Tag Archives: paradigm shift

What Keeps Me Up At Night…

Why have a blog if you can’t share your nightmares?

As I see it, we live in a time of paradigm shift, characterized by a rapidly morphing information environment, a reversion to tribalism, deepening economic insecurities, widespread civic illiteracy, and growing recognition of the inadequacies of current legal and political structures.

All of these elements of our contemporary reality challenge our existing worldviews.

Humanity has gone through similar “shifts” before, but with the possible exception of the nuclear arms race, we have not previously faced the very real possibility that our behavior will cause large portions of the planet to become uninhabitable, or that social order will collapse—with consequences we can only imagine.

The 2016 election exposed significant fault-lines in American society and forced us to confront the erosion of our democratic institutions. The problems have been there, and been accelerating, for some time.

A splintered and constantly morphing media has dramatically exacerbated the problems inherent in democratic decision-making. The current media environment enables/encourages confirmation bias, is rife with spin, “fake news” and propaganda, and  is widely distrusted. The widening gap between the rich and the rest feeds suspicion of government decision-making, and Citizens United and its progeny increased recognition of—and cynicism about– the power wielded by corporate America through lobbying, political contributions and influence-peddling.

In order for democracy to function, there must be widespread trust in the integrity of electoral contests. The fundamental idea is a fair fight, a contest of competing ideas, with the winner legitimized and authorized to carry out his/her agenda. Increasingly, democratic norms have been replaced by bare-knuckled power plays and widening public recognition of the ways in which partisans game the system.

As a result, citizens’ trust in government and other social institutions has dangerously eroded. Without that trust—without belief in an American “we,” an overarching polity to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives. Especially in times of rapid social change, racial resentments grow. The divide between urban and rural Americans widens, as does the gap between various “elites” and others. Economic insecurity and social dysfunction are exacerbated by the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and “the Other.

Making matters worse, in the midst of these wrenching changes, Americans elected someone incapable of recognizing or dealing with them.

Citizens in21st Century America are facing a globalized, technocratic, increasingly complex world that poses previously unprecedented challenges to the goal of e pluribus unum (not to mention human understanding and survival). The existential question we face: Can we create a genuine “us” out of so many different/diverse “I’s” and “we’s”? Can we use the law and legal system to create a supportive, nourishing culture that remains true to the Enlightenment’s essential insights, while modifying those we no longer consider so essential? If so, how?

How do we overcome the multiple challenges to the rule of law and a functioning democratic system? Those challenges tend to fall into three (interrelated and sometimes overlapping) categories: Ignorance (defined as lack of essential information, not stupidity); Inequality (poverty, consumer culture, civic inequality, globalization, power and informational asymmetries among others) and Tribalism (“us versus them”—racism, sexism, religion, urban/rural divide, etc.)

As an old lawyer once told me, there’s only one question, and that’s “what do we do?”

In the wake of the election, there’s been a lot of understandable hand-wringing. Comments on this blog, on Facebook and elsewhere have emphasized the need to act. Most of us don’t need that reminder; what we need is specifics: what do we do? How do we do it? 

The most obvious answer and most immediate imperative is political: we need to change Congress in 2018. But we also need to fashion concrete answers to the questions raised by social change and  threatening political realities. If we can’t find those answers and then act on them, humanity’s prospects don’t look so good.

And I don’t sleep so well.



The 60s Redux?

I had an interesting inquiry from a friend the other day. He wanted to know how I thought the upcoming few years would compare with the turmoil of the late 1960s–and whether I thought American divisions are as deep now as they were then.

As those of you who are regular readers of this blog may recall, when Trump “won” the election, my first prediction was that we were going to see a replay of the 60s, but on steroids. So yes–as I said in response to my friend’s inquiry– I think the country’s divisions are every bit as deep as they were then.

But I also think those divisions are different in kind; I think they run along different lines of demarcation.

When I was doing research for my book “God and Country,” I learned about a phenomenon called paradigm shift—times in human history where social/experiential/intellectual change is so profound that people on either side of the shift can no longer communicate with each other. The phrase was coined by Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and philosopher who, as a student, read Aristotle and realized he didn’t understand him. Kuhn concluded that neither he nor Aristotle was stupid (!), but that the nature of the realities they inhabited had changed so dramatically that they no longer spoke the same scientific language.

Kuhn concluded that competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable; that is, they are competing and irreconcilable accounts of reality. Today, I think urban and rural Americans, and educated and uneducated Americans (to grossly and unfairly oversimplify the categories) live in those incommensurable different realities.

Election data strongly suggests that a significant percentage of Trump voters harbored sexist and racial resentments. When your world is changing, when technology is confusing and new norms are disorienting and your formerly privileged status is no longer so privileged, it is comforting to have someone to blame for that bewildering new reality. Trump obligingly provided those people with scapegoats: Muslims, African-Americans, women, Mexicans, Jews.

Meanwhile, educated people in urbanized environments, people occupying the new paradigms, comfortable with diverse populations and new technologies, have increasingly embraced that paradigm’s more cosmopolitan and inclusive worldviews.

So — yes, the divisions are certainly as deep as they were in the 60s. On the other hand, while history may “cycle,” it doesn’t actually repeat itself.

The wild card, as I see it, is that Trump is so obviously deranged and dangerous he makes Nixon look normal. Nixon was a much more conventional bad actor, and he did know how government worked, did understand foreign relations. He even championed policies that today’s rightwing would consider unacceptably liberal; he established the EPA, wanted national healthcare, went to China…

Trump is a very different kettle of fish. Moreover, he is pursuing all sorts of “policies” (if you can call his ego tantrums “policies”) that enrage multiple different constituencies. America has never seen anything like Trump, and my guess is that only hard-core neo-Nazis and other White Supremacists are going to stick with him for very long. Furthermore, Nixon did actually win the popular vote, albeit by a very small margin, while Trump started in a three-million vote hole that would have been even deeper but for GOP vote suppression.

