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.


Anderson: Ahoy, sir.

Saul: How’s it going, man?

Anderson: It’s going alright. Getting ready to launch this project. Got the first inter­view tomorrow.

Saul: Awesome. That’s Reverend John Fife, right?

Anderson: Yeah, it is. And you know, I’ve been think­ing about…as we were cook­ing up ideas of who we want­ed to talk to, and try­ing to think of that per­fect first inter­view, I think John Fife is going to be real­ly good.

Saul: So, I’ve got to admit I don’t know a whole lot about him. I think you men­tioned him to me last time I was vis­it­ing you up on a moun­tain. You kin­da point­ed out his church. Real quick, just tell me who this guy is.

Anderson: Okay, yeah. So in the ear­ly 80s, he was one of the co-founders of the Sanctuary Movement, which is basi­cal­ly a modern-day Underground Railroad, help­ing peo­ple who were flee­ing civ­il wars in Central America find sanc­tu­ary in the US. And that was orches­trat­ed start­ing pri­mar­i­ly through church­es in Tuscon, and it branched out to like 500 church­es and syn­a­gogues across the coun­try help­ing these peo­ple basi­cal­ly not get killed. As you would expect, the US gov­ern­ment didn’t want these peo­ple com­ing in. It was illegal. 

So long sto­ry short, Reverend Fife and some of the oth­er founders of the Sanctuary Movement are help­ing peo­ple in. The FBI sends infor­mants into their church­es and oth­er con­gre­ga­tions and starts spy­ing on them. Eventually takes them to court. Reverend Fife end­ed up doing five years pro­ba­tion. But a lot of peo­ple came into the US through the Sanctuary Movement who might have actu­al­ly died in Central America. They came in ille­gal­ly, but that was prob­a­bly what saved their lives.

Saul: I mean, in some way this seems like a fair­ly old idea. This is the sanc­ti­ty of human life over the sanc­ti­ty of world­ly governments.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: In many ways this is a fun­da­men­tal­ly old, Christian idea. What makes this new?

Anderson: One of the inter­est­ing things that I think we’re going to face again and again in this project is like, so many ideas that are very out­side of the main­stream now, ideas that chal­lenge our com­mon sense, are old ideas. And they may be old ideas that were nev­er real­ly imple­ment­ed, or old ideas that were in fash­ion, fell out, and maybe will come back anoth­er day. So I think Christianity has so many of these ideas that are still incred­i­bly con­tro­ver­sial. And the idea that some­one like Reverend Fife or any of his oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tors in the Sanctuary Movement are basi­cal­ly assum­ing that God’s law is high­er than nation­al law. That we have a duty. That peo­ple have sort of intrin­sic val­ue and it’s your duty to help them when they need it. And it’s real­ly remark­able that you know, I mean… As a nation that is so obser­vant, that his posi­tion is actu­al­ly so radical.

Saul: Yeah. That is very interesting.

Anderson: I feel like he’s tak­ing an old idea. His imple­men­ta­tion of it is still chal­leng­ing our com­mon sense. So I feel that here’s a guy, maybe he’s not that well-known out­side of peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in human­i­tar­i­an aid. Maybe he’s not that well-known out­side of the south­west­ern US. But his ideas are I think real­ly part of, or could be, a part of the Conversation.

Saul: I’m sold. That sounds good.

Anderson: What are some of the ques­tions you’d want to ask him? This is our first inter­view, so we’re still going to be get­ting our sea legs here.

Saul: Right. I think what we were just talk­ing about is some­thing that I would be inter­est­ed in hear­ing from him. How do you rec­on­cile the idea of the sanc­ti­ty of human life with world­ly pol­i­tics? Is it your duty to go against the law if you think that it’s fun­da­men­tal­ly deny­ing the rights of anoth­er human? What does that mean for the exis­tence of nations in the future?

Anderson: Suddenly we’ve tak­en this huge jump from the Sanctuary Movement and the idea of treat­ing these peo­ple with com­pas­sion, and there’s a weird sort of log­i­cal exten­sion there that gets us to the idea of like, a cri­tique of the nation-state. That is big.

