Behold! A butterfly to the rescue!

Doom and gloom got you down? With climate change, financial meltdown, recession, war, H1N1, birthers, deathers, tenthers, and all the other miseries of modern life, it is easy to overlook stories like those Philip Slater points to in The Chrysalis Effect of nine-year old Melissa Poe getting 250 billboards donated across the country to ask then-President Bush to save the environment and of eight-year old Tara Church launching a campaign that planted one million trees.

If you find those efforts underwhelming in the face of, well, all those other problems, congratulations, you’re failing to embrace small victories and Slater thinks you’re a radical left wing “Controller.” Slater distinguishes between Integral Culture, defined as being “about embracing and integrating diversity,” and signified by “the Women’s Movement, the global economy, the ecology movement, the Internet, New Age philosophies, organic farming, the growth of international institutions and international law, the growing interest in understanding other cultures and in communicating with other species, the interest in telling old stories from new view points” (whew!); and Control Culture, which sees the world in linear and hierarchical terms.

Slater sees the backlash against the upheavals of the 1960s as a caterpillar forming a chrysalis:

Tiny new cells–what scientists call imaginal cells–now begin to appear in the caterpillar’s body, and start to multiply. The caterpillar’s immune system reacts to these new cells as foreign–as a disease, an infection–and quickly attacks and destroys them. . . . But more and more imaginal cells appear, and begin to link themselves together. Finally, the caterpillar’s immune system is overwhelmed and the caterpillar is liquefied. The imaginal cells then recycle the liquefied mass into a new entity–the butterfly.

So in Slater’s vision, the students I saw reaffirming capitalist and militarist values in the mid-1970s even at a public high school in San Francisco just one neighborhood over from the epicenter of the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury (I was in the Richmond District) are the antibodies and the hippies are the imaginal cells, with the great mass of society ambivalent. The vicious anti-labor, anti-environment, and anti-poor fundamentalist views of family and society that arose particularly with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 are an even more pronounced immune system reaction. And George W. Bush administration policies signaled yet another escalation. To Slater, these suggest a progressive infection, heralding an unstoppable rise of Integral Culture.

For this analogy to work, a certain linear process must occur. The imaginal cells (hippies and 1960s radicals) must link together and overwhelm the caterpillar’s (old culture’s) immune system. The caterpillar must go through something that must appear as death. Only then can we see the emergent, an outcome we could not predict but for experience, a butterfly, a new Integral Culture.

The dichotomy between Integral Culture and Control Culture appears to parallel Riane Eisler’s (in The Chalice and the Blade) Partnership and Dominator models, where dominating control freaks see the world like a cowboys and Indians movie, in terms of good and evil, white and black, etcetera. By contrast, Integrators embrace contradiction and even Controllers. Like Yin and Yang, though Slater does not point to this paired duality, with each side including a dot from the other, predominant traits must embrace their opposites. Integrators recognize this; Controllers seek to suppress it. Integrators seek understanding between people who disagree; Controllers simply rule by fiat. Partnership model societies are peace-loving and egalitarian; Dominator model societies conquer and impose patriarchy.

While many Controllers are conservative in bent, Slater makes room to criticize those of us on the liberal side who, well, maybe, find Barack Obama too accommodating. Slater never mentions Barack Obama by name, but seems pollyannish about social development since the awful 1950s, citing other developments, a spread of what Slater sees as a spread of more egalitarian democracy. He writes “that authoritarian societies were at an intermediate level of cultural development–both the simplest and most highly developed societies tended to be democratic.” The trouble is that the governments of the “most highly developed societies” Slater refers to are not democracies, but republics. The authors of the Federalist Papers, advocating adoption of the U.S. Constitution, were very clear about this difference. One of those authors, John Jay, went on to be the first Supreme Court Chief Justice, setting precedents that determined how the Constitution would be interpreted. Recognizing class as a vexing problem in Federalist no. 10, James Madison explicitly sought to reserve power to the wealthy, not to protect the minority rights of any stigmatized group, but rather to protect the property rights of landowning white males.

