Bedtime Story for Civilization
There once was a man who looked around and saw only what was in his head. But the funny thing was that everything he thought he saw made him upset. So he screamed a lot and protested that things were not right, but didn’t know what to do, for the more he saw, the more he disliked. He grew so tired from objecting to this and to that that he fell asleep, and he slept so long that the world changed while he wasn’t looking, for, you see, by looking before he had locked his world into his way of seeing.
In the morning when a new sun arose, a woodpecker flew to his head. And, as woodpeckers do, it started pecking. The Woodpecker poked a hole in the old grouch’s head, and lo and behold, what do you think?
A worm crawled out, and as the sunlight shone on its protective cocoon, the worm wiggled and squirmed, until it fell off, and then it stretched its butterfly wings and flew lightly away.
The old grouch looked around, and was about to complain, but he couldn’t help himself and started to smile. He scratched his head and said, “Well, what do you know?” And he ran after the butterfly, laughing into the woods.
And that is how Rush Limbaugh became slim, learned to smile and not to sneer, and changed his mind overnight. Who was the woodpecker, you ask? Ah, he’s the “sleep on it” agent and angel who takes people into other worlds while thy sleep and helps them to open their minds. By letting some things get out, and some things get in, he teaches people how to listen.
Ergo, quod est demonstrandum, what we see is what we get. What we see, of course, is not a camera’s copy of an outside world, but a mind’s projection of what we think. And what we think comes from what we know, what we are familiar and comfortable with. For most of us, that homey comfort comes from an image of the past—our families, neighborhood, and country.
Once we lived in hunting and gathering bands, and “us and them” was a simple matter to make out. Given the lack of deodorants in the Ice Ages, and the need to live in caves, identity was an olfactory state of alignment. Pheromones for infant, lover, and family were the invisible ties that bound the group together. The use of perfumes and deodorants came along with the industrial revolution and an increasing urbanization in gigantic cities like Paris and London, but along with this chemicalization of identity came mistakes in choosing a mate and a divorce rate of one out of every two marriages. For ancient man, as well as hippies and members of cults, a nativistic movement arose that tried to return to the old ways and smells. Retribalization—as Marshall McLuhan liked to call it—became a matter of “I stink, therefore I am.”
When the weather improved, and humans domesticated goats and sheep and wandered from pasturage to pasturage, the groups got larger, and folks began to notice and study how black rams seem to bring about black lambs even with white ewes. The celebration of paternity began to compete with the old Ice Age worship of the Great Mother as the source of life. The bible records the wars between the mother-worshipping Goddess cultures of the Canaanites and the patriarchal ways of Father Abraham. And even the Confucian Book of Odes in far-off China also records the growing preference for the son over the daughter, and for systems of descent that derived from the father and not the mother. Identity became a matter of bloodlines for the children of nomadic Abraham.
But as humans began to settle down, and as women’s gathering of cereals developed into gardening, and then agriculture, with all its stuff of grinding stones and storage that was too heavy to move about, identity began to be based upon a new ground of being–the land you lived on. “I am what I own.” became a maxim long before capitalism.
As settlements developed into cities, identity became more complicated. Sheepherders would camp outside the walls, farmers would need more land to feed more people even if the grain would be stored within the temple, and traders would come from afar, bearing exotic objects and speaking other tongues. Priests, soldiers, and smiths became the new professional class of specialists as city-states expanded into empires.
The politics of this conglomeration of identities of foragers, herdsmen, farmers, and urbanites became messy and challenging and the traditional council of elders evolved into the charismatic military hero—as the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma Elish describes. The military hero became the man of the hour who could meet the challenges of the invading foe. For nomads, raiding cattle and plundering farms became the replacement for hunting, gathering, and herding. The king or the emperor with his standing army to protect the state became the norm from Rome to Cathay.
A problem arose as the lines of empires kept shifting. So many peoples within an empire spoke so many different dialects and languages that politics became more like the weather than the ground under their feet. People needed a new universal language that could cross borders and let them know how they stood. And that language was Money.