Saul: It’s a large con­cep­tu­al jump but I do feel the lat­ter fol­lows from the for­mer. I’m very intrigued to hear what he has to say.

Anderson: We’ll see, and hope­ful­ly I don’t screw up this first con­ver­sa­tion too bad­ly. I’ll give you a ring once I wrap it up tomor­row and we can maybe do a lit­tle follow-up and we can talk about our next con­ver­sa­tion, who’s going to be Dr. Max More at Alcor.

Saul: Sounds good to me.

Anderson: Okay.

Saul: Alright, man. Well, have an excel­lent inter­view tomor­row morn­ing, and I’ll talk to you tomor­row afternoon.

Anderson: Sounds good. I’ll catch you then.

Saul: Excellent. Take care.

Anderson: Okay.


John Fife: Borders are always fas­ci­nat­ing places. No mat­ter where you are on the globe, bor­ders are unique places of tran­si­tion and migra­tion and rela­tion­ships. I mean, one of the rea­sons I came to Tuscon was pre­cise­ly because of that. I fell in love with it and have obvi­ous­ly spent a life­time here on this bor­der. Didn’t plan to get mixed up in it quite to the extent that I have. But that’s the nature of bor­ders, right? 

So, the first cri­sis that we had to deal with was the cri­sis that led to the Sanctuary Movement. It hap­pened to us and it hap­pened on this bor­der, so we had to fig­ure out what’s our role in this new con­text that’s emerged on the bor­der. And it was basi­cal­ly my col­league Jim Corbett who came to me and said let’s look at his­to­ry, and there were two moments he point­ed to. One was the abo­li­tion move­ment in this coun­try, when slaves were try­ing to cross state lines to more and more secure places and were in jeop­ardy of course of being cap­tured and returned to slav­ery, and [he] said as we look back the folks who did it right were the folks who smug­gled slaves across the bor­der and moved them through an under­ground railroad. 

And then the sec­ond time he point­ed to was the 1930s in Europe when Jews and oth­er vic­tims of the Holocaust were flee­ing across nation­al bor­ders, and the com­plete fail­ure of the church and most of Europe, most of the world, is just a trag­ic fail­ure of human beings and insti­tu­tions, quite frankly. 

And so he sim­ply said, We can’t allow what hap­pened in Europe in the 30s to hap­pen on this bor­der, now.” So final­ly after a cou­ple of months I went to him and said, Damnit, Jim, you’re right. I can’t be a pas­tor of a church and ignore what’s going on here.”

And that led even­tu­al­ly to the Sanctuary Movement and that whole decade, which turned out to be an impor­tant moment. We learned that church­es and syn­a­gogues could form the base of a social move­ment, and that faith com­mu­ni­ties could engage in active non-violent resis­tance to gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy. And that we could change it. We even­tu­al­ly got them to stop the depor­ta­tions to El Salvador and Guatemala and give every­body who was here with­out doc­u­ments some legal status. 

That was a dif­fi­cult but impor­tant decade, and I learned a lot about the fact that the church and faith com­mu­ni­ties could take advan­tage of the nat­ur­al rela­tion­ships of church­es on both sides of the bor­der, and we could do bi-national stuff very eas­i­ly because of what we had in common. 

And last­ly that we could engage in non-violent active resis­tance and make it stick. And they floun­dered around and flailed around try­ing dif­fer­ent tac­tics that they had used against social reform move­ments in the past. And they were not suc­cess­ful. They real­ly blun­dered, badly.

Anderson: Do you think the fact that you were reli­gious made a dif­fer­ence there?

Fife: Yeah. It made a huge dif­fer­ence. They acknowl­edged in some of their doc­u­ments that they real­ly didn’t want to go up against us, but final­ly had to because we were a sig­nif­i­cant move­ment that was caus­ing them all kinds of prob­lems. So when they moved, they moved in tra­di­tion­al ways. Well, we’ll pick off the lead­er­ship and tie them up in tri­als and crim­i­nal charges and stuff like that. And the Sanctuary Movement dou­bled dur­ing the tri­al [laughs] cause reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties respond­ed like we had hoped they would, and that is real­ized, Oh, we have to be pub­lic, and we have to act now.”

