Thank you, friends and family of John Bunker, for the invitation to give this first annual lecture in celebration of the life of John, intending to honor his intelligence, passion for integrity, optimism and I would say, powerful, overweening compassion. In my experience he was a man who relished a long, probing conversation about history and civility, the survival of the species and the desperate limitations of modern politics. There was reason enough in all this, especially politics, to be pessimistic and to sink into despair, but despair and john Bunker seemed not to get along. And so it is with great pleasure that, one more time, I try to carry on my part of those conversations imagining him sitting somewhere across the room in a chair by the fire.
When today’s public leadership seems paralyzed; when in the Alaskan Arctic the permafrost is melting, and in the mountain West snows are thin and forests are burning; when, all over the country, a religion of guns displaces a religion of compassion, when slogans displace education and when materialism drives us, not toward relationship, but toward loneliness, it is hard not to take all that in and go down with it. These are complexities in our larger world and when we add to those the complexities in our personal lives; relationships in distress, children disconnected from hope, promises not kept, health crises not anticipated, parents not well enough attended, we can be forgiven if life is not just suffering, it may seem to be only suffering.
Perhaps as a result of our grieving about all this, the idea of impending disaster is vying to become the governing story of the left and as a result two stories seem to be competing for supremacy in this country today: one, from the right, is to the triumph of materialism and self-interest as inevitable, a product of natural selection and a boon to humankind. A second and opposite perspective is that materialism and self interest will do us in, destroy the eco system and endanger millions of species, including us. This second story is so sad that it threatens to render our traditional movers and shakers cynical, and, by causing our most likely activists to drop out, insure the impending catastrophe. The question might them become, is it possible to frame a third story that says that we have the genetic and cultural make-up to outlive the devastations of materialism and self-interest, or, put another way, to restore the “civil” to civilization.
Most of us live within, and get our orientation from, mythologies. The founders of the American republic intended to establish a new order for the ages, then Americans were about the settling of the western frontier, and then in World War I, saving the world for democracy, and now today, increasingly we are reaching out—even as a culture—for enlightenment, or nurturing spiritual health, personally and socially.
Mythologies have always served an orienting purpose. In the earliest Greek narratives the supreme gods, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, were brothers who roughly represented the sky, the seas and the underworld, or death, and these gods. The question was how act so as not to offend them. The gods were always striking at just the wrong moment with thunder, or waves, or sudden shocking death. These mythologies of erratic male gods—coming along in about 1400 BCE— ushered in a new age of patriarchy, militarism, and most importantly established a very limited test for immortality: heroism. The only way for a male to live forever was to die in battle. (There was no way for a female.)
Actually, that is not quite right. There was one other way to live forever, at least figuratively: that was through the accumulation of unassailable wealth. Ultimately, therefore, patriarchy was about property. Patriarchal inheritance was the means to secure advantage for those who believe primarily in the material as opposed to the spiritual. Translated, this meant immortality by passing on wealth rather than by passing on life.
That significant change in the solution to the problem of immortality, occurred over a 1,000-year period from about 1,500 BCE to about 500 BCE, and it had the effect to shift the burden of attention from daughters who pass on life to sons who pass on property. Patriarchy was, and still is, therefore, the institution that anchors materialism in our psyches. It began as support for the father ‘s desire to pass his property on to his sons rather than to his daughters. It is in this period that we stop leaving baby boys out on the hills to die and start leaving daughters out on the hills to die. Patriarchy is the beginning therefore not only of materialism, it is the beginning of a virulent and rampant misogyny. All this was wrapped into the mythology of the Trojan war, of Achilles and Herakles, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Oedipus, all good males, and on the other hand of Medea, and Medusa, Sirens, Scylla and Charbydis, Circe and Calypso and Clytemnestra, all evil women. The queen of the gods, Zeus’s wife, Hera, was turned from a symbol of rebirth, fertility, and cycles of the seasons, into the symbol of the shrew wife.
After 1,000 years of this, however, Socrates was skeptical and, centrally, he wanted to change the story. Changing the story could change everything. He introduced the idea of the pursuit—instead of heroism—of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Unfortunately, these were not welcome ideals for the empire-minded Athenians who were the chief materialists of their time. They liked the war story better. They said that to seek such ephemeral goals was corrupting youth and they offered Socrates either hemlock or exile. He upped the ante and said to the Athenian jury, I will stake my life on this. You have to choose how much you believe in power and empire and whether it is enough to kill your number one philosopher, or truth seeker. Ultimately, in about 399 BCE, the jury chose the hemlock in order to protect the young boys from the True the Good and the Beautiful.
I can report, however, that the Athenian patriarchs were right about corrupting youth. When I was a boy of just sixteen, I read Socrates’ writing about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful one night in a school textbook and I was riveted by it. I can remember the very night and the bedroom in which I happened to be reading. My family was on a vacation trip and we were staying in a country inn beside the Loch Ness in Scotland, and I remember—after reading about the True, the Good and the Beautiful—closing, first the schoolbook, and then my eyes, lying back on what seemed to be the most comfortable pillow in the world, feeling as if I were at home. The patriarchs of Athens had been right to foresee the danger: 2,500 years after the old man’s death, youth like me were still being corrupted.
Looking back, I can now see that Socrates’ alternate pursuit might provide a narrative for a life not centered on immortality through property—as the patriarchs had believed—so much as through other qualities of inestimable value, values which themselves might live forever, even if humans do not.
Tonight, again, therefore, let’s make the case for Socrates and this time to a new jury, here on Cape Cod. To do so, let’s begin with how the attitude of the materialists survived into the modern era.
Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, set the intellectual stage for a modern ideology of materialism by declaring that humans are motivated above all by self-interest. Hobbes wrote in a brutal age in which witches were still being burned for heresy or for cavorting with the devil. If you didn’t like the girl, you accused her of sleeping with the devil and she got burned, or tied up with stones and thrown into the river. Under English law a debtor could have his ears pinned to a wall, or cut off, and in a well-reported case, the widow Margaret Sharple, who could not pay the cloth merchant the full amount for her petticoat, was accused of stealing and was hanged. She was a woman, behind on her payments, and under English law they hanged her.
After Hobbes, the promotion of self-interest and materialism grew from its beginning as a shocking new ideological declaration to gradually increasing doctrinal acceptance, or even ratification. Adam Smith, in 1776, endorsed the free market, or self interest, as the enforcer of morality without need of the state, and after him in succession, Herbert Spencer translated Darwin into a doctrine of extreme selfishness, survival of the fittest, as if individuals might survive on their own without community. In the 20th Century Ayn Rand took it to a ridiculous extreme and argued that civilization’s response to Hitler and Stalin should be to be to produce individuals even more selfish than they, producing super egoistic, super humans. Finally, Ronald Reagan applied simple vernacular to Thomas Hobbes and Ayn Rand, declaring that greed is good.
During these same centuries of course, corporations grew to prominence and developed a theory that they had no obligation to the public good so strong as their obligation to the material interests of their owners, which meant that morality would play no role in corporate decisions except as it served material interest. The morality that had once characterized village exchange between real human beings was purposefully discarded. Further, by the 19th century, that severance of morality from commerce was no longer shocking. Marx saw the world as solely motivated by materialism and dominated by those with the most material: the capitalists. Corporations then increasingly became the engines of capitalism: they offered a way to accumulate capital and to separate its extreme aggregation from any morality whatsoever, which was great for capital, not so great for morality. Corporate capitalism’s central feature was, and is, to limit liability of corporate managers and owners, in effect separating them from morality. If a corporation does wrong, its humans cannot be sued for the amorality of the corporation. It is no wonder then that today we have reached extremes of material inequality, moral insensibility, and spiritual poverty that cause us to make comparisons with the great plutocracies of the past in Florence and Rome.
Plutocracy is government by the extremely rich, by those for whom materialism is the means, and the goal, of survival. And materialism fully explains plutocracy’s universe. Its entire moral code is that might makes right. This is a calculation that does not include spiritual, or moral, might. No corporate balance sheet attempts to weigh the cost of its production to the dignity of women, or the promotion of the common good, or the five-hundred-year future of the oceans. These one-sided materialist computations are not new. Material greed was the value that destroyed the integrity of the Senate in the declining Roman republic eventually leading to the take over by the Caesars; it was the value by which the Medici bankers destroyed the republican institutions of Florentine city government in 14th and 15th centuries, and materialism expressed in terms of so-called “free market” capitalism is the value that is destroying democracy in the US today.
