Thy Wilber Done
Many people -- or at least a couple of you -- have asked me to comment on the work of Ken Wilber. This isn’t easy to do for a number of reasons. First, we’re talking about almost 30 years of books, articles and interviews. Plus, he’s a moving target, as his ideas are constantly evolving. (By the way, I just heard a rumor that he is sick again, so it would be nice if we could offer a get well prayer in his general direction.)
I must have discovered Wilber in the early 1980’s, when I read his first book, the Spectrum of Consciousness. I read every subsequent book through what is considered his magnum opus, Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, which was published in 1995. Since then I have had only more of a passing acquaintance with his work, which seems to have shifted into a more public phase.
I went over to his website and saw that he is at work on a new book on “integral politics,” The Many Faces of Terrorism. Although it is nonfiction, it sounds like Ayn Rand’s nonfiction, in the sense that it is basically a format to express his philosophy. The website has a couple of chapters, including one entitled "Integral Politics, Or, Out of the Prison of Partiality...." Let’s just read what he has to say and see how it squares with our views of things. I’ll pull out whatever passages intrigue me and seem worthy of comment.
Most of this chapter is in the form of a press conference in which one of the main characters, Charles, outlines the theory of “integral politics,” the central idea being that any political philosophy will have to address “all quadrants and all levels” in order to be truly effective. Those who follow Wilber’s work know that there are four quadrants and approximately 1,817 vertical levels and stages of human development.
The quadrants, if I remember correctly, are interior individual, interior collective, exterior individual, and exterior collective. I’m oversimplifying here, but “interior individual” has to do with realms of the mind, soul and spirit, while “interior collective” has to do with cultural beliefs. The “exterior collective” has to do with political and economic organization, while “exterior individual” has to do with our body, brain and neurology.
At the press conference, Charles first describes what he regards as the essential difference between Democrat and Republican, or Left and the Right: “Here’s an easy way to tell. If you ask the simple question -- Why do human beings suffer? -- you will get two major answers. The Right will say, You suffer because of yourself; the Left will say, You suffer because of someone else."
I think this is a fair characterization, as I have said the same thing myself on a number of occasions. However, the first thing that occurs to me is that the answer to the question depends upon where you were lucky or unlucky enough to have been born. In my case, since I was fortunate enough to be born in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, I am privileged to know that almost all of my problems have been self-inflicted (either for conscious or for unconscious reasons rooted in childhood; technically the latter ones aren’t my fault, but they would have become my fault if I had done nothing to address them, i.e., seek psychotherapy). Also, a certain unlucky roll of the genetic dice gave me diabetes, but this is easily compensated for by other genetic blessings, such as a relative absence of back hair. When it comes to the exterior individual, if it's not one thing, it's another.
Where I have been a “victim,” it was generally because I was a victim of bad information from people I unwisely trusted -- the overwhelming majority of which having come from the left -- especially in college. Yes, I was a victim of progressivism in college. There I learned such drivel as that men and women are basically identical, that religion has caused more death and violence in the world than secular philosophies, that capitalism is fundamentally unfair, that America is a racist, sexist, homophobic, and imperialist country, that all truth and morality are relative (except for that absolute statement), and that all cultures except ours are equally beautiful and that it is wrong to judge them (that’s only a partial list of the nonsense that an educated person must unlearn).
Much of our suffering is simply the result of the existential circumstances of being human. In the latter case, as Zorba said, “Life is trouble; only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.” In fact, I believe that radicals and “progressives” are often motivated by a profoundly immature belief that it would somehow be possible to eliminate these inevitable existential tensions -- as if anything straight was ever made from the crooked timber of mankind. Of course life is unfair. Of course life is full of risk. Of course you cannot fulfill all of your desires or get everything you want. For one thing, the human imagination is infinite and insatiable. You have only to read a few biographies of the rich, powerful and famous to know that even everything is not enough. In fact, having everything is often an occasion for despair, for one finally realizes that fulfillment does not lie in that direction.
Here in the United States, it is simply a banal empirical fact that most people’s problems are self-inflicted and not amenable to government intervention. But that is a painful realization, so it is quite understandable that a large percentage of the population is going to deflect responsibility outward. Indeed, the merest acquaintance with psychology will show that this is inevitable. In order to maintain self-esteem, people habitually externalize blame. It is one of the most ubiquitous defense mechanisms, which is why it is such a cruel and destructive thing to legitimize and elevate this defense mechanism to a political philosophy -- Churchill referred to it as the “philosophy of failure” and “gospel of envy." Nurturing primordial lies is not an act of compassion except in the case of very young children -- and perhaps very elderly progressives. Let them die in peace before riding off with old Boxer to Sugar Candy Mountain.