The gov­ern­ment nev­er fig­ured out what to do with us.

Anderson: That’s great.

Fife: And final­ly gave it up.

So those were impor­tant lessons dur­ing that decade. Now the cri­sis is very dif­fer­ent on the bor­der. Now the cri­sis on the bor­der is the whole con­text of can nation­al bor­ders in the name of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty be defend­ed mil­i­tar­i­ly, with walls and tech­nol­o­gy and boots on the ground and armed forces and bor­der patrol and all this stuff that we’re seeing?

The attempt to do that has made the Tuscon sec­tor of the bor­der, which is real­ly from the New Mexico bor­der to Yuma, that sec­tor of the bor­der has been the epi­cen­ter now since about ’99, 2,000, of the migra­tion and drug traf­fick­ing that used to occur along 300 miles of bor­der, 2,300 plus. And the dis­as­ter that has occurred has been the thou­sands of deaths of poor migrant work­ers and women and chil­dren out here in the desert. This bor­der enforce­ment strat­e­gy is trag­ic in that it’s caused, delib­er­ate­ly, to use the death of poor peo­ple as a deter­rent, as a strat­e­gy to enforce the bor­der, which is in my lan­guage a sin. It’s a gross vio­la­tion of human rights, in sec­u­lar terms.

And it’s been a fail­ure. The bor­der is no more secure today, after all of the hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars that’s been spent on this ven­ture, than it ever was. And it’s been total­ly unnec­es­sary from any kind of strate­gic per­spec­tive. And so what’s the rea­son for it? 

The sec­ond real­i­ty is the price of cocaine on the streets of the United States has not changed over the last thir­ty years. It’s actu­al­ly gone down a lit­tle bit, which means that the car­tels are over-supplying the need here in the United States.

And third­ly, it has result­ed in not only the deaths of thou­sands of poor migrant work­ers and their fam­i­lies, but it has meant real labor short­ages in many areas of our econ­o­my here in the United States over that peri­od of time. So what’s this all about? That ques­tion is crit­i­cal to under­stand­ing this whole phe­nom­e­non and try­ing to deal with it.

Anderson: That’s that kind of link to where it becomes the real­ly big idea. When I’ve read about the issue, peo­ple feel like we have the right as a nation to police our bor­ders and to say who and who doesn’t come in. What’s the moral mind­set that allows you to say that?

Fife: The kind of eth­ic behind all of that is an out­mod­ed con­cept of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty, which is an 18th cen­tu­ry con­struct. There were no nation­al bound­aries until they had car­tog­ra­phers who had to draw maps of the world, and they had to draw in bor­ders and say, This is the United States. This is Mexico. This is Great Britain. This is France.” The polit­i­cal result of that was the con­cept of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty, that these nations had bor­ders now. And before that there were king­doms and there were mon­archs and realms and all that sort of thing, but it was a very flu­id con­cept and it was con­stant­ly chang­ing. The whole idea evolved that if that was the bor­der, then we had the right to define that bor­der and to defend it. And that’s been a con­stant since.

Anderson: Was that a step back­wards for sort of think­ing about peo­ple as a whole, like peo­ple as a people?

Fife: Yeah. Because peo­ple were con­tained and had an iden­ti­ty now of nation­al iden­ti­ty. Before, it was a cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, and got formed around lan­guage and cus­tom and reli­gion and all kinds of stuff. And that became a very flu­id con­cept, too, as we know from migra­tion through this area for cen­turies. There was this con­stant inter­ac­tion and exchange of cul­ture and trade and reli­gion, even. 

And now, the world as it’s con­struct­ed doesn’t pay any atten­tion to that. The idea of nation­al bound­aries and bor­ders and nation­al sov­er­eign­ty has all been blown away by glob­al­iza­tion. The econ­o­my has moved into a con­struct that says there’s no such thing as nation­al bor­ders or nation­al sov­er­eign­ty. We’ll move mon­ey and invest­ment and prod­ucts and the assem­bly of prod­ucts across all those lines with­out any regard to that stuff at all. So eco­nom­ics has changed the whole idea of what it means, that nation and bor­ders are total­ly irrelevant.