Democracy, dramatically, is the people’s response to plutocracy; it is the uprising; it is the rebellion against government by and for the rich alone. When it happens, it is, at bottom, the response to government by the bankers. That is not just a metaphor. We ought never forget that taxes are historically, over and over, whether in Greece, or Rome, or Charles V of Spain, or Queen Elizabeth I, or Charles I of England, necessary to pay off war debts and war debts are owed to the bankers. George W. Bush borrowed to pay Iraqi war debts and he borrowed from the global banks (and the Chinese, who are also famously in the banking business.) Democracy, when it happens, is over and over a response to those debts and those taxes incurred by autocrats to pay for those wars.
These two concepts of government, plutocracy and democracy, are therefore virtual opposites. There is a reason for the 12,000 lobbyists for the financial industry in Congress. Plutocracy throughout history is forever trying to snuff out democracy, and democracy is forever trying to gain enough adherents to rise up against plutocracy. And once again, in America, today, tonight, this year, the battle is joined.
In my view, however, and here is where I hope John Bunker is listening, the great age of materialism that flowered during the Renaissance, symbolized by the Medici bankers of Florence, and that then spread across the European markets to find doctrinal ratification in Thomas Hobbes and John Calvin, Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and by Ronald Reagan, is coming to a close.
Yes, it is coming to a close. An age ends, as Archibald MacLeish wrote, when its metaphor has died. Today, the metaphor of the military or commercial hero, the oil man Rockefeller or the steel milling Andrew Carnegie, or today the Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs or Jaimie Diamond of JP Morgan Chase, individuals who will survive because they are the fittest and therefore are justified in their greed, is a metaphor that is dying. We are witness to, and participating in an age of emerging consciousness that touches back all the way to the search for pre-patriarchal, feminine values, values in touch with the earth and the birthright of every human being to be seen as qualified human being with a right to be here. This emerging consciousness is in itself a new force of our times, and this force is engaged in a contest with the forces of greed and self-interest for minds and hearts of men and women attempting to woo millions away from the harsh and inhumane doctrines of Hobbes and Smith and Ayn Rand. This emerging consciousness is driven by a deep inner passion, and I will say, a genetically programmed passion, to seek out the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
The new awareness of universal human dignity and our universal dependence upon the earth, air and water that gave birth to life is emerging just as the moral authority of the capitalist hero is eroding, and it is eroding because their foundation principle is not correct. They are wrong. Might does not make right. In fact, might is less and less often able to make right.
To understand all this does not require a leap of faith. It only requires applying the scientific method and attention to the evidence. John Bunker was a man of science and medicine; no honor can be done to him if we ignore the evidence. Let us therefore turn to the evidence:
Here is the data: Underneath the history of materialism has all along been a root fire, an ongoing conversation and an emerging consciousness, that, as we shall see, has increasingly combined with new forms of cooperation to produce less violence than at any time in human history. Violence has been proportionately declining dramatically over a 3,000-year period. In spite of all our present malfunctioning, in the long evolution of homo sapiens there has been a civilizing process that has been gradually unfolding. Your neighbor in Truro, Steven Pinker in his remarkable book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, has assembled 700 pages of evidence. Pinker says, for example, that between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a ten-to fifty-fold decline in the rates of homicides. The murder rate has gone down as we have moved into cities, and have come to live cheek by jowl. Pinker reports that in the days of hunter-gatherers, the chance of dying violently was above 60%. Two-thirds of everybody died by the club or the spear or the lion or the bear. When you stop to think about it, there is no city in the world today, no ghetto, no pueblo, no inner London or Harlem, no part of New Delhi or Kabul, and certainly not Truro, where a person walking down the street has a 60% chance of dying violently. Bad as our world is, it is not that bad. And it has been getting progressively better, in spite of Boston, and Newtown and Aurora, and Tucson, for the last 5,000 years. The expansion of national governments under central control and central laws, at first under kings and increasingly under a mixture of kings and merchants, lawyers and scientists, has expanded the restraints that discourage violence. That path is clearly visible when you look at the 5,000-year time line.
The change in civilization in the last 600 years has been the most dramatic.
From the Renaissance to the present there have been organized movements to abolish slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment and cruelty to animals. For the first time in human history in the last century we have seen massive organized movements resisting war. In the last 50 years the great powers have stopped waging war on each other. In the 19th century it was war by England against France, France against Germany, Italy against well … itself … Russia against France, on and on. National wars continued into the 1940s and remained as a threat into the 1990s. But today, after 2,000 years of continuous fighting, war between any of the great powers is virtually unthinkable. And that includes war between the US and Russia or the US and China, or against the new powers Brazil and India, to say nothing of the US against any European country. There is simply too much to lose and not enough to gain. National wars have become obsolete.
Ten to fifteen million people took to the streets, worldwide, to urge an American president filled with hubris not to go to war in Iraq in February, 2003. They did not stop him; but never in human history have so many been alert to the prospect of war in advance of that war and acted out of conscience to scream out against it.
Just when you may be tempted, reading tomorrow’s paper, to give up on humans, consider this: In the days of the Roman Empire warriors were recruited to the armies by promises of looting. Victors came home with bags filled with stuff robbed from their murdered and raped victims. Populations approved and expected this kind of war. Murder, rape and pillage were universally accepted. One thousand years later, throughout the Middle Ages, at the time of the Crusades and for centuries after, war was not an outrage or a subject of conscientious debate among popes and cardinals or counselors to any king. In Joan of Arc’s century, the 15th, everybody still approved of the knights of England going off to pillage and rape through the villages of France, and vice versa. For men of the upper classes, war, looting, and killing was a mythical journey towards manhood. And when Joan of Arc broke the mold of patriarchal leadership, her own French bishops burned her at the stake.
If you lived in the time of the Iliad, the poet Homer sought your approval for Agamemnon when he sacrificed his beautiful daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods. Human sacrifice was necessary to satisfy the goddess Artemis and this, in turn, was necessary to raise a fair wind to blow Agamemnon’s ships across the Aegean to Troy. We may be brutal now, but we are not as brutal as we were then. As badly as we may think of either Bush or Obama for their wars and drones, we don’t expect either one to sacrifice a daughter to gain a fair wind.
In history, in the 8th century, a revolt in China, the An Lushan revolt, a civil war, took 36 million lives. Later, Genghis Kahn ravaged across Central Asia in the 13th century and chopped up 40 million. Between the 15-19th centuries, Europeans wiped out 20 million American Indians. Not many of us today know about the An Lushan revolt in China but that does not mean that it didn’t happen. Today George W. Bush cannot travel to Europe for fear of being held for war crimes. That was never a problem for Genghis Kahn.
Let us therefore put violence in perspective. Such violence dominates the front pages, not because it is normal, but precisely the opposite, because it is aberrant; because it is not normal. A thing that happens only three or four times a year in Santa Fe, a murder, say, is in the papers precisely because it only happens three or four times a year. Let us not therefore evaluate our culture by the voyeurism that is profitable for Fox News or CNN. Media must, to make a profit, report things that go wrong but we, the public, are not interested in the things that go right because we already know about them. Right things are not news. As a result, the newspapers do not report who helps whom with the dishes or the endless parental trips to soccer or piano practice. TV reports violence because it serves profit and precisely because it is not normal.
Finally consider this difference in perception of the populations of the world say, at the beginning of the 20th century when even Winston Churchill could write to his mother from the Khyber Pass that the most exhilarating thing in the world was to be shot at, without result. Consider the difference in Churchill’s mentality or that of Kaiser Wilhelm, parading in uniform, glorifying war, and our mentality at the beginning of the 21s century when millions around the globe understood that war is an engine for profit. Today we know that the fuel that feeds war is not human nature but profit, not our genetic predisposition, but the greed of those who manufacture the equipment for war and false justifications of war.
Further, TV that feeds our current self-evaluation, is a business, not a science; it does not evaluate culture or historic trends. The media business needs murder and fire, rape and pain to sell advertising. But a car bomb in Baghdad does not prove a trend of history.
