How to Heal (or Harm) a Culture

Most people think our society, our nation, is in crisis.  I am forced to say I find this foolish silliness, an affectation of an overindulged middle- and upper-class:

We aren’t an informed citizenry, but we play one on TV!

– But that’s just me, and Occam’s Razor cuts both ways, so my minority view is probably wrong.

Let’s assume so; let’s assume we are in trouble.  It would be nice to heal things; it would be nice, and convenient, if we could avoid a calamitous conflict, lest we lose our little all.  So: What are our problems; how can our culture be healed; and what further harm can be avoided?

The forces at work tearing at our society are so different than you think they are.  This is so because of the way human brains work – seeing patterns, whether they are real or not. We are hardwired to see things around us as manifestations of simple systems – in the words of the science collective Firesign Theater in that great discovery known to the world of Academe as Fudd’s First Law of Opposition, “If you push something hard enough, it will fall over.” (I might mention here Testacle’s Deviance to Fudd’s Law, that what goes in must come out somewhere, but it would seem to have no application to this, or indeed any, conversation.)

We can deal with such simple systems; they can be very complicated systems like toasters or rockets but their behavior is linear, predictable, so we can work with them. Complex systems – by definition, very large systems with very large numbers of individual units, each interacting with the others around it over time in ways limited only by their own nature – are non-linear, non-determinative, yet can produce very high degrees of both productivity and order. An acre of good land can produce a bounty of life and orderly inter-relationships, a beautiful meadow so breathtaking that we invariably posit an orderer; or the same land could be simplified just to the plant useful to us. The meadow produces highly complex life in much greater mass, but the lesser mass of the simple wheat field produces something we can use. The problem for the farmer is the constant war to keep the field we depend on simple when complexity keeps erupting, in weed, bug, germ and weather.

A society of sentient beings such as our nation is a complex system – by measures of complexity that I wouldn’t for an instant pretend to understand, human culture is more complex than the universe as a whole. Hard to see how that could be true, but clearly complex enough to be getting on with. I’m suggesting that this becomes a big problem – I see it as the absolute challenge we must now overcome or vanish – because you must treat highly complex, non-determinative systems, as such. Otherwise the unintended consequences will be to collapse the complexity – think modern republican democracy – into determinative simplicity.

As in a dictatorship.

The challenge then is one of perception. I cannot see into the minds around me, but from all the evidence that I can see, at least the vast majority, perhaps near unanimity of American minds are farmers: Pull the unwanted disorder out by the roots. This is the one thing all parts of our political spectrum agree on; the dirt-water fascism of the right, what little honest conservatism is left, liberalism trying to be as quiet as possible, loud proud progressives, even the libertarians (who should know better), all have been seduced into seeing every problem as a switch to be thrown.

You don’t see this because your brain protects you by adding “of course!” to your internal debate. Of course life is precious: therefore we must make women not abort; that’s not telling anyone what to do, that’s just the way it has to be! Of course, it does! Of course we must help the poor, so making everyone contribute to their support, even those who think the poor somehow deserve their poverty, is not dictating behavior, it’s simple decency, it has to be that way! Of course it does! It’s foolish to call that imposing my will on others. How can you be so cruel?

We all think that the solution to any problem is to make a law to compel order on the disorder we see, that disorder we each are most upset about or limited by. It might be guns, or a lack of them, or bad roads or disease or hunger or crime or immorality or simply because your own private God tells you to take charge; whatever angel or devil or need it is, you will not see your attempt at imposing The Answer on everyone as that, because Of Course! It just needs to be that way! What’s wrong with you you can’t see that?

Because God!  Or because Think of the Children!

I will not pretend I do not find the goals of the left infinitely more decent and admirable than that narrow intolerance and Cross-clubbing of the moronic American right, and I don’t for an instant buy their claims to conservatism. But both sides and middle, all are equally trying to impose their preferred order on all and equally unable to see their own cheesy dictatorship, because of course it must be so. Decency requires, God says, Big Money wants, I need you to, whatever the excuse no matter the thinness of its tissue, makes no difference. Once you decide on the rightness of a thing, imposing it on others won’t cause a fleck of sweat to form on your curled lip as you lash your selected cur. Because Of Course.

Perhaps a metaphor would help make my point.

In our Ship of State, there are by the nature of humanity some who want to stay safely where we are right now, or at least not wander far, and others who think we should move somewhere else, maybe slowly so we find somewhere rather like this or open all the valves and full steam ahead. (It might surprise you to hear that our President is more of the former than the latter; know him by his actions, not your words.)

