that Orwellian, or Falwellian? (Sorry, but I was just trying be what I used to think was creative, but which I now know is conformity.)

Dr. Korten continues:

The global corporations that are the ruling institutions of the suicide economy are required by law, structure, and the imperatives of global finance to maximize financial returns to absentee owners without regard to the consequences for people or planet. In short, they are programmed to behave like cancers that seek their own unlimited growth without regard to the consequences. As these pathological institutions have consolidated their power, the imperatives of global finance have come to dominate the economic, political, and cultural lives of people, communities, and nations everywhere.
I see it now. The suicidal corporations are simply programmed to be pathological cancers. What that means is that for the life of the rest of us, some serious surgery will have to be done. Right?

Yes; the diseased economy must be replaced. By healthy organisms:

The human future depends on moving beyond the self-limiting and ultimately self-destructive ways of Empire to live into being a new Era of Community in which life is the defining cultural value, cooperation and partnership are society's organizing principles, and networking is the predominant organizational form. The culture and institutions of the global suicide economy must be replaced by the culture and institutions of a planetary system of living economies that mimic the behavior of healthy living organisms and ecosystems.
(The last link puports to provide biological proof of how the suicide economy will kill us just like cancer because profit equals human extinction. No, seriously.)

What is health? And how is the unhealthy suicide economy to mimic it?

By something called The Great Work!

The cultural and institutional transformation that this will require presents a profound evolutionary challenge and opportunity. Theologian Thomas Berry calls it The Great Work a creative, life-serving work to create a more creative, vibrant, and fulfilling human future.
Wow. Even words like "great" and "work" (words I throw around routinely) have huge meaning.

This dialogue stuff sure is heavy.

But it's imperative:

The imperative for transformation comes from the deepening social and environmental crisis provoked by the pathological institutions of the suicide economy. The opportunity for transformation flows from the elimination of geographic barriers to communication made possible by the communications technologies that are one of the more beneficial products of the suicide economy and from the awakening of major segments of humanity to a new cultural and planetary consciousness. The nexus of imperative and opportunity has given birth to a global civil society, spurred the growth of a powerful resistance movement, and set the stage for the emergence of a planetary system of living economies.

Resistance is essential to slow the juggernaut of the suicide economy. It may even force incremental reforms that blunt the worst excesses of the suicide economy's pathological institutions. Ultimately, however, the restoration of the economic and social health of human societies depends on eliminating the cancer. The successful change strategy will weaken the malignant institutions that are leading us toward self-destruction while simultaneously growing living webs of relationships among life-serving enterprises to bring into being the healthy living economies that ultimately will displace the malignant institutions and eliminate them from the body of society.

Again, the malignant suicidal cancers will have to be cut out. From the body of society.

(Better not let the eliminationist rhetoric people hear about this!)

I try not to avoid discussing new concepts and ideads, but this stuff is all so complicated.

I've barely scratched the surface, but I think what is going on here can best be summarized as a sort of culture war between the pro-death suicide forces of malignancy and conformity the pro-life forces of living economy and creativity.

Pro life or pro death!

Life or suicide; that is the question.

Do I have to decide now, or can I just think it over?

AFTERTHOUGHT: It occurs to me that one of the problems with engaging in dialogue is not so much that people disagree, but that code language -- which substitutes confrontation for understanding -- prevents people even from reaching a state of reasoned disagreement. If you don't understand what someone is saying, is it really possible to have an intelligent disagreement? If my satire can be someone else's serious argument, I'm not even sure we're in a state which can be called "disagreement."

Another problem is that in the case of radical ideas, disagreement is often beside the point, because they don't want to discuss ideas; they want to interfere with my life. If people want to take away my property by force, take away my right to defend myself, or force me remove my mercury-filled teeth, I can say that I "disagree," but of how much value is such a disagreement?

MORE: At the risk of sounding like even more of a conformist than I might be (depending on who's in charge of the conformation), I have to say, I marvel over the sheer Orwellian chutzpah of labeling disagreement as "conformity"!

And while I am a conformist for disagreeing with the Living Economistas, say on the GMO issue, in terms of logic I have just as much right to assert that anyone who disagrees with me is also a conformist!

posted by Eric on 09.10.06 at 11:20 AM


Brilliant, as usual.

It had been my opinion until reading this post that the thing that distinguished liberals from conservatives is their opinion of justice.

Conservatives tend to see justice in terms of crime and punishment, with a hint of karma. Honesty is the most basic Virtue.

Liberals see justice as "social justice", which is bridging the gap between rich and poor, strong and weak. Anything which brings about social justice is Good, and any means to achieve it are Good. Working for social justice is the basic Virtue.

I'm not sure I'm wrong, but you have given me cause to think that there may be other dimensions of disagreement.

One thing is clear to both of us, and that is the difficulty that comes with overloading words, giving them coded meaning.

I think left and right (in the US, anyway) are developing, or have developed, not just polarized viewpoints, but different bases for their respective world views. I'm not sure how a "center" can be found for those different sets of views.

Socrates   ·  September 10, 2006 3:00 PM


As to "social justice," that's another classic. No one has ever been able to define it, but they know what it is! The rest of us can spin our wheels attempting to defend "social injustice."

No justice, no peace!

Eric Scheie   ·  September 10, 2006 3:17 PM

I have been interested in politics since I was a teenager (I'm in my 40s now) and I don't recall the atmosphere ever being so poisonous. I evolved from left-liberal to right-libertarian over the years. My parents are still liberals, though, and it has gotten to the point where we very carefully never bring up politics because the feelings are so strong and so antagonistic that it creates really bad feelings that should not be in a family.

Same with my liberal friends. We just can't understand why each other would believe the nonsense that the other believes.

I was so hopeful that the end of the Soviet Union would be the end of socialism and leftism. Yet here we are 15 years later and the leftists are as enthralled with the same old socialist bullsh*t that they ever were. My liberal friends are convinced that "national" health care is crucial, and that corporations are the cause of problems in the world. I don't understand how thinking adults can believe that nonsense.

I am getting to the point where I think it would be best if I simply forbid myself to think about politics because the situation is so aggravating. Yet I can't seem to resist, and it feels wrong to ignore politics. If everyone did that, we would end up with a Hitler.

Does anyone else have the feeling that this is going to be resolved with war? War between the left and right, between the First World and the rest of the world, between the races and religions? I do. I don't really see how it doesn't end up that way.

I can't believe we're throwing away the civilization our ancestors strove and died to build. I suppose that's the way things work, though. Cyclical and all.

Mark   ·  September 10, 2006 11:36 PM

I feel like I've just been reading a proto-Protein-Wisdom (or a post-Orwell). You've stumbled on their respective Goldsteins' central observation: that the way one understands language mirrors one's politics.

The Goldsteins, fictional and nonfictional, would say - For the right, language is for description. For the left, language is a tool which one uses to implement one's ends.

David Ross   ·  September 11, 2006 9:36 PM

Jeff Goldstein is one of my absolute favorites, and I find myself agreeing with him even though I reach conclusions in very different ways.

I don't see what is "conservative" about being logical, or what is "liberal" about being unclear, as I have known too many logical liberals and illogical conservatives. I think the split may be more along the lines of communitarian versus individualism.

Eric Scheie   ·  September 11, 2006 11:15 PM

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