changes in the course of a nation or a civilization are often associated
with a single event, whereas the causal explanations are always
much more complicated. Thus, a British tax on tea becomes the focal
point for the American Revolutionary War, or the tearing down of
the Berlin Wall for the collapse of the Soviet Union. While such
isolated occurrences are convenient bookmarks for understanding
history, human events are produced by interconnected factors too
numerous, uncertain, and complex to be explained in any singular
the same way that our individual lives are subject to conscious,
unconscious, and genetic forces of which we are woefully unaware,
our social relationships are distinguished by a widespread ignorance
of the interconnected influences that organizational systems have
upon our lives. Events seem to have a sui generis quality to them,
not unlike the response of most Americans who could not understand
the events of 9/11 as a reaction against foreign policies they had
been told would protect them from attacks! Just as the courses
of complex systems are impossible to predict, so it is difficult
to unravel the causal explanations for complicated past events.
It is little wonder that the study of human history has not always
provided clear direction.
the other hand, a single event can become a focal point for the
release of energies that have accumulated beneath a broader surface.
The long-building pressures that develop along continental plates
and erupt into earthquakes or volcanic activity, find a social analogy
in tensions and conflicts that collect, unabated, in ways in which
we deal with one another in society. At some point, a Rosa Parks
may refuse to move to the back of a city bus and spark a civil rights
movement. But an amassed energy underlay her act of defiance. Had
she not been the trigger, some other person or event would have
provided the cause celebre.
study of chaos, or complexity, is providing us with insights into
such dynamics. In simple systems, there tends to be a fairly linear,
proportional relationship between input and output. For example,
if "x" produces "y," "x + 1" will
produce "y + 1," and so on. At some point, however, a
further increase in output generates disproportionate, nonlinear
patterns. This creates a "bifurcation point," one in which
"x + 4" produces not "y + 4," but "z,"
with "z" representing turbulence. The phrase "the
straw that broke the camel's back" is a popular expression
of a system that has become nonlinear (i.e., where effects
are grossly disproportionate to an immediate input). The slowly
increasing flow of water from a faucet; the rising smoke from a
cigarette; arrhythmic heartbeats, provide examples of linear patterns
being thrown into turbulence.
same patterns are at work within social systems. Accumulated entropic
pressures — such as undigested distortions arising from years of
government interference with the marketplace — may erupt into a
turbulent state. This turbulence will either be met by an intelligent
response, or the system will likely collapse into entropic death.
current American society has been in this state of turbulence for
some time, without much focused intelligence guiding alternative
courses of action. Because governments thrive on conflict — which
they promise to "manage" — America is characterized by
cross-currents of demands people make upon one another, a destructive
force arising from endless divisions, confrontations, politically-enforced
expectations, and discord. Such conflicts find expression in efforts
to micromanage the personal and social lives of others; a disrespect
for the inviolability of one another's lives and property interests;
quarrels over the role that "spiritual" versus "secular"
values are to play in legal and political policies; disputes regarding
the sanctity of life, and the social value of "wars" and
"peace;" and the relative importance of the "individual"
versus the "collective."
distrust of governmental power and a desire for individual liberty
that was gaining ascendancy even as we moved into the 21st
century, collapsed into a widespread groveling worship and obedience
to an imperial president and a willingness to expand state powers
after 9/11. A viciousness that can only be regarded as a loosening
of unconscious "dark side" forces, beset America with
such ferocity that even those who knew better feared to openly resist
the impulse for herd-thinking. Suddenly, the idea of endless wars
against endless enemies was not only acceptable, but patriotic;
such wars could even be unprovoked, and the possible use of nuclear
weapons against civilian populations became widely accepted; men
and women could have their personal lives subject to widespread
searches, surveillance, and interrogation; the torture of "suspects"
became an established practice that one leading radio talk-show
babbler equated with fraternity hazing; "due process of law"
has been held captive in foreign-based prisons; while lawyers who
defended "terrorist" suspects were, themselves, prosecuted
as "terrorists" for doing so.
who, four years earlier, bitterly complained about growing tax bills,
now offer few protests to a government that has taken spending and
an accompanying national debt to exponential heights. So-called
"red state" farmers who used to object to the EPA regulating
their lands in order to protect the nesting grounds of the kangaroo
rat, rushed to the voting booths — waving their flags — to reelect
George W. Bush.
American political system no longer lives up to even its illusions
of constitutional limitations and procedures. Congress votes for
a measure even before it is fully drafted (the Patriot Act), and
legislates the medical treatment for an individual patient (Terri
Schiavo). People have their homes taken, through eminent domain,
to be turned over to corporations to build factories, shopping malls,
or sports stadia. Prison construction has become one of America's
growth industries, providing housing for a growing list of persons
convicted of victimless crimes. An imperial president declares and
conducts wars as suit his pleasure, with almost no objection from
a Congress into whose exclusive hands such constitutional authority
Americans suffer from a lack of moral and intellectual centeredness;
an absence of what the late Joseph Campbell labeled "invisible
means of support." As a result, the Iraq war has severely damaged
— perhaps even destroyed — the character and integrity of many Americans.