But all on the ship, crew or passenger, believe that down in the bowels of this ship is a control room, and though clearly full of a bewildering array of valves and switches, if we get just the right ones thrown or set in just the right ways, All Will Be Well.

And there isn’t any such room, and all will be well only if we let it. It becomes a Metaphor Disease, this need to see simplicity and hierarchy where there ain’t no such. By our nature we feel enabled to deal only with simplicity, certainty, control, with what we can get hold of. This drives us to treat complexity as simplicity.

In politics, we can only do this by imposing that view on others. We can’t see that imposition as an imposition because without it we can’t, almost every American believes, manipulate that complexity to give us what we need. Anyone who pushes back against this imposition is therefore evil. Can’t they see this must be so? What kind of people would oppose – and the rest is ‘fill in the blank.’

Whereas in fact the cultures of humans are highly complex systems and behave as such, and that’s what we’re experiencing everywhere. The complexity of assuming we are each politically equal, each owning our own lives and entitled to define and pursue our own happiness limited only by the rights of those around us to do the same, is collapsing into ‘My way or the highway’. Even when ‘my way’ is to stop fixing the potholes on that highway.

It’s complex as hell; we never have perfected that Jeffersonian equality, though by many measures have never before achieved such a high level of it. On the other hand, tolerance of the equal exercise of the rights of those we disagree with is quite eclipsed. There are still groups struggling for acceptance, but it’s almost as if we’re down to the hardest fights; yet we have an astounding number of laws at every level of governance that impose limits on each person’s behavior that go far into the interior of their private lives. And even this has its own complexity; this limiting of choice is happening alongside an explosion of choice given to us by technology, and by the greater power of including the talents of those previously excluded. And deeper complexity; that very technology that’s expanding individual power and reach is also destroying the boundaries of what it means to be an individual by collecting deeply private information and distributing it to others all for their gain and our loss. And deeper; we are more informed about that loss, and more empowered to fight it, even as that loss is ever more accepted by most as the false appearance of safety. And deeper . . .

It requires an understanding of an aspect of complexity vitally important to any analysis; granularity. It’s the true lesson of the butterfly effect; not that flapping insect wings could ‘make’ a rainstorm on the other side of the world, but rather that to understand a big thing like an Indian monsoon and predict its timing and force, you need to understand the world’s weather on the level of granularity at which it actually happens – every drop of evaporation, every whisper of wind, because the tipping point for a big thing like how much rain falls in what place when can be very different in a world where that Brazilian butterfly flaps and a world where it doesn’t. And that level of knowledge, as near as we now can tell, is not ever achievable.

However that does not mean such systems cannot be influenced to give us a more, or a less, stable, productive society. But what it does mean is we must adjust our thinking about what is possible. An important part of this is understanding one of the general rules of complexity; order must arise from below, not imposed from above. You can be just as sure as it delights you to be that we must all obey some command or limit; you are wrong. If we all lived just the way you, or I or God or the Koran or Decency or Mother Teresa or the Dalai Llama or the Edicts of the Order of the Knee-Walking Turkey want us to; in all these cases or any others, such a world is impossible, it would collapse into disorder and death. That’s a nearly impossible idea for most to deal with – that whatever order any individual might believe necessary and good, the imposition of that order collapses order and destroys society in the world as it really is.

Even if they’re right about the rightness of that ordering. Especially if they are right; enforced ordering destroys the will to elect to do so, and if doing so is in truth wise and good, the enforcing destroys the good and promulgates the bad.

You can order the workings of a simple system. In a complex system, a state can arise that is both highly orderly (though not ordered by any external, superior force) and highly productive, measured by the success of the individuals in it. Attempts to order such a system reduces it to determinism, all order except that imposed disappears, and productivity collapses. You can influence such a system, but as you live in it, and then by your choices. And frustratingly for the control freaks among us, only if your changed choices actually reflect life as it is lived – that is, only if Life says you are right.

Even then, you must understand the granularity you intend to work on. You can be more specific about smaller things; the larger is your field of action, the more general your actions needs to be. The Aswan High Dam has been a catastrophe; too specific for something that big, it quickly filled up with unintended consequences, or ‘silt’. Helping individuals deal with flood and drought as they occur in that place, with resources available there, has improved whole communities.

So, to the point; how then do we work to solve the very real problems of our day? How do we create a decent society? What changes must we make to improve our fortunes?

