Not Every One Who Claims The Name Of Christ Is Christian: what is the test of authenticity?

How confident can anyone be that the gospel and doctrines they proclaim are the right ones?  How certain can anyone be that the rituals of their worship tradition are the right ones? To what authority can one look for answers of certainty?

As an example, a few decades ago, the Episcopal Church was embroiled in bitter debate over the ordination of homosexuals.  Openly gay candidates for ordination were proxies for resolving the more fundamental question about whether any form of non-standard heterosexuality was acceptable in the body of Christ.  Was being gay a sin, or was it one way of being made in the image of God?  Those of us who came down on the side of being made in the image of God were accused of being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4) 

They’re not bad questions.  I’ve used them myself to demand whether my interlocutors aren’t the ones being tossed to and fro, misled by the trickery of received social practices at odds with following Jesus, who was so often at odds with the received social practices of his day.  So how are we to tell which side we’re on?

The passage from the Letter to the Ephesians cited above is attributed to St. Paul, and sometimes we have to be reminded that Paul was not Jesus.  Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.  For lack of more adequate words, we call him the Son of God.  Paul was a late vocation apostle doing his best to guide Greek speaking gentiles beginning their new lives as Christians.  He was a native of Tarsus in modern day Turkey, and never knew Jesus in person.  As divinely ordained as he was, he was not Jesus.  As divinely inspired as his writings may have been, they are not the equal of what Jesus is recorded to have taught.  The difference is important because it is the key to understanding how to tell when one is being “tossed to and fro…”

On what did Jesus say hung everything else in scripture?  Loving God, self and neighbor.  That was it.  We need to measure the doctrine we proclaim by how well it displays God’s love for all that God made, as in “…God so loved the world…” We have to measure it by how well it expresses love for others as Jesus expressed love for others in word and deed.  We have to measure it by how well it expresses our selves as beloved of God.  These standards by which the doctrine we proclaim is measured have not changed in over two thousand years; moreover, they come directly from God so there shouldn’t be much debate about their authority.  But our ability to apply them is always changing.  That’s because God’s standards are always in tension with what is socially and politically acceptable in the times and cultures we live in.  Peter Gomes, in “The Good Book,” said something like, the words of scripture don’t change, our ability to understand them does.  The social rules and expectations with which we grew up are deeply rooted. It’s hard to imagine they don’t define what is, and always has been, right and good.  To follow Jesus is to courageously, and sometimes rebelliously, dare to weigh them against the divine commandments of love.

With that in mind, as a progressive minded Episcopalian, I’m confident in the doctrine I proclaim, knowing it’s incomplete and the divinity of its inspiration is highly questionable, as long as it’s measured daily by Jesus’ standards of love.  At the same time, I’m comfortable knowing that others have different ways of expressing doctrine they believe is upheld by the same standards.  And I will remain highly skeptical of doctrine for which there is little evidence that it is upheld by the standards of love. 

The Importance Of Being Kind To Yourself: lessons in the news

Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with all your being, and the second was to love your self and your neighbor.  Then he gave us a new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  Everything else scripture offers, everything else we do or say, hangs on these commandments.  Thousands of sermons and tomes of writing have tried to spell out how that gets worked out in real life, yet too often they overlook one key element buried in the middle: love yourself.

In the last few days we’ve had a powerful example of what loving yourself looks like.  When Simone Biles pulled out of Olympic competition citing mental health needs, she demonstrated what it means to know when caring for yourself is more important than risking long term damage and disappointing a faithlessly fickle audience.  It’s something athletes have too long failed to recognize, and the price paid has been deadly.  It’s something others have also failed to recognize as they’ve sacrificed their health and families to institutions that demand submission with only feigned regard for human well being.  Selling one’s soul to the devil is the stuff of folklore and operas, but selling one’s soul for money and momentary fame is the stuff of real life.  

Lest we forget, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, knew when it was time to take a break, to pull out of the work he was doing for the restoration of his own emotional and spiritual health.  He often found deserted places in the wilderness or on a mountain to escape the pressure and demands of crowds expecting more miracles, and crowds pressing so hard there was no room to move. He didn’t always go off by himself.  His disciples were urged to join him for their own well being.  It was an important demonstration of what it means to love one another as he loves us.  Love one another by loving yourself enough to take care of yourself.  Jesus did.

