Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Life of Galileo, contains the following exchange between Galileo and his former student, Andrea Sarti:
“Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
This play centers on the conflict of Galileo the scientist, and the Church that felt threatened by Galileo’s scientific advances, particularly in the areas of astronomy and the new discipline of physics. Galileo is branded a heretic and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
Sarti’s lamentation regarding heroes was written by Brecht, and subsequently revised, during a time of great social and political upheaval. An observation relevant during the 1930s and 1940s remains relevant today.
In this exchange, I side with Galileo – unhappy is the land that needs a hero. I do not say this in any electoral context but in a lower case “p” political context, and in pretty much every social and cultural indicia imaginable.
It would be easy if we could just all get along but that’s not what this country is about. In a democracy, it is almost required that we don’t all agree on issues or get along politically, socially, or culturally. In a pluralistic society like ours, conflict is inevitable. When I say something, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me; I don’t even expect people to agree with this analysis.
But in a pluralistic society, I do expect people to engage in a respectful manner, explaining the basis for disagreement, and offering a thought-out contrary point of view. What I do not expect is that opponents disregard my views and dismiss them out of hand because of ideology or prejudice or an artificial characterization or label. This last part is important because too often we discount what someone says because of their profession, religion, race/ethnicity, political party or ideology. By the time we get to the merits, or lack thereof, of the issue, respectful discourse is impossible.
In my view, these divisions, which are the most pronounced than at anytime during my lifetime, are largely based on fear. Too many of us fear our neighbors, fear those different from us, a changing social, economic and political reality, and fear for the loss of that which we spent a lifetime building.
In short, we fear loss: the loss of a life we thought we were promised or thought we had earned, the loss of security from internal and external threats, the loss of the sense that we are valued equally to that of our fellow citizens. Most of us were told that if we worked hard, obeyed the “rules”, lived a decent and honorable life, and protected our families that we would be almost guaranteed successful lives. Many of us lived that kind of life only to have that life threatened or snatched away from us, whether by unseen forces that drained our savings and threatened our homes, or by those from other lands who view us as an existential threat to their existence.
Our fear is exacerbated by the speed of our lives. During my lifetime, the pace of life has exponentially increased, making it more difficult to keep up with the world and the events that effect us all. This increased pace of life has resulted in increasing levels of uncertainty, and this uncertainty has resulted in increasing our level of fear. As events impact our lives, uncertainty increases, giving rise to heightened fears, which result in increased venom and toxicity in our public debate.
Due to advances in our technology, we are inundated with information, the levels of which were previously unknown. Each of us is a purchaser of information, whether by paying a subscription price or through the time spent on accessing various sources of information. In 1973, Donald Schon wrote a great book, Beyond the Stable State, which addressed the increased flow of information inundating us all, and worried about how this increase in the amount and flow of information would impact democratic processes.
Schon was pessimistic that increased flow of information would result in a well-informed citizenry, one informed enough to make wise decisions in a democratic society. Rather, Schon thought that many people would either access information sources that confirm their preexisting viewpoints, or would refuse to spend much, if any, time and resources to acquire necessary and basic information.
Add to this scenario the fact that our daily lives have become increasingly complex. Many work two jobs, the traditional family structure has been transformed to some degree by having both spouses in the workplace, and anyone who has a position of increased responsibility knows that we live in a “24/7/365” world, a world that permits no respite from workplace responsibilities. The charm of a 40-hour, five day workweek has become all but extinct in our society.
The nature of our work has been altered with increasing our reliance on machines (robotics) and/or the rise of service professions. With our technical advances, like all technical advances before them, some people are going to win while others lose. Add to this toxic brew the fact that our world has become globalized – no longer are we competing for jobs with neighboring states; we now compete with other countries, some of which we can barely find on a map.
These fears are reasonable given the circumstances, and are intensified by a perceived failure of our institutions; political, social, religious, business, and educational institutions.
I will attempt to address this in Part II, but for now I would pose the idea that our troubles are not borne by living in a land with no heroes, but rather living in a land at a time with little real leadership.