Perplexity, Reality, and Learning

America is rapidly becoming a nation psychologically unable to confront its problems. (Bryant Welch, “State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind,” p. 1.)

This provocative thought forms the first sentence of Dr. Welch’s book, “State of Confusion.” Dr. Welch lives in Washington D.C. where he practices two professions–(1) clinical psychologist in private practice and (2) attorney for the American Psychological Association. This unique combination gives him access to the inner workings of both the human mind and our political system. He connects the two in his book, claiming that the cumulative effect of the way the political establishment is able to manipulate the “reality sense” of many Americans has begun to undermine our ability as a nation to function in reality.

I mention Dr. Welch because the things he says about the way the brain works are relevant to our shared endeavor in the Honors program to become champion learners. The connection is complex, but let me try to clarify it.

Being a clinical psychologist, Dr. Welch understands not only that the mind creates its own “reality sense,” but that it does so differently from the way we commonly assume it does. It does not typically create its “reality sense” either by following the rules of logic (connecting A to B to C in a chain of causality) or by cognition (deciding how things are on the basis of accurate information). Rather, it does so by using associational logic, stringing together in a highly idiosyncratic fashion a series of otherwise unrelated symbols, feeling states, fears and wishes.

The-Temptations-of-St. Anthony-Salvador Dali

Dr. Welch puts particular emphasis on what happens when we become perplexed–the extreme psychological state that results whenever our “reality sense” no longer matches our actual experience of reality. He points out since the mind needs to feel certain about its foundational “reality sense,” perplexity is a significant psychological state because when we are perplexed, our brains automatically begin to adjust our “reality sense” so we can feel certain again. As Dr. Welch points out, however, “The reality we ultimately weave does not have to be a “correct” reality; it simply must feel like a correct reality, one that eliminates perplexity (p. 22).”

Often we will adjust our “reality sense” to diminish or eliminate perplexity by using associational logic to connect our fears with certain powerful cultural symbols, thereby making them easier to handle. For example, when grieving over the loss of a loved one, we might create a new “reality sense” in which the deceased is now an “angel” that communicates with us in spirit form. Similarly, when we learn our nation uses torture, we might attempt to escape the perplexity brought on by this revelation by creating a new “reality sense” in which the acts in question no longer constitute torture or in which the universal moral prohibition against torture does not apply to those we use it against.

Now to those unfamiliar with the findings of cognitive science and depth psychology, it might seem absurd to suggest that we seek on an unconscious level to create a different “reality sense” for ourselves when we are perplexed. However, there are two important qualifying points here. The first is that this is not to say the mind, whether in a perplexed state or not, cannot function logically and cognitively. Indeed, a main purpose of higher education is to cultivate the capacity for logical and cognitive reasoning–particularly in conditions of perplexity. The point is not to deny the possibility of accurate cognition and logical reasoning but to clarify that they are acquired skills, not automatic natural processes.

The second qualifying point is that the fact that the mind can create its own “reality sense” is not necessarily a bad thing. As Dr. Welch points out, The human mind is a wonder. It miraculously converts, organizes, and interprets a vast and infinitely complex bombardment of stimuli–from both inside and outside the mind–into a cohesive, subjective experience people call “reality”….This is done unconsciously, far from awareness, so efficiently and effectively that the very notion of “creating our reality” feels foreign to us. We assume that our senses simply perceive the world as it is objectively. Nothing could be further from the truth. (p.15)

The idea is that the mind’s ability to make sense, meaning, and purpose out of confusion by creating a new “reality” for itself is a mechanism for expanding our understanding. In that, it is a tool of survival. Accordingly, the problems associated with this tool are not inherent in the tool itself but are consequences of the fact that the tool can be manipulated to delude us. For that reason, it is important to understand the mechanism that makes the manipulation of our “reality sense” possible.

It all begins with the fact that when we are perplexed and can no longer maintain a coherent sense of reality, our brains will try to reduce the perplexity by creating a new personal reality. Dr. Welch points out that our brains not only can do this but must do so. For example, it is particularly perplexing to be deceived by a trusted political or religious leader. The natural tendency of the brain in such a situation is to work to reduce or eliminate the perplexity by creating a new “reality sense,” one with a fundamental core of simplicity and certainty we can feel absolutely certain about. Of course, if truth is the most important thing, we will admit to ourselves we are in fact being deceived. Since this admission is perplexing on a deeper level, however, there will also be the temptation to reduce the perplexity by turning to bogus certainty and false simplicity. In this circumstance we can be manipulated to accept a completely false “reality.”