There has also been a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, too, including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, gays and animals. In the last 60 years, civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights and animal rights have been increasingly asserted in what Pinker calls “a cascade of movements from the late 1950s to the present day.”
It is my conviction that among all the revolutions that have occurred in the last 300 years, none is more significant than the revolution in consciousness about the value of the feminine that begins, perhaps with Joan of Arc in 1434, and is raging this year in India. In the United States and Europe the value of the feminine means not just the value of human females; it means the revival of reverence for the principles of regeneration, fertility, and ultimately, the air, water, and soil that sustain life. No revolution will have more significance in the long run than a revolution of regard for these principles associated through time with the feminine, and we live in the midst of that revolution today.
This is a global revolt against the amorality of materialism. Precisely because it is a moral revolt, the corporate world has no adequate response to it. Corporations are not equipped to do battle in moral terms. Materialism is not a complete solution for all the quandaries of life and millions, led so often by women, are now in open revolt and now joined by more and more men.
But the good evidence is not just historical. Studies of genetics and game theory of the last 20 years have concluded that humans are hard wired for cooperation. It is violence and non-cooperation that is the aberration. We are of course terribly upset by violence, and especially random and senseless violence like what has recently occurred in Boston or Newtown, but to characterize the species of 7 billion as inherently and unalterably violent because some fraction of one percent are murderers—however emotionally appealing it may be to hold this view—is nonsense.
Martin Nowak, an Austrian scientist now also at Harvard, in a wonderful book Supercooperators, lays out the frontier research in which he has played a leading role in the last 20 years. He says that the latest game theory research shows that people who cooperate tend to find other people with whom to cooperate and with whom to work. Cooperators therefore tend to cluster and clustering brings more talent, more ideas, more collective intelligence, to the table and therefore more resources to every transaction. As a grand conclusion, therefore, groups, or clusters, of cooperators tend to prosper in every area of civilized endeavor, more than groups of non-cooperators, or cheaters. This is research that throws the whole idea of survival of the fittest into a cocked hat. In the 19th and 20th centuries, and according to Ayn Rand, fittest is a measure of the individual’s fitness independent of his or her culture or society. Martin Nowak’s research, now combined with the research of many others, demonstrates conclusively that what really promotes survival is the ability to get along and do things in groups. We survive together. We are a cooperative species and have survived in spite of our angers and wars because in the end we spend a lot more time aiding one another than killing one another.
When we think about it, this is self-evident: Cheaters, as they become notorious, tend to find it harder and harder to find willing partners; they become more isolated and finally, finding no willing partners, turn to feed on each other. This is what is happening in Russia when Putin sends Khordokovsky to Siberia, or in China when Bo Xi Lai is shamed and drummed out of the leadership, his wife convicted of murder. Cheaters, according to Nowak’s studies, are not good at clustering and so go feudal, basing relationships on power rather than consent. While by contrast clusters of cooperators are going democratic, isolated cheaters seek to expand their domains by force, or war, destroying democracy. Eventually, they destroy each other, which is what happened with Hitler and Stalin.
In the long run, and here is the point, homo sapiens has survived because its extraordinary ability as a species to work together, think together, share information together and, yes, pay their taxes together. The current idea that we can prosper and stay healthy, as individual superheroes without government and without taxes, is not only foolish nonsense, it is contrary to the 100,000-year record of human evolution. But, more than this, and this is the exciting part, the levels of cooperation and sensibility have been growing astronomically during this 100,000 years so that we are not like we were then. We are not killing each other at the same rate; we are not crucifying men and burning women at the stake at the same rate; we are not condoning slavery as natural, and where slavery is happening, as it is sometimes still happening with women and children, we are mounting campaigns against it for the first time in history. If life is nasty, brutish and short, it is not as nasty, brutish and short as it used to be.
Let me finally, however, point out two other sources of information that underscore the Pinker findings and the benign results of increased world communication. One area is genetics research and the other comes from my own simple observations of human nature in action.
