A Parable for Our Times


Jay B Gaskill

“Sometimes the ‘people’ are right.”

Anonymous leader


“There are two kinds of outrage:

The anger of the disappointed spoiled;

The authentic moral wrath of the common people betrayed.”

Anonymous sage

Permit me to sketch some real-world political context.

America has evolved two cooperating political elites, each of which runs one of the two parties and shares three common traits: (1) high education levels, (2) important wealth (3) a distrust of the populist vote bordering on fear.  Winning elections for each requires a periodic courting ritual during which the populist vote (on which success depends) is earnestly sought, followed by a measure of post-election betrayal. Well before the 2008 credit-bubble crash and the advent of the Tea Party movement, I noticed the growing populist pressure.

Populism in this usage represents the politically relevant precepts, attitudes and core positions that distinguish an enduring majority of adults from the political elites that depend on their approval.

For decades, the corporate country club conservatives and the Lexus limousine liberals succeeded in achieving a rough division of the populist center: social populists on one side, economic populists on the other.

That situation was mutating well before the 2008 real estate credit bubble burst.  Just before that calamity, I wrote the following (in an analysis of developments in American populism):

“While I still believe that a legitimate populist movement can accommodate local custom (when popular sentiment clearly differs from the mainstream, thinking of the accommodations for gay marriage in Vermont for example), I also believe that there can be no accommodation for the anti-democratic reversal of the popular will in the rest of the country in this important area of life, especially by judicial fiat.  When judges, for example, abuse their trust by overriding the popular will, especially on essential ‘family values’ issues, a populist rebellion is virtually inevitable.

“The coming populist reformation[1] will be driven by the events and exigencies of the next few years because these challenges will bring the failures of elites of right and left to address the core populist values and concerns into sharp relief.

“Among the prominent threads in the reemerging American populism that will shape the parties and the political discussion over the next decade, these four stand out:

“Procedural populism.  The signal anti-populist development of the last 65 years was the emergence of governance via non-elected institutions under the control of the non-populist elites of the two parties. Principally the courts and the administrative agencies, these new power centers have quietly and not so quietly set public policies in motion that never could have gathered sufficient popular support.  There are many examples, some obvious, others less so.[2] The signal pro-populist development in the same period was the emergence – principally in California producing what some political scientists are now calling ‘hybrid government’ of the popular initiative as a tool for setting social and tax policy in ways that the legislative bodies – controlled by party elites – did not.

“Me-first nationalism.  Starting with Ross Perot several election cycles ago, this is the many headed hydra that the elites in both parties fear the most, and it is the most universal form of populism.  The failure of the Soviet Empire is an international model is a classic case of a putative universal ideology hitting the nationalist wall.  Note that party elites of all stripes tend to be more internationalist than the so called ‘common people’.

“Tough minded populism vs. the wimp elites. This covers a whole range of issues that will be pivotal in the next decade, all interesting.[3]

“Common sense economics.  The revolting specter of a broken financial system fueled by pampered executives (as many of them democrat-pandering as republican-pandering) who pursue ultra-short-term paper profits over long term real world gains is so profoundly unsettling that a populist rebellion is inevitable in some form.  The fears and anxieties in the current electoral-economic situation introduce a mob psychology wild card effect that may obscure the larger trend.

NOVEMBER 7, 2011

Politics is a game played among four players, each representing one mindset.

The game is about power, challenges to boundaries, and the reallocation of other people’s money & property.

  1. For typical liberal minds, boundaries are obstacles to be eliminated, including the boundary between “mine” and “yours”.
  2. For typical conservative minds, boundaries are bulwarks to be defended, including the boundary between “my kind of people” and the “unwashed”.

[Liberals and conservatives share a great deal more than they are willing to admit.]

  1. For centrist minds, boundaries are threats to a delicate balance and boundary relaxations are always preferable to conflict.
  2. The reasonable minds, the rarest of all, are equally wary of the toxicity of the ideologues and the weakness of many centrists whose tendency to conflict avoidance undercuts courage and principle when both are most needed.

Most people agree that “extreme” ideologies[4] are harmful, yet many of them tend to ignore the extremism of the ideologues who claim to share the same general socio-political vision. But the difference is not just one of degree, as in intensity or passion. When actually adopted, all ideologies operate as powerful reality filters, screening out or distorting every inconvenient data set or challenging point of view that cannot be accommodated to the “correct” view. In a sinister operational sense, the extreme ideologies work like mind-worms, feeding on the vulnerable, substituting a secular catechism for critical thinking. The vulnerable groups include those closest to a particular ideology in the spectrum of belief, the rootless ones searching for “meaning and purpose” and all the post-modern thinkers who have abandoned their allegiance to the core moral order. They were Lenin’s “useful idiots”.  I like the term “unwitting prey” or even “…pets”.

At this juncture in history, the most toxic ideologically saturated minds are still found among the progeny of the two malign ideologies of the last century:  Marxism and National Socialism. The beliefs of Lenin survive in the guise of bureaucratic egalitarianism and those of Hitler survive as population eugenics. The true believer ideologues[5] dance on a scary precipice, unaware of the yawning abyss, one foot-slip away.[6] History taught in the classic manner, with fidelity to the past, sans ideological filters, is a powerful vaccine against the toxic infectious ideologies. We can hope  that such classic history will once again be widely taught.