Thus it comes about that the great strength of the brain–its ability to create a coherent reality out of the confusions and contradictions it finds itself in–is also its great weakness. Government operatives now know how to use this weakness to their own advantage, which is why they now routinely use their position to stimulate our fears and make us perplexed–for example, by exaggerating the threat of terrorism. They know that when we feel unsafe and in great danger we are more likely to accept into our “reality sense” irrational beliefs, illogical assertions, and implausible assumptions, validating the falsehoods and distortions on the basis of “faith” or “gut feelings.” As a result, “American politics is now a battle to shape what Americans perceive as reality (p. 8).”

Dr. Welch’s argument is that the cumulative effect of manipulating the “reality sense” of Americans to accept policies and an agenda they would not otherwise support has reached a tipping point and that the psychological well-being of the nation has been damaged. This is the disturbing truth behind the increasingly hostile division between Americans. The growing division is not a simple result of the fact we have different values and political affiliations. Rather, it is a disturbing consequence of the fact that the “reality sense” of many of us has been so dramatically manipulated that we no longer live in the same reality.

Of course, there are ways to prevent the politically irresponsible and spiritually troubling manipulation of our “reality sense.” Paradoxically, the key is not to try to eliminate our feelings of perplexity but to try to become more aware of how we respond to them. Remember, there is nothing wrong with a willingness and ability to adapt and evolve our “reality sense” when we feel perplexed by doubt and confusion. To the contrary, our ability to do so is of great evolutionary significance, being the brain’s mechanism for new understanding and cognitive advancement. The problem only comes in when fear overruns courage and, in a panicked recoiling from doubt and confusion, we desperately grasp for the comfort of simplicity and certainty–even if the simplicity is false and the certainty is bogus.

Revealingly, those who minimize their feelings of perplexity by adopting a patently false “reality sense” subsequently tend to defend their new “reality” with uncommon viciousness and aggression. Although they often describe their aggression as the “armor of truth,” it is in truth only a “defense of delusion.” To avoid this it is important to learn to disagree without getting angry.

Now as troubling as all of this is, I want to now switch our focus over to an educational context. Once again, the tendency of the mind to avoid perplexity by altering its “reality sense” is a mechanism of true learning and wellspring of scientific advance. Indeed, the deepest and most valuable learning occurs when our frame of reference and working assumptions are no longer adequate to the task at hand and our ordinary understanding breaks down. Although we then feel perplexed, this only indicates that a breakthrough into a new understanding is at hand. If we respond like the manipulated citizens Dr. Welch writes about and become overly frustrated and anxious, we will then be prone to try to end our perplexity by retreating into false certainty and misleading simplicity, thereby losing the opportunity to advance our understanding.

Unfortunately, school all too often cooperates with this destructive urge for false certainty by hastening always to replace the perplexing conditions of true learning with the false comfort of rote learning. This is unfortunate because a true learner must cultivate a psychological tolerance for perplexity in order to resist the seduction of false certainty and fake simplicity. In particular, a true learner must cultivate the courage to remain in uncertainty while continuing to investigate, having the patience to wait for new learning and breakthroughs. Ironically, a willingness to be patient in these areas often brings immediate results.

Of course, intellectual courage and patience are difficult virtues to cultivate and attain under any circumstances, but they are often even harder for high achieving students to attain. Why is this? It is because of the likelihood that high achieving students have successfully avoided perplexity in the past by mastering the false security of rote learning. In addition, they will almost certainly also have won honors and recognition for doing so, thereby making it doubly difficult for them to avoid the intoxicating seductions of false certainty and fake simplicity when they become perplexed in college.

This is why I say that being an Honors student means more than being responsible and completing your assignments on time and according to a strict standard of excellence. While these things are necessary, to be sure, being an Honors student also means cultivating the courage to rest in perplexity while having the patience for a new clarity to emerge.

What do you think about this?

What Might America’s Fathers Say Now?

Imagine that the ideals and assumptions of the Founding Fathers could somehow take bodily form and visit America. How might this entity feel seeing the Republic collapsing from greed-driven special interest politics?

I doubt the entity would be shocked. After all, the Founding Fathers had anticipated (and tried to prevent) just such a thing. However, what would be shocking is that those responsible for the collapse are leading members of the upper class. And as the shock subsides, the entity would feel betrayed. The Founding Fathers had assumed a privileged and powerful upper class would be a bulwark against the corruption of the state, not the agents and emissaries of it.

The influence on the Founding Fathers of the 17th century British philosopher, John Locke, is well known. Less known is the influence of the 18th century French philosopher, Baron Montesquieu. In the Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu had written that each type of government—Tyranny, Aristocracy, or Republic—had a corresponding “spirit” that goes along with it—fear, honor, or virtue. In order for a government to be successful, therefore, there had to be a match between the “spirit” of the laws and the “spirit” of the people. Thus, in order for Tyranny to work, the people would have to live in “fear.” In order for Aristocracy to work, the people would have to live in “honor.” And in order for a Republic to work, the people would have to live in—“virtue.”

