Posts Tagged ‘multiculturalism vision’

I’ve been trying to figure out why the idea of a flourishing human community in the Middle East some 125,000-80,000 years ago strikes me as such a big deal. And I’ve realized that it has to do with the emerging multiculturalism and creative imagination visions that I’ve been discussing in recent entries.

When I studied archaeology in college in the middle 60’s, Eurocentric attitudes were still taken for granted, and it was assumed almost without question that modern humans had evolved in Europe from Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago and had set out from there to conquer the world.

The only alternative theory — based on the new technique of carbon-14 dating — was that the point of origin might lie in Israel, where skeletons had been found that were too old to date using C14 and which must therefore go back more than 45,000 years. But even that argument was accompanied by a disclaimer that those early Middle Easterners had still been using the same Middle Paleolithic tools as their Neanderthal neighbors and didn’t arrive at the full glory of Upper Paleolithic culture until they reached Europe.

Along with this tendency to put western Europe at the center of the human story went an unfailingly contemptuous attitude towards the rest of the world. Grahame Clarke’s World Prehistory (1961), which was our chief text for the course, states without hesitation that “The Advanced Palaeolithic cultures … were confined to the more northerly parts of the Old World. … Most of Africa, India and southeast Asia were henceforward by-passed by the main currents of creative change throughout the remainder of prehistoric times.”

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The story I’ve been telling for the past year is almost up to the present day, and I’m starting to think longingly of getting back to the Paleolithic. But there are still a few points left to cover.

There’s not a lot to be said about the period from 1993 to 2008. I see those years as equivalent to 1950-63, when the science-and-democracy partnership was at its peak of unchallenged dominance and chaos and holism were developing slowly at the margins.

In much the same way, democracy-and-chaos has been in the driver’s seat until just recently. The Clinton years brought us an emphasis on the touchy-feeliness of the domesticated chaos vision. The Bush years featured a late-stage, repressive, we-had-to-destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it obsession with democracy.

But the financial meltdown of 2008-2009 has brought the democracy-and-chaos partnership to a state of collapse. Democracy has become a hollow shell, and chaos is floundering without the steady hand of democracy to channel its hyper-individualism. Only the Tea Partiers, who pride themselves on their contempt for both government and the common good, appear to be fully in touch with the moment.

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There’s much more going on during a romantic break, of course, than simply a new “shadow” vision popping up to reject the dominant partnership. The same spirit of opposition also infuses the emergent visions, provoking them to bring forth dreams of utopian alternatives to the existing order of things.

It seems as though every dominant partnership makes its most significant contributions during its initial phase, when it is focused on basic problem-solving. But as it shifts from innovation to consolidation, a kind of ruthless pragmatism takes over. That shift is what provokes the distinctive mixture of cynicism and frustrated idealism that marks the romantic break.

The science-and-democracy partnership, for example, was at its best during the New Deal years of the middle and late 1930’s — but with the onset of World War II, this period of social reform came to an end. Democratic freedoms became the stuff of wartime propaganda even as they were being suspended for the duration. By the end of the war, the United States and its allies had adopted policies, such as the bombing of civilians, that would have to be considered war crimes by any objective standard.

The equivalent moral breakdown for the democracy-and-chaos partnership occurred between about 1984 and 1987. It was marked by the Reagan administration’s illegal arming of the Contras, the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-86, the savings and loan scandal, and the “greed is good” mentality skewered in the 1987 film Wall Street.

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A few months ago, I wrote about how each dominant partnership gives rise to a philosophy that attempts to explain all aspects of existence in terms derived from its two member visions.

In that entry, I focused on the philosophy of science-and-democracy, whose core belief was that everything in existence could be reduced to simple universal laws like those of physics, and I identified Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories as an epitomal early example.

I also suggested in passing that the philosophy of democracy-and-chaos, which arose in the 1980’s, was structured around a belief that “the democratic model of dynamic interactions among different interest groups” provided a better basis for understanding the universe than the mathematical formulas of science.

Since then, however, I’ve realized that I was mistaken — if only because any model based on “dynamic interactions” has to be an aspect of multiculturalism. The actual philosophy of democracy-and-chaos is both simpler and broader, and the best way I know to explain it starts with the Foundation stories.

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Every vision encounters a pivotal moment early in its development when it helps midwife the birth of the vision immediately following it and in the process becomes able to shake off the influence of earlier visions and discover its own true shape and purpose.

For holism, that moment came between about 1936 and 1939. Multiculturalism was born in those years as an extension of the holistic understanding of the natural world to human society, and in return it provided holism with the means to move beyond its original philosophical and scientific roots and become a complete vision of existence.

The proto-holism of the 1920’s and early 30’s was deeply concerned with abstract questions of matter, life, and mind, but it didn’t have much relevance to everyday life. It took the social ideals of multiculturalism to reinvent a holism that did not merely dream of getting back to nature but was ready to provide blueprints for how human beings might live in a more organic relationship to one another and to their environment.

That unsuccessful Frank Lloyd Wright project of 1939, in which seven unique houses were related organically to each other and to a central farming area, was one such blueprint. But there have been others since — all of them showing a strong family resemblance — as holism and multiculturalism have continued to develop and mature together.