Each of the four archetypal mindsets (liberal, conservative, centrist and reasonable) is “onto something”. They are not ideologues – these mindsets are traditional styles of rational thought and communication. Each is a gift to us conveying some essential part of the big picture. Each has had its day and will again. No culture can afford to ignore or marginalize a single one of them, except at a steep cost, because each mindset is part of the civilized historical tradition.

No society without liberal, conservative and centrist minds – all of whom are in a mutual dialogue mediated by the reasonable minds – can avoid the “bubble trap”. The real world abhors a bubble.  Those who insist in living in one will eventually find themselves in an unchecked downward slide. The slope is steep and the momentum of the fall is constantly accelerating. The reasonable minds may be among the first to notice the pending disaster, but only an aroused population can stop it.

“Not my problem”, you say? No part of a human society falls over the precipice without taking others down with it. I believe that during times of great imbalance – like our present situation – we are in acute danger because the consequences of a major misstep will be unforgiving: We are permitted to briefly lose our balance, but we must quickly regain our footing or we will fall.  The precipice is always near, and it’s a very long way down.

Dialogue pierces bubbles and augments balance. At times like this, when political posturing and maneuvering trump dialogue, the abyss is much closer that we think.

About that Giant

Now, here is a secret. All this time a huge giant has been sleeping under our floor.

Go with the metaphor for a moment, and ask yourself: What would a dreaming giant dream?

HINT: The giant is us, the people, not the population, but that ancient virtual collective memory that holds the precious life lessons of our ancestors.  This is our giant, the keeper of our pains, joys, successes and failures – especially of our failures. The Sleeping Giant embodies our common wisdom, our common sense and our common morality.

When the players in the political game become too corrupt, too careless, too unbalanced and too arrogant, the center does not hold and things fall apart[7].  Eventually the noise from all those gnashing teeth awakens the Giant under the floor.  Meantime the Giant dreams of wisdom ignored.

Elites are typically out of touch. It is their nature, whether conservative, liberal or centrist.  They are disconnected by circumstance, out of touch almost by definition, and always distanced by the habits of comfortable neglect. In the Giant’s world, loyalty and trust trump ideology and one’s station in life – especially the ideological fads of the elites.  In the Giant’s world, loyalty and trust start with family and friends then radiate to neighborhoods, then to communities, and so on, ending at the borders of the country. Loyalty and trust are at the heart of the ancient moral code, the “Deep Torah[8] of humanity” if you will, the main precepts of which cannot forever be ignored by any people, including, especially, by the elites.

Our daily lives, the reality “on the ground”, shapes the alpha and omega of real life.  When we say that the elites are disconnected, this is what we mean they are disconnected from – and this is why they need to be watched at all times. But the common people are too busy living and struggling with daily life to keep up surveillance of the miscreant elites.

Among all the precepts and aphorisms of the ancient moral code, five themes sound in the Sleeping Giant’s dreams like thundering heartbeats:

  1. Earning entitles one to keep its fruits – the harder the earning, the fiercer the keeping. This precept applies to all people regardless of their station. One does not initiate a general program of taking property from any group (i.e., without a fair individuated adjudication, such as reparations for theft) without threatening all groups. In the Giant’s world, the earnings of the common people the fruits of which are more precarious and therefore more precious, are to be carefully respected by the elites. Significant price inflation is a thinly disguised, elite-engendered theft of earnings.
  1. The common people and their children entitled to the same human dignity as the elites enjoy. In the Giant’s world, the common people must be every bit as well protected from predators (human, animal, institutional and inhuman) as are the elites and their children. For example, the specter of private security guards for the elites and underfunded, under-deployed police for the poor people is a violation of human dignity.  In the Giant’s world, the elites (who are functionally necessary, but not individually indispensable) will be “kept on” only so long as they honor the basic human dignity of the common people.
  1. Theft by a common person is stealing and should be punished.  In the Giant’s world, there is no theft exemption for the elites. The “Deep Torah applies to all – ruler and ruled, powerful and powerless.  Yet theft by an elite person is sometimes a mere “resource reallocation”, until the crime is discovered, when it may be called “misappropriation.” In the Giant’s world, elites do not steal from the common people…even elected elites acting under color of law.
  1. Trust is the baseline commitment of the social order and individual relationships.  When elites disparage the family ties, the loyalty and trust relationships and arrangements of the common people, the foundation of general trust is damaged. Elites do not break trust with the common people nor publically undermine its value by disregarding it among themselves. They do not debase the Deep Torah by adopting a separate moral standard for themselves.  Not without deeply angering the awakened Giant.
  1. Beware when the trust with the common people is finally broken: Then, even the most benevolent gestures of the elites become traps – hungry tigers are then considered safer company. In the Giant’s world, the elites do not trick the common people.