First as metals, then as coins, then as paper and bills of exchange, money became the new language, and those who were fluent in currencies, like the Medici Family of Renaissance Florence, became the new power to challenge and control kings and popes. A new class of people arose who were not hunters, farmers, herders, soldiers or smiths, and they were the Rich—the people who had lots of money.
The Count of such and such required a piece of turf, a “county” in Charlemagne’s way of dividing his empire up among a military class he could call upon for troops, but the Medicis proved that you didn’t need a title if you could buy one, be it count, cardinal, or pope.
Being rich is a state of consciousness. A millionaire can suffer because he or she is not a billionaire. If you have a cabin cruiser, but your neighbor has a yacht as large as a navy destroyer, you feel as if you have lost your moorings, that you are slipping out of the class to which you wish to belong.
The Super Rich, the billionaires, live in a world apart, and they feel more identified with members of their own sort than with “their fellow Americans.” An American billionaire has more in common with a Saudi prince or a Chinese entrepreneur than any Joe Sixpack from his old hometown. Patriotism for the Super Rich is only useful when they call for national military forces to protect their economic interests abroad–as we see today in the conflicts in Central Asia–conflicts that have as much to do with gas pipe lines and authoritarian control of natural resources as they do with al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Rich do not fight in the wars they produce. They move their wealth to offshore accounts, as whistle-blower Rudolf Elmer of the Swiss private Bank Julius Baer recently revealed to Wikileaks. He will soon pay the price for this treasonous act against the noetic polity of the Super Rich.
What we are seeing when corporations move their headquarters to places like Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, or move their personal fortunes into private banks in Switzerland or Lichtenstein, is the emergence of country club citizenships. If the American Super Rich feel put upon when half of their income goes to taxes that they feel are used only to support lazy welfare mothers and shiftless drug addict fathers, then they can silently secede from the Union by taking their citizenship elsewhere to principalities that can provide just such a service for their clients for a fee.
The new world-system is an ecology of states of consciousness in which identity is no longer based upon bloodlines of descent or the boundary lines of nation-states. These noetic polities can be positive, like transnational science in university towns like Cambridge or Stanford Park, or negative, like al Qaeda, or invisible like the closet Narnias of the Super Rich in which the wardrobe of an old and musty bank is the doorway to an alternative quantum state.
As crises of national currencies, catastrophe trading, famines, and wars of tribes and religions darken the landscape, another new world is emerging. Almost forty years ago, in At the Edge of History andPassages about Earth, I wrote about the shift from an industrial civilization to a new planetary culture.
In the idealism of the 1960s, I saw this shift as a positive one from authoritarian doctrinal religions to a contemplative and personal spirituality, from a polluting industrial civilization to a green world of living machines, symbiotic architecture, and meta-industrial villages and convivial cities smaller than Tokyo or Sao Paolo. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I was young and naïve and did not want to see that as industrial civilization came apart, the new basins of attraction drawing the fragments together would not be simply science and contemplative spirituality, but a darker landscape of pirates and warlords—from Somalia, Waziristan, Ciudad Juarez, to Detroit—as well as country club citizenships for the Super Rich.
To support the emergence of nobles and monarchs in the Dark Ages, Catholic Christianity adopted the imperial structure of Rome. The humble spirituality of the Nazarene carpenter Jesus was replaced by the glory and palaces of the imperial Roman Papacy. Seated upon his imperial throne, the Pope would give sermons on the blessedness of the poor.
Now to support the emergence of our new class of the Super Rich, the Republican Party has transformed itself into an emotional religion with its own incantatory language of freedom, private property, and more guns and less governance. But what you hear is not what you see. You hear Sarah Palin, but you don’t see Rupert Murdoch, the owner of her publisher Harper Collins and that Ministry of Propaganda called Fox News.
If you hear something go bump in the night, or a distant sound of knocking, don’t be alarmed; it isn’t a ghost or poltergeist, but the woodpecker at work while we sleep on the blockheads of history.
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad