home political and economic essays Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors, Part 3

Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

by David Brin, Ph.D.

Listen to most Americans, from liberal to conservative, when they declaim their political foes. More often than not, they will speak in terms of how much power the other bastards are trying to accumulate.

Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

the grand American consensus

In Part Two, we covered a short list of unconventional questions designed to avoid the stereotyped totems of typical political argument, and instead dive much deeper, to explore root attitudes. There we discussed how the old tussle between Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke continues to our day. Neoconservatives, in appealing for a return to aristocratic rule, appeal to Hobbesean images of sinful human nature needing continuous control by elites. Libertarians and classical Marxists appear to believe — as Rousseau did — in a natural state of human freedom that awaits only the removal of artificial impediments, like the state. A third perspective holds to the notion of Locke, that gradual maturation may take place with increasing wealth and education, gradually evolving from a society of implicit social contracts to one where fully sovereign individuals negotiate explicit contracts with society.

(For an extensive exploration of this kind of assumption-checking, try taking "An Informal Questionnaire Regarding Certain 'Fundamental Questions' of Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny.")


the undiscovered ironies of modern political dogma

It is a cherished belief, among many of those calling themselves "Libertarians," that present-day American society is a monstrosity — one created either by grand stupidity or the machinations of scoundrels in high places. It is dogma that, despite the high-sounding rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, the "system" today serves to suppress individual creativity and freedom. To a great many Libertarians, the uprising of 1775-1783 was a revolution betrayed.

Ironically, this is exactly the way numerous American leftists would also describe today's United States. In each case, the pictured demon is authority, imposing a rigid system that constrains opportunity and limits human potential. Pushing aside the awkward details, it's astonishing how similar these two movements are in one respect — the nature of the dream world they would have their distant descendants inhabit.

Earlier, in Part One of this series, we discussed some fallacies of the widely accepted political map — that one dimensional yet undefined linear metaphor which crams Stalin and anarchists into some amorphous "left," and stuffs everyone from Hitler to Rupert Murdoch to Libertarians together on an even less well defined "right." Clearly, we can do much better than such a witless construction. For one thing, a useful diagram ought to separate those who disagree about nearly everything, and whose views are mutually anathema. The "Left vs. Right" metaphor does nothing of the sort.

This may be of little consequence in most political arguments, in which the purpose appears to be to shout self-righteously at one another. When waving ideological totems, almost any structure will suffice, so long as it divides "us" from "them." But if the objective is to actually understand each others' points of view, or reach consensus solutions, something new may be called for.

(For more on the addictive properties of self-righteous indignation see "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?")

We also discussed a few metaphors which might help, as well as a set of questions to ask, when trying for a simple but clear understanding of another's basic point of view.

What do you think of limiting personal property rights? Can property be owned in common?

What do you think of state coercion of individuals "for the common good"?

What do you think determines differences among humans — genes or the environment?

What do you think of the “improvability” of humankind? Is there a “natural” human society which is now being thwarted in some way?

Was there a past golden age from which we've fallen? Or will we improve to attain one?

Notice that these questions purposely avoid most contemporary, knee-jerk policy arguments. Rather, they are meant to expose fundamental issues of character and zeitgeist. In fact, most of them can be answered all at once by boiling it all down to one allegory... such as asking the other person what he or she imagines a utopia might be like.

How would you describe a future world you would like your great great grandchildren to live in?

Broad areas of disagreement appear to evaporate when people are encouraged to leave behind the details of our 20th Century struggles, and instead discuss ideal, truly long range goals.

In Part Two, I gave a thumbnail sketch of one fictional utopia which elicits pleased responses from most Americans I describe it to... people of such diverse political backgrounds that I feel certain the image harkens to something much more basic than dogmas of left or right. It speaks of a society in which all children are raised healthy, independent-minded, and taught such calm maturity, in a culture that requires almost no authority, law, or coercion. It is a fantasy shared across a wide spectrum, by a diverse range of dreamers.


Differences remained acute, however, when one asks the next question.

If you desire such a world for your descendants, what is the best way to get to that promised land?

Both libertarians and anarcho-socialists might agree upon a vague, distant goal, and further agree that contemporary American culture is decadent, corrupt, and requiring desperate surgery if that ideal tomorrow is ever to be reached, but they disagree over the nature of the operation needed. Meanwhile, a third point of view — again sharing the same notion of utopia — suggests that radical intervention may be the last thing that's needed.


is America really as sick as all that?

There is a principle in science known as "Occam's Razor." This principle states that, when you are building hypotheses to try to explain a phenomenon, it is nearly always best to accept as the leading theory the one that's simplest or that requires the fewest contingent statements to be added. Only if that theory fails basic experimental tests should one then take it down and lift another in its place. This principle is applicable to our investigation of political idealism.

Here is a unique proposition, one based on Occam's Razor.

Let's assume, for the moment, that the American people are not fundamentally stupid. Furthermore, they are not dupes of some nefarious conspiracy to sap their wills and destroy their freedoms.

An interesting, nay, unique hypothesis. Yet it is simpler than any of the current, convoluted conspiracy theories. Indeed, let's run with this provocative notion for a while — it might even be argued that the last 200 years of American history show remarkable signs of collective wisdom and pragmatism!

Them's fighting words to radicals of both left and right, who piously demand explanations for a world is filled with cruelty, foolishness and parasitism.

Libertarians believe present day society is alienated from an ideal free market that existed or was achievable in the past. They hold to this belief despite the fact that it has never been shown that any complex society ever existed that was closer to the Libertarian ideal than today's America.

Classical Marxists believe a just, decent society will come about by a "withering-away of the state"... but the progression of developmental states predicted by Marx has never been observed, while Stalinist state socialism merely withered peoples' prosperity and lives.

A third view — Maturationism — begins not with how people ought to behave, in a perfect market or class revolution, but how they do behave. In the last six thousand years of darkness and cruelty, one simple lesson is clear — that human beings who are frightened, ignorant, tribal and desperate have nearly always behaved badly. People who are insecure will almost inevitably gang up on each other and conspire to create dynasties. They will cheat and steal if it is the only way to feed their children.

On the other hand, mature, unafraid, knowledgeable people often calm down, became satiable, courteous. Evidence from cultures past and present indicates that human beings tend to start dreaming of an open, tolerant society, free of coercion from nearly any starting point. Confident, satiated adults will see it as the only decent way to live no matter what propaganda they've been exposed to, or what official dogma reigns supreme.

According to this view, it might well be that our contemporary society is no great cause for alarm or shame. Indeed, heretical as it might sound, western culture today shows signs being a milestone along quite a hopeful path.


the anti-authoritarian tradition

Listen to most Americans, from liberal to conservative, when they declaim their political foes. More often than not, they will speak in terms of how much power the other bastards are trying to accumulate. To the Sierra Club, it is some rapacious monopoly, using money to clutch after too much influence, eager to despoil our grandchildren's inheritance. To businessmen it is regulatory agencies, or unions, or some other rapacious monopoly, exerting undue leverage over the machinery of society. In either case, the complaints have something in common. A deep-set, almost mythical fear of tyrannical authority stokes the furnace of their passion.

It is the very trait which, at the level of childhood fables and playground parables, predisposed many of us to become Libertarians.

This tradition shows itself in the public's attitudes toward the very government they own, illustrated by the words average people choose to insult the "U.S. Post Awful", or "U.S. Snail." It shows in the themes of countless novels and films, which depict heroic underdogs repeatedly thwarting power-hungry designs by bureaucrats, or criminals, or the unscrupulous rich.

Why, then, do citizens put up with so much government? Or so much wealth controlled by a few families? Or media managed by a few broadcasters and pundits?

It cannot be denied that the short attention span of voters is a contributing factor, but in comparison to any other large-scale body politic in history, it is hard to support the premise that Americans are sheep. (This is the answer preferred by those whose egos demand a rich sense of superiority over the common herd. Contempt is a drug almost as heady as self-righteousness, but it does little to advance understanding.)


There is nothing new about national egocentrism. Chinese had a word, Chung-kuo — which meant "the Central Kingdom" — for their nation's position in the world. And for most of recorded history it was apt. The Chinese invented many things, from gunpowder and paper to pasta. Less known is their record as explorers. In the early 15th Century, when Henry the Navigator's mother was a child in the English midlands, a Chinese admiral led a fleet of sailing ships to Arabia and the tip of Africa. Had this enterprise continued, we might all today be speaking Chinese.

But the admiral returned to an indifferent imperial court. What need had China, they asked, of anything from the outside world? The ships rotted at their moorings. Records of the voyage grew covered with dust.

All the way up to the eighteenth century, the Chinese were correct in figuring the rest of the world had little to teach them. But times were changing. Rapid development and social transformations pushed the barbarians into new realms of art, science, geography and trade. Eventually, Chung-Kuo paid terribly for their insularity, yet every blow to their pride only inspired frantic resistance to compromise and change. Only when every vestige of ancient grandeur was toppled did this proud nation, once the center of the world, put aside its pride to learn what others had to teach.

The Romans, Moghuls and many other nations at their pinnacle, likewise cultivated smugness and ignorance of the outside world. "Chung-Kuo Disease" is a sickness of conceit that seems to accompany wealth and empire. Britons also had days at the center, responding with patriotic fervor exceeding a frenzied Reagan pep rally, while signs of senescence were ignored.

America since 1945 seems to have escaped some of the worst symptoms of Chung-Kuo. Pax Americana was horribly expensive, but more benign than most empires. The Vietnam War was cosmically wasteful and tragic, as has been the Arms Race, but on the whole, gave a larger fraction of the world's people a chance to spend less time protecting themselves than in any prior era. Europe and Japan have thrived as a result. Even so, the question arises whether America is repeating the errors of other pinnacle powers. Barbara Tuchman, in The March of Folly, warns that there are many types of fatal, imperial over-extension — such as volunteering to be the world's policeman. Even the generous trade allowances given our allies in the past, for which we are paying today, had their roots in a type of arrogance — an assumption that we could afford a self-inflicted double standard because we were too rich and powerful to feel any inconvenience.

Still, I come away encouraged. No prior Chung-Kuo has ever been hated as little as ours, or reaped such genuine outbursts of occasional goodwill. Our fall may be gentler and less traumatic than any preceding empire's, the inevitable plummet may not be quite so low. Finally, and especially, for the first time it is on the agenda that, after we finally cede the imperial throne, there should be a serious effort to have no further empires.


A goodly share of the blame might be attributable to another trait. America's traditional inward-directedness accounts for some of its citizens' naiveté in foreign affairs. But again, it simply doesn't explain why a people weaned on anti-authority myths should support such a vast enterprise of meddlesome government.

One possible reason is that, beyond suspicion of authority, Americans share other beliefs, as well. These would include pluralism, fairness, charity and pragmatism. They tend to be suspicious of pat dogmas. Moreover, they are cynically aware that many of their fellow citizens would dearly love to set up cheating little satrapies, even dynasties, if given the chance. A government of legislatures, judges, numerous bureaucrats and innumerable lawyers may be cumbersome and irritating, but it is profoundly preferable to the pattern which has dominated nearly all of human history... rule by privileged, inherited aristocracies.

In other words, the result of all this ambivalence and give-and-take is a sloppy concoction hated by ideological purists of every stripe. It is a messy, ad-hoc consensus, one that keeps changing with the times.

Consensus... a difficult, irritating word for those who believe that human culture is a problem with simple, straightforward solutions.

The consensus changes. It ebbs and flows and fluxes, as can be seen in the brave, failed experiment with supply-side economics, which sounded good at the time, but every one of whose predictions were proven dead, dead wrong. Despite the pleas of a few obstinate true-believers, the people have turned their backs on Laffer Curves and such. Today, with the advent of the Clinton Age, it seems that the consensus has swung around toward another ancient enemy — one with the worst record of antagonism to freedom in the history of the world.


Yes, clearly this essay was written in the nineties, a booming time when entrepreneurial startup-capitalism peaked alongside a fairly amiable moderate-statist presidency and everything seemed a whole lot less dangerous. Looking back at this essay from the year 2006, I can see that it seems charmingly naïve in its trust in the good sense of the American voters... who subsequently let themselves be manipulated into a fractious and destructive and distracting "culture war," giving power and leeway to a terrifying gang. Yes, it is a worrisome turnaround.

And yet, I see plenty of other such events in the past. And when it comes to the long-term secular trend, I feel that the belief of Americans in good-hearted and pragmatic perpetual self-improvement has a lot of basis in reality.

In any event, I had better be right. If I am not, then no amount of reform will ever empower the LP to help move civilization forward. The enlightenment — and freedom — will turn out to be ephemera, as they were in the days of Pericles.

Next... what is that other, worse, enemy?


Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

about this article

Copyright © 2006, 2017 by David Brin. All rights reserved.


"Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors" was originally posted on the Libertarian Reform Caucus (LRC) web site in 2006. It is published in four parts here.

In Part One, Brin looked at the way we frequently let ourselves accept other peoples' metaphors — their models of the world — without stopping to think or ask, "Hey, what are we talking about?"

In Part Two he made the case that incremental improvement in a context of general individualism may be part of a long process of transformation that was first envisioned by John Locke.

Here in Part Three Brin asks — is present-day American society the monstrosity that Americans of all political persuasions seem to believe it has become? Or is there a simpler, far older explanation for our retreat into national egocentrism?

In Part Four he notes that every one of humanity's brief experiments with free market systems withered soon after flowering. Few were permanently ruined by proletarian or peasant uprisings. A great many, on the other hand, were destroyed by another nemesis of free enterprise... aristocratism.


articles, films & books cited here

Andrei Amalrik, "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?" part 1 and part 2

David Brin, "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?"

David Brin, "An Informal Questionnaire Regarding Certain 'Fundamental Questions' of Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny"

David Brin, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age"

David Brin, "The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism"

Robert Heinlein, Coventry (in Revolt in 2100 & Methuselah's ChildrenRevolt in 2100)

Jean François Revel, Without Marx or Jesus: The new American Revolution has begunWithout Mark or Jesus (book)

Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to VietnamThe March of Folly (book)


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