The feudal system of the Middle Ages was a fairly simple system—there was little confusion. There may have been great wrong done, great good done, but it was not confusing. When one person makes all the rules, one person decides on the dreams, the goals, and the right and wrong of things—decisions become straightforward. I’m simplifying, certainly—the Middle Ages saw antagonism between the church and the monarchy, between the monarchy and the nobility, and between high-born and low-born. But the patriarchal, top-down pyramid of authority overlay all of those differences. Racism was total—but made little difference in a world where strangers from the neighboring town were remarkable—and the rare Moor or Oriental was more a novelty than a cultural concern. Feminism was non-existent—as were Gay Rights—and Liberty, for that matter. The Middle Ages were so authoritarian that no chorus of voices was ever raised in favor of changes of any kind. Indeed, keeping one’s mouth shut was a survival skill.
With the coming of the United States, democratic republics began to supplant the absolute rule of royalty—and this complicated matters greatly relative to the Middle Ages. Suddenly, different needs and goals became cause for debate—more than one man could have a say in the direction of our efforts and the following of our dreams. The Dutch had set an example for the American Colonies by foregoing their monarchy in exchange for a Republic—but the representatives in their ruling body were so numerous and contentious that their government was virtually paralyzed.
The newly-born USA had a more well-thought-out constitution, so we didn’t have that specific first-step problem. What we did have were separate states that were nominally willing to subsume their sovereignty under a united federation—what we now think of as the federal government. These thirteen states (and those to follow) all had different cultures, with different interests—and their struggle to compromise all these differences into a federal whole consisted mostly of issues concerning borders, trade, and transportation.
But before the Civil War, the overlaying pattern remained that of Men having authority, whether over an entire state or a single family. Women had no legal claim to any rights or property outside those their husbands or their fathers chose to grant them. Africans were imported as slaves. Natives were dismissed as wild savages without any civil claim to their homelands. In this way, America became even more specific—White Men now had all authority—everyone else was considered subject to them, in one way or another. So, despite the growing number of states, each with their own character, one truth held sway over all—white men determined the goals and dreams of their cultures—and those needs had uniformity.
But now we have an American society which must address many different goals and needs. Women, minorities, children, the disabled, the mentally-challenged, the non-Christians, religious fundamentalists, the LGBT population, undocumented migrants, the poor, and the gifted—all these special groups of needs and dreams require different things, different laws—even different ideas.
That’s where the confusion comes in. The one thing human civilization never developed was a system that served multiple interests—monolithic authoritarianism has always protected us from this complexity—but no more. The plethora of problems we now face are in large part due to the plethora of freedoms we have been evolving. Authority, to some extent, is gone—and the complex culture its demise has engendered contains a tangle of many threads, many needs, many goals—and those threads are easily snarled.
Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that these special ‘groups’ are not discrete groups—their members live next door to each other, even in the same family’s home—and every adjustment made for the benefit of one group impacts the adjustments required for all the other groups. This condition reminds me of Newton’s research—at one point, Newton wanted to know not only the rate-of-change in velocity, but the rate-of-change of the rate-of-change in acceleration, and so he invented a new mathematics called Calculus. What we need to do is to invent a ‘calculus’ of social justice—a process so complicated that we have never needed it before, and so never realized it’s importance.
People are well aware that our modern times are almost chaotically complex—and they’re aware of the need to change to meet these new challenges. But I suspect people are not aware of how deeply that change must cut into our usual expectations. For example, we mostly agree that habitat destruction, climate change, and toxic waste will render our home planet uninhabitable—yet we hardly know what to do beyond wringing our hands—the problem seems unsolvable. That may be because all of our previous problem-solving paradigms are too simple to tackle such an intricate dilemma.
And the one thing that retains authority, Money, makes a vice of change—we’ll never be able to start working on our ‘social calculus’ until the voices of money and power cease to manufacture the seeming paradoxes they throw at us, using over-simplified examinations of overly-complicated issues.
If we don’t overcome their ‘enforced stupidity’, the job of analyzing ourselves as a ‘multi-body problem’ will only become more intransigent. I’m reminded of an Asimov essay about scientific specialization—he pointed out that at the beginning of the university system, being a ‘renaissance man’, i.e having an education in everything, was still possible—there were a limited number of books and a relatively small amount of written knowledge. But once the ball got rolling, mathematics (as an example) grew to contain the mathematics of astronomy, chemistry, engineering, etc.—and that these sub groups developed sub-sub groups and so on, until today we have to pick a small pocket of a sub-sub-sub specialization, if we want to really ‘know it all’.
The specialization of people is progressing in the same way—we once thought of the ‘women’ issue as ‘feminism’—a single topic. But now we have reproductive rights, sex slavery, genital mutilation, gender-role indoctrination, equal pay and opportunity, lesbian rights, et. al. Feminism is now a ‘group heading’. And these sub-issues are themselves potential ‘group headings’, as each issue reveals differences of culture or commerce or religion. To include ‘feminism’ in our new paradigm of societal calculus becomes a more complex question with every passing day—and this is true for all our new ‘components’ of ‘the will of the people’.
‘The will of the people’ once had a monochromatic undertone, as if the people all wanted one thing, or at most, one group of things. Now that we recognize that ‘the people’ represent a diversity of ‘will’s, we must recognize that our methods of obtaining that ‘will’ must have a matching complexity. And as complexity begets complexity, we need to have an ‘open architecture’ to our system that will allow for the inevitably greater specialization of people (and their will).
So my heart rests easy, for the moment—I had despaired of a society with so infinite a number of problems—but now I recognize that our old ways of understanding the will of the governed need a quantum-leap of enhancement to match the explosion of authority into true individuality.
