The secret to social change

We all have a lot of ideas about what people should be doing differently. What am I talking about? Well, pretty much everything – every topic of laws and norms and morality that affect other people’s decisions. It could be smoking cigarettes (or something more potent); it could be recycling; it could be sex; it could be buying cars that use gasoline rather than some alternative fuel.

And that’s our job as citizens, in a democracy – deciding collectively what people should be able to do and encouraged to do. We don’t just leave it to a king or some other power to declare from on high; we get to have these discussions ourselves. Continue reading

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The burden of George R.R. Martin – and what suspense and its resolution mean for us in the real world

I can still picture the display in our local university bookstore, sometime around 1999 – a major new fantasy series, with at least two books in print: A Game of Thrones, and A Clash of Kings. It looked medieval, and epic, and soon I was learning about the Starks and Lannisters, Baratheons and Targaryens. The author, George R. R. Martin, had sold the series to his publisher as a trilogy, but clearly the scope was beyond that.

And these books were complex. So many mysteries! Friends and I were speculating, early on, that Jon Snow was a secret Targaryen heir, but even if that were the case, there was a massive number of other storylines that needed to be resolved. And so we waited. The third book in the series was published in 2000, the fourth in… 2005, the fifth in… 2011, and here it is, 2020, with at least two more books to come. Martin is now 72 years old.

you_know_nothing_jon_snowPersonally, I stopped reading after the third book, although I’d probably return to the series if the rest are ever published. Other fans are more emotionally invested and have had stronger feelings on the topic than myself. Continue reading

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The story of Dido, Aeneas, a gender-queer Sorceress, and the fate of… England?

This past weekend I had the good fortune to see a most unusual opera. I confess, I’m not actually an opera fan, not in the conventional sense – as of yet I have no interest in Verdi, Puccini, et al. (although like everyone else, I adore the instrumental music in Carmen).

Live performances* of Early Music, though, are endlessly fascinating, and this work was no exception. It was Dido and Aeneas, written by the English composer Henry Purcell, who lived in the late 1600s, and performed by the Boston Camerata, under the direction of Anne Azéma. Continue reading

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The “Nixon-to-China” theory of change

For my friends who’d rather have had Bernie for president… don’t lose hope. Here’s why I think the Biden presidency may be just what we need.

In the early 1970s, mainland China was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution, a violent and disastrous experiment in totalitarianism, and the United States had been holding it at arm’s length, keeping China largely isolated from the rest of the world. Then Richard Nixon shocked America by announcing plans to visit China as a step toward normalizing relations between the two countries.

Now, where capital-c Communism was concerned, Nixon was an arch-conservative. He wasn’t all that conservative on women’s rights, environmentalism, etc., just as many Continue reading

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Choosing your battleground: Joe Brewer’s story

Today is my friend and colleague Joe Brewer’s birthday. In honor of Joe’s special day – and tomorrow’s U.S. election – I’m sharing part of my in-progress book’s chapter 11, “Transcending Loss,” where I write about Joe and the importance of choosing not just your battles, but your battlegrounds.

My book is about the psychology of “meta-narratives,” the stories about the groups we identify with – our countries, our people, even all of humanity. Although optimistic meta-narratives are generally the most inspirational, sometimes decline and loss may be the most accurate representation of reality – and if we accept and grieve this loss, we can find ways to make a difference. Empires do fall; ecosystems can collapse. Our usual emotional responses to collective loss include denial, a sense of helplessness, and sometimes a paralysis born of communal guilt. How can we craft meta-narratives to help us function effectively when systems are failing all around us?

Joe-Portrait-for-WebIn 2007, Joe Brewer, a young man from rural Missouri, found himself reading George Lakoff’s books on cognitive framing, the conceptual models we use to make sense of the world (which include meta-narratives). With an academic background in atmospheric science, and deeply concerned about climate change, he began working with these frames to learn more about the thought patterns that can facilitate or hinder positive social change. Continue reading

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America’s Irony Problem

Irony can be a lot of fun.  And it’s everywhere, from the most scathing sarcasm to the gentle wit of Kermit the Frog. We love to laugh at satire and parody.  The “mockumentary” has become a popular film genre – a few weeks ago we greatly enjoyed the vampire satire, What We Do in the Shadows.  Yet there are some contexts in which irony may be altogether inappropriate and a serious problem for democracy.