To love God, to love neighbors, to love others as Jesus loves us, requires that we love ourselves, and that means being kind to ourselves.  

Ms. Biles is this week’s headline example, but it’s a message that’s been heard by others as well.  Changing attitudes about PTSD as a real consequence of traumatic experiences, especially among combat veterans and first responders, has led to greater recognition of the importance of emotional and spiritual health among those whose physical prowess and commitment to duty is legendary.  Even the NFL appears to have turned a corner.  Americans, especially men, have been raised to value competition where there can only be winners.  Losers are losers, failures of no account.  Competition is good to a point, but the cult of living on the competitive edge has been oversold.  It provides little marginal benefit, and can cost everything of real value in life.  The competitive cult of toxic masculinity, with variations distributed across genders, occupations, and socioeconomic class, has been exposed as a fraud.     

We’re called on to be the best that we can be, and the best requires emotional and spiritual health as well as the usual trappings of competitive spirit and commitment to doing hard work under difficult circumstances.  It’s a balancing act that requires each of us to recognize when it’s time for us to step away and go to our deserted place on the mountain for rest and recuperation.  

For Christians, it’s a commandment direct from God.  You can’t love God, or others, or follow Jesus if you are not also caring for yourself. 

The Old Republican Party Is Dead. Can Corporate America Find A Home In The Democratic Party?

I read Gerald Seib’s thoughtful July 23 WSJ essay on how big business has become a political orphan, unable to find a safe harbor in either major party.  For over a century, the Republican Party has been their haven.  But, said Seib, the party’s shift to right wing populism has eroded the stable of Republican legislators who could be relied on to earn high marks from corporate trade associations, while, I might add, raking in millions in campaign contributions from satisfied corporate interests.  Seib noted that amenable moderate Democrats have been displaced by party leaders shifting left with anti corporate agendas.  So what are big corporations and their trade associations going to do?  That’s the big question to which he had no answer.  It was a sad tale, but truthful as far as it went.

A few observations  

Corporate America is not monolithic in spite of incestuous relationships that network boards and CEOs.  The ebb and flow of leaders with strong egos, from different backgrounds, having different core values, and different expectations for what conditions are best for their companies, means corporate America has a hard time coordinating political strategy.  That’s what their major trade associations are for.  Trade associations pretend to cooperate, albeit reluctantly because they too have separate agendas. Think of them as an old twenty mule team each pulling in slightly different directions.

With that in mind, corporate America has always favored as much laissez faire as it could get away with, on the grounds that any governmental regulation for the greater good unfairly restrained corporations from doing business as they want.  Free enterprise.  Isn’t that what American capitalism is about?  To corporate America, government regulation, no matter the public good, is never good for free enterprise.  Experience over many decades has shown that corporate America cannot be trusted to be entirely on its own.  Its ability to behave irresponsibly in ways that cause serious harm knows no limits.  To keep regulation as minimal as possible it exercised considerable political skill enabling it to treat employees as disposable, customers as gullible, and environmental health as an inconvenience.

What corporate America found in the Republican Party was a passively reliable ally to help keep government off its back as much as possible.  But that wasn’t enough for some corporate leaders.  The whole idea of a democracy too easily led by unqualified commoners needed to be replaced with an oligarchy of the right sort of people who knew the right sort of ways to run a country.  That would free business to do what it does best without interference.  Goldwater was a dud, but he opened the way to an emerging movement.  Reagan gave laissez fair popular respectability.  He talked the small government line, but big was just fine with him as long as it was an agency of big business.  The necessary elements had been put in place.

The next step was to find a way to ignite a grassroots movement committed to undermining the foundations of American democracy in the name of defending it, which patriotic oligarchs would save.  The Koch Network and friends, in plain sight for all to see, helped engineer the rise of the tea party movement that did exactly that.  To be sure, the conditions had to be right, and they were.  Wage rates had stalled, blue collar jobs were disappearing, and those who identified with the white working class felt abandoned.  The 2008 Great Recession hammered everyone, and to make it worse, a young, untried, too smart for his own good, black president was in charge of fixing things.  I imagine the Koch Network types thought they could both ignite the movement and control what it did.  They did not foresee how easily tea partiers could morph into what we now call trumpism.  I doubt they anticipated an unstable, uncontrollable Trump taking the lead, or the amount of damage he was capable of inflicting on the nation.  