Most of the explanation for evolution when I was growing up was that only the strongest horse wins the race, the strongest bull has the most calves and the strongest men rule the world. Pseudo Darwinists came along and added to this that the driver behind all this was that strong men simply wanted to pass along their genes. It was all about genes, they said. That is what the survival of the fittest people said. Evolution was all about the single individual and how he or she could pass along his or her genes. That was called “individual selection,” or natural selection for an individual. And that was a complete explanation for species survival.
Ayn Rand agreed. She argued that the survival of the fittest meant survival of the fittest individual. She dismissed the idea of the fittest society. And Ayn Rand popularized the rationale that gives the plutocracy its moral claim today. The wealthiest are the fittest and the ones who should survive, for the benefit of the whole species. The biggest and toughest hedge fund bull produces the most calves. It will be good for us all that there will be more very, very wealthy. This is approximately what the Robber Barons of the 19th century must have thought.
Ayn Rand was living in a generation that produced two of the most horrific mass murderers in history, Hitler and Stalin. Her response was that we should all individually be as ruthless as the dictators and the best would survive.
But here is the new exciting part: Research of the last 30 years—led in part by distinguished professor Edward Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth—is demonstrating that humans are a social species and that our willingness to sacrifice for the good of the whole, or for someone else, is part of our genetic makeup. The instinct for altruism is present in each of us. It cannot be erased. It can be trained out of us, it can be scared out of us, it can be buried in memory, but the genetic code cannot be erased and the human genetic makeup is just that way: we have altruism built in.
Plutocrats from Agamemnon to Caesar to the Medicis to Kaisers and Czars, to Wall Street overlords in the present, have all created mythologies to persuade the rest of the population that the only arbiter of choice is power, and that power comes from money. Humans with the most money are therefore naturally put in place to run the world. But Edward Wilson’s research shows that humans are successful because they have social skills, can communicate, share intentions and get along. That is intuitively correct, and now there is research to back up the intuition. This is another reason why the world of politics and war may be changed the more women get into the center of it. They are often very good at social skills and communication. That’s stereotyping of course, and I know a great many of women who would take me on for that generalization. Still there is a kernel of truth in there. Almost every woman I know is better at social interaction than I am.
It seems to me, more seriously, that from Wilson’s research we can conclude that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and all the 3,000 years of patriarchal mythology that leads to everyone trying to be a hero, is wrong. You may remember that Achilles was a hero who went to Troy and killed everyone in his path; that Agamemnon was a bit of a wimp and that Hercules was such a warrior that he would be immortal. The way to get ahead, said the Greeks, was to be a hero, like Hercules or Achilles, not a wimp, like Agamemnon. Hercules was especially heroic and he went to heaven to live forever. But now comes the research that says that the Greeks were nuts, that we are programmed to be social and to look out for the group, sometimes even more than we look out for ourselves. It comes with the genetic code, says Wilson. The Greeks thought that the highest value was honor and death in pools of blood. It’s a primitive idea. They got it wrong. They were in error. Unfortunately they told such good stories about it that the error has lived on in Western mythology for 3,000 years and has had disastrous effects.
The implications for our times are great. If we have been living the heroic fairy tale for 3,000 years that power is the source of all prosperity and money is the source of all power, we have, according to the new research, ignored our genetic code and probably our basic intuition that something in this formula is missing. Here is one idea about what is missing:
Before Homer, before 3,000 years ago, as I have written in my book In Search for the Lost Feminine, a vast culture existed that celebrated much more than money: these cultures celebrated the cycles of the seasons, the fertility of the soil and of women, the beauty of flowers, birds and trees and the wonder of reproduction.
Unfortunately, those values were intentionally exterminated, root and branch, by Homer and the patriarchal mythologists who followed. So when you and I went to school we did not read or study the values of fertility, mutuality, regeneration upon which survival might depend far more than money.
But of course the Greek mythologists and their successors could not exterminate the genetic code and the practical fact that we all experience, on a daily basis, that we are programmed to cooperate. Think of how many stop lights we stop at every week. Think of how few meals we have made without the aid of a farmer, distributor, partner or friend. The answer to that, for 99 percent of us, would be none. Think of our tax returns this spring. We were doing our share for community, not for ourselves alone. Think of our willingness to get up in the night to attend a crying child, or to write a letter to a long-lost friend. We are doing that for others and not for ourselves alone. Think of how our days would be been different if we were trying on Ayn Rand’s idea, acting as if we were Hercules striding down the street with a club and a lion’s skin, or if our favorite football player spent his days of the week bumping into people on the sidewalk. The idea that all life is about power, the Ayn Rand idea, and that money is power, is anti-social, but according to Edward Wilson and a growing field of evolutionary biologists, we are destined, to the contrary, to be social.
