No, it isn’t an exotic bean curd dish at a very special Japanese restaurant. It’s Hebrew for “without form” and “void,” or “formless” and “empty,” as most English versions of Genesis 1:2 translate the Hebrew description of the chaotic state that preceded creation: “And the earth was without form, and void (tohu v’bohu); and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
As so many wisdom traditions tell us, chaos coagulates into life.
And it keeps on happening. I am in one of those tohu-bohu times of disintegration where what once seemed solid falls away and the shape of things to come remains in shadow. Here is the best thing about aging: that I’ve seen such times come and go, and lived to tell the tale; that I have a reasonable expectation that this, too, shall pass.
I’ll spare you the boring details of personal tohu-bohu and go straight to politics, where a little fruitful chaos suddenly sounds like a great idea. (Wish I’d thought of it before it thought of me).
So welcome to tohu-bohu, where I fell asleep one night to the image of John Stewart on “The Daily Show” hefting the ten-pound text of the new immigration bill and woke up the next morning to the sound of some Democratic presidential candidate asserting the importance of national standards and testing in education, even though it is plainly evident that every child is different and only a great deal of personal attention can ensure that every one is supported in realizing his or her full potential. I realized I no longer have faith in the types of planning, regulation and highly structured systems of welfare and education “my side” has advocated forever. Whatever arguments held water before are now swirling, formless and void, as incoherent as gibberish.
I like to think of my own politics as constantly evolving, but I now see they have been path dependent, to borrow (and adapt) an economic concept I recently discovered. As the term is used in economics, where writing in plain English is evidently inconceivable, I can only approximate the meaning of path dependence. It seems to describe the lingering effects of past choices on present realities (like the way that all computer keyboards have to follow the QWERTY pattern locked into place by typewriters, even though it isn’t the most efficient—it’s just that every future keyboard is constrained to the solidly established manual and mental patterns QWERTY set in place).
The way I now want to use this concept entails more choice. To me, path dependence in political views means that my own thinking has been constrained by what I formerly believed and by loyalty to those who shared those beliefs. I’ve felt an obligation to be consistent with my own past views and those of my cohort, and that has placed a limit on my own thinking. I’ve never let myself take my politics back to square one to think freshly about what I really know.
Now I’m stepping off the path to say I believe social systems should be as simple and open as possible, with the goal of promoting freedom and well-being equally, consigning the effort to hedge every contingency and regulate every prospect to the ash-heap of history before it chokes the life out of us.
For example, I’m ready to chuck all elaborate (and elaborately punitive) welfare systems in favor of a guaranteed annual wage (where every individual is entitled to a subsidy to bring his or her income to a livable level, without having to prove anything other than income), a viable public health system open to all without income qualifications, a child benefit (a stipend, such as they now have in Britain and France, payable to any family to supplement support for each child) and a supplemental pension system for the elderly. Open systems like these don’t penalize low-income people, because anyone can (and most do) receive their benefits, a process that should be no more arduous (and certainly no more humiliating) than renewing a driving license. The savings in bureaucracy, inspections and enforcement would more than make up for any increase in overall payments. And the introduction of a humane, open system would be a tremendous cultural boon, very likely to reap social benefits as it reduces oppression and resentment on the part of people who now have the misfortune to need help from systems which may have been set up to help, but spread shame and anger wherever they touch.
The commonest objection to such an approach turns on the ease of “cheating.” Why we are so outraged at someone receiving a public pittance under false pretenses and so indifferent at the massive cheating of public and corporate officials would be a worthy study for someone who could stomach it. As for me, I accept that allowing for human failings is the price of doing business in our complex societies, so part of my plan is to ignore what retailers call “shrinkage.”
There are countless ways to draw political divisions, and they’re probably all valid in some sense. The line I have in mind now is what some philosophers called the “utopian” vision versus the “tragic” or “romantic” vision.
Even though the idea of utopia makes my skin crawl (because it reminds me of how much blood has been shed in its pursuit by rulers from Robespierre to Stalin, inspired to carnage by beautiful ideals), I have to admit I’ve been dependent all my life on the utopian path: an underlying belief in the perfectibility of the human subject, in the efficacy of transforming social arrangements and institutions toward that end. Utopians believe nurture has much more impact than nature, and devise schemes to nurture society into perfection. The attraction to regulation, standardization and tightly monitored social arrangements can typify both right and left, but either way, they seem to stem from the conviction that people can be fed, watered, staked and pruned into the perfection of a formal English garden.
In contrast, adherents of the tragic-romantic view believe that we humans are inherently flawed and can never become perfect. (I must have been moving in this direction for some time, because I have long loved to quote Immanuel Kant: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be carved.”) Tragic-romantics accept human fallibility as a given. There are both right and left-wing expressions of these values, which seem to stem from the conviction that people are best-served by valuing spontaneity, thriving amidst the happy accidents of the wildflower garden.
Again, this distinction has been interpreted variously. Some see utopian as “left” and tragic as “right,” lining up names of adherents to prove their point. But I think this is a mistake. I am beginning to see that something quite different is involved. Indeed, both visions may stem from the same diagnosis: both utopians and tragic-romantics may be big-hearted, may see deprivation and injustice wherever it appears, may see life’s beauty and grace just as clearly as its cruelties. It seems to me the main distinction turns on what to do about it.
At this point, I’m stepping off the utopian path to say that too much public or private intrusion—too much effort to ensure a good result by controlling for all variables—almost always backfires, multiplying harm. Look at No Child Left Behind, which grotesquely invokes “scientifically based research” 111 times, as if numbers had anything to do with the real quality of education. Look at the ten-pound “Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act of 2007” (that’s STRIVE for short). The authors of these monstrosities are trying to help, no doubt about it. But they are walking a path the ends in a state in which everyone is either part of the official apparatus of surveillance and enforcement or one of its objects.
I favor flexible social policies that make plenty of room for diversity, leading to less government and corporate intrusion on private life, more human interaction and less standardization as well as more tolerance for diversity and eccentricity. It’s exhausting to anticipate a long campaign season of path-dependent blather. I’d like to send all the candidates to tohu-bohu camp for a mental reshuffle. Wouldn’t you like them to stop mumbling about tweaking “No Child Left Behind” and start advocating approaches that make real human sense?