Our current elites employ some clever minds who value their personal status over anything else.  Some of these clever ones actually fear the Giant, but they have a plan to lull it into sleep.   These elites have kept a subset of “the population” as pets.  These human pets enjoy a very limited capacity for independent thought and action, because they have been conditioned to dependency, and they live on highly filtered information[9].  These pets can be easily manipulated and even teased into a state of faux rebellion.  Occasional pet outbreaks are needed to create conditions that will allow the elites to reestablish themselves by changing costumes.

This is why mobs of noisome pets should not be confused with a Sleeping Giant Awakening.  Two distinct things must not be confused: The anger of the disappointed spoiled and the authentic moral wrath of the common people betrayed.  Those unruly pets sleeping in tents in the public square are an intended distraction.  Moral outrage grounded in the Deep Torah will always trump ordinary discontent.

The awakened Giant is the real deal. But how can we tell the difference? How will we know when the Sleeping Giant has awakened?  Listen closely for a critical the voices cohering around five themes: (a) keeping earnings; (b) being kept safe from predators; (c) holding thieves accountable, no matter their status; (c) honoring trust relationships; (d) rejecting the falsely benevolent gestures. This is the growl of the “Deep Torah”.  It is the authentic voice of the people that, when aroused, exhibits a sudden moral coherence and unmistakable power.

You may have noticed that the Giant is stirring. It may will be fully awake.  I leave it to the reader to decode the signs, both false and true.

Timing is everything.

A fully awakened, irritated giant is a very blunt instrument indeed.  This is why populist rebellions tend not to end well, even for the common people who first cheered the “protesters”, only to discover, too late, that a new set of elites had been using them as unwitting foot soldiers all along.

There is a strategy for the survival of the good people and good institutions, the constitution of this Republic and the prospect of an American renewal during an Awakened Giant Event.

That strategy is found in five simple rules, easy to outline, oh so difficult to implement….

Rule One: The ideologues cannot be trusted.

Rule Two: Listen closely for the ancient moral message (see above).  The more quickly that message is heeded, the sooner the Giant will go back to sleep

Rule Three: When things go seriously awry, the voices of practical and moral authenticity will not diverge.  So beware those who are still trying to trick the people – even – or especially- in a “good cause.” Beware those who want to “break some eggs” to make an omelet when they really mean break some heads to make a revolution. And shun those who want to destroy human dignity and freedom to make “a better world”, because the really mean “a bigger kennel.”

Rule Four: The Sleeping Giant is us.

How awake are you?


Copyright © 2011 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law, All rights Reserved

Forwards and links are welcome.  For other permissions, contact the author via e-mail law@jaygaskill.com

The author is a California Attorney and the creator and administrator of The Policy Think Site www.jaygaskill.com and the linked blogs.

[1] This predicted reformation is slow in coming, but I believe will eventually result in the absorption by both political parties of the key enduring elements in the common wisdom, giving them standing and policy expression…but that is another topic for another day.

[2] The most recent example is the attempt by the EPA to end-run the Congress by declaring CO2 gas a pollutant (be careful when you exhale!) Earlier examples include the ADA’s administrative loose definitions of a protected disability that once was even expanded to include stupidity at the workplace.

[3] California voters, using the initiative process (functioning as a second party in a one-part polity), twice overruled the wimp elites by reinstating capital punishment for extreme murders and three strikes punishment for dangerous offenders.  There are many other examples of the ongoing disconnection between the “civilized” elites and the common sense, common people.

[4] What do I mean by  extreme ideologies? Their signature includes intellectual arrogance, closed-mindedness and ruthless political practices.  Consider two generic examples: (a)  the enforced-quality group in which Marx’s ghost can be heard saying, “All wealth is the product of an evil system”, and “The private ownership of property (especially when accumulated by the successful)  is the primary evil”, therefor let “us” (who will use the power of the state for  “social justice”) fix those structural problems for you; (b) the entrenched inequality group in which the ghost of  Hitler’s race-scientists can be heard whispering, “You know that there are too many of the wrong people in the world, it’s up to the superior ones to protect ourselves by any means necessary and “thin out” all the rest.”  I leave it to the reader to tease out how these core ideas still manifest themselves in the post-modern culture, often in stealth mode.

[5] Required reading includes the classic, The True Believer, by the late Eric Hoffer, the self-taught longshoreman.

[6] From time to time, well-meaning intellectuals have announced that we have entered a new era, free from the mistakes of the pass.  Daniel Bell (1919-2011) famously proclaimed the “End of Ideology” and Francis Fukuyama (1952- ) announced “The End of History” (arguing that Western liberal democracy is the final form of government).  These and others profoundly underestimate the human capacity to stumble into the abyss over and over again

[7] As Yeats, that prophetic poet, put it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned”… William Butler Yeats – The Second Coming.

[8] …Or the deep Tao, if you will. See C. S. Lewis’ book, The Abolition of Man. Its Appendix, Illustrations of the Tao, has a compendium of the moral precepts that are widely shared among the various religions and philosophies.

[9] The drug culture, the pop culture, a supine, uncritical, brainless mainline media, and an ideologically saturated academy are features of the kennel.

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