Engage the Battlefield of Ideas for Social Good

by Joe Brewer and B. Laszlo Karafiath, Common Dreams, April 24, 2014

Changes in societies are driven by “culture wars” and the battle of ideas.  Epic idea battles arose between capitalism and communism, religious fundamentalism and secular humanism, pro-choice and pro-life, emos and goths, etc.  Great advances have been made along the way in the realms of public health, human rights, representative government, trade and business, and the development of technology.

The road to human progress is often presented as a continuous path.  Reality simply doesn’t work that way.  History is rife with conflict and tension, collaboration and resistance, competing agendas that battle for supremacy.  Progress is not linear.  It moves in cycles and waves, pulses and push-backs, tension and release.  Culture is a complex system made up of many actors with diverse relationships among them.  Change is emergent from the countless interacting parts.  And memes are always at the center of the action.

Memes are the elements of culture that replicate, mutate, and spread from one person to another.  They are the stories, jingles, products, ideas, scripted behaviors, organizations, and brand identities that collectively make up every cultural system.  Memes are structured information that flows across a society, always in dynamic tension with one another.  As such, the science of social change is a science of meme evolution.

Unlike with human warfare, memes cannot be killed.  They live on in the minds of people who remember them and act upon them in their lives.  While a human construct like an empire or a castle or a city can be destroyed, the idea of the empire or the castle or the city lives on.  Once a meme is out there in a culture, it will always be there.  The only way for a meme to die is if all cultural memory of it is destroyed.  This rarely happens.  Even in the most egregious attempts to destroy memes — burning of the library at Alexandria, for example — remnants of old ideas live on in the cultural DNA of newer ideas that have been influenced by them.

Some ideas are good for humans.  Others don’t work out so well.  The battle between capitalism and communism revealed that centralized planning doesn’t promote human flourishing.  Yet it was the critiques of capitalism from within this multi-decade clash of ideas that revealed how market economies built on self-interest alone create neither prosperity nor thriving communities.  As the great ideological battle unfolded, both sides evolved and adapted to their changing environments.  The system we now know to work best is a hybrid — strong social democracy with an open market system.  Both memes continue to battle in the recent clashes between Occupy Wall Street and financial elites, ever changing and always on the move.

Both communism and capitalism are ideas that operate according to the laws of cultural evolution, which differ from the laws of physics in important ways.  The debate about which one is “real” and “correct” fails to recognize that they are all just ideas, created and propagated by cultural genes, and all participants are inside a meme battleground and thus constrained in their perspectives to the memes that exist there.  Economic systems are social constructs based on these idea constructs and the only reason they exist is because a critical mass of human minds believe them into being — one signed contract and one consumer transaction at a time.

Memes change through evolutionary processes.  They form symbiotic relationships; compete for scarce resources; mutate by sharing elements: socialistic governance plus market dynamics = resilience and prosperity.  Through this unfolding web of relationships they can be improved over time.

Evolutionary biologists would describe this as increasing fitness through selection.  This is how cultural evolution works. Understanding how this works is essential for guiding society toward higher levels of fitness, and ultimately, greater prospects for human thriving.  A great example being the way that Christianity spread as an offshoot of Judaism.  Paul, the apostle, realized that the practice of circumcision kept many people from adopting the new faith.  So he removed it from the liturgy of cultural practices.  Thus evolved a new-and-improved Christian religion that spread more easily to incorporate more followers.

In a paradoxical way, the battle between ideas can lead to peace and prosperity.  Ideas that promote wellbeing can win out against those that harm societies.  Another example from the 20th Century makes this point — the appearance of the atomic bomb activated a global response to bring state warfare to an end.  The meme that humans can annihilate all of humanity brought on a global peace movement to lessen the chances that such an event would ever transpire.  This helped accelerate the spread of democracies, open societies, market economies, and as a result we now have the most peaceful society in history (relative to our total population size).

