The Chasm

on May 21, 2014

Every entry here since the first of the year has been directed towards resolving a single problem — but I’ve started feeling lately that I’m losing focus and need to pause and take stock.

I began with what seemed like two simple assumptions. First, that much of today’s world is the product of certain far-reaching cultural changes that occurred in the 1940s. Second, that science fiction and SF fandom were strangely central to those changes.

As soon as I began to unpack these assumptions, however, I found myself wrestling with the nature of the deep, mystical current that I’ve described as the underground stream. And at every step since, what I thought would be a simple undertaking has become increasingly complex, to the point where it seems necessary to step back and gain a broader perspective.

The best starting place may be with the deep philosophical chasm that currently runs through the heart of American society. It’s generally described as a split between conservatives and liberals, but it’s better perceived as a division between those who fear change and those who embrace it.

The roots of that split go back to the early 1940s, when a major shift in attitudes and alignments was being forged in the crucible of World War II. The right was busy dissociating itself from fascism, the left was putting distance between itself and communism, and both groups were adjusting to the prospect of a postwar world in which the United States would be a dominant global power.

In terms of the theory of history as a succession of visions of the nature of reality that I’ve been developing here, the early 40s were a time when older visions were being either abandoned or radically reformulated and newer ones were taking on definition and influence. That partially explains why what happened then has continued to play out in our society for the last seventy years, forming a single, interconnected narrative that may finally be coming to a climax.

The current status of that narrative can be illustrated by two very different demonstrations that recently took place on the National Mall. The first occurred two weeks ago, when the Cowboy Indian Alliance brought their horses and tipis to Washington to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline.

That was a symbolically powerful event, one that displayed deep mythic resonance. The antagonism between settlers and Indians is tightly woven into American history, and for this long-lasting duality to be resolved by a conjunction of opposites in the face of a common enemy is not only satisfying in story terms but has the potential to release long-buried cultural energies.

What particularly interests me, though, is that this groundbreaking alliance is explicitly founded on a harmonious blending of what are presently the three youngest visions — holism, horizontalism, and creative imagination.

As described in an article at Popular Resistance, “The environmental movement has long come under criticism for being led by the so-called Big Greens — largely white, middle class membership groups whose interests don’t often represent those actually living in the frontline communities where the pipeline will be built. But the coalition of cowboys and Indians offers a radical departure from this history. Moreover, it is a model of relationship-based organizing, rooted in a kind of spirituality often absent from the progressive world, and — given the role of indigenous leaders — begins to address the violence of colonization in a meaningful way. It may be that these so-called unlikely alliances offer the only chance of forging a movement strong and diverse enough to challenge a continent’s deeply entrenched dependence on fossil fuels.”

The opposition to the pipeline on environmental grounds reflects the holism vision — a perception of all life as interconnected that has been gradually developing since the 1800s. The grassroots nature of the protest and its ability to ally former enemies grow out of the horizontalism vision, a paradigm of social organization along peer-to-peer rather than top-down lines that dates to the early 20th century. And the appeal to indigenous spirituality draws in the creative imagination vision, which attempts to define the human mind in terms of its most profound mysteries.

The creative imagination vision is the youngest of the three. It attained a distinct identity as recently as the 1970s, and its earliest roots go back only to the 1940s. Because it has not yet been worn down by compromises with worldly interests, it is also the purest and most selfless and the best able to provide an element of profound seriousness and respect. It ensures that a protest movement which might have been dominated by violence and a thirst for vengeance has instead taken on a role as guardian of our planetary heritage.

The dignity of the Cowboy Indian Alliance also stands in extreme contrast to the several dozen demonstrators who showed up on the Mall a week later under the name of Operation American Spring. They had called for ten million of their fellow citizens to join them in overthrowing the elected government of the United States and restoring the Constitution, but when that failed to materialize they stood around in the rain for a couple of hours and then went home.

To the extent that this abortive uprising had any intellectual basis, it was founded on the two older visions that have dominated our society for the last several decades but are now in decline. One is the democracy vision, which inspired the nation during the vast struggle of World War II but has not kept up with changing circumstances and is currently in an advanced state of inability to cope. The other is the chaos vision, which began in the 18th century with a perception of the human mind as fundamentally irrational and has in its latter days evolved into a philosophy of unbridled individualism.

The combination of those two aging visions partially explains the kind of muddled thinking it takes to call for destroying democracy in order to save it. However, there was also something else going on at both these protests, something stranger and more passionate that cannot be explained simply in terms of competing philosophies — because it is deeper than philosophy itself.

Most of the time, we humans deal with our lives on the basis of a surprisingly small number of fundamental premises about the nature of reality. That’s what each of the visions is — a streamlined and rationalized view of existence that temporarily provides an adequate paradigm for making our way through the world.

But every one of these visions eventually wears thin, becomes overly rational, and starts to lose touch with the raw, unmediated substructure of reality. When that happens, broad cracks appear in the facade of conventional belief — and a few receptive individuals are able to reach out into the abyss, grab a handful of infinite possibility, and whittle it into a new vision of being.

That was what happened in the 1940s, when a handful of science fiction writers — along with a scattering of artists, musicians, and other highly creative individuals — began to entertain radical alternatives to the ideas that had shaped the 19th and early 20th centuries.

They started to doubt the absolute validity of physical laws. They dreamed of systems of government that would do better than the haphazard institutions of representative democracy at promoting genuine freedom and equality. And they toyed with the notion that the human mind, far from being a cosmic orphan, might have deep connections with the fundamental nature of reality itself.

Those dreams of seventy years ago are at the root of whatever is best and most promising in our society today.

But when the protective shell of ordinary reality breaks open to reveal the temporary and precarious nature of our familiar world, it’s more than some people can handle. Most of them simply blot the knowledge out and carry on with business as usual. But others take it as an existential threat to everything they hold dear. They become angry or depressed — or turn paranoid and go hunting for scapegoats to blame for the social and moral decay they see all around them.

That style of paranoia broke out strongly after World War II, when the prospect of a genuinely different world appeared to be in sight, and it has never truly ended. The McCarthyite witch-hunts of the late 40s and early 50s were its product So were the John Birch Society and the Dr. Strangelove-style crazy generals of the late 50s and early 60s. And so were the people who invented the “homosexual agenda” in the 1980s and New World Order conspiracy theories in the 1990s.

At the present moment, our national discourse has been hijacked by people whose primary objective is to ward off any hint of change, whether in science, society, or personal behavior. They deny evolution and global warming, insist that the America they once knew would still exist if they could just get rid of the immigrants and other troublemakers, and go into hysterics over the unacceptable freedoms of same-sex marriage and abortion.

In other words, the Operation American Spring folks are not just displaying a lingering attachment to a couple of aging visions of reality. In their own minds, the country is teetering on the brink of annihilation and no action is too extreme to pull it back to safety.

The ironic part is that their perception is correct to a degree — but the abyss they fear is the same abyss that holds out a promise of creative renewal to those who can view it without panic.

And it’s these two interlocking factors — the birth of new visions out of the abyss and the range of subsequent reactions to them — that make up the story I’ve been trying to tell.

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