Think for a moment on how much you know about the world around you. If there’s a debate about banning a very useful chemical because some people have found it is toxic or dangerous, what is your opinion? If that’s too much, what do you know about how the operations of the Legislature that is debating your taxes and services for the next year? Perhaps we should try something simpler – how do you know if the sneakers you are wearing were made with child labor?
Perhaps you say, “I don’t care. I’m too bizzy to worry about it all. There are experts to handle these things, I’ll trust them.” Which ones do you trust? In the next election, do you vote based on an appeal to your guts because it sounds right, and what do you get for it?
A world that is running at absolute peak efficiency is one that is going to be highly specialized. People focus on doing one thing and doing it well. Citizens of this world are often defined by the profession they have chosen, the query often coming right after a handshake. But if we don’t understand, at least intuitively, what all these other bizzy people are doing how can we understand who they are? If we don’t understand our world and the people that make it up, what does that mean for Democracy?
Right now, we live in a world of increasing urbanization. Our lives are interconnected, making specialization possible, and typically settled in vast metroplexes. Our daily grind is no longer defined by the rhythms of the earth but the machinations of people – where the roads go, where the jobs are, and when the kids have a playdate.
This world is based on trust of one kind or another. You don’t necessarily have to trust everyone, but you do have to have some faith in the ability of your co-workers, the credibility of the school system, the cleanliness of the grocery store, and so on. The jargon all of these specialized areas use make it hard to understand what’s going on even if you ask a good question. Yet even if you don’t really know what people are doing, because it’s all so technical and specialized, you have to believe in them.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. A rural world is one where people have to pay at least as much attention to the natural world around them even as they manipulate it. It may seem harder to understand, but we developed intuitive ways of at least getting into the rhythms, knowing in our guts if not our heads when something wasn’t right. We came from this world, after all, swinging out of the trees with all the confidence given to any creature of this earth.
Mythology and religion traditionally explain how things are with good enough sense that it’s comforting. The story of Persephone, for example, tells us that winter is 6 months because she ate that many pomegranate seeds in the kingdom of the dead (a period long enough that I swear it was written in Minnesota, not Greece). It may not be accurate, but people who knew the stories felt they understood their world. Today, these stories of nature are far less effective than they used to be. Jesus is often referred to as the “Shepard,” a label handed down from a time when sheep were well known to people. When the only sheep anyone sees are in a petting zoo, what does this say about how we see Jesus?
Nature is also very concrete and real. Dr. George Washington Carver would spend a lot of time cultivating his plants largely to get to know them personally. He said of this meditative process, “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough.” While this is a fabulous way to clear you mind and open your heart to a deep understanding of the world, can you imagine loving a highway that much?
An urban world of physical and social structures made entirely by people should, reasonably, be even more understandable to people than a natural world that has its own ways. Yet we are set up biologically and through our inherited culture to understand the natural world intuitively and have no equivalent way of relating to all the specialties of urban life. The artificial world of manufactured goods is one of brain, not heart.
While it is obvious that someone, somewhere, thought up and made all of these things, we would have to have their intellect as well as everyone else’s to understand everything that is happening all around us. Since there’s no intuitive guide to know it in our guts, we usually decide to give up. What about that chemical that we want to ban? Must be those evil environmentalists/corporations at work again. The state budget? Those liberals/conservatives are trying to screw us. The sneakers? Let’s ask those activists/stores.
As our own ability to make up our minds, either intellectually or intuitively, breaks down the only response left is tribal. It’s a matter of who you trust, and generally that’s one group over another. Tribalism is a form of intuition, but it’s the most base and cowardly kind. It’s about belonging, not understanding. When our basic approach to life is defined by our tribe, our specialty, and other ways of stating how we fit in, can we really afford the rather intellectual luxury called “Democracy”?