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It often appears that once your attention is drawn to something, you start to see it everywhere. No sooner had I finished writing about the rat brain story earlier today than I found myself reading a Washington Post story about the notorious message board 4chan — which turns out to reflect many of the same organizational principles.

Created seven years ago by a 15-year-old, 4chan is a vast web of anonymous, uncensored message boards. No one’s in charge, but the site’s users have managed to pull off some of the highest-profile collective actions in the history of the Internet. …

The 4chan “hive mind” has been credited with — or blamed for, depending on your perspective — urging tween idol Justin Bieber to head for North Korea as part of his upcoming world tour (as part of an online poll allowing fans to select which country he should visit), spreading a story that Steve Jobs had a heart attack (which caused Apple’s stock to fall precipitously) and starting a rumor that there was a bomb at New York’s JFK airport (triggering an evacuation). …

How 4chan — a site built for fun by a teenager that barely ekes out a profit from online ads — manages over and over again to outwit the systems that multibillion-dollar corporations use to make money on the Internet is one of the great mysteries of the capricious online world.

“The community self-organizes, decides on goals and achieves them in an ad hoc, undirected manner,” said [Joshua] Schachter, who invented the social bookmarking tool called Delicious. “I see it like the financial markets — sort of chaotic. It’s hard to understand, but incredibly vital to understanding out how people operate together on very, very large scales.” …

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As each socially-based vision develops and broadens in scope, the abstract model that it offers for society comes to be applied to other areas as well.

Case in point: Three days ago, I put up an entry suggesting that the “inverted pyramid” model underlying the democracy vision — in which authority comes from the base but power is still exerted from the top down — is giving way to a multiculturalism-derived model of society as a flexible network of relationships with no center of control.

Today, I find an article at Science Daily saying exactly the same thing — but with respect to a new study of brain organization in rats:

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As we plow our way through this hot and dismal summer of 2010, the democracy vision is collapsing about our ears.

It’s not so much that we’ve ceased to believe in the core values of democracy as that we’ve grown disillusioned with the ability of our supposedly democratic system to uphold those values. By almost any measure, we Americans are less free and equal now than we were a generation ago, and have far less control over our own government.

At the same time, our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have undercut our faith that Western-style democracy is a universal human norm which can be exported as easily as blue jeans and Coca-Cola. Perhaps the clearest lesson of those two misbegotten wars is that a system of free elections and majority rule — though adequate to resolve the minor differences of opinion that arise in a relatively homogeneous society — only creates turmoil when applied to the power struggles of well-organized and heavily armed minorities.

Even worse, that same kind of turmoil could lie in the future of the United States — where our increasing cultural diversity is already giving rise to seemingly irreconcilable tensions — unless we can develop a more flexible way of operating.

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During the course of the mid-20th century, the holism vision moved through a series of developmental stages. It first gained visibility in the 1920’s as a somewhat fuzzy attempt to formulate a philosophical alternative to scientific reductionism. In the 1930’s, it developed a theoretical framework in the form of systems theory, which provided the basis for both ecology and cybernetics. And in the late 40’s and early 50’s, it started taking on political overtones as a critique of modern industrial civilization.

Throughout that period, aspects of holistic thought found their way into the work of artists, writers, and philosophers, from M.C. Escher and J.R.R. Tolkien to Buckminster Fuller and Rachel Carson. And by the 1960’s, these intimations of a universe that was far more integrated and meaningful than the old universe of scientific materialism were starting to exert a formative influence on a new generation of story-tellers and musicians.

But even in the middle 60’s, holism was not yet perceived as a single thing, and though it formed an essential element in the chaos-based counterculture that emerged in 1964-65, it was not the primary element. The leading members of that counterculture were dedicated to the pursuit of chaos, but no one had yet dedicated themself wholeheartedly to holism as a way of life and determined to follow wherever it might lead.

The first true acolyte of holism was a man named Stewart Brand. And it came upon him quite suddenly.

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I’ve covered most of the major changes of the 1960’s by now, with one glaring exception — and that is what became of the democracy vision between the collapse of the science-and-democracy partnership in 1964-65 and the formation of the democracy-and-chaos partnership around 1976.

Frankly, I’ve been kind of baffled on that point. I’d assumed for years that the moment democracy was freed from the embrace of the science vision, it began to move closer to chaos, recovering much of its original authenticity and idealism in the process. But when I started looking for actual signs of such a renewal, I realized that was not what had happened at all.

Instead of being renewed in the late 60’s, it seems that the democracy vision became increasingly stuck in place. The presidential election of 1968, for example, was fought out between the old-school liberalism of Hubert Humphrey and the old-school conservatism of Richard Nixon — both of whom seemed determined to pretend that science-and-democracy was still a going concern. Meanwhile, the hippies and anti-war protesters just stood on the sidelines, watching the trainwreck.

I finally concluded that as soon as the science-and-democracy partnership collapsed, confidence in democracy all but evaporated as well. It was this near-total breakdown of both halves of the dominant partnership that made the late 60’s so liberating for some and so threatening for others.

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