In a similar way, the fear and grief caused by memes about ecological devastation have unleashed waves of innovation in sustainability practices.  Farmers markets are now the norm in Western cities.  Renewable energy technologies have been developing since the 70′s and are going mainstream now.

This explosion of social innovations would not have been possible without the conflicts and tensions that grew out of the environmental movement as it waged battles with status quo institutions and social norms.  We progress by engaging the warfare among memes, thus accelerating the process of social learning.  Those who bemoan the polarized nature of our politics are missing out on the real action.

Humanity moves forward not one step at a time, but as a dance of give and take among ideas that are at war with one another.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Joe Brewer is co-founder and research director of Culture2 Inc., a culture design lab for social good. He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement.

more Joe Brewer

B. Laszlo Karafiath is co-founder of Culture2 Inc., a culture design lab for social good, where he operates as a culture designer helping good memes spread for the betterment of humanity.

more B. Laszlo Karafiath


Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2014/04/24-7

Democracy, citizenship and government

Democracy

Democracy: government by the people; the common people of a community, as distinguished from any privileged class …81 percent of us–four out of five–would cut the deficit by taxing the rich and/or slashing military spending…What’s wrong with this picture? On every key issue of public concern the government in this supposed democracy has gone against the wishes of the majority of the public. Clearly, whatever it is, this is no democracy we are living in today… A Profound and Jarring Disconnect by Dave Lindorff,

Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it[there are] two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual… politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal… Political dysfunction spells trouble for democracies By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Our life chances are now determined to an unprecedented degree by the wealth of our parents….But for more than three decades we’ve been going backwards…The major reason is widening inequality…Taxes have been cut on the rich, public schools have deteriorated, higher education has become unaffordable for many, safety nets have been shredded…20 million American children in poverty (we now have the highest rate of child poverty of all developed nations other than Romania)…How can the economy be back on track when 95 percent of the economic gains since the recovery began in 2009 have gone to the richest 1 percent? The underlying issue is a moral one: What do we owe one another as members of the same society? Conservatives answer that question by saying it’s a matter of personal choice – of charitable works, philanthropy, and individual acts of kindness joined in “a thousand points of light.” But that leaves out what we could and should seek to accomplish together as a society. It neglects the organization of our economy, and its social consequences. It minimizes the potential role of democracy in determining the rules of the game, as well as the corruption of democracy by big money. It overlooks our strivings for social justice. In short, it ducks the meaning of a decent society. The Meaning of Decent Society by Robert Reich, RobertReich.org December 20, 2013

Threats to democracy

Sedition: Crime of creating a revolt, disturbance, or violence against lawful civil authority with the intent to cause its overthrow or destruction…Advocating, encouraging, and sanc­tioning sedition is the new norm on the conservative side…a wake-up call for progressives…it’s time to openly con­front the fact that conservatives have spent the past 40 years systematically delegitimizing the very idea of US government. When they’re in power, they mismanage it and defund it. When they’re out of power, they refuse to participate in running the country at all — indeed, they throw all their energy into thwarting the democratic process any way they can. When they need to win an election, they use violent, polarizing, eliminationist language against their opponents to motivate their base. This is sedition in slow motion, a gradual corrosive under­mining of the government’s authority and capability to run the country. And it’s been at the core of their politics going all the way back to Goldwater…puts the short-term needs of the Republi­can party ahead of the long-term viability of the American democracy they’ve sworn to uphold… They need to choose whose side they’re on: America’s, or their own. Guilty of Sedition? How the Right Is Undermining Our Government’s Authority and Capability to Run the Country by Sara Robinson

…It is an affront to our democracy that you need a specific identification to vote for a candidate, but not to finance one. Why is it so easy to buy a government, but becoming so hard to vote for one? Voter suppression laws, overzealous filibuster use, you name it — the Republicans use every tactic they can to stop our democracy from actually selecting the person with the most support. Why do they do this? It seems obvious: when you don’t have winning ideas, you change the rules of the game. When you can’t convince voters that you are the best choice, you restrict their ability to choose. Voter Suppression Is Treasonous by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm

10 Ways Our Democracy Is Crumbling Around Us 

On the Sabotage of Democracy by Bill Moyers

How the Wealthy Wage War on Democracy Itself

Citizenship

“We have an opening in this crisis for a deep transformation in American politics…But it requires people — this is the hard part — to get out of their sort of passive resignation…and engage among themselves in a much more serious role as citizens…to force the changing values of the system.” William Grieder being interviewed by Bill Moyers, July 24, 2008

“It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defense of it.”   George Washington

… the public school system should prepare citizens for democracy…why our public school system was founded in the first place. …History is the study of that which has happened. Civics prepares each and every one of us to make our own history, by giving us the skills to navigate our democracy…we are failing to educate our children about their critical role as citizens…Our young people’s civic ignorance is a long-term threat…Three R’s and a Why by Andrea Batista Schlesinger

Speaking Out Is at the Heart of Being a Citizen

 Governance

The Repub­li­cans have changed Amer­i­can pol­i­tics…the Repub­li­can Party may no longer be a nor­mal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a fac­tion that is more of a psy­cho­log­i­cal protest than a prac­ti­cal, gov­ern­ing alter­na­tive…The mem­bers of this move­ment do not accept the logic of com­pro­mise, no mat­ter how sweet the terms. The mem­bers of this move­ment do not accept the legit­i­macy of schol­ars and intel­lec­tual author­i­ties…The mem­bers of this move­ment have no sense of moral decency…if respon­si­ble Repub­li­cans don’t take con­trol, inde­pen­dents will con­clude that Repub­li­can fanati­cism caused this default. They will con­clude that Repub­li­cans are not fit to gov­ern.  And they will be right.   The Mother of All No-Brainers by David Brooks, New York Times

Think of it as a two-part strategy. First, obstruct any and all efforts to strengthen the economy, then exploit the economy’s weakness for political gain. If this strategy sounds cynical, that’s because it is… do Republicans really believe that government spending is bad for the economy? No.… why is Mr. Romney denouncing these [defense] cuts? Because, he says, they would cost jobs! This is classic “weaponized Keynesianism” — the claim that government spending can’t create jobs unless the money goes to defense contractors, in which case it’s the lifeblood of the economy. And no, it doesn’t make any sense…As anyone who was paying attention knows, the period during which Democrats controlled both houses of Congress was marked by unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate…  this obstructionism is real, and arguably is the biggest single reaon for our ongo­ing economic weakness. And what happens if the strategy of obstruct-and-exploit succeeds? Is this the shape of politics to come? If so, America will have gone a long way toward becoming an ungovernable banana republic. Obstruct and Exploit by Paul Krugman, New York Times, September 9, 2012

Our political problem, in a nutshell: The party of government is afraid to defend government. Nothing will really change until that changes.  The Greatest Story Never Told by Michael Tomasky

…Any society that allows the market to constitute the axis and framing mechanisms for all social interactions has not just lost its sense of morality and responsibility; it is given up its claim on any vestige of a democratic future. Market fundamentalism along with its structure of extreme inequality and machinery of cruelty has proven to be a death sentence on democracy. The time has come…to rethink what a real democracy might look like and to consider what it will take to actually organize collectively to make it happen. Trickle-Down Cruelty and the Politics of Austerity by Henry A. Giroux

…the fundamental debate we should be having is not the size of government but what the goal of government should be…for both policy and political reasons, the Democrats need to firmly pick the side of middle class and low income Americans, and not worry so much about preserving and protecting the establishment. The Mission of Government by Mike Lux

Washington Has Been Stopped in Its Tracks by Republican Tea Party Types, and It’s Destroying the Country