Today we think of “virtue” as a rare and especially praiseworthy personal accomplishment. To the Founding Fathers, however, “virtue” was not rare but necessary, the lifeblood and essential ingredient of a nation of laws. In this they were influenced by Montesquieu, who defined “virtue” as the ability to put aside private interests and act selflessly on behalf of the common good. The Founding Fathers knew every Republic in history had fallen from a lack of “virtue.” Specifically, those lacking “virtue” would gain access to the machinery of government, diverting it from its proper use as an instrument of the common good to use it instead as a tool of special interests.

Of course, the ideal situation would be to have only people with “virtue” to be in control of the levers of government. But where are these people found? Are they distributed randomly through the population, as Plato thought…or are they clustered in one social class, as was assumed in the Aristocratic social systems of the old world? It was precisely on this point that the Founding Fathers stumbled, failing to rise above the class-based prejudices of their day. As property-owning gentlemen of the upper class, they took it for granted that the only class of people that could be trusted to be consistently “virtuous” in high office would be property-owning gentlemen such as themselves. And they took the obverse for granted as well—that those historically lacking property and great wealth could NOT be trusted to be consistently “virtuous” in high office. In the political lexicon of their day, allowing people without wealth to exercise power directly was sneeringly referred to as “mob rule.”

As they crafted the Constitution, therefore, it seemed prudent to the Founding Fathers to entrust the actual power of governing to property-owning gentlemen while excluding the mass of ordinary citizens from the direct exercise of power. Accordingly, they created the new American nation as a Constitutional Republic and not as a Democracy. The difference is that where citizens in a Democracy set policy and make laws by means of direct voting, citizens in a Constitutional Republic lack direct power and vote only to select representatives to set policy and make laws. And as a last-gap protection from “mob-rule,” they created the Electoral College, establishing that citizens would not vote for the President directly but only for suitable “electors” who, later and behind closed doors, would actually select the next President.

Be that as it may, the worse has happened: people without “virtue”—albeit our upper class—now control the levers of power. Our situation is dire, and each day brings more bad news and less reason to hope. Given this, what can ordinary Americans now do to protect ourselves and our nation from the continuing predations of our upper class?

Interestingly, contemporary moral development theory brings some needed illumination to this problem. According to moral development theory, morality is not an either/or thing, something one has or has not. Rather, moral awareness is complex and evolving, developing along a specific sequence of stages. Although different theorists number the stages differently, there is consensus there are three fundamental levels—the egocentric (only I count in my moral universe), the ethnocentric (only my group counts), and the worldcentric (everyone counts).

Now when we look at contemporary America from the perspective of moral development theory, some interesting results become clear. First of all, rich people in America operate primarily on the egocentric level, using the power of their position to benefit themselves. Ironically, the “mob” that forms the base of support for their special interest politics—flag waving patriots and religiously oriented social conservatives—operate mostly on the ethnocentric level, the next higher step in the evolutionary sequence. They have been willing to sacrifice personal rights, material well-being, and legal integrity because they believed the upper class leaders who told them doing so was best for the nation. As misguided as their support was, it expressed “virtue.” And finally, most progressives operate on the worldcentric level. Indeed, what it means to be a progressive is to “be” worldcentric rather than ethnocentric.

Now this bizarre situation, in which our highest class has the lowest level of moral development, is the exact opposite of what the founding fathers assumed and anticipated. Again, they expected the upper class to be a bulwark against the corruption of the state, not its agent and prime beneficiary. So what now? How can moral development theory help us to respond effectively to the continuing damage being done to the American state, economy, and culture by the predations of our upper class?

Here is how.

Moral development theory tells us that moral understanding and awareness is a function of a person’s level of development and not of the particular views they happen to hold. For example, there is a developmental sequence of ways of believing in God—an egocentric way (God values me over others), an ethnocentric way (God values my nation over others), and a worldcentric way (God values everyone equally). Similarly, there are different ways to be an atheist—an egocentric way (there is no God, so I can do anything), an ethnocentric way (there is no God, so my nation determines what is right and wrong), and a worldcentric way (there is no God, so I must be good, kind, and compassionate).

Now one significant aspect of moral development theory that is especially germane to our purposes is that there is no single way to make an effective moral appeal. This is because what “appeals” to a person depends on that person’s level of moral development. People on the worldcentric level can be appealed to in terms of universal rights and moral ideals; people on the ethnocentric level can be appealed to on the level of patriotism, tribal religion, and national self-interest; but people on the egocentric level—that is, people who lack “virtue”—can only be appealed to on the level of force.