The gullible turned out to be sophisticated corporate leaders easily bought off with rising stock prices and mega salaries. Corporate America as a whole, and Koch Network types in particular, are elitist to the core. So was their dependably cooperative conservative Republican Party. What they have now is a Republican Party led by brawling anti-elitists who favor autocracy over democracy. They’re backed by millions of angry right wing Americans increasingly disconnected from reality, suspicious of experts and verifiable data, who are willing to surrender their freedom to authoritarian rule in the expectation of better treatment. But let us be reminded that the millions who would willingly back an autocratic government are outnumbered by many millions more of patriotic Americans who do not. The danger lies in the proclivity of the greater number to be politically complacent.

Could corporate America find a home in the Democratic Party?  Seib’s essay says the Democratic Party’s shift to the left is exactly what makes corporate America nervous. It stands for every one of its regulatory nightmares.  I think a closer look would reveal a Democratic Party simply adhering to an updated version of the “liberal consensus” that created the economic foundation enabling corporate America to thrive for so long.  Its so called socialist agenda is to invest heavily in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, restoring its standards for educational quality, stewarding the environment for the benefit of future generations, and giving greater reality to the ideals of American justice and opportunity.  Regulation of corporations for the public good is a part of it for good reason.  The Democratic agenda is capitalist to the core, but not laissez faire.  It’s not so much a shift left as a restoration of the traditional middle.  

Corporate America will never find a home in the Democratic Party if what it wants is the old safe harbor of a conservatively compliant Republican Party. Maybe corporate America should never have a home or safe haven in any political party. But if the Democratic agenda is successful, it will find a renewed nation built on a more solid foundation enabling corporate America to prosper for many decades to come. That is, if the Democratic Party can manage to enlist a majority of Americans to support it.

Which brings up a final observation.  Could we get along with a governing Democratic Party opposed only by a small group of right wing anti democratic radicals?  No!  We need something like the old Republican Party.  We need a conservative party, cautious about new ways of doing things, to restrain unrealistic enthusiasm from wasting tax payer money for programs of no real benefit to the nation.  The current GOP isn’t it, and not likely to become it.  Where the new conservative party comes from and how it gets here is beyond me, but we need it.    

A Better Way Than Mutual Suspicion & Hurtful Language

Roxane Gay wrote a July 17 New York Times piece asking why people are so awful to each other online, suggesting it could be due to the role of loneliness and the insufficiency of cyberspace as an adequate substitute for in person connections.  Heather Cox Richardson followed up with additional questions about the horrible ways we treat each other in person.  It raised questions about what norms for public behavior should be.

I suspect most of us have a sense that the nation’s social atmosphere is polluted with more unkindness expressed out loud than it used to be.  Internet trolls, talk radio, and certain cable news outlets are prime examples of publicly broadcasted expressions of virulent unkindness.  It shows up to a lesser degree in routine internet comments, letters to the editor, and even in small group conversations among people we know.  It appears toleration for nasty expressions of our collective suspicion of one another has become an unflattering new norm.  

Of whom we are suspicious depends on who we identify with and against.  Very conservative friends are certain they’re losing freedom and rights to an ever encroaching federal government egged on by leftist intent to abolish capitalism and erode America’s culture of individualism.  Very liberal friends are certain they’re losing freedom, rights and a chance at the American dream.  They see white supremacists and powerful corporate interests intent on making the nation an autocratic oligarchy.  What the two have in common is a deep fear of losing freedom and rights. What they distrust about each other is that one looks to government for help, the other looks to government as the enemy.  Those in the middle are suspicious that both are dangerously unrealistic, and in the case of the right wing, just plain dangerous.  

Suspicions aside, everybody seems anxious about the future because tomorrow is so unpredictable.  Before the Trump era, no matter who was president or what traumatic tragedy the nation faced, one could plan for tomorrow with some degree of certainty.  In the worst of times there remained confidence in American resilience.  What happened?  Talk radio created national marketplace in which angry mistrust was the main product.  The internet added space where the angriest and most mistrustful could could network with each other, barricading themselves against verifiable data contrary to their vision of the world.  It became a contagion making it difficult for anyone to know who or what to trust. The internet and cyberspace enabled the instantaneous spread of unverified news and rumors that used to be limited by interpersonal word of mouth.  Robust interpersonal space served as something of a buffer, but the pandemic shut it down, leaving the least reliable, most easily abused form of communication to do its worst

The recovery is slowly reviving interpersonal space, but we’re left with a new cultural norm of mutual mistrust tolerating abusive language doing serious damage without fear of recrimination.  We need something better, and I believe Christians have an obligation to show the way by word and deed.  Followers of Jesus’ way of love are called to live in the better way made known to us by God’s self revelation through prophets, and directly through God’s Word made flesh, Jesus.  From the beginning God has made it clear that there is a way to live in prosperous harmony, and it’s not complicated.  

