Out with the Old

Havel

So long to 2011. The year departs with little progress toward sustainability. The political system in the US is frozen and can’t cope with today’s burning issues much less those that are smoldering and will burst into flames in the years to come. The continuing unemployment situation has dulled any serious talk about reforming work and changing our addictive consumption habit. We are still fighting a war and threatening to begin others.This year we even invented a new shopping holiday, the first day after Christmas, Monday this year. I tune into several blogs and listserves that focus on opposite themes: exchanging work for leisure hours, satisfying one’s cares without the need for short-lived material goods, finding peace, and creating an economy that does not need to grow forever. If I pay attention to the mainstream media, those that echo the feeble public conversations, I hear little if anything significant about these critical issues.

The negativity that increasingly characterizes our culture is fed by the tenor of public talk. A year from the next election cycle has begun with some of the most dreadful attack ads I can remember. No apologies for lying and taking things so far from their original context that they become fictions. Those with more money than they could possibly spend are working hard to get even more and keep the growing inequality of our society on the same path. Neither private largesse or smaller government can reverse this immoral, unkind and ultimately destabilizing trend. The simplistic calls for the “end of big government” would throw out the baby with the bath water. I am no fan of government that fails to do an effective job and I would join many of the opposite political stripes in seeking change. But not the kind of mindless change being called for by so many.

The last thing we need is excess simplification in dealing with the complex worlds we inhabit. There is really only one such world out there where everything and everyone are interconnected, but this world is too big to be understood in simple terms. For practical purpose, we have to break that big world into smaller chunks, but that does not change these chunks into simplistic systems. They remain complex and cannot be governed by simplistic means. They take care and caring if we are to get them to behave in a friendly, beneficent way. I find both missing. We need to care about these systems and subsystems as they provide the context for our lives and the health of the big worlds out there. This means we have to better appreciate and respect our interconnectedness within that world. We need to care for these systems in the sense of acting in ways that will maintain their resiliency and keep them producing the material goods we require for running our lives and also allow the emergent, intangible and emergent properties that make life worth living to come forth.

Our language and culture are rooted in past eras where the Earth was less stressed and more resilient. The wonder of language is that it can be used in an infinite number of combinations and permutations. The wonder of metaphor is that we can take language from these no longer existing and relevant times and apply it to solve our problems within the present times. To do this, we must, however, learn to reflect and be critical, that is, to understand that the old, reified, and fixed notions don’t apply any longer. Sometimes it helps to uncover the original meanings of words in attempting to reveal the circumstances in which they first appeared, but it is useless to seek the absolute truths of sentences from the past without cloaking them in the worlds in which they appeared. Some of the truths revealed in language survive today, but many do not. We are not likely to see much improvement in our understanding of the present without applying the essential reflective skills on an individual or collective basis. Their absence is stark.

Climate change denial is a symptom of the disappearance of reflection from our culture, but it is only a symptom. The way we communicate exacerbates the loss of reflective skills. Reflection and critical skills always involve patient time-consuming processes. One has to think about something over and over until the current reality becomes present with sufficient grounding that we can act confidently toward perfecting whatever was our intent. Communicating with 140 characters as in using Twitter cannot give anyone enough information to judge the reality of the situation and act accordingly. Political debates are a travesty with complete lack of honesty and critical analysis. The remedies offered for all of our ills are constructed on purely political grounds with no connection again to current reality. Ads are manipulative, designed explicitly to disguise the world the goods they tout will create.

If I sound negative at year end, I am, but not without a positive counterweight. The small voices of Occupy, the larger voices of the Arab Springs, the increasing numbers of people around the world who have tired of hearing the same old untruths used to dominate them—all of these are signs that change is in the air. Vaclav Havel (pictured above), one of my heroes, just passed away. He showed us that a society can change its spots quickly and without bloodshed. His clarion call to the people of Czechoslovakia was simple, but extraordinarily powerful. People must live in truth, he wrote. Let me end with one of his quotes, “When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.” The barriers to living in truth are always high, but they are never insurmountable. That’s my basis for ending on a positive note.

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