In other words, the only effective way to get people on the egocentric level—and this includes many of the leading members of our upper class—to stop looting the nation and damaging the common good is to punish them with a level of severity sufficient to cancel out the benefits of their wrongdoing. In fact, unless known wrongdoers on the egocentric level of moral development are prosecuted to the full extent of the law for their transgressions, they will continue to act without “virtue.”

This is why it is necessary to investigate, charge, and punish those who are responsible for the crimes of the Bush administration. Unfortunately, many Americans have difficulty seeing this because of their core belief that material success is both the evidence and result of moral superiority. However, until steps are taken to punish the wrongdoers, the powerful members of our upper class who lack “virtue” will continue to use their position to loot our nation, destroy our economy, and degrade our culture, all while strengthening the authoritarian security state apparatus.

Interestingly, one “silver lining” in the dark cloud of the current economic collapse is that this crisis marks the end of the core American belief in the moral superiority of rich people. Indeed, as the dust settles from the devastation of the Bush years, the lack of “virtue” of an upper class that lacks “class” is being revealed in exquisite detail. With a boy of their youth to serve the lust of their greed, the most privileged and powerful citizens in the most privileged and powerful nation managed in a surprisingly short time to foul the economy, to corrupt the state, and to degrade the culture of America. And the way the media was mobilized to “leverage” the eager willingness of working Americans to do what is best for the nation into a base of support for greed-driven special interest politics and a foreign policy consisting of profitable war crimes—this is not a pretty sight.

George Orwell once remarked that a rich person is only a dishwasher in a new suit. This ongoing and gathering collapse we are living through is proving both Orwell and the Founding Fathers wrong. We can now see that the difference between a rich man and a dishwasher goes much deeper than their clothes. For one, the dishwasher probably has some “virtue.”

Are We Finally Waking Up…or Merely Trading One Set of Illusions for Another?

Full Disclosure: I think something deep and primal has changed in our cognitive depths, but it will take some time for the dramatic consequences of this change to work their way to the surface.

Something is happening in our collective mind-space, but what is it? Is it a mass awakening…or merely the sound of people upgrading their illusions?

Of course, to ask whether people are waking up or changing illusions assumes it is one or the other. But perhaps it is “both,” meaning people are waking up even as they continue to traffic in illusions. Indeed, where else could people wake up if not right in the middle of their illusions?

Roughly one hundred years ago the British philosopher, F.H. Bradley shocked his contemporaries when he observed that whenever facts contradict theories, it goes the worse for the facts. The notion that theories take precedence over facts is now a truism of a postmodern, post-fact, true-spin/values world. We no longer think of our brains as blank slates upon which reality writes itself but as Virtual Reality Generators that cleverly create simulations in our heads that we then call reality. We think of our brains as “hardware” with the cluster of pre-conscious assumptions and filters that “construct” the simulations that then constitute our experience being the “software.” You could say that terms like “dominant ideology,” “world-view,” “spirit of the age,” and “how we think about things” all ultimately refer to this software. In complex social systems like our nation, there will be a “cultural software program” programmed into the masses to enable the “construction” of consensus reality.

So it is a dramatic event that portends massive consequences when an entire era of “how we think about things” suddenly collapses. The collapse of the Soviet Union provides a dramatic illustration of just such a thing. Long before the actual 1991 collapse, a long-standing “whole way of thinking” had already died in the Soviet collective mind-space. While we Americans have not had a “1991” moment yet, our dominant cluster of ruling ideas and values—our “whole way of thinking”—has recently died in our souls.

About time! It had gotten to the point that the “whole way we think about things” had been so contaminated with special interest programming that our greatest problem had become the “whole way we think about things.” Now that it has died, the distorting filters and ideological blinders of this “way of thinking” will begin to fall away and people will suddenly begin to see things that have been hidden by the filters. For example, it will become clear that when a nation is in debt, tax cuts do not “cut” that debt but only redistribute the payments for it—in this case, from the wealthy to working people, and from this generation to the next. And without blinders they will “see” how truly ridiculous it is to treat American policies and behavior as an “exception” to the experience of history. It will become suddenly clear that greed is a failing of character, torture and war are unqualified moral abominations, economic outsourcing is economic suicide, and “holier-than-thou” ego posturing is odious to heaven.

Once again, since the death of a whole “way of thinking” occurs on the deep level of unspoken assumptions, it naturally takes a while for the consequences of the change to work their way up to the surface. During this time it is business as usual on the surface. I think we are in this gap time now, which is why many Americans who care passionately about truth, honesty, and justice are afraid that things have not in fact changed at all.

