I’ve been spending long delicious hours in a tiny world, the space bordered on one side by my computer and the other by my chair. I’m doing a last pass through my manuscript, reading aloud as I edit. In a week or two, I will send it to a few lovely people who’ve agreed to read and respond, and in some not-too-distant future, it will be a book.
You know the meaning of chutzpah, right? Nerve, guts, temerity. My thesis is that we are right in the middle of a gathering shift in awareness in which art and culture will be given their rightful place as the container for civil society and a livable future, the instruments through which we create a new story that enables a new way of organizing ourselves. I am arguing that understanding this will effectuate the change, that how we see our story will have a great deal to do with how it comes out. I know what I see and I have no doubt it is time to tell it. But still, there’s that little voice. You know, the one that says, “Who are you to be saying this?”
According to Gar Alperovitz, the answer is this: I am a historic actor, and honestly, the shoe fits. Over the time I’m been working on this manuscript, I’ve been noticing an ever-growing group of fellow-travelers making parallel arguments, often in quite different contexts. Thanks to Tikkun for turning me on to historian/economist Alperovitz’s talk at the Strategies for a New Economy 2012 Conference in June, sponsored by the New Economics Institute, where he serves on the Board.
In his talk, Alperovitz (whom I’ve never met but whom I instinctively like a great deal for his quality of relaxed presence and his ability to connect—not to mention his brilliance and dedication) sketches a picture of opportunity at a moment when our economy is neither self-correcting nor subsiding into total collapse:
That moment when people think “Something is wrong” is a critical moment in the history of a society. It is a time when people are open. Look, I write books. I deal in ideas. …I don’t think ideas matter a damn most times in history. Momentum and power matter—except sometimes. Except sometimes when people know something is wrong and they want answers that make sense. And I think we are entering this period. A period of stagnation and stalemate and decay on an ongoing basis is a period in which rethinking is possible, painful as it might be. Being open to something new is possible, painful as it might be…. And an ongoing period of that kind allows us to learn and develop the new way forward, where a collapse would not. … So there is a positive to the period of stagnation, stalemate and decay we are entering, if we use it properly and understand it….
Of course, neither Alperovitz nor the vast majority of fellow-travelers I’ve encountered give any evidence of understanding the power of culture in such a period. But then, they haven’t read my book yet! What they do understand is that the story we tell ourselves shapes our lives, and that right now, we have a critical choice of stories. Go through one door and you’re in the land of despair, where the sense that something is wrong is prelude to the winding-down of the human story, a tale in which unstoppable greed and stupidity team up to commit slow suicide. But go through the other door and you will see this as a moment in which—rejecting the “Abandon hope!” story we are daily offered—we can set in place the ideas and experiments that will form a blueprint for a world in which healing is possible and history is on our side:
Our time in history is the time of the prehistory if we think of it and are self-conscious of who we are and what we are doing in our time of history. Ideas matter sometimes, including the ones about who we think we are. That’s a tough thing to do: imagine yourself not as an activist, not as an environmentalist, not as a community-builder, but as a person building history and changing the entire system: a historic actor.
Let that sink in. Who, me? Us? Why? Why not? Who else ever does it? My heroes in a different realm are the civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1930 and 1940. …They laid the foundations for an idea whose time came later. You can find this example in the women’s movement, anyplace you look. That’s us.
I think I got my title this week. Get Your Hopes Up: The Future of Culture. If you have a response, please share it with me, your fellow historic actor.
It doesn’t take everyone to create a critical mass; changing the minds on top of the old order isn’t as important as mobilizing those who already see possibility. Still, when the story changes, even some of the people who were entirely committed to the old story see the light: even the strongest river can’t flow uphill. This is an old Paul Butterfield tune, “In My Own Dream,” the Karen Dalton version:
I didn’t know
I was such a fool.
And it took me a long time,
Just to find out
That my head
Is upside down.
What I was standing on,
You know, it wasn’t too solid ground, oh no.
What I thought I’d be,
I kept on living
In my own dream.
I grew blinder.
Thought I was so strong,
I didn’t need nobody’s help.
Oh, the strongest river
Can’t flow uphill.