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.

Saul: Right.

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?

Saul: Right.

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.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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