At first look, it seems impossible that there should ever come a day when we shake loose the shroud of pettifogging confusion that besets us through the courtesy of the mass media—and the super-rich cronies that manipulate it to our unending turmoil of talk, debate, and misrepresentation blaring from every LCD screen. The practice of displaying arguments between the ignorant and the learned as ‘controversy’, rather than the celebration of stupidity it truly is—this ‘teaching the controversy’ way of questioning that which is beyond the point of reasonable question—is a sad and twisted sophistry of education itself. Only those with the insight of higher education (but lacking the integrity of what we may call ‘wisdom’) could have conceived of this childish stratagem. Its internal logic holds steady, but its deepest predicates are flawed—and its results are specious rather than meticulous. Once having strayed into it, like barbed-wire, we seem to be quite stuck.
The idea that big money will loosen its control of the populace to the point of unfettered, ground-breaking social experimentation seems even more impossible than our extrication from mass media’s zombie-light. But the world was a very different place not so long ago—and there is no reason to think that we won’t see even greater change to come. There are some changes that I would personally love to witness.
Salwa Bugaighis, prominent Libyan activist, was assassinated nine days ago—she was a selfless promoter of a better, more democratic Libya and so, of course, she was shot dead. Politicians rarely get assassinated—great people, great leaders, who may or may not be politicians, are the ones who get assassinated. I was traumatized somewhat, in my childhood, by the assassination of JFK. He was my hero, he was the President of the United States, and he was gunned down in broad daylight in the middle of the street. Boom. That sudden knowledge rearranged my perception of the world I lived in—it put a dark filter on what was until then a thoughtless, hazy assumption of ‘right in the world’.
Then my growing up was peppered by repeated examples: MLK, RFK, Malcolm X… and I learned that Gandhi had also died by an assassin’s gun. The women of the Middle East (and specifically of the Arab Spring) are continuing this proud (for them) but shameful (for us) tradition—the more humanitarian their goals, the faster they are gunned down– Salwa Bugaighis is the latest in such a long line that her death barely made the news.
My greatest living hero is Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who champions education, particularly for girls—she was shot in the face (and neck) by would-be assassins, but she was too tough for them, and survived. She continues her work today and is, IMHO, the brightest light on the face of the Earth today.
The sad truth, however, is that she was lucky—and that those animals will probably try again. Thus, I would like to see a world where our best and truest leaders are not gunned down the minute they show their heads. How we get there I couldn’t say—but I would like that very much.
Another change I’d like to see in the world is a new attitude towards money. I’d like to see people who have too much of it feel ashamed of themselves—and I’d like to see the rest of us treating them like the sociopaths they truly are. I’d like to see a proportional increase in our respect for those in want—and an embarrassment with ourselves whenever we fail to do all we can to make their lives as safe and comfortable as our own.
We can appreciate when a football star takes a big hit—we say, “Wow! Did you see that? What a guy!” We should be able to apply the same values to the needy. I mean, wow!, here are people sleeping outdoors in winter, going a whole day without food, having to walk wherever they need to go. Such people! I’m impressed—partly with their strength and courage, but partly because, as with watching the football star, we are much happier being impressed with their struggle than having to actually live through it ourselves, out on that field, taking those hits.
I’d like ‘world peace’ too—but that’s just silly.
To close, I want to state that I am an atheist on permanent disability—there is no question that my needs and goals are specialized, differing greatly from the norm, as well as from the many other non-norms. I don’t wish to be granted anything at the expense of someone else’s need—I want to be counted as a part of a great whole, and given my portion. And I believe most people would not begrudge me my existence, so long as it doesn’t place an unfair disadvantage on their specialty-group. But such a desire is a question of epic complexity—well beyond the two-dimensional capabilities of our current system—and will require something that doesn’t presently exist—a science of balanced compromise within a diverse citizenry.
We come from competition—we evolved from a place in the food chain, after all—our legal process is adversarial, our political process is adversarial, our sports are adversarial—even our educational institutions are competitive in nature. This simple one-on-one process is an excellent way to settle simple yes/no types of questions. But the more complex social constructions we must develop will only seize up in the face of such simple-minded algorithms. We will have to become a ‘family of man’. We will have to change from competitors to cooperators, if only to allow for complexity.
But competitiveness is innate—many groups will continue to find that depriving another group of its rights is a victory for ‘their’ side. The competitive paradigm will beat back any attempts at cooperation—I can even now hear my more conservative acquaintances shouting, “Communism!” at any thought of a government system that allows for anything to trump personal freedom or economic might. And while I don’t advocate what has historically been named ‘communism’, I must insist that we do live in common with each other—we are a community. Just as we do, indeed, care about our society, in spite of our horror of becoming ‘socialists’. Cooperation, too, is a dirty word, when shortened to co-op. But the villainous character we ascribe to community action, social engineering, and cooperation in good will, is insane without the presumption that the people who live this way are the enemies of freedom.
Thus, while I optimistically look forward to the betterment of our global condition, there is no guarantee that social calculus and community spirit will manifest itself out of thin air. It will have to straggle through the many attempts to use our present complexity as a rallying-cry for those who would solve the problem by reneging on the social progress we have so recently made. Our present society makes a tempting Gordian Knot—while we may wish to patiently tease out the many twists, more bellicose thinkers will do their damnedest to just slice the thing apart. Complexity may be solved with calculus, but it can just as easily be solved by simplifying things, i.e. ceasing to care about the rights and needs of some of us for the convenience of others.
But like Hitler’s ‘final solution’, that is a primitive urge masquerading as a modern concept—we must go forward with humanitarian aims, or there will be no point in going forward—except for the lucky(?) few.