Simple. Odd, that; the problem most have is seeing the complex as simple, but here people make the opposite mistake. On the level of the individual, which is where it all happens, locating the needed locus of action is simple. It’s you. Not you telling others, or you as a Shining Example. Just you. Doing.

If you think abortion is wrong, don’t have one. If you think the world is being threatened by global warming (it certainly is!) then you put less carbon into the air you move in. If you think we must help those in need, you help them. If you think dog poop is a problem in your neighborhood – and here is something I’ve done, and it works – pick up the dog poop you see, or the litter. This is something I’d love you to try – people easily throw garbage when they see that others are doing so, but a very few days of picking up same has a dazzling effect.

Do it yourself. Not as an example to others; scrape that idea off, you’re not some Romper Room hand-puppet showing kids How to Be a Do-Bee. Live it in your own life, and if you can’t then shut the hell up.

Think people around you are not sufficiently respectful of others unlike them? Are you sure that you are? Really? What are others picking up from you that seems to make showing their prejudice okay? Sure, you could have an Official Tolerance Policy; but first why not try eliminating prejudice in yourself, and examining whether you really are as accepting as you think? Hint; if you are intolerant of intolerance, then you are spreading intolerance, no matter your tolerant words.

And exactly so also for any attempt at controlling others. Control freaks, no matter their words, are carriers of disease; you cannot act to control someone unless you lose your view of them as a human being to be respected and flatten them into an object to be used.  Thus with all law; it flattens the possible into simplified behaviors to be codified, measured, chopped into digestible chunks and either prohibited or demanded according to the whim of the majority of the minority that vote on a day in November.

Thus the vital importance of the need not to impose order on highly complex systems; no matter how important it may seem to you that some rule or characteristic is, and even if you’re right, that characteristic must arise itself from the interplay of those individuals, and the limit of how you can spread that characteristic is the result of your own choices in your own life. It is necessary to understand that there must be legal limits to behaviors that impose your needs on others, like murder, theft, pollution, fraud. That’s because in a culture, the individual units are something more than just the animals in it; otherwise anything each animal needed would be equally important as any other no matter the violent means. Tea-baggers have this view; they see ‘liberty’ as just their own freedom of action in a world of animals. But we are describing systems of political units; not just the beings but the rights that are inalienably attached to them, a social being. That’s important to grasp, that this highly random system is made up of political entities. Each individual must feel that contained within itself is the right not to have others’ needs taken from them by force, while at the same time recognize the advantages of willingly giving up some degree of freedom of action as a reasonable price for all the wonderful thing that culture can make possible.

Those laws that evolve to protect us, which in our country are limited by the traditions of Habeas Corpus, are supportive of a society, as even those breaking such laws tend over time to accept and live them; the gains to the individual in living within such laws are considerable and people tend to want the advantage of them. (Woodrow Wilson was wrong; the world is being made safe not for Democracy but for McDonalds.)

Unintended consequences overwhelming the intended result of ordering attempts is everything our politics is about at the moment. Republicans have been playing games with the anger of a large minority of voters for more than forty years. Having created their bubble of un-reality to mine this anger as a resource, they have gotten very rich and powerful, but they didn’t create that anger, even if they have used their controlled media as a bellows to heat it to a glow. All those rules that have forced the right to live in a culture they don’t support and that doesn’t represent them – that’s the unintended consequence, which has kept our government from acting against very real threats to life of human-centered changes in the carbon cycle, or deteriorating bridges, or failing schools, or using proven methods to end a recession.

A megalomaniac narcissist may well be our next president. And why?

Look at it through the rules of complexity. Any system that is random can in time reach a highly orderly productive state that will reflect the influence of its most common force. The thing that all parts are influenced by will determine the state reached, even though in any particular instance that force seems far too tiny. In fact, if a force affects everything and is anything larger than an influence in the individual case, it will not be a random but a linear, determinative system. Gravity is the best example; on the level of its smallest divisions, the world of quantum forces, gravity is a force so tiny that you don’t usually need take it into consideration to predict events on that quantum level; but back out to the level of the solar system, and suddenly everything can be successfully described down to relatively fine detail by considering gravity alone. We had to understand Einstein for some of the details, and Planck, but Newton got us to the moon.


