Keep it real.
The chastened idealist is Mark Satin of Radical Middle, a former Vietnam war resister who fled to Canada and returned in Jimmy Carter's amnesty to write New Age Politics, his 1970s Vision for a Better World. But he stands for so many of us who have since fallen in humbled love with the real world -- this messy, cruel, greedy place, with its complex cross-currents, its bass line of self-interest, its mulish resistance to messianic perfectionism, and its unforced, unexpected gifts. It's all we've really got, and it has deep, salty veins of perverse wisdom that you can work with if you don't assume you know best.
That's the message of Satin's review of one of today's premier messianic idealists: antiglobalist David Korten, author of The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. Korten's book embodies the powerfully seductive appeal of an idealistic vision of Earth as a cooperative, communal, ecologically wise paradise. Satin is particularly alert to the totalitarian impulse that incubates inside any kind of knowing-best, including most insidiously the meaning-well kind; he reminds us that in the 20th century, tens of millions died for such idealistic visions, warped through the prism of human nature. Satin is eminently qualified to gently rebuke Korten, because he used to be Korten.
[T]he Empire / Earth Community dichotomy (as well as [ ... ] my old Prison-bound / Prison-free dichotomy) [ ... ] posits a world that’s separate from -- and qualitatively better than -- the world we actually live in.
That is not a charming fantasy but a dangerous one. First of all, it encourages alienation from the real world -- the last thing we need now [...]
And second of all, the 20th century is littered with the bodies of millions of people who died resisting “holistic” ideologies that proclaimed that a New Day was coming for Humanity. Surely one lesson of that experience is that 21st century political activists should be more modest and more realistic in their claims.
Korten himself is an exponent of nonviolence. But who knows what effect his incendiary, black-and-white vision will have on less fastidious social actors.
I do not long for the ideal world of Korten’s Earth Community (or of my own Prison-Free Society, much as I loved designing it). I am sure it would not be ideal for most of us, in part because people’s priorities inevitably differ -- note Korten’s glib privileging of the “rights of all” over the “rights of the self,” an endlessly complex issue, as any good communitarian thinker can tell you [ ... ]
But though I can do without the notion of Earth Community, I would very much like to see activists and other publics buy into Isaiah Berlin’s claim that “The first public obligation is to avoid extremes of suffering.”
Moreover, I suspect that if most of us could be persuaded to adopt and act on Berlin’s admittedly “reformist” claim, then out of the process of that could come a world that might have little in common with Korten's ideal world, but would be one where people of conscience could hold their heads high.
Alas, “even” that will be no small task.
This is a very new language for activism. I like its taste; I'm drawn to it like a salt lick, while visions of a better world now seem cloying, sweetened with Splenda. Satin notes that Korten sets up a hierarchy of values in which, inevitably, "we" are at the top:
He claims, for example, that “Those who lead an examined life grounded in a mature worldview [i.e., those of us carrying Cultural or Spiritual Consciousness] have no interest in acquiring arbitrary power.” Hello?!? Anyone who’s participated in the political movements of the last four decades will have run across many activists of the Cultural or Spiritual persuasion who are as manipulative, competitive, excluding, or power hungry as they come!
Unfortunately for scholarly elegance, there appears to be little or no real-world correspondence between so-called higher consciousness and such necessary political (and human) traits as self-awareness and human decency.
Satin next blows the "God or not?" argument out of the water by saying that he doesn't care if people get their decency and humility from God, Darwin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the drinking water, as long as they get it. He observes quite accurately that there is no essential correlation between people's particular belief systems, or lack thereof, and their good or bad behavior.
One other problem with Korten’s orders of consciousness (as well as with my stages of self-development) is that the highest stage is labeled spiritual. Surely in the year 2006 there is nothing to gain by implying that spirituality -- however loosely defined -- is a precondition for what Korten describes as a “mature worldview.” I’ll take true maturity from people any way they can come up with it, whether it’s by Findhorn-like belief in sprites or by Bertrand Russell-like belief in pure reason. [ ... ]
True, as Korten points out, one-eyed materialists can be greedy, and traditional religious people can be too other-worldly. But so can any human being! None of the worldviews and no combination of worldviews guarantees that a person won’t be greedy or other-worldly (or depressed or dishonest or . . . ). [ ... ]
All the ways of knowing, and all the combinations of ways, have their vices.
And Satin makes short work of the myth that there was some garden we've got to get back to -- a cooperative, nurturing, matriarchal golden age:
It is undeniable that social classes became more pronounced and that wealth became more concentrated as society became more complex, more urban, and more sophisticated, but I’d infinitely rather be an ordinary person today than 5000 years ago, and so, I suspect, would most of the rest of us.
The dream of restoring local, land-based, self-sustaining communities is another powerfully appealing part of Korten's vision. The trouble is, Satin says, that a nostalgic dream is what it is. It just ain't happening:
Although it is important for us to care about the communities we live in, I detect very little desire among people to return to a sort of 1820s, community-centric lifestyle.
The trend seems to be in the opposite direction: toward living in many places over the course of one’s lifetime, toward identifying less with one’s neighbors and more with one’s interest groups (much hastened by the Internet) and occupational peers (much hastened by regional and national conferences), etc.
I think it is important for activists to respect people’s fundamental life choices, and not try to browbeat them into becoming the sorts of people one might prefer them to be.
Satin ends with a plea not to withdraw into purist enclaves but -- yes, it would have been heresy 30 years ago -- to plunge into the impure rough-and-tumble of "the System":
American society has never been so open to innovative new energies as it is right now. Mainstream institutions (including corporations and the professions) not only need innovative new energies but are actively seeking them.
Although Korten chooses not to even raise this issue, all the ideas he presents in The Great Turning were present in the activist community 30 years ago [ ... ] Why did those ideas not spread further than they did back then? Was it really because of the strength of "Empire"? Or was it because Americans do not respond readily to a hyper-idealistic political movement that sets itself above and apart?
It seems to me that this is exactly the wrong time to preach alienation from mainstream culture and institutions. Good and caring people should be contributing to that culture, moving into those institutions; not resignedly, but with all our creativity and strength.
I have never seen a better statement of what centrism is all about.