But I think there’s an even deeper divide between Left and Right than the question of “Why do people suffer?” That is, the more fundamental divide is over the question of whether or not human beings are basically good. Contemporary liberals -- which is to say leftists -- believe that people are basically good, from which follows all sorts of disastrous, unworkable, and self-defeating policies. You will note that the classical liberals (i.e., contemporary conservatives) who founded America were quite jaded -- not to mention sophisticated -- about human nature, which is why their whole system revolved around the decentralization of power, so that one sphere of power could check the others. Our founders knew that human beings were neutral at best, constantly tempted by bad and evil choices.
The conservative or classical liberal is not naive enough to believe that people are basically good. This is not to say that they are basically bad. Obviously, human beings are capable of great heights of goodness, but it goes without saying that they are also quite capable of the depths of savagery, barbarism and depravity. This is because classical liberals believe that human beings possess free will, while contemporary leftist liberals are much more likely to believe that people are like machines whose behavior is determined by external forces, and that they can be manipulated though various policies into doing what the leftist wants them to do. This follows from erroneous Marxist ideas about existence determining essence, rather than vice versa.
Thus, a variety of kooky ideas follows from this initial incorrect premise, such as the notion that “poverty causes crime.” It’s ironic that leftists, of all people, would believe such a thing, since they believe that the biggest criminals in the world are wealthy men such as George Bush and Dick Cheney.
Now naturally, there are many places on earth where human suffering is primarily a result of “someone else.” In my opinion, one of the definitions of the good society is that it is a place which allows you to realize that your problems are self-generated, and to actually do something about it. Here in the United States, once you come to that essential realization, your options are wide open.
Not so, say, in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians are probably the most comprehensively depraved people on the planet, truly one of the worst cultures that mankind has ever produced. But there is little the individual can do about it, because the essence of their cultural pathology revolves around the delusional idea that the existence of Israel has something to do with their problems. In short, they do not just hate Israel because they are so backward and barbaric; rather, they are backward and barbaric because they are obsessed with hatred of Israel.
Thus, the Palestinians have created a sick culture in which it is strictly impossible to realize -- literally “unthinkable” -- that the source of their suffering is within. A Palestinian who comes to the realization that the Jews are not the source of their problems -- and is foolish enough to speak up about it -- will soon find himself dangling upside down in the town sqaure with his testicles missing and a couple of lumps obstructing his breathing. Mental health is not allowed in much of the Islamic world.
Wilber makes another critical point with which I agree entirely, that is, “when it comes to social change, the Republican recommends interior development (character education, family values, God values, industriousness, self-responsibility, work ethic); the Democrat recommends exterior development (material improvement, economic redistribution, universal health care, welfare statism).” Therefore, we can see how the contemporary leftist liberal -- because he too externalizes blame -- falls for Palestinian propaganda, crook, slime and stinker. Most recently, we have seen this disgusting view expressed in a hideous new book by America’s worst president and even worse ex-president, Jimmy Carter.
Wilber writes, “When you ask Republicans what could possibly cause the militants themselves to engage in such desperate acts, they will not hesitate to ascribe virtually all blame to the terrorists themselves: they are evil, they are subhuman, they lack any sort of values, they lack character, they lack the true God, they lack something or other, but in every case, it’s their fault, period. It’s an interior problem -- their interiors are fucked up real good.”
Yes. I wouldn’t put it exactly that way -- these are terrorists, not militants, and their acts are hardly “desperate.” Rather, they are mostly educated, middle class or wealthy, and operating out of a well-articulated theological philosophy. But they are evil -- on both an individual interior and collective interior level -- and it is their fault. You don’t see Christian Palestinians blowing up innocent women and children, and they’re just as “occupied” as the Muslims.
Wilber then points out that “the typical Democrat will go to the other extreme and blame the exteriors: yes, the terrorists are responsible for these acts, but it’s something horrible in their environment that made them do it. And in this case, that something horrible is a four-letter word: the West.” Bingo. In excusing the bogus victim, leftists blame the real victim. Or in the words of the Talmud, those who are kind to the cruel will be cruel to the kind.
It seems that in the desire to account for all quadrants, one can miss the more important point that one of them may offer a better explanation than the others. This doesn’t imply reductionism, just appropriateness. For example, if someone is experiencing hallucinations (i.e., a problem of the interior individual) but also has a brain tumor (a problem of the exterior individual), it isn’t going to do much good to provide psychotherapy to deal with the hallucinations. The problem is obviously primarily on the exterior individual level, so not every problem is amenable to a strict balancing of the quadrants, as if all are contributing equally. This is not a critique, as I’m sure Wilber realizes this.
On a more mundane level, I cannot even imagine teaching my son that the source of his problems is external to him. I would not just consider this bad philosophy, but child abuse that would hinder him for the rest of his life.
Well, this has already gone on a bit long. To be continued... Maybe...
Ah, no. Obviously they're fraternal twins. Savannah is a girl.