Let’s start with definitions.  Irony requires us to have at least two levels of awareness.  There’s what we literally see and hear (or read).  Then there’s also a secondary level of meaning, more sophisticated, requiring familiarity with additional, unspoken knowledge.  That’s why irony is so popular with teens and young adults – appreciating it lets them show that they’re familiar with that deeper layer of knowledge.  Not only is irony fun, it’s also a metaphorical badge of mastery. Continue reading

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The Axis of Awesomeness

Our collective stories about who we are and where we’re headed are potent elements of our culture, especially during election season, as you may have seen in my recent Scientific American essay and my earlier posts in this blog.  My usual way of classifying these stories is by their “emotional genres,” like Progress, Restoration, and Looming Catastrophe, which refer to the directions of the changes we’re experiencing and the way these changes make us feel.  I described a dozen or so of these genres a few weeks ago, and I used them in my SciAm article.

But here’s another way of classifying the stories about who-we-are-collectively, and that comes from what we think about our status.  Check out this recent blog post by Brian L. Steed. He’s part of the think-and-do tank Narrative Strategies, working with my friend Ajit Maan, an expert in how narratives affect our national security.

In his article, Steed classifies three prevailing American meta-narratives on what we might call an “axis of awesomeness.”  He describes three groups – those convinced that “America is Awesome,” those convinced that America has failed at awesomeness (“1619”), and those who see problems but also a potential for becoming more awesome than we currently are (“I Have a Dream”).  We can think of these groups as two with a “fixed state” mentality and one with a “process” mentality. 

Mentally, fixed states are easiest for us to handle, because once we’ve classified something, we know what there is to know about it and we’re done.  Processes are more complex because we keep having to pay attention, making sure the good things are happening that can support the desired changes and watching out for indicators that things may be going wrong.  It’s just like on the personal level:  Someone might think they’re the greatest thing ever, or they might think there’s some shameful reason that they’re essentially flawed – in either case, they can give up trying to do well (either because whatever they do is by definition fine, or because there’s no point).  Many of us would recognize that people are always works in progress, with good traits and less-good traits, and that what counts is our actions.  It’s the same for countries.

The United States clearly cares deeply about this “axis of awesomeness,” because it was founded on ideals, rather than originating naturally from people living in a certain land for centuries.  This “axis of awesomeness” is another way to think about American “exceptionalism” – that somehow, America is a special case, different from the rest of the world, and not to be held to the same standards because we’re beyond them.

When other people think about their countries, do they also have an “axis of awesomeness”?  Maybe, but for many, their “axis of vulnerability” may be more important, especially if they’re concerned about external threats.  In my post about the Spanish Armada, I talked about how England parlayed its “plucky island nation” story into parallel narratives of awesomeness and vulnerability, with both starting under Elizabeth I. 

One of the most challenging things about the current polarization of the United States is that it’s our very sense of awesomeness that’s become one of our biggest vulnerabilities.  People who are really invested in believing that America is and has always been the Very Best can feel that any criticism of the way we do things (and especially the way our ancestors did things) is taking something precious away from us. 

It can be hard to let go of our Triumph narrative and admit that, just like every other country on the face of this earth, America is a work in progress.  Nevertheless, we are.

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The greatest honor

This week, when I saw that the Nobel Peace Prize had been won by the World Food Program, I confess my first reaction was, “Huh. That’s not as interesting as when an individual wins it,” and I scrolled on to the next news story.  My mistake!  Last night on Facebook, I found my step-brother Steve’s post:

“This award, in effect, is honoring my dad’s work posthumously, who ran the World Food Program in Nepal for seven years and preceding that assignment was second in command in India for three years. Although he died 16 years ago, had he lived to experience this global recognition he would have found it both a surprising and spectacular acknowledgment of the United Nation’s World Food Program’s humanitarian efforts – and of humanity itself – in what is otherwise an often inhumane world. Very proud of you dad!”

