Concerning the stupidity of towers and the wisdom of Americans

[A friend recommended an article in the Atlantic titled “Why the past 10 years of American Life have been uniquely stupid – It’s not just a phase.”  Comparisons are drawn between the Tower of Babel and towering institutions today.  It got me thinking and here is where my understanding of democracy and civic discourse differs from that of the author. Quotes are from the article.]

The problem is not in the falling of Babel or the failings of Facebook; the problem with democracy is in the building of towers, erecting centralized power that can easily topple.  Ask Standard Oil, untoppable until it fell.

Come on, seriously, “. . . so let’s hold that dramatic image in our minds: people wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.” (Following the fall of the Tower).

While Ukraine is burning, citizens in and outside Ukraine (and geeks worldwide) are using the internet to rapidly follow up on every Russian fake video, every lie, with what happened or how the lie was constructed.  Truth is hogtying power and putting it to rest like never before.

“Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.”

Since 2000, social scientists identify two major forces that bind together successful democracies: extensive respectful dialogues that take time with shared stories, shared language, and customs. Strong institutions and strong democracies rarely go together.  The winnowing of the field to one towering institution is the problem. Similar problems would arise if all churches became one, or pubs and bowling alleys became one.  This is because towers are built one on top of another.  Democracy should connect and spread laterally, more like slime mold or brain neurons.  A system with redundancies rather than a monolith.

“Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones, so you could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being “one people,” and we had effectively overcome the curse of division by language. For techno-democratic optimists, it seemed to be only the beginning of what humanity could do.” (or is it undo?)

The “curse of division by language” is only suffered by the guy in charge because most of his subjects can’t understand (and they must obey).  We don’t want to become “one people.”  Diversity is the spice of life.  Multiple perspectives are what makes life interesting.  We say and do unexpected things, may be more adaptive to new situations, and diversity means we are more difficult to fool and control.

“The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day.”

The problem is not with who is in office, the problem is with the decisions being made. Leaders should be held accountable for their decision and not given carte blanche until election reckoning.  Madison’s “twitchy and explosive spread of anger” follows moments (decisions) that were manic – more impulsive, less well informed.  “Give leaders some insulation” from whom? What kind of democracy has leaders insulated from the demos and answerable to someone else? (I think I’ll hold off on the Atlantic subscription.)

The Enlightenment came to Europeans during the sixteenth century when they discovered Native American practicing democracy.  Colonists captured by native Americans often did not want to return to life in a village with arbitrary rules and capital punishments.  To slow things down, cool passions required to reach consensus, tobacco was distributed to all at the meeting – no longer used just by the Medicine man for visions.  Rousseau’s noble savage was living the good life while Europeans toiled for the ones on top and took the lash whenever hesitating.  Today Lady Liberty stands on top of the nation’s Capitol in Washington looking East wearing stars and an Iroquois headdress.

“The dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority.” This is just as true today as it was for Jefferson and Adams feuding in printed pamphlets centuries ago. Blame the political discourse, not the messenger.

I recommend paying attention to the locale that you know best, where you can effect the most change. Listen before forming an opinion, avoid judging others because you’ll never know all that they are dealing with. What is clear to you, may appear very different to others. Broaden your perspective. Know you need not agree with or understand everything.  Don’t get angry, that’ll only hurt yourself with increased blood pressure and stress.  Breathe deeply and let some mysteries be.

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