Why America Can’t Pass Gun Control

Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein

Millionaires Are Now the Majority in Congress: The 1% Literally Rule Us

Government – moral authority

.…Whether government is serving its biblical purpose of protecting from evil and promoting good, is more important than ideological debates about its size. How can we move from an ethic of endless growth to an ethic of sustainability, from short-term profits to longer term human flourishing, from the use and consumption of the earth to stewardship and creation care? Protect­ing “life” can no longer be restricted to a few issues, but must be consistently applied to wherever human life and dignity are threatened… The prerequisite for solving the deepest prob­lems this country and the world now face is a commitment to a very ancient idea whose time has urgently come: the common good.… The Prerequisite of the Common Good by Jim Wallis

…Our current discussion of what constitutes “freedom” is shaped far too much by a deeply flawed right-wing notion that every action by government is a threat to personal liberty and that the one and only priority of those who care about keeping people free is for government to do less than it does. This perspective ignores the many ways over the course of our history in which government has expanded the autonomy of our citizens. Consider how much less freedom so many of us would have without civil rights or voting rights laws, without government student loans, without labor laws, without public schools and without Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. (And we don’t take seriously enough the implications of a most basic fact of our national story: that it took big government in Washington to outlaw slavery.)…we need to think more about “positive liberty,” the ability to realize certain goals in our lives. Democratic government can create the framework in which we have more power to reach those ends… Family values hypocrisy By E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, December 15, 2014

Anti-government hysteria

Teaching the middle class to hate their government was an essential part of the [conservative] plan… A middle class cannot exist without a strong government. This is because only a government has the power to stand up to the giant corporations of today’s world …Thirty years ago at the onset of the Reagan Revolution, the middle class basically appreciated and respected their government…the basic message of Reagan and the conservatives was that everyone would be better off if the federal government just disappeared. They were smart enough not to say this directly, however. Instead, they just landed one body blow after another without openly expressing their desire to destroy the government…. Teaching People to Hate Their Own Govt. Is at the Core of the Project to Destroy the Middle Class By Dennis Marker

Government and corporations

They want to control and privatize government resources. Capitalism is exhausted here. It needs more public money. It’s always needed public money, it needs more now. When you look at the growth of capitalism in America from railroads all the way to the computer, it’s publicly funded…So the reinvention of capitalism is the issue, and the reinvention of government is what is happening. So capitalism is directly claiming public investment now…That’s the system they are steadily building — prisons, schools, public parks, there’s a conversion of the whole system into an investment of capital which is a major extension of what’s always been true. … The Big Picture: A 40-Year Scan of the Right-Wing Corporate Takeover of America 

The Biggest Engine of Economic Growth? 8 Ways Taxpayers and the Government Are Necessary to Capitalism 

Privatization

Five Ways privatization degrades America

The Campaign to Privatize the World 

Military-industrial complex

War Profiteers Make Millions At the Expense of the Public

Corporations Profit From Permanent War 

US Government Pays Contractors Twice as Much as Civil Servants for the Same Work

Overview – Citizenship

“We have an opening in this crisis for a deep transformation in American politics…But it requires people — this is the hard part — to get out of their sort of passive resignation…and engage among themselves in a much more serious role as citizens…to force the changing values of the system.” William Grieder being interviewed by Bill Moyers, July 24, 2008

“It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defense of it.”   George Washington

… the public school system should prepare citizens for democracy…why our public school system was founded in the first place. …History is the study of that which has happened. Civics prepares each and every one of us to make our own history, by giving us the skills to navigate our democracy…we are failing to educate our children about their critical role as citizens…Our young people’s civic ignorance is a long-term threat…Three R’s and a Why by Andrea Batista Schlesinger

The idea that fewer than 1 percent of Americans are being called on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq…is obscene. All decent people should object…the overwhelming majority of Americans have no desire at all to share in the sacrifices that the service members and their families are making…The reason it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to continue fighting year after year after year, is because so few Americans feel the actual pain of those wars…… A Fearful Price By Bob Herbert

…the will to fight is the anti­dote to despair, the cure for cynicism… the capacity to see, to feel and then to act as if the future depended on you. Believe me, it does. The Delusional Is No Longer Marginal by Bill Moyers, January 30, 2005 StarTribune, Minneapolis

Speaking Out Is at the Heart of Being a Citizen