What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending. –William Dean Howells
What the American public is going to get is a tragedy with a tragic ending. We Americans are adept at faking happiness but the real thing always seems to elude us. Journalist David Brooks has spent a portion of his career struggling to understand various aspects of American self-destructive behaviors. He remains puzzled and frustrated.
We cannot blame Mr. Brooks for failing to grasp the causes of America’s dilemma which in fact is a worldwide problem. Some of the world’s deepest thinkers in the realm of philosophy have had no greater success in understanding why human pain and suffering is so intractable. In previous essays, we have had encounters with Mr. Brooks and below we continue our imagined conversations. Most of Mr. Brook’s portion of our conversation is from a column he wrote in The New York Times dated March 23, 2018 and are indicated in italics. (1)
Me: Hello David, nice to see you again. If I may say so, you seem a little agitated.
Him: I’m a columnist and I’m supposed to come to a conclusion, but I’m confused.
Me: Sorry to hear that. May I offer my condolences because your pain is palpable and I am are sure that both of us will benefit as we always have by sharing our thoughts. These are trying times in America.
Him: The epistemological foundation of our system is in surprisingly radical flux.
Me: I am beginning to see in your opening remark what might be part of the problem that you have been dealing with throughout your career as news analyst and commentator.
Him: And what might that be?
Me: Some of us “head-types” can be pedantic. By that I mean we can be not only unimaginative, stodgy and dull but out of touch with our more insightful intuition. I am confident that in our exchange we can arrive at an untypically profound understanding of the current human condition beyond what conventional “reason” or “knowledge” can ever afford. So let’s continue.
Him: If you go back to the intellectuals of the 1950s, you get the impression that they thought individuals could very much determine their own beliefs. People like Hannah Arendt and Irving Howe believed that if you stood alone and researched carefully and hard, you could transcend your own background and render independent and objective judgments about society.
Me: Since all of us are born into an ongoing mega-narrative and in effect are “brainwashed” with the beliefs, attitudes and values of that story, which I call Paradigm B (P-B), there is almost no chance for most of us to arrive at “independent and objective judgments about society.” We would have to take a stand against our parents, peers, teachers, religion and all of the other institutions of our society. This is virtually impossible without an alternative story to support our stance which I call Paradigm A (P-A). More about that later. Please continue.
Him: Busy fighting communism and fascism, people back then emphasized individual reason and were deeply allergic to groupthink.
Me: You are prone to making facile conclusions which don’t hold up under rational examination. I just made the point that virtually all of humanity is engaged in “groupthink” which we call P-B. This reality is fundamental to understanding all human problems today.
Him: I’m searching for a line here, a distinction. Under what circumstances should we embrace the idea that collective identity shapes our thinking? Under what circumstances should we resist collective identity and insist on the primacy of individual discretion, and our common humanity?
Me: Bravo David! You just had a profound insight with those two questions. First, our worldview determines our identity both collectively and as individuals. Since P-B is based on the illusion that we are alienated from nature and each other, our identity is that of a fear-driven and powerless creature in a hostile universe. Your insight that our “collective identity shapes our thinking” is crucial to changing our collective identity which is a prerequisite to beginning to modify our self-destructive human behavior. We must resist succumbing to the mass hypnosis of P-B and seek a new and wholesome narrative which will support a new identity, that of our True self.
Secondly, we can and should resist the illusion of the collective identity (the false self in P-B), those beliefs, attitudes and values that we have been conditioned to accept as reality. We will then realize that we have the freedom of choice, “the primacy of individual discretion.” We are not at the mercy of the past, or of previous convictions, unless we believe that we are. If we can learn to respond rather than react to the resplendent life we have been given on this planet we will find that we can create our own reality and in doing so we also experience the Oneness of all of Creation and feel compassion for ourselves, humanity and indeed Creation itself.
Him: Our political system is based on the idea that persuasion and deliberation lead to compromise and toward truth.
Me: The reality of our political system (a P-B institution) is that men and women enamored of the illusion of power find that their false self will make compromise difficult and the truth beyond their comprehension.
Him: The basis of human dignity is our capacity to make up our own minds.
Me: Dignity is worthless without the ability to distinguish poor decisions (false-self reactions) from wise decisions (True-self responses). An unconscious decision-maker resembles a lifeless zombie.
Him: Our whole education system is based on the idea that we train individuals to be critical thinkers.
Me: Recognizing that our “education system” is our entire community and its institutions, all influencing the beliefs, attitudes and values of our people, then we can see that the American worldview severely limits the quality of “critical thinking” in the U.S. For example we have yet as a community to comprehend why people behave the way they do, behavior that disappoints us both. A person’s or community’s worldview determines identity and identity in turn drives behavior. Without a radical transformation of the American worldview, we cannot expect the self-destructive behavior of Americans to change.
Him: Well, as usual, we don’t agree on what constitutes reality but our exchanges certainly offer food for thought.
Me: Indeed they do! Thank you David.
Insight # 28: We are not at the mercy of the past, or of previous convictions, unless we believe that we are.
- See Belief in The ABC’s of Simple Reality, in print and also found on this blog, by Roy Charles Henry, 2018.
- Brooks, David. “Speaking as a White Male …” The New York Times. March 23, 2018.