If you’re relatively organized and goal-oriented, then it’s hard not to like the eighteenth century Enlightenment, its love of taxonomy, of dividing and sorting and labeling, its faith in checks and balances and the invisible hand, the stark, no-nonsense categorical imperative. Add Voltaire’s withering lampoons of the sentimental and credulous, and it’s all pretty seductive.
Especially that invisible hand: it’s a comfort to think we might all be better off if we each look after ourselves. The alternative, especially if you grew up in the 1970s, looked like a public sector that was both corrupt and inept.
But since leaving college, I’ve been increasingly struck that we’re all in this together. Ant scientists call a colony of concentrated togetherness a “superorganism,” all the individuals constituting an integrated whole, practically sharing a single consciousness. I think that’s what we’re becoming, as global travel, the internet, and commerce concentrate our human togetherness. We always relied on each other; now it’s just harder to deny.
I recently read Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner for history. It’s about the intellectual crisis of faith that followed the American Civil War. Disruptive change was casting 1840s sectionalism, reform and Utopianism in a silly light, and leaving us with Darwinism, industrialism, the Gilded Age. When your remote agrarian settlements are suddenly united by railroads, time zones, central finance, and mass market pop culture, you have to rethink some things.
One part struck me as especially helpful, as I rummage around for a worldview. Menand writes of educator-philosopher John Dewey’s take on the Dartmouth College v. Woodward case in the Supreme Court:
Dewey argued that in thinking of majority decisions as the sum of so many independent selfish preferences, Maine had committed the empiricist’s error of assuming that what we can see is more real than what we can’t see — that individuals exist but “the popular will” is a fiction. This, Dewey thought, was exactly backward. “Society in its unified and structural character is the fact of the case,” he wrote; “the non-social individual is an abstraction arrived at by imagining what man would be if all his human qualities were taken away. Society, as a real whole, is the normal order, and the mass as an aggregate of isolated units is the fiction.” (Ethics of Democracy, 1888.) Democracies are not just the sum of their constituent atoms because atoms are not independent of their molecules. They are always functioning as parts of a greater whole. Participation changes everything.
Cool, huh? And at the same time as I’m reading this, I’ve been watching episodes of a National Geographic documentary series called Hard Time about life in Georgia prisons. The screenwriter in me has to chuckle: in Hollywood we cast these inmates as dangerous masterminds, but in real life they’re mostly hapless losers. They come from crummy towns, crummy families, and a few confess they don’t know what they’d do with themselves if they ever made parole. By their own account, they’re unequipped for freedom. An invisible hand does them little good.
I watch that with Dewey in my head, and feel like we’re a superorganism in denial, pretending illness at one extremity can’t affect the rest.
And yet, there’s something salutary about that denial, that I can’t put my finger on. I work in the public sector, and can tell you we’re no less error prone than we were in the ’70s. I wince with every executive order we issue, and I secretly wish the Tea Party were more articulate. They throw away a valid perspective when they couch it in nonsense.
I travel a lot: to stay alive, let alone get anything done, I rely on pilots and air traffic controllers I don’t know. I’m probably scanned for weapons and explosives a few hundred times a year, trading my privacy for a ride shared with strangers, who like me, want to know that we’re all benign. Going through that frame doorway, advocating for public universities, insisting with Dewey that we’re something more than a mass of aggregated units, and then going back home through another frame doorway, I’m feeling less like Kant these days, and more like Candide.