Here’s what I think all this means for our nation just now. The modern culture that was shaped early in the previous century has depended more and more over time on control mechanisms as a way to maintain order. We started out with a government that people didn’t see as being a power in their lives, at least before the Civil War. When I was a child in the ‘Fifties we learned of that early ideal as being a ‘voluntary society’, that is that we each agree to give up some of our freedom of action in order to protect the rights of others, and tax ourselves by consent to pursue the common good; that as long as a decision effected only ourselves, it was ours to make.

Over the decades after the Civil War, more and more problems were addressed centrally, forced by poverty, depression, scandal, corruption and war; so the government grew. This is, by my guess, inevitable, and there is in fact no reason traceable to complexity that a government shouldn’t grow, or solve societal problems, or even to redistribute wealth; in fact, such redistribution can be an effective brake against a major failing of private enterprise, which is that self-interest motivates employers to continually reduce wages even though their own businesses depend on other employers paying well so their workers can be customers.

But what complexity does say is that those efforts, even those made in great need or decent impulse, that were top-down attempts at creating a better, more inclusive society, though admirably well intended, simply do not work as a pragmatic, effective solution. They are constantly being overwhelmed by the unintended consequence.  At the moment, that overwhelming, unintended consequence is a racist Orangutan.

Nor does it say much about your faith that you are correct in the rightness or wrongness of the thing you are trying to enforce or limit by law. When it comes to applying law to new horrors that people do to others, there is a justification that even those committing such acts might agree to; but if Marijuana – or failing to support the poor, or naughty panties, whatever personal choice you’re limiting – is so terrible, won’t the person using it have their own lives limited by that poor choice? If you don’t believe that allowing them to suffer from choices you think are bad will result in their lives being so harmed as to make that choice be avoided, then what might The Majesty of the Law add to the equation that will make this more evident? Sobriety is its own reward; it gains nothing by your harming other people to keep them from harm.

And with each new law, command, code, regulation, some few get pissed off. Worse; bad law makes those laws and regulations we do need, those reasonable requests for concurrence, less obtainable.  People don’t like being told what to do. Often, the people who most don’t like being told what to do are not good at analysis; they don’t like being told that, for example, they must wear seat belts, and not being bright, they invent colorful, ridiculous argument against doing so. What if they end up in a lake, and can’t get out? So something they really should do – buckle up, bonehead, it saves lives – is turned into something they must do, and it makes them angry, makes them feel their interests and society’s are not the same.

So, what do we care? They’re just simply wrong, we’re saving their lives for them, they can just shut it if they’re too stupid to see it. As long as they buckle, what do we care why? And a small part of our culture separates a bit. Multiply that by mandated toilets that don’t flush, speed bumps, item after item after item after a hundred thousand more; while each one can be defended, the entire enormous burden is for more and more people simply unendurable, indecipherable, hopeless. Thus a tremendous pool of disconnected citizenry, a fungible asset to charlatans, bigots, crusaders – in brief, politicians.

And on the left, they see none of this depth. The left looks on the right as hopelessly ill-informed (true), working against their own best interests (true again), being led by crybabies and jerks only interested in their own power and wealth (again, bullseye) and altogether unimportant because they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is false. There is a very real, very understandable truth to what the angry disaffected are saying, even if they don’t get it themselves. They are tired of being told what to do. It doesn’t matter to them whether or not the things they are being told to do are in fact good things; they have deluded themselves into a pathetic victimhood and aren’t listening to logic. But their underlying message is the truth. You see it as not mattering because we must make the world just and fair, and how we get there is not the point, but you are wrong. How we get there is the only point. Whether you like it or not, whether it makes sense or is for the right as self-destructive as it seems to be, whether you get their anger or not, enough people are enough mad and enough unheard that they want to do an awful thing – elect a clear fascist – and since you are focused on the stupidity instead of the very real force of our complex nature behind it, you can make no argument that doesn’t make the situation worse.

In sum: When enough people feel they are losing control of their own lives to an unresponsive majority, it no longer makes any difference the rightness or wrongness of their concerns; the center will not hold. Progressives, for good and admirable reasons, have reached for more and more control mechanisms to force their own choices on others. They can’t see it because they are almost entirely right about those preferred choices; but turning your preferred choices into demands threatens the entire system.

What you think we must do to cure our nation, to heal our culture, is what is sickening it; not the good, just things you want done, but the bad, unjust way you want to do them.


Hubris (noun): A great or foolish amount of pride or confidence (Mirriam Webster); Excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance (; Extreme pride and arrogance shown by a character that ultimately brings about his downfall (; Thinking your thinking is so admirable and fine, your purpose so good and true, that other people should find their path by its brilliant light (me.)