The Hammer, the Dance, and the Red Religion

We need a new sensibility to emerge in the 21st century.

Posted May 20, 2020

An op-ed piece in today's New York Times struck a chord with me, not so much for what was said, but for how I reacted to it—which was surprisingly strong and negative. The authors, Gail Collins and Bret Stephens, are both intelligent, thoughtful people. And it used to be the case that I enjoyed and benefited from dialogue between columnists at the Times, especially when framed as this conversation was, between a liberal and a centrist. Indeed, a couple of years ago, I likely would have been nodding along in general agreement.

No longer. I now experience the conversations as emanations from the “Blue Church,” which I have lost my faith in. As Jordan Hall describes here, the Blue Church refers to the established wisdom and power structures that were grounded in the institutions and modernist sensibilities that structured society and broadcast how we ought to live our lives as cultured, upstanding citizens. When I was growing up in the 1980s, the big three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS), along with major newspapers like the Times and the Washington Post, would offer information about the world, governance, policy, and current events. At that time, these broadcast structures and the institutions they reported on were functioning adequately and had genuine legitimacy.

Unfortunately, things have changed over the past 30 years, and this adequacy and legitimacy has faded dramatically. To put it bluntly, our foundational institutions of governance, media, academic knowledge structures, education, and infrastructure among others have been failing. The short story is that our society is operating on archaic and outmoded knowledge, values, codes, and governance systems.

This “open letter to humanity” documents my own journey, and how I became disillusioned with the strictures of the Blue Church and left it behind. Since then I have been on an exodus of what my version of the "Red Religion" might entail. Note that the Red Religion refers to many potential movements and ideas that would run counter to the established authority and sensibility to the Blue Church, and I use it here to refer to my own journey in sense and meaning-making (see here and here for some podcasts I have done).

Tied to the dissolution of my faith in Blue was the fact that a couple of years ago I started worrying about global civilization collapse. This was because I became more acutely aware of all the meta-crises our planet was facing and how inadequately prepared and organized our leadership and populace was to both understand the situation we were in and adjust adaptively to it. My strong sense is that many people’s faith in the Blue Church has been shaken in the face of the pandemic

I found the Collins and Stephens piece to be revealing in that regard and that sparked my aversion to the column. First, I was put off by the content. The Times has a powerful place in the attention economy, and I thought that the idea of spending a column on their back-and-forth banter was an unfortunate use of the space.  

My second reaction was a common one that I have nowadays, which is that I am sick and tired of everything being political and polarizing. Of course, this is one of the major symptoms highlighting how sick the institutions in which we reside are.   

A third reaction I had was how clueless the authors’ framing was regarding the COVID-19 pandemic relative to the sense-making systems I now track (see, e.g., here, and here). Here is a snippet of their exchange on the issue:

Bret: We’re going to have to find our way to a new normal, one that allows schools and businesses to operate again while trying to mitigate risks to a semi-tolerable level.

Gail: Yeah, that’s true. But I’m much more of a fan of shelter-in-place than you are. It’s obviously got to be adjusted to get people back to work. But the spirit of the thing — that we modify our behavior until the crisis has finally passed — is critical.

Bret: It would be great to have some fresher thinking on this. There’s a lot of political virtue-signaling on both ends of the spectrum, but I’d love to see someone step forward and give us an idea of how we balance risks, and how we move forward if, say, we have to live with Covid-19 for another decade.

The absence of a basic frame on the situation facing us was striking. Consider, for example, that the folks in the alternative media circles that I follow offer an understanding of the difficulties as “the hammer and the dance." The hammer refers to shutting things down to prevent outbreaks like we saw in Italy, Spain, and New York City. The dance refers the skillful opening up of economies and society as systems are surveyed with testing and outbreak tracking, supplied with necessary PPE equipment, and quarantining the at-risk and recently contacted individuals, developing systematic treatment protocols for early and late disease phases, and bringing the hammer back down in places that start to see medical system overload.  

This is not a terribly sophisticated analysis; rather it is the basic starting point for thinking about the situation we are in. It simply recognizes that we are looking at a health and medical system crisis on the one hand and an economic-financial crisis on the other. We can metaphorically think of ourselves as being trapped in the pincers of a claw of a giant crab and we have to figure out how respond to both the health and economic crises simultaneously. This twin fact is obvious and basic. 

But here is the problem: Most of our leaders don’t think this way. Most think in terms of separate domains, linear causation, and "my political team" versus the "other team." Unfortunately, these Blue Church sensibilities are no longer adequate for the situation we are in. This is just one of the reasons why I left the Blue Church and have embarked on my own journey seeking a new religion for the 21st century.