Here is my positive spin. I think we can be more open to the notion that it will take some time for the consequences of the fact that our “whole way of thinking” to emerge if we stand back for a moment and consider how dominant ideologies work. While all dominant ideologies establish a hierarchy of social relations that give wealth, privilege, and control to an elite, the most important and defining feature of them is not their power to do this but their invisibility. In other words, their defining feature is not simply that they set up an unjust hierarchy; it is that they do so in a way that makes the unjust hierarchy they establish seem like a completely natural, spontaneous, and necessary expression of the nature of reality. This is why it is significant that growing numbers of people now name special interest politics as a malevolent force that is ruining the country and degrading their lives. It means the mask of invisibility has been ripped off.

OK, so what should our next “way of thinking” be? I have a guiding point to offer regarding a healthier and better “whole way to think.” It is a classificatory scheme detailing the three essential aspects of any possible society and the appropriate guiding value for each. I first learned about this three-part scheme up in the work of Rudolf Steiner, and the historian, Dorothy Moore, also sketches it out in her little known but brilliant book, “The Liberty Bell Papers.”

The basic idea is that any possible society—whether a healthy society based on the pursuit of the common good with laws, reason, and justice, or a sick society based on upper class greed using deceit and manipulation to pretend to be pursuing the common good while looting the nation—will have three distinct realms, each with a distinct guiding value. There will be an economic realm, a political realm, and a cultural realm.

The ultimate value and guiding light of the economic realm is fairness or equity. An economy that is fair is healthy. As far as the economy is concerned, then, the value we should aim at is fairness, not freedom. In a healthy society, the potential of Big Money to dominate and get its way would be strictly limited in the interest of fairness.

The ultimate value and guiding light of the political realm is equality. A political system that treats all citizens as equal, giving to each equal rights, equal protection of the law, and equal access to power is healthy. A political system that distributes rights and protections unequally, letting money influence politics and justice, is unhealthy.

And the ultimate value and guiding light of the cultural realm in a truly ideal society would be freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of inquiry.

Now on the soul level of honest ideals and guiding lights, both Soviet communism and American capitalism are wrong about the “ideal” economy. The Soviet ideal of making people economically “equal” misapplies the guiding light of the political realm, equality, to the economy. The current American ideal of making markets free misapplies the guiding value of the cultural realm, freedom, to the economic realm. These are “equal but opposite” errors, and it is not possible for one error to “defeat” another.

Once again, our guiding light as we plan for a better society should be comprehensive economic fairness, total political equality, and complete cultural freedom.

If the corporate narrative that has shaped how we think has indeed collapsed in the depths of our being, then as we fumble towards a new narrative to guide us, struggling to create a new consensus reality, perhaps it will help to contemplate the delineations I have mentioned here—equity in the economic realm, equality in the political realm, and freedom in the cultural realm.

Santa, Rudolf, Frosty and the Pollution of the American Mind

I have a friend, a long-time environmentalist, who denies there are any problems in the environment. He says the problems are in humans, not the environment. It is an excellent point, and it leads me to realize we Americans are suffering from the effects of two pollutions—the pollution of the American landscape and the pollution of the American mindscape.

Yet even with nature and mind having been polluted to the point of collapse, there are still beautiful sunsets and powerful ideas. In our own time, the idea that we “construct” our own reality is especially powerful. The academic version of this idea claims that even our subjectivity is culturally constructed. The idea is that what is presented to consciousness is a highly processed view “constructed” beneath the threshold of our ordinary awareness by a cultural prism that filters our sensory experience. In other words, what seems to ordinary waking consciousness to be “immediately given” is actually a highly processed “construct.”

Postmodernism is not a mental pollution, but professionals who pollute the mind for a living use postmodernism to pollute the mind more effectively. Even so, theirs is not a new trade. The intentional pollution of the mind began in early 20th century with the propaganda of the First World War. However, the pollution of the American mind began in earnest when marketers began to use Freud’s insights into the mechanisms of the unconscious mind to create ads that actually “constructed” a subjective feeling of need for the advertised product when there was not one before. By using selected symbols to trigger pre-existing desires in the depths of the psyche for love, success, and safety, and then leading the viewer to symbolically associate the advertised product with the energy of these pre-existing soul yearnings, advertisers were thus able to “construct” a feeling of desire for the advertised products.

In the last quarter of the 20th century Republican operatives began to use these same marketing techniques to “construct” consensus for corporate policies that were masquerading as good government. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in the early years of the Reagan administration made such open polluting of the American mind entirely legal. Almost immediately an army of fantastically well-paid agents of upper class greed began to saturate the media, polluting our psyches and damaging our culture 24/7.

