Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: Okay. Cool. Well, my microphone’s cutting in and out, so hopefully we’ll make it through this damn thing.
Micah Saul: Jesus.
Anderson: We won’t have to keep recording it over and over again.
Saul: So, November 7, 2012. Last night, we had an election. We sat around in the the war room here in Brooklyn, followed the computers, watched the results come in on the surreal idiot festival known as Fox News.
Was I editorializing there?
Saul: Ehhh, a little.
Anderson: That may have actually been an objective statement.
Saul: I’ll buy it. [both laugh]
Anderson: There’s been a lot of talk about the election. Talking about elections, though, was something that got us into this project. Talking about the strange kabuki theater of politics that appears to be having a conversation about things, and may not be having a conversation about things. But that’s… We could be walking on coals there if I say that. There’s been a lot of discussion this election about, is there any real difference between the candidates?
Saul: Right. Sherman Alexie had a great post on Twitter, “If you say there’s no difference between the two candidates, stop being so white.”
Anderson: And though Sherman Alexie didn’t say it, I think a lot of other friends of mine would’ve said stop being so male.
Saul: Yup. Or stop being so straight. Or stop being so…comfortably middle-class.
Anderson: Or so comfortably numb, that would’ve been the Pink Floyd response. But, I think a lot of this has to do with…let’s reference Henry Louis Taylor, it has to do with framing. What are the differences we’re talking about? How do we parse those differences? Because I think for a lot of the people who are saying, “Hey, there is no difference between these candidates,” they’re looking at a different set of issues, and they’re looking at a different timeframe
Saul: Right. By no stretch of the imagination were there not incredibly important issues on the table last night.
Anderson: Which make a difference in your day-to-day life, now.
Saul: Right. Women’s reproductive health. Gay rights. Race issues. Class issues.
Anderson: To some extent. The first two I’ll totally give you.
Saul: The first two for sure.
Anderson: The next two, I’m not sure.
Saul: My question is, were they really being paid more than lip service?
Anderson: And you know, this is something we’ve talked about before, and this is something where where’s a word here that comes in really handy: inoculation. There are a lot of issues that are brought up in incredibly facile ways, that make it seem as if we are having a conversation about things that I think deep in our hearts we know matter. But, by talking about them, by just mentioning them, we get off the hook for actually doing something, for actually thinking about them creatively. And, for using them as a gateway into talking about much deeper, larger, systemic questions.
Saul: Right. I agree with that completely. Obviously women’s health, race, class, LGBT rights… These are incredibly important things. These are the Conversation. These are new things.
On the national stage? They’re not the conversation. Because to actually have those be the conversation, you would have to go to these deeper systemic issues that are at the root of all of that inequality.
Anderson: Right. And so it’s like we’ve got all these proxy wars going, where people are fighting bitterly over these things. And if you could sort of go back to the original global conflict almost, of ideas, I think you’d get to some interesting arational assumptions. Some of which would be different. Some of which might be very similar. And then you’d wonder why the hell are these proxy wars going on?
Saul: Right. So let’s talk about those systems, I think, that that aren’t being mentioned. Certainly on Fox News, or MSNBC, or by Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama.
Anderson: I think they rarely appear even in really good publications. There’s this giant inertia in how we talk about politics, right. We know the language, we know the buzzwords, we know the issues. But we don’t know the issues. So if we burrow down there and we go, “Okay what are we really talking about?” Well, we talk about the individual tension with the community. What rights does the individual have? We talk about egalitarianism. How much of a role do systems play in our lives. In other words, the cultural context that we come from. How much do we weight that, in terms of thinking of people? Can you be trapped, based on where you were born, the income bracket [you were born in]. Like, how much of a social ladder is there, and how much agency do you have as an individual to climb up it?
Those are beneath a lot of these things. But those really— I mean, I don’t think I’ve heard discussed, and I honestly don’t think you could discuss them. Look, we live in a democracy and it’s like, there are some rules you have to play by. And mentioning certain things will sink your career immediately. You’re trapped by expectations into not having the Conversation.
Saul: Well, there’s a depressing thought, isn’t it?
Anderson: And I mean, that’s something that we need to bring up in this project, too. To have someone to really look at democracy. I want to get someone who will question democracy. We’ve talked about this before, but someone who’ll really say like, “Look, democracies…sometimes they work. I mean, we’ve had a great run with this one. It’s better than any other form of government that we know of. But. What about when they self-liquidate? What about when Athens votes to go to war and itself destroyed? What about when you get an election of people who dismantle the democratic system? What about when you get a state of intellectual deadlock?” Maybe that’s less bad, but maybe it’s not. I don’t know.”
You know, talking about things that can and can’t be questioned. The Constitution is a sacrosanct document, in a lot of ways, I think for both parties.
Saul: Yeah. God forbid we question how that should govern our lives now, and what changes might need to be made to govern our lives now, in a…well, in some ways a much better world, in some ways a far far worse world.
Anderson: And in a lot of ways a world where…the interdependent systems that we talk about so much in this project are carrying an enormous enormous population. And they need to keep working, to keep that population alive. And I think some of our thinkers talk a lot about crisis. For them, the conversation that’s happening on TV is more surreal and absurd than anything we could even begin to describe, right. I mean, if you are concerned about the planet heating up and Bangladesh being flooded, if you are concerned about the economic system collapsing and a very centralized food infrastructure not getting distributed, then this conversation, the one we see on TV is ridiculous. We’re talking about the economic system melting down, and two candidates who seem to be pursuing exactly the same course: infinite growth in a finite system.