Arnold Childs, my step-father, was raised with public service as his highest ideal.  As a young man, he’d studied under the social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, at Continue reading

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The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives

I’m delighted to have my work appear in today’s Scientific American.  Please check it out!

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Our enduring debt to the 300 Spartans

Has it been 2,500 years already?

It was in August or September of 480 B.C. that King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 elite soldiers (with some allies) held off more than 100,000 Persian soldiers for three days at Thermopylae, a narrow mountain pass into the Greek peninsula. Their valiant sacrifice (they eventually fell to a shower of arrows) bought the rest of the Greeks enough time to rally and, supposedly, save Western civilization from disaster before it had even fully gotten started. Hollywood immortalized their story in the 1962 film The 300 Spartans and more recently in 300, a blockbuster with almost half a billion dollars in box office receipts.

Why should we care about Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae?

Is it standing up for freedom? Surely that’s part of the appeal – the Spartans resisted the attempts of Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings, to add Greece to his vast empire. Yet if that were the case, we would be equally dismayed at Alexander’s conquest of Persia and its holdings, about 150 years later, the same empire-expansion story in reverse. In both cases, those of us in the English-speaking world have been taught to take the Greek point of view. It’s “our” side, even though the majority of us have no Greek ancestors at all. Our affinity for Leonidas is more partisan than principled.

King-Leonidas-300-movie-01-1024x662Is it the awe-inspiring Spartans? For some of 300’s fans, especially, this could be true. Its cinematic style certainly glorified the Spartan world – where, ironically, freedom was not valued. Ancient Sparta could serve as a prototype for militaristic fascism. Newborns not meeting government standards were killed, and those who survived weren’t allowed to live with their parents, nor could young married couples live together. Plutarch tells us that once a year, some of the men who had inherited Spartan citizenship were allowed to freely murder any of the vast majority who had not. Adolf Hitler praised Sparta for its eugenics program and bloodline purity, and Spartan training methods inspired the curricula of elite Nazi schools. Sparta is shocking – but of course, that sells movie tickets.

Is it the “saving of Western civilization”? Most likely. In several important ways, classical Athens is a foundation of our modern world. We are indebted to them for the first great philosophers, the roots of Western science, and a political worldview that values input from individuals.

Today, many today are skeptical about the value of Western civilization. However lofty our ideals, we have a poor track record in practice. Europe and the countries established by European colonists have economically exploited virtually all of the rest of the world, and in some cases even destroyed other civilizations in the name of our own cultural superiority. The headlines of America’s newspapers – Black Lives Matter, climate change – still echo the mistakes of the Western world.

socratesI would say that the main value of Thermopylae comes from the life of a man born about ten years later. Socrates, the philosopher later called a “gadfly” by his pupil Plato, taught people to question assumptions, think carefully about the implications of our beliefs, and seek Justice and a higher Good. Late in life, Socrates was arrested and imprisoned (freedom of speech not being a feature of Athenian democracy). He was charged with the crimes of teaching the young people of Athens to think critically about its beliefs and values, that is, “corrupting the minds of the youth” and “failure to acknowledge the gods of the state.” He refused an opportunity to escape and accepted his execution by drinking poison hemlock.

Had the Spartans not held back the Persians at Thermopylae, the entire course of Socrates’ life would have been different. Even if he’d had the same temperament and teachings, he would have found himself protesting the injustices of Persian occupiers, not his very own people. His lessons would have been far less radical.

On the occasion of this extraordinary anniversary, we can reflect that the Spartan victory gave us something we can truly treasure – the example of a man whose life’s work was to interrogate the beliefs of his own people and the actions of his own government. That, I would say, is the real merit of Western civilization, the idea that each and every one of us has the responsibility to question authority and to carefully consider our beliefs and values – even, and especially, when they’re at odds with the examples our leaders set for us.

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