When the Bush administration came along, the patterns and infrastructure of intellectual pollution were already well established. Although the Bushies expanded the project of “constructing” consensus by polluting the mind, they also added a gold formula to the project—a skill and sophistication at using the symbols and language of religious commitment to tap into the soul’s urge for larger truth and deeper meaning, then using this entry point as a sort of psychic fulcrum to move an honest desire to serve God and country over into “faith-based” support for the policies of elite greed and imperial conquest.

Interestingly, there are two groups who understand the core postmodern insight that “reality” is a cultural construct—academics who talk about it and operatives who do it. Speaking generally, the academics are so deeply aware of the culturally constructed nature of our experience that they do not think it is possible to discriminate between rival subjectivities other than to express a mere personal preference.

The operatives are the people—corporate advertisers, political operatives, and leaders of the Christian Right—who pollute the mind for a living. Unlike academics, they do not study postmodernism but rather use it to “re-construct” the internal reality sense of the minds they are colonizing . The tragic result of their effective work is that many people today operate out of minds so distorted that for all practical purposes they are incapable of grasping the basic contour of the truth of things. Even worse, by colonizing polluted minds to identify the dissonance brought about by their mental pollution as an aspect of the struggle to maintain one’s “faith,” faith has been polluted.

My point here is that even though the Bush administration has been history’s greatest polluter of mind, the American mindscape was already deeply polluted before Bush. This means that in order to “clean up” our world, we will have to do more than get rid of Bush. We will also have to get rid of our inner delusions. This won’t be easy because the psychic pollutants we need to flush out of our intellectual systems are now so well established in the prism of filters that “construct” our reality sense that they now seem “natural.”

Let me illustrate by identifying some of the toxins hidden in some popular Christmas songs.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” presents a world in which snooping without a warrant is completely normal. Indeed, Santa snoops in a way that would make even the Department of Homeland Security envious. The song warns children that they “better watch out” and be sure not “pout” or “cry” because Santa is coming to town. He is “making a list and checking it twice” to determine “who’s naughty and nice.” He can “see” when you’re sleeping and “knows” when you’re awake. Santa has Total Information Awareness.

“Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer” presents a world in which the important thing is not who you are but who you know, not your character but how famous you are. The reindeer all cruelly reject Rudolf, laughing at him and refusing to let him play in any of their games because his red nose makes him different. Things change when Santa befriends Rudolf. Since this makes Rudolf “famous,” the reindeer immediately embrace him, “shouting with glee” as they do so that Rudolf will “go down in history.”

Rudolf is superficially similar to the Ugly Ducking in that both are rejected for being different. But where the Ugly Duckling is redeemed by discovering his inner beauty as a swan, Rudolf is redeemed not by discovering his authentic inner beauty but by suddenly becoming famous. In other words, Rudolf embodies the American Idol ethos.

I am not saying these beloved songs are bad or should be censored. I am simply using them as evidence to point out the pollution of our psyches predates the moral atrocities of the Bush administration. Accordingly, getting rid of Bush is not enough because we also have to get rid of our inner pollution.

Fortunately, there are also wonderfully positive messages and healing archetypes in popular culture. For example, the “jolly, happy soul,” Frosty, is a Christ archetype, representing salvation that comes from ideals and purity of intention. His story is instructive.

People say he is a “fairy tale” (meaning that ideals are fantasies) but the children (representing purity and spiritual awareness) know how he “came to life one day” to “laugh and play just the same as you and me.” However, Frosty knew he would melt in the hot sun, so he gathered the children to “have some fun” (representing purity of intention), leading them into town. The traffic cop (representing the status quo) yells for him to stop, but Frosty only “pauses a moment” before hurrying on his way (he is about his Father’s business). Although he was melting, he cheerily “waved goodbye,” comforting the children by telling them he would be back again some day (ideals may be defeated but they never die).

Perhaps that day is now.

Do We Have To Choose Between Hope And Reality?

To many people Obama represents hope for a better world. For others, the hope for a better world represented by Obama is a deception that masks a reluctance to face reality.

Let’s forget about Obama for a moment and look instead at the deeper contrast between the promise of hope and the disappointments of reality. Interestingly, this contrast between hope and reality is foundational in the human psyche and dates at least as far back as early Greek mythology.

Hesiod, tells the story of the twin Titans—Prometheus, who looked ahead and thus can be seen as a metaphor for liberal progress, and Epimetheus, who looked backwards while running ahead, and thus can be seen as a metaphor for social conservatism. Epimetheus was supposed to give a positive trait to every animal, but because he was constantly looking backwards, he gave all the positive traits away too soon and thus had nothing left to give to man. To make up for his mistake, his brother, Prometheus, stole fire (representing technology) from Zeus and gave it to man.

