I was camping with a friend in southern California recently and we were talking about politics. Not “talking politics,” as in weighing the features of the Green New Deal or arguing blue vs. red – that is, policies and parties – but talking “about” politics. I gestured towards some nearby vegetation to make a point.
“See those two trees,” I asked. “Right next to each other there?”
My friend nodded and smiled. She saw where this was going.
I jumped up, ran over and stood between the pair. With exaggerated movements, I faced first one and then, ostentatiously, turned around to face the other. “They’re coming from completely different directions!” I declared. Allowing myself a smirk I said, “That’s the perspective of a partisan Democrat or a Republican.”
I jogged back to her. “But from here, it’s easy to see how close they are to each other.”
Indeed, the branches of the two trees were growing in each other’s airspace, meaning that their roots were probably entangled under the surface. They were quite literally drawing their sustenance from the same ground.
I pointed up at the rocky hills behind us. “And from up there, the view is different again.”
“You might not be able to tell them apart,” she said.
I nodded. “And from here, we can only imagine that perspective, unless we go up there.”
This is why imagination is so important. From any particular perspective, all narrower views in the same field of vision are plainly visible and so are easy to understand. In some cases, you might have personal memories of such views from your own experiences earlier in life (i.e., as a child, a decade ago, or yesterday).
However, until a wider perspective is personally experienced, it can only be imagined. A key point accompanying this fact is that no matter what your current perspective is, the existence of a more expansive perspective can not only be surmised to exist but can actually safely be presumed to exist. Always. Put another way: no matter how much you’re looking at, there’s always more to see.
Why is this important? Primarily because the issues we are facing as a species are big. Planetary, in fact. To take just one example, environmental degradation is everywhere, from the deepest ocean trench to the highest mountain and everywhere in between. It is no exaggeration to state that virtually all air, water and soil is polluted as a result of human activities. And it is our task, as those humans who are alive in the world at this time, to address this situation as directly and seriously as we can. Though the planet will survive us, we might not survive our own mess, and already many other creatures have been badly affected.
The picture of the planetary situation can only be seen from a perspective far wider than that of our daily lives. Yes, we can read about it, or watch videos or listen to podcasts, but ultimately we must use our imagination to make the situation real for ourselves.
Collectively, at least here in the USA, we are currently making a different choice, which is to deny the situation. In doing so, we are effectively claiming that perspectives wider than our own do not exist. We might as well be saying that there is absolutely no other place to stand except between the two trees. I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s vile words: “There is no alternative.”
But this is absurd. Of course there are other places to stand. Of course there are wider perspectives. Of course there are alternatives.
We’re just not seeing them.
In this technological age, media is a major limiter of cultural – and therefore individual – perspective. The effects of the dominance of media by a handful of corporations is sorely under-appreciated, or more accurately, virtually unnoticed. Within its narrow confines, Fox and MSNBC are viewed as polar opposites, and PBS as deep.
The reality, as clearly visible from a wider perspective, is much different.
Take a step out of that crowded orchard and it is readily apparent that all parties within the mainstream media agree on far, far more than they disagree on. Most concepts of any import are never questioned. On the level of cultural organization: capitalism, statism, hierarchy and money; on a foundational level: property, agriculture and religion; and on a deeper level, yet: the self, sin.
Why does it matter? Because any serious, direct responses to our planetary crises will necessitate taking on all of the above.
We turned from true “sustainability” over 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution, and really started thrashing the planet with the industrial revolution only a few centuries back. Though capitalism has been the dominant framework of ecocide for some time now, a worker-led socialism could also efficiently administer the drilling of the Arctic, the clear-cutting of the Amazon, and the re-colonization of Africa, all of which are underway. Another human-supremacist bureaucracy is not the answer.
Don’t expect <<insert Fox personality>>, Rachel Maddow, or Jim McNeil to help widen your perspective to see any of these things more clearly. That’s way beyond the scope of their jobs. Truly, it is the antithesis of their jobs.