Saul: Yeah, and you nailed it on the head there. That is the fundamental question of I think this project. How do we deal with a system built on infinite growth in a finite system? I don’t think we realized that’s what the project was going to be about. But that seems to be one of the core questions here.
Anderson: It’s funny. I mean, what is civilization for? Well, it’s for a type of survival. It’s for a better quality of life, and a type of survival. And it feels like many of our thinkers will go, “Look, we don’t know when this is coming, but there’s a fundamental contradiction in the way we’ve set things up now, in all of our assumptions of the normal world.” What the economy’s for, who it serving, how it grows.
Saul: So, do you think it’s possible to have a conversation about those bigger issues, on the national stage, without some sort of crisis?
Anderson: Man, I don’t know. And I think that’s been one of the interesting things in this project, has been for us to sort of go through all of these conversations and explore those ideas ourselves. It’s like, I wanted to think that conversation mattered more in the beginning, and I think I was willing to say, “Well look at these different historical times where there seemed to be conversations,” and like, at the moment, I feel like I’m more aligned with Joseph Tainter than I want to be. You know, the idea that look, we’re just going to plunge headlong into a collapse unless we get kicked in the price mechanism early enough to make a change.
But we’re dealing with things that are so big that they don’t always have a reverse gear. Like, the climate…maybe, I mean, you know, I’ll be talking to David Keith soon. He’ll be talking about geoengineering. Maybe you can cool the planet down a little bit. But is that really a reverse gear? If the economic system goes off the rails, is there a reverse gear? I don’t know.
Saul: Yeah, it’s hard to call a mulligan on a depression.
Anderson: You know, I talked to John Fullerton at the Capital Institute. His is another conversation that will be coming up. He’s a former Director of JP Morgan. We were talking about these sort of big, long-term issues, and warming. And he was saying, “You know what? I’ve spent my entire career assessing risk in the financial world. Thinking about the risks that we’re currently taking with the environment and the impacts that could have?” He’s like, no one would bet on that. It’s a terrible bet. And yet, why are we so nonchalant about risks with the climate?
Saul: That’s actually an interesting way of of framing it. Because our economic system is entirely based on risk. And that’s how many people understand the world. Risk versus reward. What if we could start framing these larger systemic issues in that language? So, maybe Tainter is right. Maybe the best way to point out these issues is through the pocketbook. But what if we can point out how that relates to the pocketbook, without the crisis?
Anderson: And that’s the hope. But I think there’s also another problem that we just don’t know the risks a lot of the time, right? In this, in our conversation right here and in my conversation that I was just describing with John Fullerton, there’s an assumption that we probably won’t deal with any sort of global warming well. Because it’s a deviation from the status quo. We know the status quo, environmentally, more or less.
But what if it’s great for land development in Canada? What if it’s great for enough people, everyone who’s not living anywhere near the water? Everyone way up North. That there’s just a big contingent who really do legitimately benefit from it. And for them the risk is totally worth it.
Saul: Right. Ew.
Anderson: Which in a weird way this I mean this makes me think of some of the transhumanist ideas that’ve come up with Tim Cannon, or with Max More, where we’re talking about risk and reward in terms of becoming a different species, becoming a better thing. And are you willing to make a choice for something that might reward you, but might risk everyone else? And the willingness to say yes to that.
Saul: We talk a lot, and we’ve even mentioned earlier in this this conversation, about the tension between individualists and communalists. And the ability to say yes to that question… We were originally pinning it as being an individualist statement. The more I think about it, I think “individualist” is the wrong word. Because individualist implies…it implies atomization. It implies that we’re all individuals. But it also implies that we are all individuals, and that the core unit is persons. If you’re willing to make a choice for all of the rest of the individuals, you’re not an individualist. You’re an egoist. Or maybe a fascist.
Anderson: Yikes. I am not calling Max More or Tim Cannon a fascist here, by the way. But there is a scary thing to being willing to make a choice for everyone.
Anderson: And you know, I mean in the upcoming conversation I have with David Keith about geoengineering, that is exactly the scenario we’re talking about. There’s a situation in which one or two people can decide to cool the planet.
Saul: Peter Thiel could decide tomorrow, to do that.
Anderson: And maybe it would be better for us. And maybe we would never get the political momentum together because maybe we are structurally biased against having a substantive conversation about the environment. And that’s the flipside.
Anderson: Right. They make the trains run on time. That’s what it is. And I think that’s one of the things that it’s so interesting to be discussing, and another thing that we just can’t really put on the table. Democracy has strengths, and it has weaknesses. There’s always a question of, are the weaknesses going to prevent us from taking meaningful action beforehand against something that we cannot reverse if it happens?
Anderson: And set against that backdrop, going back to the election that we started from, it does seem parodic. Even as it matters.
Saul: And that’s…that’s the rub, is it does matter.
Anderson: Right. It just…it doesn’t matter in all of the ways we need it to.
Anderson: And it gets us back, once again, like every conversation, to Ragnarök. I voted by mail, in my blood-red home state, for Barack Obama. Completely unimpressed with him as a candidate, feeling that he talks about none of the substantive issues that I’m very concerned about, and more concerned about because of this damn projects making me crazier and crazier. [laughs] And at the same time you vote for him because the alternative is terrible.
And that’s just within America, which is this teeny little part of this much bigger conversation where the cars that are being bought and sold in India, the coal plants that are being opened up in China… All of these things have just as much of an effect on the world that we are entering into. And we can’t vote on that.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.