A willingness to kill innocent people — even when the stated purpose
in doing so was known to have been grounded in lies and deception
— has produced adverse consequences that may be beyond the capacities
of even a full-blown catharsis to correct in time to save the existing
system. Far too many Americans embraced the mindset of serial killers,
willing to vent their rage upon any convenient target.
have become, in other words, a mass of conflicts and contradictions.
On 9/11, one of my colleagues asked me what I thought of all of
this, to which I replied that most Americans will have to go through
a prolonged examination and catharsis of who and what they have
become. Events since 9/11 have confirmed that there is still so
much turmoil, so much entropy that has not yet worked its way out
of the minds of most of us. As the study of chaos might suggest,
it may take a complete social collapse from which new social premises
and systems can emerge to make America, once again, a free and creative
have long thought that the oppressive and destructive American political
system will eventually reach a breaking point where the addition
of one more intrusion upon the lives of people will produce a nonlinear
reaction (i.e., a consequence out of all proportion to that singular
factor). Like the Boston "tea party" or the dismantling
of the Berlin Wall, some will mistake this single event for what
may prove to be the "cause" of the collapse of the American
nation-state. Something which, standing by itself, would seem to
have little significance — like a woman refusing to move to the
back of a bus — may become the focal point for the release of long-suppressed
emotions and resentments.
the Iraq war, the use of torture at Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act,
and the pathological lying of the Bush administration make clear,
most people are too cowardly to openly confront the state when it
is engaged in its most abusive practices. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot,
and other tyrants knew what their modern wannabes know; namely,
that most people will suppress and internalize their resentment
of despotic acts. But such feelings remain a source of discontent
— both within the individual and society — contributing to the turbulence
that threatens the state. Like water that builds up behind a weakened
dam, some marginally insignificant event may unleash the restrained
forces and overwhelm the structure.
possible candidate for such an occurrence might be the Terri Schiavo
case. While deciding whether to terminate the life-support for this
woman had great meaning to her family, it was the kind of decision
that is made, daily, in hospitals across the country. Thousands
of families are faced with such a dilemma each year. Why did this
particular case arouse so much attention, generate so much emotional
energy, and implicate all branches of government? What mobilized
such intense energies — not so much from politicians and special
interest groups desirous of exploiting the situation to their advantages
— but on the part of so many others? Might this event be a focal
point for bringing to the surface the underlying conflicts, contradictions,
and grievances which, particularly after 9/11 and its aftermath,
as a student of chaos and complexity, I have no way of predicting
how complex systems will play themselves out. It is most likely,
however, that the present turbulence will not sustain itself, and
that the forces underlying it will eventually erupt. The Schiavo
case could become the proverbial "straw" upon the back
of the camel.
of the influences that were at work here for a matter of weeks.
A world divided between "religious" and "secular"
thinking found expression in the media and in the streets outside
Terri Schiavo's hospice. The intrusion of federal and state governments
into the most private of matters met with libertarian opposition.
The "brave new world" of biological engineering — wherein
the human and the machine became inseparable — was confronted by
sentiments that insisted upon the inherent dignity and inviolability
of the individual.
very meaning of "life" was on trial in the Schiavo case,
an inquiry that could not be conducted without exploring the deeper
property question: "who owns and controls your life?"
Terri Schiavo might very well become the Rosa Parks of a widespread
reaction to years of pent-up frustration with a political system
that is beyond the powers of the citizenry to effectively control;
a system that has consistently denied self-ownership and insisted
upon metastasizing its control over the lives of everyone.
impact it might otherwise have, the Schiavo affair will not cause
a major political upheaval. It could, however, serve as a focal
point for latent pressures that may have found expression in the
sad fate of this woman. Our current turbulence need not result in
an entropic freefall. The response to turbulence can be a creative
one, generating new systems in which "order" arises out
of fluctuation; in which freedom and an openness to change represent
the health of any system; and in which organizations are looked
upon only as tools to be used, and not as structures to
be revered and preserved.
current corporate-state system is beyond repair and should be abandoned.
Trying to salvage its antiquated and life-destructive forms is as
senseless as trying to rehabilitate a Jeffrey Dahmer. The time will
come, and soon, when we shall be called upon to discover new social
systems and new ways of thinking about what it means to be a human
being living in society with others. Whether such fundamental changes
are brought about through conscious effort on our part, or are thrust
upon us by events that trigger a collapse of institutional viability,
remains to be seen.