Except, on this bor­der and on all the oth­er bor­ders where they’re still cling­ing to that old idea, and there’s a deep-seated need to cling to the old. Whenever you see the whole world chang­ing, the imme­di­ate response of the cul­ture is always to go back to the good old days. To rein­force the con­cept of the tra­di­tion. So that’s what we’re see­ing right now along this bor­der, along with a huge renew­al of racism, which has always been a part of this nation’s his­to­ry and rela­tion­ship with new waves of immigration.

So I think that peo­ple are hav­ing a great deal of dif­fi­cul­ty now artic­u­lat­ing the irrel­e­vance of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty and that sort of thing. Folks don’t think in those terms. But the tra­di­tion­al way of deal­ing with the new real­i­ty is to just revert to racism. So that’s what we’re debat­ing. But that’s not an appro­pri­ate ground to talk about this issue.

Anderson: Right, it seems like that’s not how we dis­cuss it.

Fife: That’s right. That’s right. So we’re talk­ing the polit­i­cal rhetoric is all about defend­ing our bor­ders, and secur­ing our bor­ders, and the horde of brown-skinned threat from the south. And what the real con­ver­sa­tion ought to be about is what has glob­al­iza­tion done to us and the peo­ple south of here who are migrat­ing? And what’s it doing to the whole world? And why is the whole idea of the United States of America total­ly irrel­e­vant in the world we’re being thrown into? And nobody wants to have that conversation.

Anderson: And that’s kind of very much this con­ver­sa­tion, you know. I’ve trav­eled around and I’ve inter­viewed a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple sort of about the present. I sent a sum­mer ask­ing peo­ple what the most excit­ing thing in their life was, and what the most con­cern­ing thing was at the very moment that I met them. And what sur­prised me was how many peo­ple felt a real— It was real­ly odd. It was a sense of dis­qui­et about the present, where it seemed like— And these were peo­ple from all dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal back­grounds, peo­ple from the left who were real­ly wor­ried about the envi­ron­ment, peo­ple from the right who were wor­ried about the loss of val­ues or com­mu­ni­ty. But across the board they all seemed to have this sort of hold­ing onto the arms of the chair sense.

Fife: And they should. Because it is all changing.

Anderson: Yeah. It is.

Fife: More rapid­ly than they even know.

Anderson: And that, I find, makes me want to hold onto the arms of the chair, you know? 

So, are you opti­mistic about the future?

Fife: Yeah. Yeah. I’m very opti­mistic, because in many ways this glob­al­iza­tion thing is cre­at­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty for sig­nif­i­cant change, for gen­uine­ly exam­in­ing where is it we need to go. But glob­al­iza­tion is going to cre­ate that change that’s going to force us into the seri­ous dis­cus­sion about what that looks like. 

And I don’t think it’s too hard. If you look at the his­to­ry of this coun­try, what we did at the close of the 19th and through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry was deal with essen­tial­ly the same phe­nom­e­na. We had basi­cal­ly a neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic sys­tem in the 19th cen­tu­ry here, where cap­i­tal was free to do pret­ty much any­thing it want­ed to do. And what we learned out of that expe­ri­ence was that doesn’t work. It does not work. It results in what econ­o­mists call the exter­nal­i­ties of cap­i­tal­ism. You get a huge diver­gence between the very wealthy and the rest of the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion, duh. You get the exploita­tion of labor. And you get the exploita­tion of the envi­ron­ment, right.

Anderson: These sound like famil­iar themes.

Fife: That’s right. That’s right. So we grap­pled with that and we deter­mined, which I think many sec­tors of the glob­al econ­o­my are deter­min­ing now, you have to have cer­tain restraints on cap­i­tal. You have to put some bound­aries on the play­ing field. And you have to have an umpire.

