Monday, August 21, 2017

The Power of Ideas and When They Fail

In what many will view as my ongoing efforts to be a pretentious pseudo-intellectual dick, I am now reading Yuval Noah Harari's, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Needless to say it is a fascinating and thought provoking work that essentially states that what sets humanity apart from both its now extinct kinfolk and the rest of the animals is its ability to cooperate in large numbers.

Harari states in the section entitled, "The Legend of Peugeot" (starting at page 28 of my copy) , that biology prevents social animals like chimps and early humans from forming groups larger that about fifty individuals. Anything larger quickly destabilizes and ruptures with the result at best being the splitting of the group, or at worse open warfare until the numbers are reduced to proper limits. If I understand this correctly, biology essentially limited cooperation to groups that were often extended families.

What got Homo sapiens out of this rut was the Cognitive Revolution that occurred about 70,000 years ago. It was at that point Sapiens evolved the ability to gossip, but more importantly imagine abstract, fictional things like gods, empires, nations, money, and even human rights. Yes, even though through our civilized eyes all those things I mentioned are as real to us as the roads we drive our cars or the houses we live, they are all creations that our various groups have agreed upon as facts. I'll admit religion is a long lived sticking point but countless other gods throughout the ages have come and gone and not left any real marker of their supposed existence.

As for the rest, changes in circumstance have easily brought down the most powerful empires and nations sowing chaos in the aftermath. History has shown many times how fortunes can evaporate and that the observance of human rights can be ignored when times get slightly difficult. It was these unseen fictional concepts that allowed larger groups to form bonds of trust which in turn allowed things like the pyramids, grand cathedrals, and now in our times skyscrapers to be built, along with all the other niceties associated with civilization.

I came away from this particular section wondering about the basic concept of the United States. Recent events have shown that a certain segment of our population is fixated on the idea that we are still the same country that was founded back in the late eighteenth century. They chafe at the idea of other cultures, religions, ethnic groups, and many others sharing political and economic power here in America. This not only includes the truly evil spouting Nazi slogans, but those who portray to the world a thin veneer of civility while whining about the death of Western Civilization because northern European men are no longer quite the dominate force they once were.

Literally for all the decades during the Cold War we here in the United States reveled in our shared belief that it was our ideas that set us apart from the godless commies and all those other third world, banana republic countries. We told ourselves that democracy, free enterprise, and a society that embraces liberty would be the deciding factors in our eventual victory over the Soviet Union. During those heady days we welcomes millions of helpless refugee souls telling them that if you shared our ideas that you would be welcome.

When the Soviet Union did fall apart like a badly designed piece of cheap furniture, Americans congratulated themselves on their victory. The trouble though was that success went to our heads far too quickly leaving us vulnerable to the age old human affliction of hubris. A changing global economic landscape and simple technological progress eliminated millions of jobs that had once allowed families to plan a prosperous future.

With times becoming more difficult, instead of holding true to our ideas we have fragmented with conservative traditionalists many times seeking refuge in old hates and ethnic pride. Some have even gone as far as abandoning belief in our democratic principles and liberty by openly admiring the authoritarian thug ruling Russia and even the vile evil our grandparents worked and sacrificed so much to defeat during World War Two. My fellow liberals aren't much better, while they are, relatively speaking, the sane adults in government right now the leadership is deeply entrenched and without a real vision.

I have resisted this idea, but I've come to believe part of the Democrat's problem is that they have become so enamored with “identity politics” they can't see the forest for the trees. Instead of fighting for the entire country they fly off on different crusades that fall flat from exhaustion before any real change can be made. They also have a disturbing habit of vicious infighting with many subgroups always ready to chase third party fantasies or even stay home on election day pouting about not getting their way. It is so self defeating that there is a real chance the 2018 midterm elections will be another defeat for them with the Republicans holding possibly both houses of Congress.

I will admit circumstances are working against the Democrats in the United States Senate with them having more seats up for reelection in the coming midterms than their opponents. And with the House of Representatives heavily gerrymandered in Republican favor taking it is a heavy task. This is even with the orange baboon living in the White House showing us that if we survive his delusional time in office we will have to seriously rethink the old idea that anyone can become president.

Getting back to Yuval Noah Harari book, if ideas are the glue that hold large groups together Americans appear to have an almost suicidal desire to shred ours to the point they aren't practical anymore. We regularly elect people to Congress whose only goal is pass legislation from a strictly partisan point of view. Compromise is forgotten in favor of playing to an increasingly disturbed base that views the “other side” as un-American at best.

The idea of Democracy itself is put into question with a presidential candidate able to win the office without obtaining a majority of the votes because of the electoral college. Yes, I know the reason the Founding Fathers included the electoral college in the Constitution but with two recent presidential contests decided by it with one political party on both occasion going hooray while the other fumes is not good for the country. Just imagine if the Democrats had won either the 2000 or 2016 presidential election by it, the deranged minions on the political right would be threatening civil war even more than they are now if Trump is lawfully impeached and removed from office.

If ideas are the foundation of our country it should be clear to anyone with an IQ over 75 that ours is cracking with many working tirelessly to break it apart even more. What are the answers to solve this truly existential crisis? Personally, I believe everyone is going to have to become better informed and get involved, far too many Americans are ignorant slackers who can't see beyond their own narrow interests. But mainly it is up to the Democrats, with them being the sane adults at this moment somehow they are going to have to pull their collective heads out of their asses and regain the vision that lead to nearly all the real progress this country has seen since FDR took the country out of the Depression and through the worst of the Second World War.

Personally, I have my doubts but history is full of surprises.


MigratingSpirit said...

Humm I have slowly been working my way through several thoughts on why countries are failing (not just the United States of rice crispies). There is more to the idea of humans descending into violence outside of their little "tribe".

Marja said...

I see capitalism as a big culprit of modern day problems. People only care about power and money and not about each other anymore.
First hardship has to happen for people help each other again

Mycue23 said...

As you know, I have my doubts about our ability as a country to pull its shit together. The fact that the country is a sea of red speaks volumes to what we actually want as a country. Complacency, boredom, stupidity, lethargy, etc., is what I see when I really look at it. The left has the numbers, but not the will.

Beach Bum said...

Migrating Spirit: Yeah, this seems to be a worldwide affair with many nation questioning their foundations. To support your idea, one of the points of this essay I left out was that the United States wasn't the only country going through this crisis. After being exposed to Harari's book that maybe our species has reached its limit at cooperation. Harari pointed out that all the now extinct other species of humans like Neanderthal seemed unable to cooperate in groups larger than what was biology allowed.

On the other hand, others have suggested it was climate that forced Sapiens to become civilized. Maybe circumstances will eventually force us to shed our tribalism.

Marja: I see that as well. People only seem to care about money and protecting what's theirs.

Mycue: Yeah, if anyone deserves a larger share of the blame for the country's troubles it's the slackers that do not get involved. Interestingly enough, I read an essay that says while the left controls the culture the right controls the government. An strange situation that is supremely unhealthy.

Pixel Peeper said...

I don't have any answers...or even any smart comments, but it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I hope that a few people who care enough will get elected and work together with the "other side" to make a positive difference.

Interesting theory about the groups larger than fifty people or so...

sage said...

Sounds like an interesting book. We do live in a dangerous time and I think you're right about the electoral college--had Gore won the electoral vote in 2000, the Republicans may have thrown a fit. I remember it even being discussed how they would have challenged the election--Gore shown himself to be a better man by not doing so and thereby not tearing the nation apart.

Unknown said...

Interesting theory about the groups larger than fifty people or so...