Although the corporate news media essentially acts in lockstep, I am not suggesting that its actors are centrally directed. Rather, I believe it is safe to assume that <<Fox dude>>, Rachel and Jim all really believe what they say. As Chris Hedges pointed out in his excellent book, Empire of Illusion, most of the people who rise to positions of leadership in our society are products of the same institutions, namely a small number of elite schools. Hedges should know; he attended Harvard Divinity School. Like Gore Vidal before him, Hedges is that too rare of creature: an honest traitor to his class. Through such figures, we are offered a glimpse into the machinery of power, and we can see that the main function of its gears is to grind everything into a refined, uniform state.
In other words, the powers-that-be are as brainwashed as the rest of us schmucks, just at fancier places. They need wider perspectives. We all do.
How do we do that? Again, we can start with our imaginations. Which is another way of saying: by stretching ourselves. By expanding. By growing. Some might say, by transcending.
In the East, human cultural practices have long fostered such efforts. Writer and druid John Michael Greer has described the Eastern process as one of, “sheer sustained introspection.” Whereas the West focused increasingly on the material with a reductionism rooted in religion but enthusiastically embraced by a nominal rationalism, on the other side of the world dedicated people plumbed the depths of mind and consciousness. They devised a vocabulary to describe what they found and though most of their terminology doesn’t have equivalents in the Romance or Germanic languages, that doesn’t mean that what they discovered isn’t real, or that we couldn’t benefit from it too.
I wrote an article bemoaning the Russiagate farce back in the spring of 2017 (“For the Earth’s Sake, Stop Russiagate Now”). By way of providing personal context, I mentioned that I had recently spent a chunk of time alone in the desert and upon returning to civilization was disappointed to see the Russiagate story still going strong. (Little did I know that was still early days!) One snide individual posted a comment saying that meditating in the desert isn’t going to solve our problems. No, I don’t expect it will by itself, but I also believe that a serious, dedicated response to the human-manufactured issues before us must include such inner work. Answers to certain questions – how am I limiting my perspective? how can I expand it? how do I imagine? – are only to be found within, after all. There’s nothing “mystical” about that.
If that’s too “woo” for some people, the least they can do is seek out wider perspectives within Western culture. Alternative media, like you are reading right now, can play a highly beneficial role in “breaking the spell” of Fox/MSNBC/PBS.
As the 2020 elections approach, it is more important each day to cultivate wider perspectives. The corporate news media’s nearly singular focus on the horse-race is bad enough but it also spills over into corporate social media where it infects millions individually. So even if you yourself don’t consume corporate news media (a policy that I, for one, strongly recommend), if you are using social media, you are exposing yourself to ton of people who do, and who are all serving as mouthpieces for it. I won’t say they are “parroting” the corporate news because I suspect that members of that avian species are more cognizant of the fact that they are merely repeating something they heard and not speaking their own thoughts. (Furthermore, the narrow perspectives are represented within the story lines of entertainment shows and movies as well, reinforcing them in other ways.)
On top of that, as the tech giants tighten up their algorithms, the perspectives on their platforms are narrowing. Which is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. Activists need to be building their own communication and sharing networks outside of these venues, where we know our posts will be seen by our “friends” and where we won’t be silenced for “violating community standards.” These networks must have a presence off-line as well. What will that look like? We shall see as we invent it.
As a final note, I must mention that on the journey of cultivating wider perspectives, the rational mind is only one tool. Senses, experience, intuition, reflection – and yes, imagination – are among the elements that also play indispensable roles. There is such a thing as an “epiphany,” when a deeper understanding of some aspect of life strikes you all at once. Though perhaps preceded by factual learning, it is itself not a product of information, but is a synthesis that emerges fully formed on its own timing and terms. There is no way I know of that you can force an epiphany, but when you find yourself certain that you’re seeing something clearly, you must remind yourself that there is always a bigger view.