Anderson: That seems like a real ques­tion of, we’re kind of get­ting to that point where cap­i­tal­ism and moral­i­ty sort of touch. Who’s the umpire and does the mar­ket have val­ues of itself?

Fife: Yeah. And the the­o­ry is the mar­ket has val­ue in itself. The invis­i­ble hand will even­tu­al­ly result in the great­est good for the great­est num­ber of people.

Anderson: So that’s sort of a util­i­tar­i­an idea.

Fife: Exactly. And what we learned was in the United States that doesn’t work. What we’re learn­ing glob­al­ly is it’s not work­ing for the vast major­i­ty of the peo­ple of globe. And the dri­ver for this con­clu­sion is already upon us. It is going to be the environment.

Anderson: That’s what I was going to ask.

Fife: It’s going to be the exploita­tion of the envi­ron­ment that dri­ves the rest of the agen­da, because as I under­stand it, unless we begin to put an umpire glob­al­ly in place, we’re going to pret­ty much destroy the plan­et by the end of the 21st century. 

So if that’s the dri­ver, then that’s going to enable us to raise the oth­er ques­tions. Where else do we need an umpire? Do we need an umpire in the bank­ing sys­tem? Do we need an umpire in the labor mar­ket? That was a bloody strug­gle here. It’s going to be a bloody strug­gle glob­al­ly. There’s no oth­er way that we do it, giv­en human beings.

But, I have great con­fi­dence that if we could do that in the United States, and Europe could do that, and lots and lots of oth­er places are doing it already, at the grass roots, we can do it glob­al­ly. And we’re going to have to con­ceive of and dream of glob­al insti­tu­tions that can be the umpire.

But what we’re see­ing now is that labor is also find­ing nation­al bor­ders irrel­e­vant, just like cap­i­tal already has for the last fifty years. And labor is respond­ing by say­ing, Okay, if there’s going to be all of this dis­place­ment by cap­i­tal of the labor mar­ket, then labor has to move.” And they’re mov­ing across bor­ders. And they’re not pay­ing any atten­tion to nation­al sov­er­eign­ty or nation­al visas or pass­ports. They’re going where the work is. And they’re going where they can feed their chil­dren. And that’s hap­pen­ing more­so than any time in history.

So the labor mar­ket is catch­ing up with the cap­i­tal mar­ket. And the thing they have in com­mon is there’s no such thing as a nation­al bor­der or nation­al sov­er­eign­ty any­more. Everything’s on the move and it’s mov­ing freely. And already we’re see­ing the envi­ron­ment being a major cause of migra­tion as well, globally.

So all those fac­tors are in play, but we can’t talk about it. We can’t talk about those very very impor­tant and sig­nif­i­cant issues, so we talk about build­ing walls and mil­i­ta­riz­ing bor­ders and we just can’t have that con­ver­sa­tion, polit­i­cal­ly. Because it scares the hell out of people.

Anderson: Well, it seems incred­i­bly dis­rup­tive. I mean it seems like we’d have to throw out all these ideas of gov­er­nance that we’ve had for so long.

Fife: Absolutely.

Anderson: And what do we replace them with?

Fife: Remember in the 19th and through much of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the mantra was state’s rights. We’re still grap­pling with it in some very old ways. Arizona wants to run its own immi­gra­tion sys­tem, right? So we’ve got a case in the Supreme Court, does state’s rights take prece­dent over fed­er­al law? Well, both of those are total­ly irrel­e­vant now. Both of those. Somebody ought to just say to the Supreme Court, Guys, we’re in the 21st cen­tu­ry. We should be talk­ing about the glob­al insti­tu­tions and the glob­al man­date that’s going to be nec­es­sary for us to even sur­vive at the end of the 21st century.”

Anderson: Yeah, I’m think­ing about the glob­al sur­vival and sort of going back to the idea of the umpire that you were talk­ing about ear­li­er. We’re hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion about where we’re going, what the future is any­way. How do we get sort of a moral foun­da­tion amongst all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple that have all these dif­fer­ent moral tra­di­tions, and a lot of peo­ple who I think have moral tra­di­tions that’ve also been over­laid with sort of a mar­ket ethos. Which is so it feels like we’ve got Christian cap­i­tal­ism here and you can have Confucian cap­i­tal­ism in China, but real­ly cap­i­tal­ism is wear­ing the pants. [crosstalk]

Fife: Is the dom­i­nant. That’s right. That’s right. Both of those faith com­mu­ni­ties have been cor­rupt­ed by cap­i­tal­ism. What a surprise.