Bottom line, in the 60s, not only were the “sides” more equally balanced, the so-called “country club Republicans” were firmly in the anti-flower-child camp. Today, those Republicans– Chamber of Commerce business people, responsible conservatives, mainstream Christians, officials from prior Republican administrations–are appalled by Trump, not by those who oppose him.

The critical unanswered questions are, first, whether several decades of persistent assaults on our constitutional and electoral institutions (gerrymandering, vote suppression, abuse of the filibuster, etc.) has weakened them so badly that a minority of lunatic Republicans can continue to keep control of the federal government despite the fact that majorities of Americans disapprove and are finally engaging politically; and second, if our time-honored checks and balances do fail, what happens then?

Comparisons to the 60s only take you so far. We’re in uncharted waters….

Entrails, Tea Leaves and Other Prognostications…

The just-announced Pulitzer Prizes for 2016 included the award for Drama, which this year went to the smash hit Hamilton.

At Political Animal, the irony of that award was duly noted:

What’s so fascinating about all this is that – in the midst of a nativist Republican backlash to “take our country back” – the hottest thing in the country is a rap musical performed mostly by people of color that is all about our lily white founding fathers. Ain’t life grand?

At risk of reading too much into these particular “tea leaves,” I think the success of Hamilton does  rest on more than the admitted brilliance of its music and staging (we were fortunate enough to see it a few months ago, and I can attest to that brilliance). I think it signals an embrace of the culture change that–among other things– is driving our contemporary toxic politics.

I have previously suggested that this is a time of paradigm shift–a time when our previous understandings of the world we inhabit are being challenged by globalization, scientific discovery and diversity.

A “paradigm” is a pattern of received beliefs that we use to make sense of the world. The term was popularized by Thomas Kuhn, a physicist who—in the course of research for his dissertation—picked up Aristotle’s Physics and found that it made no sense to him. Reasonably enough, Kuhn assumed that neither he nor Aristotle was stupid, so he concluded that they were operating from such different realities that communication was not possible. He subsequently wrote a book about the way science adapts to new discoveries, or “shifts” its paradigms.

It isn’t only science. Cultures shift in much the same way.

Our paradigms, or worldviews, are formed through a process of socialization into a particular culture–a constant transmittal of messages about the way the world works, about the reality we inhabit, about the “natural order” of things. Every so often, in human history, that “natural order” is challenged, and the result can be disorienting.

Most social change is incremental, evolutionary–and even then, it can be hard for people to navigate. But we seem to be at one of those junctures where the shift is both relatively sudden and massive. Long-held belief systems–religious and secular–are being called into question.People who can’t deal with the pace and scope of this change are understandably terrified.

Think how you’d feel if you awoke one morning in an unfamiliar environment–surrounded by people (including your own children and/or grandchildren) speaking a language you didn’t understand except for tantalizing bits and pieces, with customs that were both alien and familiar, and expectations you couldn’t fulfill.

As hard as it sometimes is to be sympathetic, we need to realize that for inhabitants of the “old” reality, the world really is ending. Same-sex marriage, empowered women, an African-American President, “press 1 for English,” drones, social media….We wake up every day to a million and one reminders that we inhabit a new and uncharted world; a rap-music, multicultural portrayal of America’s founding fathers is just one of them.

And for so many people, it’s a reality too hard to accept. Too hard to get one’s head around.

So..back to a (mythical) simpler past with Trump? Or an embrace of a different, fairer, more equal world? I guess we’ll see.

Maybe the Mayans Were On To Something

We’re fast approaching the date that the ancient Mayans predicted would be the last. The End of the World.

I think they were right, albeit a bit arbitrary in their choice of a specific date. Of course, if you think about it, “the world as we know it” is always ending. Not as dramatically as the public imagination seems to believe–with cataclysmic events that wipe humanity from the face of the planet–but in the time-honored way that worlds have always ended, through cycles of paradigm change.

Paradigm change was most famously identified by Thomas Kuhn, a gifted graduate physics student who picked up a book by Aristotle (who was no intellectual slouch either) and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Kuhn recognized that human culture and worldview goes through periodic changes–changes in the very “paradigm” that we inhabit, that irrevocably alter the way we see reality and experience “the way things are.”

Changes of that magnitude can disorient those who live through them.

Most social change is incremental, evolutionary. Even then, it can be hard for people to navigate. But there are signs that human society is at one of those junctures where the shift is both relatively sudden and massive, and negotiating a dramatically changing worldview is a huge challenge. We are developing a much more global perspective, recognizing that issues like the environment and terrorism require global responses. At the same time, we are seeing an increased emphasis on localism. Previously marginalized populations are demanding their due, and long-held belief systems–religious and secular–are being called into question.

The people who can’t deal with the pace and scope of this change are understandably terrified . Think how you’d feel if you awoke one morning in an unfamiliar environment–surrounded by people speaking a language you didn’t understand except for tantalizing bits and pieces, with customs that were both alien and familiar, and expectations you couldn’t fulfill. No wonder their actions seem irrational to those who inhabit that new environment.

I once read a treatise on paradigm shifts. The author suggested, reasonably enough, that there is chaos during the transition, because folks on either side of thae shift lose their ability to communicate with each other. Little by little, those embedded in the old paradigm die off, and relative calm returns.

As hard as it sometimes is to be sympathetic, we need to realize that for inhabitants of the “old” reality, the world really is ending.