When Zeus found out he was furious. In a touch that lucidly captures the sexism that is at the heart of European culture, he ordered the first woman created in order to get back at man. Her name was Pandora, and she was full of deception and treachery but so beautiful that even the gods were “seized by wonder” when they saw her. Zeus gave her an enticing box full of curses—Pandora’s box—and sent her down to the world of man. Epimetheus, ignoring his brother’s foresightful warning not to accept any gifts from Zeus, embraced Pandora and opened the box, whereupon the curses flew out and infected human life with toil, misery, suffering, disease, and death. Unfortunately, the one salve—hope—remained in the box, hidden under the lid, leaving humans to endure the greatest suffering without expectation of improvement.

People today who see in Obama the hope for a better world are the heirs of this myth. They see hope as good and essential, an elixir that makes a struggle against an evil system possible. Rather than leave it hidden in the box, it must be brought out and shared.

Interestingly, an alternative version of the myth was presented by Theognis of Megara. In his telling, Pandora’s Box contained many blessings but only one curse—hope. When the box was opened, all the blessings escaped back to Mt. Olympus, leaving only “hope” in the box. With the blessings gone, people’s ability to understand was weakened and their courage to question diluted, making them easy to manipulate by “good-seeming” evil. The situation was so bad that humanity would have rebelled, but “hope” raised the expectation that the next leader would make things better, thereby tricking humanity into accepting the crushing burden of impossible circumstances.

People today who see clearly the curses of our system—its heartless cruelty and cunning exploitation artfully cloaked in layers of deception and illusion—are the heirs of this version of the myth. Seeing hope as a cruel seductress, they do not accept its sweet promises and struggle valiantly against the system of exploitation, deception, and death without the false promises of hope.

So here we find in the primeval mythological foundations of Western civilization, the dynamics of the argument over Obama. Is hope a good thing (believing in Obama helps us to join together to be the change we want to see)…or a bad thing (believing in Obama only opens us to the same curses in a different disguise)?

This struggle between expectant hope and cruel reality can be found in daily discussions and blog postings about Obama. Again and again the crux of the discussion is whether believing in Obama sustains us as we work to change how things are…or blinds us to cruel reality of how the system operates. Frequently, those who believe in the hope Obama brings tend to view others who give voice to truths about how the system works as being negative and obstructionist. Conversely, those who see hope as a deceiver tend to view others who believe in the hope Obama brings as being delusional and even child-like.

So who is right? Hegel once remarked that the deep and passionate conflicts of our lives are portrayed in melodrama as a struggle between right and wrong and in the more mature form of tragedy as a struggle between two different views of the right. In that sense, this conflict is tragic: that is, both sides are right.

Let me, therefore, try to frame the conflict differently. Nothing comes without a hazard. Sustaining hope that a better world is possible comes with the hazard that one could become resistant to the details of the dark truth of how the system actually works. Conversely, knowing the dark details of how the system actually works comes with the hazard that one could lose hope that a better world is possible. The spiritual challenge of today, therefore, is to have BOTH the dark facts about the world that is while simultaneously sustaining the bright hope for a world that could be.

Now back to Obama….

Change We Can Believe In or Change Our Beliefs?

“Change we can believe in” is a wonderful and effective phrase. In the giddy days before and after the election, the phrase seemed to promise that an Obama administration would bring needed change, steering our nation off the rutted road of corruption and driving it onto an environmentally friendly superhighway of wisdom. It all felt so good­until Obama’s cabinet appointments seemed to reveal the best we could hope for was a change of lanes on the same old and rutted road.

Not yet ready to abandon hope, even after hearing about Obama’s appointments, I retraced my steps, going back to take a second look at that most intoxicating phrase.

Surprisingly, the phrase sounded a lot different the second time around. Where originally it seemed to say something exhilarating, it now sounded cautious, restrained, and even conservative. The difference came about when I changed the way I read the phrase by placing the primary emphasis on the word “belief” rather than “change.” With that difference in emphasis, the phrase “change we can believe in” then became limited to those changes that were in harmony with the internal belief system of most Americans.

Now we have a problem.

Think about it. The core, basic beliefs of a people determine their horizon of possibility, both collectively and individually. This is why big changes in the collective life of a people cannot be implemented if the changes contradict the collective belief structures of the people. Conversely, the problems in our screwed up nation are deeply linked to the screwed up assumptions, beliefs, and false certainties that now constitute the basic mind-set of a majority of Americans. This means that the change we need will decidedly not be the change most Americans can believe in. It is the oppositewhat we need is for more Americans to change their beliefs. Obama himself alluded to this when he said early on, “I don’t want just to end the war; I want to end the mind-set that got us into war.”