Anderson: How do we get some­thing moral that’s more than just mar­ket moral­i­ty? Because it seems like even if it opens up free labor, or if we have mobile labor and mobile cap­i­tal, it’s still going to be run­ning on the path of exploit­ing resources at a rate that is always very fast.

Fife: Exactly. And you have Christians and Confucians and Islamists and Jews who have sold out to the idol of cap­i­tal­ism. Of course. Of course. That’s been true of every empire in his­to­ry, too, that the church has blessed what­ev­er the empire was up to.

But what has redeemed the faith com­mu­ni­ty through­out the cen­turies of his­to­ry has been that there has always been a sec­tor of the faith that has not sold out, that has recalled the gen­uine moral and eth­i­cal val­ues of that faith and its tra­di­tion, and has renewed that, and there­fore moved the agen­da into the future, that is moral and eth­i­cal and just. And peaceable.

So, that’s why I’m a part of the church. Because what else hap­pened to faith com­mu­ni­ties dur­ing that 19th/20th cen­tu­ry was we became a glob­al insti­tu­tion. We are glob­al­ized. And there­fore we have the capac­i­ty, the pos­si­bil­i­ty, of being the glob­al moral and eth­i­cal force that sets the agen­da for that umpire, okay? And I don’t want to say Christianity because that’s old, 19th cen­tu­ry stuff, too. But what I want to say is that the great faith tra­di­tions that are glob­al have that capac­i­ty. That’s Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism to a great extent. And indige­nous faiths, as well. 

So if you look at that con­fig­u­ra­tion, what you have is deep and eas­i­ly exploitable dif­fer­ences, but no dif­fer­ence eth­i­cal­ly. We’ve had those con­ver­sa­tions glob­al­ly, and all of those faith tra­di­tions have agreed on an eth­i­cal set of stan­dards that they all hold in com­mon. And so what I expect is that the old con­ver­sa­tion will be how do we exploit the dif­fer­ences in those reli­gious tra­di­tions so that there is not a con­ver­sa­tion about the com­mon eth­i­cal stan­dards of each of those groups? And at the same time you have seri­ous folks from each of those faith tra­di­tions iden­ti­fy­ing what their com­mon eth­i­cal stan­dards are and look­ing at the effects of glob­al­iza­tion and the neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic the­o­ry and say­ing, We need to take that on, together.”

So that’s going to be the strug­gle in the 21st cen­tu­ry, and I don’t have a crys­tal ball but I have a great deal of hope that, what is it Dr. King said? The arc of his­to­ry is long indeed, but it always bends toward jus­tice.” And that’s my read­ing of his­to­ry. Roughly trans­lat­ed, what Dr. King said means the bas­tards nev­er win in the long run, I think. And so I’m very hope­ful that we have moral and eth­i­cal insti­tu­tions that have the capac­i­ty to form the stan­dards of the umpire at the end of the 21st century.

Anderson: And it seems like to get there, you know you were men­tion­ing the envi­ron­ment and the idea that it seems like in a lot of ways this will come through some sort of crisis.

Fife: That’s right.

Anderson: Do you think there is—

Fife: That’s going to be the first crisis.

Anderson: Yeah, that’s what I was won­der­ing. Even if we just start with the first cri­sis, is there a chance that we don’t make it through?

Fife: Sure. There’s always a chance. We could blow this whole thing up. Yeah. But peo­ple have the capac­i­ty, and have demon­strat­ed it his­tor­i­cal­ly, to over­come what the­o­log­i­cal­ly we call evil.” And to keep mov­ing the agen­da ahead, step by step, ago­niz­ing step, dis­as­ter after dis­as­ter, war after war. But they keep mov­ing it ahead. We’re not where we were in the 19th century.

