Cultural roots of our political problems

On 15th April 2019, David Brooks published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Five lives our culture tells: the cultural roots of our political problems” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/opinion/cultural-revolution-meritocracy.html). Brooks begins his piece with the observation that the United States is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis because it is a culture based on lies. As I read each “lie”, I was struck by the way his arguments resonated with all the good work we are trying to do at the CMM Institute and with our vision of Cosmopolis.

Brooks identifies the five lies as a) career success is fulfilling, b) you can make yourself happy, c) life is an individual journey, d) you have to find your own truth, and f) rich and successful people are worth more than poorer or less successful people. All of these lies are rooted in a world-view in which hyper-individualism is rampant and any sense of interdependence falls by the wayside.

Consider the second lie about happiness. Brook’s labels this as the lie of self-sufficiency. It presumes that happiness is an individual accomplishment, something that each of us as individuals is capable of achieving, independent of others. Yet, as Brooks counters so eloquently:

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.

The idea of having to find your own meaning in life is another extraordinary example of the belief in self- sufficiency. Brooks, very evocatively labels this particular lie as the lie of the “privatization of meaning”. For him, it is a lie because it presumes that each and every one of us has to come up with our (unique) answer to life’s ultimate questions and to do so all by ourselves. This in itself seems quite an extraordinary belief, but in some ways, it becomes even more extraordinary when you consider that the same belief in the privatization of meaning though underlies just about everything to do with meaning across the board. In everyday life so many of us just assume, and act accordingly, that we independently create meaning and then pass it on to others in our messages to them. This is in stark contrast to the sense that meaning (of anything and everything) is a jointly constructed affair.

The worldview identified by Brooks as one that valorises hyper-independence is so entrenched in our everyday lives and in the myriad of stories we tell to make sense of our lives, that it is hard to imagine it any other way. Indeed, it is so entrenched we believe it to be “true”. In the light of that belief it makes some sense for Brooks to call the ramifications “lies” but in another sense they are merely different stories. But, just as with the ordinary meaning of a lie, any story can mislead. Brooks certainly thinks the hyper-individualism story does so and he points the finger directly at this story being the root cause of the current political tensions we are experiencing around the world.

The article by Brooks is based on his most recent book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (Penguin Random House, 2019). In that book, Brooks offers alternative, and compelling stories to the story of hyper-individualism. These are stories about people who have lived joyous, committed lives and have done so by changing from “self-centered” to “other centered”.

This idea of being “other-centered” rather than “self-centered” is a core belief in the CMM story and, interestingly, a core belief in many other cultures around the world. That many cultures are other-centered rather than self-centered further attests to the idea that the belief in hyper-individualism is no more than that—a belief. There are many other possible stories and we believe that those other-centered stories are far more likely to serve us well in our complex 21st century life. Cosmopolis is full of those stories.

This post first appeared on cosmopolis2045.com

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