If that is the program, and if the ancient but persistent mythology is wrong, where is the place to start to bring off a change?
As a beginning, let’s change that very mythology. Let’s change our foundational myth that there is more strength in the sword than in cooperation, or communication, and that there is more strength in gold than in compassion. Advertisers all over the radio waves these days are saying, “Buy gold!” Let us say, “Buy community. Buy integrity. Buy the search for the common good. Buy non violence,” and when we buy these things we get back in line with our genetic programming that we have been persuaded all the way from Odysseus to John Galt to try to deny.
Let us not deny our true selves any longer. Let us not attempt to be girded warriors in defense of banks, or oligarchy, or plutocracy. Plutocracy divides. Oligarchy divides. Banks with their elaborate but mysterious machinery to suck up the people’s money without returning capacity to the people, without lending, also divide. Credit card usury divides. Indentured students who will spend the rest of their lives paying off their loans are divided from hope and allegiance to an undemocratic system that exploits them but does not reward them. The money system and the power myth inherited from ancient times is running out of moral foundation and—because it divides rather than unites us—its ability to hold us together as one community is rapidly being diluted.
Ultimately this is important because societies are held together by moral cohesion. As the moral basis of Wall Street power erodes, as it has done in the last years since 2008, we are headed into a time of potentially greater chaos. It is in that fruitful time that movements like the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the ecological movement, the anti-war movement, have in the past gained a foothold. It is in such a time that our reverence for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, might also become our guiding star.
As the oligarchy grows more and more top heavy—more and more of the wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands—it grows more and more unstable. The incomes of ordinary people that sustain all those debt payments to the five global banks are shrinking. At some point the giant sucking sound that is interest debt is going to suck to the bottom of the bucket, and—to change the metaphor—that is when the foundation at the bottom erodes and the great golden ball on the top of the pyramid collapses.
Then we will not simply re-write the code that applies to banks. Then we will not simply restore progressives to power. Far more importantly we will restore the values of fertility, of the soil and or our imaginations, of regeneration, compassion and integrity to our mythology and to our highest aspirations. The dream of Ayn Rand and all those who have followed her to monopolize great wealth is not a dream that will feed children or educate scientists or preserve the resources on the planet that gives us life. Today we know from the research of our best evolutionary biologists that the Wall Street dream is not even in accord with our genetic nature. We survive together as a species or we do not survive at all.
Finally, a note from personal experiences about why I believe we can have hope:
I ask myself, why does a flash mob that emerges in Grand Central Station to sing the Halleluiah Chorus, cause hundreds of passersby to stop dead in their tracks? They live in the busiest city in our country, in hedge-fund central, and why don’t they rush on? No one tells them that song is as important as money. No one even tells them that the Chorus is coming. Still they hear angelic sound and they stop to listen. If Edward Wilson says we are programmed to be social and to take care of one another, I say that we are programmed to respond emotionally to things unsaid, and music heard and unheard, that we call beautiful.
Here on the cape, surrounded by ocean, who among you has not stopped in awe when a December sunset turned the seas to gold? All of us have one time or another stopped before beauty in wonder, stopped even against the pull of our day’s business, and this pull is something in our very natures.
There is something in us more than a reverence for money or power. It might be the improbable courage of the struggling young girl who, in a high school race in which she is determined to participate, swings forward on crutches with tears streaming down her face, last of all to reach the finish line and all of the rest of us who are watching are weeping with her, cheering her on. Improbable courage can move us, too, and we never really know why.