Anderson: Yes.

Fife: And we’re not where we were in the 20th cen­tu­ry. So I have gen­uine hope that we can pull this one off in the 21st cen­tu­ry. So, yeah.

Anderson: I’m going to be talk­ing in this project to a bunch of sort of tech­no­log­i­cal futur­ists, to a bunch of peo­ple who are into deep ecol­o­gy, to all sorts of dif­fer­ent folks. As I go down the road in the project I’ll be able to refer back to peo­ple, and we’re at the point where I can’t refer to any of these peo­ple back­wards. But I’ve read some of their ideas, so I just want to toss one or two of them into play. This is kind of a new idea for me. But futur­ists who are talk­ing about the idea of actu­al­ly chang­ing what we are. As I read more and more from these peo­ple who are think­ing about a future in which man through genet­ic engi­neer­ing improves his own intel­li­gence and tries to cre­ate super­in­tel­li­gent things, and for them that’s the future that they’re push­ing towards. And I won­der what kind of future is that and why is that good or why is it not good.

Fife: Well, it’s not good if the val­ues are the val­ues of the neolib­er­al mar­ket econ­o­my. If you can afford it and you can do it, you’re free to do it. And it’s only when peo­ple are free to do what­ev­er is pos­si­ble that there’s an invis­i­ble hand that will sort all that out and make it right. I don’t believe that. I do not believe that. I believe that just and peace­able com­mu­ni­ties have always been cre­at­ed when peo­ple have thought through the moral and eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions of those ques­tions. And that there is such a thing as a soul, a spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, that is also essen­tial to what it means to be human. And we can’t let the guys with the tech­nol­o­gy just have a free mar­ket, and trust the invis­i­ble hand, because we get things like bombs that will wipe out all of cre­ation. And peo­ple who are will­ing to use them.

Anderson: Well it seems like we’ve talked a lit­tle bit about this moment in time and how this is a moment where a lot of things are chang­ing. The premise of The Conversation, do you think that’s hap­pen­ing today?

Fife: No, I don’t think we’ve found the lan­guage to real­ly ask and pur­sue those ques­tions, because it’s polit­i­cal­ly not expe­di­ent to have this con­ver­sa­tion. So we have it about kind of dis­con­nect­ed, old con­cepts. And I hear peo­ple com­plain­ing about that who are real­ly pret­ty thought­ful peo­ple. We’re not able to engage in that dia­logue yet. So how do we move it? We won’t do that until we have the cri­sis. And the cri­sis is going to be glob­al and it’s going to be envi­ron­men­tal. And it’s only when we get to that point that we’re going to be able to have that conversation. 

Anderson: So there’s almost like a moment in his­to­ry that cre­ates the con­ver­sa­tion. The con­ver­sa­tion can’t just be…we can’t snap our fin­gers and have it.

Fife: You can’t do it.

Anderson: Yeah.

Fife: We’re not capa­ble, because we haven’t had the cri­sis yet.

Anderson: So it’s sort of like even though we all kind of can see that there’s a storm cloud off on the hori­zon [crosstalk] we’re just going to ride into it.

Fife: Oh, yeah. Everybody can see it. Everybody’s real­ly uncom­fort­able. Why live through a dull peri­od of his­to­ry, right?

Anderson: That’s true. 

Fife: Why be around when noth­ing much is chang­ing? Why not be there when every­thing is going to change, and you get to put an oar in that water? I’m real­ly envi­ous of guys your age, because you’re going to be there for the real crunch times and the real excite­ment and the real time of pos­si­bil­i­ty for enor­mous change. I wish I was going to be around for the next fifty years. I real­ly do. But they’re going to bury me very soon. So I’m going to miss out on the real­ly excit­ing stuff. Unfortunately, I’ve got to put up with the debate that’s com­plete­ly mis­placed, and the issues that don’t real­ly define the con­ver­sa­tion that we need to have about where do we want to be at the end of the 21st century?

Anderson: That was the Reverend John Fife, record­ed May 2, 2012 at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tuscon, Arizona.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

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


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