Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2008, Part II: Hold On Tight To Your Dream

-- by Sara

One of the things we've learned about eras of transformative change is that the people and groups that navigate them with verve and style -- and ultimately come through them in better places than they started -- are, in every case, those that hold tight a coherent worldview that keeps them together and moving in the same direction. This worldview usually contains:

-- a strong common history and culture that gives their actions meaning
-- a broad yet clearly detailed vision of the bold new future they're working for
-- a set of values, usually transmitted through history, family, community, and religion, that fosters mutual trust and understanding and guides them in setting goals and priorities
-- a sure sense of their own unique mission and purpose in the world that provides their essential reason for being.

As long as that core vision holds -- as long as people in the group remember who they are and what they're about -- individuals, families, communities, organizations and nations can make and re-make themselves over and over, re-defining themselves to adapt to whatever comes. Leaders come and go. Generations die off and are replaced. Invaders can take away every damn asset they have, sack their cities, pillage their homes, kill their cattle and salt their fields -- but as long as their ability to create collective meaning and purpose remains intact, that internal vision gives them everything they need to regroup, rebuild, and carry on.

And, conversely -- once they lose that shared worldview and purpose, cultures lose their ability to make any sense out of the world, and dissolve into incoherence. It is, in the end, how they die. As an example, consider the Plains tribes: the buffalo were so central to their culture that when they were gone, many tribes literally lost their ability to order their days, assign significance to their experiences, and define their relationship to each other and the world. Their ability to make any kind of sense of reality died with the buffalo. As Crow chief Plenty Coups put it, "After that, nothing happened."

Of course, things actually did happen. But for the Crow, these events simply stopped having any meaning. There was no context, no way to explain things, no purpose to anything, and no reason to continue on as a people. In the end, this loss of cultural coherence was the real fatal blow for many Native American tribes. Those that were able to salvage some of the fragments and reconstruct their identity around other values (as the Crow did under Plenty Coups' leadership in the 1920s) are the ones that still exist. The ones that couldn't were lost to history.

It's natural, staring into that abyss that's now falling away in the place where our center used to be, for us to ask hard questions about who we are, how we're living, what we should be doing differently, and what we really want for our children. In a healthy culture, the answers and the new solutions will come straight out of the context provided by that common worldview. The material, political, economic, and technological world around us is about to undergo massive and necessary changes. But whatever new thing we end up with, if some recognizable piece of our best underlying American spirit and values still shine right through, it'll be proof that we probably got it right.

The bad news is: we're not doing so well on this front these days. Decades of conservative contempt for shared American values, strong communities, and the common good has left our sense of collective destiny and common purpose in tatters -- just at the moment when we're about to rely on it most. They've rewritten our history, muted our media, squandered our dominance in technology and science, replaced the rule of law with the rule of men, and co-opted government to the point where it can no longer effectively address our future. All these assets were a sort of national trust fund that generations of Americans paid into, specifically so we'd have resources to fall back during times of challenge and change. Like every other American legacy left to us, the modern Republicans have spent it, quite literally, as if there was no tomorrow.

And worse: they almost certainly did it on purpose. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein lays out the events through which conservatives learned how to deliberately undermine other countries' ability to fall back on their common cultural resources to regroup and recover. "Shock and awe" techniques are intentionally designed to cut people loose from these solid moorings. Since no one can articulate shared values, set community priorities, or identify the common good amid all the free-floating chaos that these techniques foment, well-prepared corporate opportunists are able to rush into the void and fill it with a new order of their own design. They destroy cultures on purpose, in order to steal people's futures right out from under them. "After that, nothing happened" -- unless the new overlords wanted it to.

It turns out that the same people who've been bringing corporate-engineered chaos to the Middle East have been busy in the homeland, too. They've spent 30 years quite deliberately undermining all the best, most noble stories Americans have always told themselves about why our nation exists, what its highest ideals are, and what we owe each other as citizens. They've purposefully taught us to mistrust each other and our leaders, making democratic government dysfunctional and often impossible. They've rewritten history so that we can't even agree on its lessons or rely on its judgments any more. They've driven wedges between races, genders, classes, religions, and political parties that have left most of us not speaking to most of the rest of us.

It's not the total-war blitz of "shock and awe;" but over time, the corrosive effects are the same: the right wing has intentionally weakened the bonds of shared vision and mutual trust that have held Americans together for 220 years, and that were meant to hold us together through future eras of transformative change. And they did it on purpose, so they could conquer America, subdue her people, steal our futures, and divide the spoils for themselves.

Let me be blunt here: we're not going to make it through the vast changes looming ahead of us unless and until we can undo the damage done on this one essential front. Our only hope of surviving and thriving through what lies ahead is to create, promote, and unite behind one vivid, detailed, inspiring vision of the America we want to become, and the new society we want to create -- and then find enough common ground to stand on so we can pull together and lay the foundations for the new center, the core of a new era.

When everything else is gone around us, that vision and that trust will be the only things left to sustain us. If they're big, deep, and inspiring enough, they'll also be all we really need.

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