Sometimes it is simply a human connection that moves us. Here’s a story that I believe confirms Edward’s Wilson’s findings: I remember, about five years ago, listening to the story of a high school football team that gave their Downs Syndrome classmate his chance to play football. It was the last game in the boy’s senior year. Every season for three years this boy had suited up, put on the pads, and then sat on the bench through every game. Every game he cheered his classmates out on the field but never once had he been in a game himself. Finally, when it was the last play in the last game of the season. The coach turned to the boy and said, “Son, get in there!” and the Downs Syndrome boy jerked on his helmet and ran onto the field. “Hike! Hike!” yelled the quarterback who then handed the ball to the Downs kid who immediately started running the wrong way. The quarterback grabbed him: “This way, Joe! This way, Joe!” and then the kid who had all his life wanted to play football looked over his shoulder, turned, and the players on the other team began bumping into each other, helplessly unable to reach the boy with the ball, and all the great athletes stumbled and fell to the ground and the waters parted, and, with a smile to light up the heavens, the Downs boy raced all the way, 65 yards down the field, to score a touchdown!
Everyone in the stands stood up and roared! The other kids who for the whole game had been bashing each other’s heads, got up off the ground and, smiling, shook hands.
What is this within us that responds this way? I believe that it is in the genetic code and that as we adapt our language and mythology to focus on each other and our community as much as upon our individual, single survival, we will enjoy success and, unbelievably, more peace of mind and the joy of living.
The mythological revolution, the revolution of sentiments and moral opinions without which the American Revolution would never have happened, began with poets and playwrights way back in the 16th century. It was they, almost two centuries before the American Revolution, who wrote the stories and sang the songs of individual women and men in opposition to kings. It was a poet who introduced to us women like Viola in Twelfth Night or Portia in the Merchant of Venice, or Ophelia in Hamlet and Desdemona in Othello. It was a poet who mocked kingly power as in Titus Andronicus, Henry VI and Richard III. It was from that poetic and then a legal history growing through more than 200 years that we gained the consciousness that ultimately gave rise to the American Revolution. As Martin Luther King might say, the arc of history is slow but it bends, ever so slowly, toward justice, or, that is, in the people’s direction.
We are once again about the work of changing not only the world of plutocracy but of changing the spirit of our times. We are therefore not at the end of the democracy times, or the human rights times; we are still at the beginning and we can give thanks to Ayn Rand and her plutocracy admirers today who have made clear the work that still must be done. It may be the work of centuries still. We are not at the very beginning and we are not at the very end. In the long course of human history we are catching our breath for round two, the round of the people, this time all the people, women and men, rich and poor, gay and straight, white, black, red or brown, of all the religions, old and new, and all of us together are writing the myths of the new age.
In the old days when as a youngster my father set me the job alongside the irrigation ditch of digging a fifty foot long asparagus patch, four feet wide, it was clear to me that no human child could ever do that. He said, “Your mother has gotten a fine set of asparagus roots from the grocer and if we put them deep enough, and water them, they will last a long time.” So I did as I was told and shoveled away day by day, and each day my father would come look at my trench and each evening he would say, “Good, good; carry on.” That was his highest praise: “Carry on!” So I did that and of course one day the whole fifty feet of a four-foot wide trench was open for the planting. My mother dug in those asparagus plants and next spring they came up just fine. And the spring after that. And the spring after that. We had a lot of asparagus for many years. Then we all went away. But a few years ago, I was back at the old house. In the space alongside the old irrigation ditch had now grown some other flowering plants and trees. “Funny thing,” said the new owner, “there is some wild asparagus coming up right over there next to the those weeds.”
I cheered inside, for my mother’s asparagus and my father’s encouragement. It is hard, he might have said, to discourage a plant, or an idea, with good roots.
It is the nature of any planting, whether it is asparagus, a new idea, or our dreams of human dignity, that we will run into inhospitable times but still we will hang on in the shade until we have a new chance. In our case the new idea, the ongoing dream, is of a new mythology, a new story of a democracy remade with an idea to nourishing the ground we depend upon, nourishing each other, nourishing cooperation and nonviolence and nourishing life more than gold.
As we leave this gathering tonight, and in remembrance of John Bunker—and even perhaps as he might have said—let us say to all those friends who are, by the hundreds here in Massachusetts, and across the globe by the thousands, working the soil for dreams of a more just and compassionate future, “Good, good. History is on your side. Carry on.”