In as much as we are all humans, none of us will be surprised to learn that we want what we want when we want it, contradiction notwithstanding. As I read this morning’s New York Times, I kept thinking of an old proverb. Here’s what the Wikis say about it:
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too is a popular English idiomatic proverb. Once the cake is eaten, it is gone. The proverb’s meaning is similar to the phrase ‘you can’t have it both ways.’” Oh, but we want it both ways, don’t we? “Choosing between having or eating a cake illustrates the concept of trade-offs or opportunity cost.”
The news this morning is a whiplash of both ways. Remember the ping pong players from China in the Olympics years ago? You couldn’t — or, I couldn’t — even see the ball they hit it so fast and so hard. Try these on for size:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy can’t make up their minds to agree or disagree. Do we excise 45 from the G.O.P. or do we bow to the threat of his menacing shadow?
Dr. Shoshana Zuboff is a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, and the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” In “The Coup We Are Not Talking About,” she writes, succinctly, “We may have democracy, or we may have surveillance society, but we cannot have both. A democratic surveillance society is an existential and political impossibility. Make no mistake: This is the fight for the soul of our information civilization.”
In an expose on the history of modern white supremacy, we read, “For the past 40 years, there have been dueling narratives about white supremacists in the U.S.: dangerous or farcical.” Remember the clowns from Geraldo and Jerry Springer in their costumes and their masks from the 80s and 90s? “They are alternately seen as a hillbilly fringe with outsize ambitions for political revolution, and a savvy movement demanding constant vigilance.”
In 1776, a 47-page pamphlet was published anonymously. At the time, it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history. It remains the all-time best-selling book in history, andW is still in print today. The essay, written in clear and persuasive prose, marshalled moral and political arguments to encourage common people in the Colonies to fight for egalitarian government. The document was, of course Common Sense by Thomas Paine.
Dr. Zuboff writes, “In 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a short book of seminal importance, ‘The Social Construction of Reality.’ Its central observation is that the ‘everyday life’ we experience as ‘reality’ is actively and perpetually constructed by us. This ongoing miracle of social order rests on ‘common sense knowledge,’ which is ‘the knowledge we share with others in the normal self-evident routines of everyday life.’”
Lily Tomlin’s bag lady, Trudy, explains it to her space chums in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe thusly, “Reality is just a collective hunch.” Berger and Luckmann were simply a little less colloquial about it.
Dr. Zuboff boils it down further, “Think about traffic: There are not enough police officers in the world to ensure that every car stops at every red light, yet not every intersection triggers a negotiation or a fight. That’s because in orderly societies we all know that red lights have the authority to make us stop and green lights are authorized to let us go. This common sense means that we each act on what we all know, while trusting that others will too. We’re not just obeying laws; we are creating order together. Our reward is to live in a world where we mostly get where we are going and home again safely because we can trust one another’s common sense. No society is viable without it.”
Um, I can’t be the only person asking, Where has our common sense gone?
Dr. Zuboff again, “‘All societies are constructions in the face of chaos,’ write Berger and Luckmann. Because norms are summaries of our common sense, norm violation is the essence of terrorism — terrifying because it repudiates the most taken-for-granted social certainties. … Everyone experiences the shock, disorientation, and fear. The legitimacy and continuity of our institutions are essential because they buffer us from chaos by formalizing our common sense.”
Formal common sense has taken a powder. It is terrifying.
“Like baseball, everyday reality is an adventure that begins and ends at home base, where we are safe. No society can police everything all the time, least of all a democratic society. A healthy society rests on a consensus about what is a deviation and what is normal. We venture out from the norm, but we know the difference between the outfield and home, the reality of everyday life. Without that, as we have now experienced, things fall apart.”
This is why, despite the fact that both physically and metaphysically our world is based on the principle of polarity, we do best when change is incremental. And change itself does best in the same scenario. Incremental change — slow, steady — brings the most adherents along with it.
For those of us who are not white supremacists or Christian nativists, this is why the actions of those in The Capitol on January 6th were so shocking and why, if my practice is any indication, we are all a/ traumatized and b/ exhausted, both conditions that are rapidly ratcheting up in the face of some of Washington’s meh response and the new and horrifying mutations of the coronavirus.
Dr. Zuboff continues, “Society renews itself as common sense evolves. This requires trustworthy, transparent, respectful institutions of social discourse, especially when we disagree. Instead, we are saddled with the opposite, nearly 20 years into a world dominated by a political-economic institution that operates as a chaos machine for hire, in which norm violation is key to revenue.
“Social media’s no-longer-young men defend their chaos machines with a twisted rendition of First Amendment rights. Social media is not a public square but a private one governed by machine operations and their economic imperatives, incapable of, and uninterested in, distinguishing truth from lies or renewal from destruction.”
Ah, the impersonal zeroes and ones. No judgment here. It’s all good. It is what it is. No, Beloved, now is the time for judgment, it’s not all good, it may be what it is, but do you want what is?
Dr. Zuboff acknowledges, “For many who hold freedom of speech as a sacred right, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1919 dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States is a touchstone. ‘The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas,’ he wrote. ‘The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.’ The corrupt information that dominates the private square does not rise to the top of a free and fair competition of ideas. It wins in a rigged game. No democracy can survive this game.
“Our susceptibility to the destruction of common sense reflects a young information civilization that has not yet found its footing in democracy.
“Two sentences often attributed to Justice Brandeis feature in the congressional subcommittee’s impressive antitrust report. ‘We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.’ The statement so relevant to Brandeis’s time remains a pungent commentary on the old capitalism we know, but it ignores the new capitalism that knows us.”
But does it? Does it really? I would submit to you, Beloved, that the new capitalism, the information-based capitalism, knows a curated part of us, but not us, not really. It knows where we shop, it knows who we hang out with, it knows only the things it is designed to measure, and we have fallen into its jaws slowly, incrementally, steadily; that’s how we got here.
Oh, that, and a whole lot of a perversion of the economic doctrine of laissez-faire. The OED defines it as the policy of leaving things to take their own course, without interfering. Its
synonyms are free enterprise, private enterprise, free trade, individualism, non-intervention, free-market capitalism, private ownership, market forces, deregulation. Its French origins mean to allow to do.
And here’s how we’ve perverted it. Collectively, we practice laissez-faire as a form of cynicism: to wit, we use it not to care. We say, the system’s too big to fail, too big for me to change it, too mammoth for my one small action to make a difference. We allow the system to do what the few in charge of it want to do.
Mara Gay writes this morning about a huge uptick in crimes unsolved by the NYPD this year. “Erica Ford, the co-founder of LIFE Camp, a nonprofit in Queens focused on violence intervention, said the high number of unsolved cases is another source of trauma in already traumatized communities. ‘There’s unsolved pain. There’s unsolved hate and anger. That festered, and everything else just continues to breed the disease of violence,’ she said. ‘If we don’t invest in helping people heal then the communities continue to be destroyed.’”
And here is where every thinking person must land. We need to heal. I the person. You the person. We the people. Our local, city, county, state, and national governments need to heal. Our collective hunch has been skewed and we are having trouble holding on to reality in all its glory, in all its messiness, in all its humanity.
Roger Cohen writes from “PARIS — Camille Kouchner, a slight, cleareyed woman who for decades was consumed by guilt, has become the big disrupter of French society. Her battle to liberate herself from a painful family secret has touched a nerve across France.
“For decades, Ms. Kouchner felt trapped. ‘Guilt is like a snake,’ she writes in “La Familia Grande,” a book whose tale of incest and abuse is also the unsparing portrait of a prominent French family. It was a ‘poison,’ a many-headed ‘hydra,’ invading ‘all the space in my mind and my heart.’ Until she felt she had no choice but to set down the unspeakable.”
Some of what we must face, Beloved, just like Camille, is the unspeakable. How the information age has harmed us — as well as helped us. How our curated Facebook lives can cause despair — as well as connection. How our secrets, unspoken, poison us — as well as make us who we are.
“OK, Camille, you are afraid of the repercussions, but if you do not speak, how can you be whole?” Ms. Kouchner, 45, said in an interview. “If you do not speak, you leave an upside-down world. You have to take the risk because you have a small chance of saying to those who suffer that their suffering is not for nothing.”
We are suffering, Beloved. We are also afraid of being left behind. We are also afraid of repercussions. We are also living in an upside-down world wherein parents cannot feed their children, and we are not appalled by that.
I know of only one solution, despite Dr. Zuboff’s brilliant assessment of how to heal our democracy in an information age.
We must tell ourselves the truth about what’s happening, and what we’re feeling, and what we want to do about it.
We must listen to the truths of others about what’s happening for them, and what they’re feeling, and what they want to do about it.
We must take back our own sovereignty — our own wholeness unto ourselves, and begin where we are, with whom we know, to take small, steady, concrete, incremental steps and reconceive to reconstruct our shared reality.
It’s only common sense.
Dr. Susan Corso is a spiritual teacher, the founder of iAmpersand, and the author of The Mex Mysteries, the Boots & Boas Books, and spiritual nonfiction. Her essays address the intersection between spirituality and culture. Find out more at www.susancorso.com