It is sad to consider, but perhaps this is not yet the moment of progressive power but instead a time to dream. We can’t begin to implement a better future until we have learned to dream a better future. However, it’s hard to dream a better future. Let me give an example of what I mean.

In the chapter “Buddhist Economics” in Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher presents an expanded horizon of what work would be like in a harmonious society. He says there are three important reasons why we work, and any sane and humane economy would be designed to provide for all three. The first is to bring forth needed goods and services. (This runs counter to the current assumption that says we work to make money.) The second is to provide opportunities to practice overcoming our inborn egocentricity. (This is precisely what most people avoid at work.) And the third is to experience the joy of life that comes from creative activity. (This requires structuring work to give maximum scope to the creative satisfaction of the worker.)

This is a vision of a much better world, a world in which work is both beneficial and enjoyable. Why can’t America be such a society? As soon as we try to imagine the American economy being structured this way, we run into difficulties. The stern voices of the old belief system begin to bark frantically ­“This is not feasible.” “People only work for profit.” “No one will have a job.” “We will all starve.” “Work is not meant to be fun.” The wonderful new idea is coming in conflict with our assumptions of how it has to be.

Until enough of us are able to change our assumptions about how it has to beand my example of humane work is just one part of the comprehensive transformation that is necessarythen change we can believe in will always be some version of what we already have, which is what Obama and his centrist administration now appear to be offering.

How could it be any other way?

We Deserve A Better Class Of People To Be Our Upper Class

Someone has to say it.

We deserve a better class of people to be our upper class.

Everything in nature has a purpose—so much so that things that do not serve a purpose do not last. So what is the purpose of the upper class?

There was a time when it was fully understood and accepted that with great privilege came great responsibility. In accordance with the noblesse oblige tradition of European aristocracy, it was accepted that the upper classes bore the final earthly responsibility for the well-being of the lower classes. In addition, there was also the idea that the privileges the upper class enjoyed enabled them to cultivate humanity in an exemplary way, not only through their patronage and connoisseurship of the arts, but also and more importantly, through their maintenance of the highest standards of personal behavior.

Of course, America always thought of itself as an aristocracy of merit. The idea was those with power and privilege would have risen to the top in a fair and open competition, earning their position as a result of their superior efforts, talents, and accomplishments. It was believed that anyone of similar talent, effort, and accomplishment could achieve the same results. But this was all exposed as sham when recently it became clear to almost everyone that those who earn tens and hundreds of millions of dollars a year on Wall Street do so not as a result of their superior efforts and contributions, but as a result of their mastery of the four C’s—Connections, Corruption, and Campaign Contributions.

Even the notion that these “masters of the universe” provide employment for the rest of us has fallen away, revealing that they do not give employment but rather exploit it. They have been morally busted, and their mug shots reveal a group of greedy and shamelessly self-serving individuals who seek as much as possible for themselves no matter what the cost to others. This is what I mean by a lack of class.

This goes beyond economics. I saw a snippet of a TV show this past week that brought this home to me. The show had something to do with a cheating scandal and about how a teacher had tried to fail twenty eight students she caught cheating. The brief part of the show I saw involved an interview with one of the students. Smart, handsome, and self-possessed, he was explaining why he cheated. He did not see it as a moral issue. He simply saw it as something he needed to do in order to get into an Ivy League school, which he thought was necessary in order to succeed in society. He figured his competition was cheating and benefiting from doing so, so he felt he needed to take the same advantage.

Now in old-fashioned, pre-quantum thinking, questions are framed in terms of binary oppositions. Trying to explain this student, we would ask whether it was nature or nurture that led him to cheat. Who is to blame, we would ask, the individual or the society? In the post-quantum world, modeled on the fact that light is not either a particle or a wave but rather at different times acts like a wave and then acts like a particle, breaks down the ontology of binary oppositions. To explain this student’s cheating, therefore, we would need to take into account both nature and nurture. Accordingly, we would not treat his cheating solely as a fact about him personally, but would also factor in the dynamics of the social system into our explanation.

And here is the sad part. The same behavior that got him flagged in high school would get him millions in bonuses on Wall Street.

Interestingly, the difference between liberals and conservatives has much to do with which half of the binary opposition—individual or society—is accepted as the most important explanatory factor. Conservatives tend to be blind to the larger social factors and explain everything in terms of individual behavior. Liberals, conversely, tend to explain things in terms of the dynamics of the larger social field the individual operates in, often seeming thereby to be making excuses for the individual.

What we now need, however, is not to flip from one side of the binary opposition to the other. We need to rise above the opposition to a more quantum, wholistic understanding. And when we do that, we can see that the classless CEO’s are stealing more than our money. They are also degrading our culture.