Honor the best of the legacy bequeathed to you by your ancestors.  They made lots of mistakes, but they also provided wisdom that has stood the test of time.

Don’t kill each other.  Put away your guns.  You’re not protecting anyone.  There might be such a thing as just war, but they’re rare.  Most are destructive wastes of life and God’s creation.

If it’s not yours and you don’t have a right to use it, don’t take it. 

If it’s not verifiably true, don’t say it.  Don’t say things intended to humiliate and demean another’s human dignity.

Don’t let someone else’s good fortune become an emotionally harmful burden to you.

This fragile earth our island home is not ours to possess.  Our obligation is to care for it as an inheritance for future generations to enjoy.

God has said in plain language that we can live in prosperous harmony if we want.  All we have to do is follow them.  Hard to take God seriously or not, Christians are commanded to follow in the better way.  They’re not piously unrealistic platitudes.  They’re commandments from the creator and sustainer of all there is.  Even more important, Christians are to live life by doing that which shows love for God, love for self, and love for those among whom we live.  God’s Word was made flesh in Jesus to show us what that looks like in daily life.  It has everything to do with actions that heal, reconcile, and break down barriers that separate us from each other.  

Too often, the way of Christian love is mistaken for weakness, a willingness to be inoffensive in order to keep the peace and get along. To love God, self and neighbor, it turns out, means to boldly stand against every form of oppression and injustice, which can’t be done without becoming political.  To follow Jesus is to non-violently confront political systems where they are most unjust, even when the consequences are dire.  To follow Jesus is to confront the awful and horrible without becoming awful and horrible in return.  It means, insofar as possible, creating islands of prosperous harmony wherever with whomever.  In the God’s words as recorded by Paul in his letter to the Romans, it means to “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.   Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves…. No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink… Do not  be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12)

Oops! Again

To my subscribers. Once again I published without my editor’s final proof reading. You would think I’d learn. Anyway, the Is the Church Dying column as posted on the website has been updated to correct stuff, mostly. Mea culpa.

The Church Is Dying! No It Isn’t! Yes It Is! No It Isn’t!

There is a no more dependable perennial than the annual blossoming of angst over the decline and imminent death of the church.  Every denomination grows its own variety, mine is from the Episcopal Church.  Yes, church attendance has been in decline for decades, and it saddens me as much as it does anyone. The perennial question is always, what should we do about it?  My answer is always the same, proclaim the gospel and get on with life. 

It’s never a satisfying answer.  Critics say I’m ducking the question, offering nothing but a facile platitude, and ignoring the serious institutional issues that must be addressed.  I don’t know, maybe they’re right.  To be honest, even after several terms as a deputy to the national convention, I’m not very interested in denominational politics or the various institutional schemes for updating, streamlining and marketing.  But, they say, look at the data.  I’m a data kind of guy, so parsing church statistics can be an enjoyable pastime that offers the occasional AHA! moment of insight into what’s going on.  It’s akin to solving the trick clue in the NYT Thursday crossword.

Jesus sent twelve untried disciples into nearby villages to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom was at hand, call people into a more intimate relationship with God, and offer the gift of God’s healing presence. Later, he sent seventy equally untried followers out to do the same. He instructed Peter to “feed my sheep.” Scripture reports that he commanded all his followers to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey every thing that I have commanded you.” What did he command? One way or the other it added up to, “Love one another as I have loved you.” No matter what else scripture says, it has to be weighed against the commandments to love God, neighbor and self. What Jesus said and did is the pattern for following in the way of love.