There is nothing egalitarian about a republic. It effectively limits power to an elite class. In U.S. society, the sheer cost of mass media advertising is only one price of admission to running an effective political campaign. Journalists dismiss the electoral prospects of anyone whose political views lie outside a narrow range of acceptable discourse and of anyone running without the blessing of the Republican or the Democratic factions. The system thus clothes an intense hierarchy in democratic garb; Obama’s attorney general appoints a prosecutor to pursue torture allegations only against lower-ranking operatives who exceeded guidance, but not against those who further undermined Constitutional protections and ordered the abuse. Banks and major automobile manufacturers are quickly rescued from their own follies, while workers facing declining or stagnant wages, homeowners facing foreclosures and declining values, and the unemployed facing months without work still await relief. The unpopularity of the war in Iraq and even the election of a Congress in 2006 with an explicit mandate did not force an agreement to withdraw until our own puppet regime in Baghdad demanded it. The unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan does not prevent us from escalating the conflict with still more troops in pursuit of a long-forgotten objective. And despite the popularity of a single-payer health care system, it is not even on the table.

In a democracy, however, there are no representatives from the elite to decide policy and to protect their own privileges; everyone has a say, everyone is expected to participate. But because I draw a line between authoritarianism and democracy on a different side of republicanism, Slater will undoubtedly dismiss me as a radical left wing Controller.

Moreover, by mostly limiting his view of history to the period since the 1960s, Slater overlooks pacifist, anarchist, and labor movements of the 1930s. He overlooks Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, in which Zinn illustrates how time and time again, the elites have held power only by conceding the minimum power and wealth possible to the minimum number of people possible to avoid the accumulation of a critical mass for revolution, and that they have done this only because certain politicians were determined to protect the system. Citing Richard Nixon’s landslide election in 1972, Slater even dismisses the peace, civil rights, and counterculture movements of the 1960s as “long on visibility but short on numbers.” Another metaphor becomes possible: rather than a caterpillar emergent into butterfly we can see a disease of hierarchy inflicting the mass of humanity for what Slater says is the last 8,000 years. This disease appears chronic, with flare-ups and periods of remission. Even if a disempowered U.S. public finally takes a hint from its Iranian counterpart, revolution has a nasty habit of replacing one set of thugs with another; power and wealth get redistributed to a new set of oppressors.

Change is coming. I continue to believe that next year will be a very interesting and dangerous time for the Obama administration. Historically, a gap between rich and poor as wide as exists in the U.S. surely leads to violent revolution. A growing population of meat-eaters strains our planet’s capacity while water shortages reduce our ability to produce food. Global warming already displaces entire populations as sea levels rise and at this writing it unclear that humanity can, let alone will even slow its progress, let alone stop or reverse it. Endemic problems of pollution, starvation, and exploitation persist.

But I see two major problems with Slater’s analysis. First, the nature of emergent phenomenon is that we cannot predict the outcome. For Slater to assume that because his imaginal cells are Integral that the culture that arises from the caterpillar’s death will also be Integral is to miss, in another analogy, how gaseous hydrogen atoms meet with gaseous oxygen atoms to produce something that could not be seen from the factors of its creation, water. Second, we cannot know whether his analogy of imaginal cells (hippies and 1960s radicals) overwhelming the caterpillar (Controller culture) or my analogy of a chronic disease (hierarchy) with flare-ups and periods of remission afflicting the great mass of humanity is more apt. We also cannot presume that humanity will adapt in the many ways necessary to perpetuate itself. We are in trouble. To borrow yet another analogy, this time from Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind, our species is under pressure in the womb, about to be traumatically expelled through a narrow birth canal. It feels like death. We cannot really even comprehend the process we are going through. But unlike the infant about to be born, there is no one in our species with the experience to say whether a world of light or something much darker lies at the other end.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.