That’s it. Our work is to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus to whomever will listen, and teach them to follow Jesus in the way of love.  I don’t think there is anything facile or platitudinous about that.  The biggest question for clergy is, how did Jesus love us?  It’s not how to save the church.  If we are to love one another as he loved us, how did he show us the way?  Its corollary is, how are we to teach others the way?  He gave us powerful tools to use, the Holy Eucharist foremost among them, followed by his examples of preaching, listening, and healing.  The first disciples understood the gravity of having been commissioned personally by the Word of God made flesh.  They were careful to pass on the tradition of ordination in which, through laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit authorizes persons to speak and teach in God’s name.  That’s it.  It’s the work to which ordained persons have been called, the whole work, there isn’t anything else.  Well, there is, we all know that, but it doesn’t come from God.  Don’t let what doesn’t come from God get ahead of what does come from God.

Does that mean the institutional church is unimportant, that we really don’t need it? Good grief, no. The institutional church is the holy vessel that bears the living God from generation to generation, not unlike the Ark and temple of ancient Israel. The Ark was lost but the word of God survived. The temple was destroyed, but the word of God survived. Is the institutional church greater than the Ark or temple? I don’t want the institutional church to go the way of the Ark or temple, but if it does, God’s purposes will still be accomplished. As for me, I treasure the Episcopal Church and want it to thrive. It is in the Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church that I am most richly fed. The liturgy is for me a conduit flowing with God’s abounding and steadfast love. The Episcopal Church will thrive only if it thrives at the local level.

All the important work of the church takes place in congregations at the local level.  The church is at its best when every member of the clergy is committed to proclaiming the gospel and teaching parishioners how to live their daily lives as agents of God’s love.  It means guiding the fitfully faithful to follow Jesus as compassionate, listening, healing, reconciling bearers of some little part of the kingdom in their daily lives.  It means standing for godly justice against the forces of injustice and oppression, no matter the guise in which they present themselves.  The primary job of the larger church institution is to serve the needs of local parishes.  

Polls and data are not signs of failure.  The Episcopal Church fails when local congregations turn complacently inward.  It fails when local congregations turn outward in social service without bearing boldly the light of Christ.  It fails when being sent out to do the work Jesus has given his followers to do is merely a dismissal from worship.  It’s all local.

The Virtual Reality of Cyberspace Bubbles, Silos & Castles

Where were we?  Oh yeah; the previous column was about metaphorical bubbles, silos and castles that exist in the physical reality of our daily lives, but over the last few decades we’ve also come to live in the virtual reality of cyberspace and cable t.v.  Friend Tom and I have been wondering about the difference between bubbles, silos and castles that exist more or less physically in real time, and those that exist virtually in cyberspace and on cable t.v.  More particularly, how do they work among those who have grown up in a cyberspace world?

The cyberspace world can’t be understood without considering the role of algorithms. The virtual reality of cyberspace is defined by them. Algorithms are rules coded into computer programs that create boundaries within which any given cyberspace reality exists, and impose conditions that influence user behavior inside the reality they define. When you log onto an internet site, algorithms search your use of clicks and keystrokes that indicate your tastes, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors so the site can begin feeding you satisfying news, products and services intended to reinforce your commitment to whatever reality the site offers. Algorithms create self correcting, self justifying feedback loops to refine the information fed to you, excluding whatever is inconsistent or challenging. In other words, they create silos and castles for you to live in virtually. Like metaphorical physical silos, cyberspace silos are elitist and pretend to expertise. They inhibit intimacy with whatever is outside the silo, but don’t prohibit it, and you can live in several silos at the same time. Metaphorical cyberspace castles are fortified redoubts for ideologues and others who feel they are surrounded by enemies to be conquered or defended against. The virtual world inside a cyberspace castle has its own version of reality not dependent on outside verification. It’s possible to live in more than one castle, but they’re likely to be closely related.

What about bubbles? Bubbles and cyberspace don’t get along. Metaphorical bubbles enclose like minded friends, socially cohesive neighborhoods, occupations, disciplines, and the like. They involve in person, face-to-face relationships. They are reasonably transparent so those inside can see other bubbles and who’s inside them. They bump into each other, in sometimes companionable ways, sometimes not. Bubbles tend to be permeable, they occasionally merge or divide, and like all bubbles, pop. They exist for a season, disappear, and are replaced by new bubbles. There is nothing algorithmic about bubbles. They are held together by social norms with no solid boundaries, no rules on how to interact with other bubbles. Bubbles, however prejudicial or isolating they may sometimes be, are the enemies of algorithmic controlled cyberspace silos and castles. Bubbles resist the power of systems analysis, and put control in the hands of real people doing real things with each other. Our year of Zoom meetings demonstrated that cyberspace can imitate bubbles well enough to have a place in our daily lives, but cannot replace the organic qualities of in person physical relationships.

The virtual cyberspace world of silos and castles is fast, efficient, spans the globe, and links us with people and places we would otherwise never meet.  Want to know something?  Google it.  Need to navigate somewhere?  Maps will give you a route, tell you where to eat, and highlight attractions.  Want to buy something, anything?  The internet will find it, including whatever conspiracy theory tickles your fancy.  Broad band access to the cyberspace internet has become an essential but extremely vulnerable part of our infrastructure.  The internet highway is easily hacked, lined with scam artists, and we can’t do without it.  

From our point of view (friend Tom and me), cyberspace created silos and castles undermine genuine friendships, contribute to pathological loneliness, seduce the unwary with dystopian cults, and reinforce the worst of our tendencies toward bigotry and violence. Cable t.v. contributes to its excesses with programming intended to reinforce the self justifying worlds of silos and castles as means to political and profitable ends. In a perverse way, users are encouraged to substitute cyberspace virtual reality defined by algorithmic silos and castles for the physical reality of daily life in permeable, temporary bubbles.

Can that be true?  Don’t we continue to live in real neighborhoods with real people?  Don’t we have real jobs with real coworkers?  Don’t we drive on real roads, walk in real parks, and deal with real weather?  Aren’t we free to express political opinions?  Aren’t we free to vote for whom we want, worship as we desire, and be educated in classrooms with real teachers and real students?  Yes, but not as free as we once were.  Cyberspace algorithms are quite sophisticated at giving us the illusion of freedom while monitoring and correcting our behavior.

What about younger generations who have grown up in cyberspace and take it for granted?  Do they know they’ve been seduced by artificial means like Pinocchio was seduced by Honest John, Gideon the Cat, Stromboli and Pleasure Island?  Being on the older side,  I haven’t shared their experience, but I have some guesses.  First, we of the older generations are the ones who were seduced.  The advent of the internet and cyberspace were erotically exotic in their seductive power, and we delighted in all that they offered.  We were the Pinocchios turned into obedient asses.  Some of us are slowly waking up to our condition to relearn the joy of living in the real world, using the internet’s cyberspace as a tool of limited value.  We are increasingly willing to venture out of our cyberspace silos.  However, escape from cyberspace castles may be less likely if those inside are unable to recognize its virtual reality as fiction, and not very good fiction at that.  Those who are stuck will ever after be long eared asses.    

On the other hand, to younger generations cyberspace is anything but exotic.  It’s normal, routine, and maybe a bit boring. There has to be more to life.  It appears they are becoming more aware of the human cost that underlies overnight deliveries, and the political dangers of conspiracy generated dystopian virtual worlds.  They make a sport of hacking the hackers.  What might look more exotically enticing could be old fashioned interpersonal relationships doing things in the messy, semi predictable way that humans do things.  The fungible norms of in person group behavior might create interesting new challenges.  The wisdom of the ages that has stood the test of time is something to be rediscovered again as if for the first time.  Maybe “this fragile earth, our island home” is something to be explored,  loved and cared for for its own value, and not for its exploitive value.  If that could be true in some way, what might we do to open wide the doors for them to access this new world so different from the virtual reality of cyberspace in which they have grown up?

Social Polarization: Bubbles, Silos & Castles

Friend Tom and I were messing around with the idea of bubbles, silos and castles to help explain the dynamics of political polarization that appear to have brought us close to a cultural cold civil war.  That we live in a politically polarized society is axiomatically true.  Most often it’s characterized as left vs. right, with an emphasis on the extremes.  It’s a way too easy characterization leading one to believe it explains everything because that’s the way it gets played out in Congress, at the Supreme Court,and on cable news.  But there are other forms of polarization at play: rural vs. urban; coastal vs. heartland; rich vs. poor; white vs. black; non-white vs. white; educated vs. uneducated; town vs. gown; heavy industry vs. knowledge industry, and you can probably add your own.

An exhaustive list of polar opposites would be interesting, but still inadequate as an explanation of political society.  American politics, probably like every other nation, is more than a list of polar opposites.  Another metaphor commonly used these days is bubbles.  As the COVID pandemic began to ease, we were encouraged to socialize in exclusive bubbles of close friends and families who were less likely to infect each other.  Bubbles made sense because it’s often said that we live in bubbles of one kind or another.  Bubbles enclose like minded friends, socially cohesive neighborhoods, occupations, disciplines, and the like.  We each live in several different bubbles that that establish boundaries excluding those who live in other bubbles, while hopefully creating a sense of solidarity among those inside our bubbles.  Bubbles have certain characteristics.  They are reasonably transparent so those inside can see other bubbles and what’s inside them.  They bump into each other, in sometimes companionable ways, sometimes not.  Those inside bubbles establish hierarchies among themselves, and try to manipulate their bubbles into an unstable hierarchy of bubbles.  Bubbles tend to be permeable, they occasionally merge or divide, and like all bubbles, pop. They exist for a season, disappear, and are replaced by new bubbles.  

Not everyone is happy with bubbles. They need something more secure, long lasting, and above all, exclusive.  So in addition to bubbles there are silos.  Silos have solid walls.  They’re defined by the exclusivity of those inside them, stacked in an undulating hierarchy competing with each other for who is the greater or more skilled at political manipulation.  Gated communities are common examples of silos.  The ivory towers of academia are famous for their silos.  Corporate office towers are silos.  Inhabitants of silos are aware of and commune with the outside world while defending their exclusivity.  Silos are not without value.  The expertise that exists within them can sometimes be tapped for the good of society.

Silos can end up being controlled by people who imagine themselves as modern day equivalents of medieval barons in castles protected by moats and drawbridges.  Silos become castles when the outside world appears filled with enemies thought to control other castles.  Castles can close their drawbridges to establish within them a self contained, self correcting universe that denies the relevancy of the outside world except for its enmity.  Like castle dwellers of old, raiding parties are often sent out to conquer a bit of territory, or at least harass enemies.  Political ideologues live in castles, as do Doom Day preppers, and assorted others who dream of more people to rule.

Of course society is made of far more than polar opposites, bubbles, silos and castles existing in uneasy tension with one another, but reflecting on them may provide a few insights on opening pathways away from mutual distrust, legislative paralysis, and ideological threats to American democracy.  Experience suggests assaulting castles costs much and gains little.  It’s tempting to go after castle dwelling ideologues because they epitomize the worst of social polarization and trumpet the loudest threats against American democracy.  Their castles are well defended and they have no interest in listening to whatever “fake news and socialist propaganda” is lobbed at them.  Maybe it’s wise to keep a sharp eye on them, but move on.  Silo dwellers are elitist by definition, so convincing them to help reduce political polarization probably means appealing to other elitists they respect who are among those convinced that the value of silo elitist expertise depends on the economic well being of the greater community.  America’s founding fathers are a case in point: a few elite were able to convince other elites to forge a new nation whose principles heralded the common good.  The weaknesses and limitations of their work are well known; nevertheless, they laid a foundation for a common good they could not imagine. 

That brings us to bubbles.  The bubbles I’m interested in are occupied with people who have a sense that their individual freedoms depend on the common good of society.  To one degree or another, they know that government is needed to establish conditions for economic and social justice to prevail.  They have influence with others who share bubbles with them.  Their honest conversation about what the common good is, and how best to work together for it, can produce real progress.  Bubbles bump into each other, are permeable, and can sometimes combine.  Networking between bubbles can create cooperative movement toward achieving possible, if not optimum, ends.  Bubbles far removed from one another by geography or the particularity of local issues can find common ground for cooperation.  A reasonable degree of consensus is achievable in bubbles. 

The bubble, silo and castle metaphor has historical precedence going back centuries.  What complicates it today is social media.  Instantaneous, unfiltered, unmediated communication used to be the province of local bars, coffee shops, and clubs.  Today, instant communication spanning the globe is in the hands of anyone with a keyboard or smart phone to be used as a weapon or tool.  Social media provides leaders with an effective tool to network with others in common cause.  But it has its limitations.  It may generate awareness and interest, but people need to see and hear from each other at a more personal level to be convinced.  One-on-one, face-to-face conversation is the more probable pathway to forming strong links in any network, and is especially important when anti democratic forces have revealed their own strength.