* While Liberalism Slept: How THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES Illuminates the Dilemma with Which Liberalism Has Yet to Come to Grips

My book, THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES, contains this central passage:

Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace, and that one is ambitious for expansion and conquest? What can happen to the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor? Perhaps one tribe is attacked and defeated, its people destroyed and its lands seized for the use of the victors. Another is defeated, but this one is not exterminated; rather, it is subjugated and transformed to serve the conqueror. A third seeking to avoid such disaster flees from the area into some inaccessible (and undesirable) place, and its former homeland becomes part of the growing empire of the power-seeking tribe. Let us suppose that others observing these developments decide to defend themselves in order to preserve themselves and their autonomy. But the irony is that successful defense against a power-maximizing aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power, and if the threatening society has discovered ways to magnify its power through innovations in organization or technology (or whatever), the defensive society will have to transform itself into something more like its foe in order to resist the external force.

Our situation in America today is, in important ways, parallel.

A force has arisen among us that is bent upon the maximization of its power.

That fact implies for the other elements of the system two options: either do what is necessary to be able to resist that power, or suffer the consequences of being dominated by that power.

Liberalism has failed to face that choice, and so, by default, it is surrendering control over the destiny of the American system to those for whom power is a priority, even an obsession.

We can now look back and see how, in area after area, the force on the right has developed long-term strategies, has devoted human and financial resources for executing those strategies, and has taken over large areas of the American power system.

One example: the courts. For almost forty years, the right has worked persistently to take over the courts. They have groomed their juridical soldiers, they have funded organizations, they have waged propaganda wars…. And now they are able to get what once were extreme measures adopted by a five-person majority on the Supreme Court.

Liberals have stood by, neither rising to match the power-strategies of the right nor acknowledging their forfeiture of this and other crucial battles.

By ignoring the reality of the situation, liberalism has surrendered our destiny to the control of an element in the system that is non-random in unfortunate ways. The obsession with power is not representative of the human, or the American, nature. It is, rather, a symptom of a kind of pathology.

It is entirely understandable that normal people, whose sense of what life is about embraces a healthy assortment of values, would not want to have to emulate a power-maximizing force like that of the corporatist-imperialist-manichean right. One would rather live one’s own more balanced life.

But it is the tragedy of The Parable of the Tribes that, when confronted with an effective power-maximizer, a peace-loving group no longer has the option in most wants. It can no longer safely continue as it was before that threatening force beset it.

That’s what I refer to in THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES as “Unfree Choices.”

Imagine a man walking down a street. He suddenly feels a gun pressed against his back and hears a voice saying, “Your money or your life!” He is being offered a choice, but it is not a choice he would choose. He would probably state his real preferences: “To tell you the truth, I’d rather keep my money and continue on my way uninjured as I was doing before you appeared.” Because of the coercive circumstances in which he finds himself, this option is foreclosed.

Likewise, for us liberals, who would like to be able to continue living our comfortable American lives as of old, leaving the realm of power to the people who like that game, we no longer have that option.

It is in that context that we can regard this passage from Joe Bageant’s DEER HUNTING WITH JESUS:

The very nature of liberalism, with its emphasis on diversity and individuality, makes it hard to organize. The bigger problem, though, is that liberals, like most other Americans, have lost the skills of grassroots organization, not to mention the will. Clarkson [an author of a book on the battle between theocracy and democraqcy now ongoing in America]observes. “Every good citizen should learn how to be a good activist—or a good candidate. Yes, it may mean making some choices, like less television and less surfing the Internet. But that is how a constitutional democracy is organized. That’s the way it works. If we abandon the playing field to the other side, they win by default.”

And it is in this context that can be understood my own decision, at this stage of my life, when I would rather be focused on the good, the true and the beautiful –where, more particularly, I would wish to pursue further the MAPPING THE SACRED project that I began with my “Pathways into the Experience of Deep Meaning” (see– am instead running for Congress in an effort to do whatever I can to change the power dynamic now degrading my country.

6 thoughts on “* While Liberalism Slept: How THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES Illuminates the Dilemma with Which Liberalism Has Yet to Come to Grips

  1. Aaron K

    I still maintain that pursuing the good, the beautiful, and the true is an offensive strategy, but I am beginning to understand Andy’s perspective better as I continue to learn how power aggressively and strategically strives to gain more power.

    Yesterday, I walked through the Paul Wellstone Memorial Site, a few miles from where I live. There are several signs describing Senator Wellstone’s vision of grassroots democracy and social justice, as well as his courageous fight against the concentration of power. Several people had placed flowers on the polished stone that marked his life, perhaps in anticipation of Memorial Day today.

    As I reflected on all that I saw and read, it was a sobering evening. I was alone at the memorial, walking on rock strewn paths through a dense and boggy north woods forest that seemed to epitomize the suffocating tangle of political progress. I wondered, as I walked, if my approach could help bring about the changes that I would like, or will I too need to take more direct action like Senator Wellstone and Andy.

    As I checked my email last night, I had two forwarded messages, sent to me from family members who have long been captured by the right wing power machine. Maybe it was due to the fact that I had just walked through the Wellstone Memorial, or maybe I had just had enough. I responded by exposing the messages as deliberate deceptions, using reliable data to do so. I asked that my email address be removed from the mailing lists used to circulate these mean-spirited, bogus statements. By so doing, I may have created or at least widened a chasm already growing in the family.

    Correcting, even rebuking family members, including parents and favorite aunts and uncles, is not an easy thing to do. But it seems that my several year effort to gently sway them to a more reasonable path is not having the effect I would like. The diet they consume from the fringe right is relentless and addicting. Instead of seeing them pull away from this through my efforts, it seems that they have become even less able to see truth or to reason fairly. A harshness is growing that encourages them to cast aside many of the principles of Christian living that I thought were my family’s bedrock foundation and guiding light.

    Perhaps the gentle way is best for those who are on the fence, and I know many who fit that description, so I will continue to fight in this way. But, when they have decisively crossed the fence then it seems to me now that Andy, and Senator Wellstone, are right. Only power can counter the abuse of power. This is a hard lesson for me to learn, and I remain deeply conflicted about the price involved though the path seems clearer now than ever.


    1. Andrew Bard Schmookler Post author

      I will be very interested, Aaron K, to hear if there are any further developments from your taking a stronger stand. It does not sound as though you were gratuitously hostile, but only standing up for the truth.

      With family members, I can understand how difficult this can be– particularly in view of the imperviousness of the right-wing trance state to such truthful correction.

      Despite that, you might consider whether, instead of asking that you be removed from that mailing list, you ask the senders –quite publicly– if they wish to keep you on the list, with the understanding that it is your intention to respond in that manner, i.e. speaking truth to right-wing lies they are being fed, to such future mailings as you would receive.

      There is a battle that needs to be fought, and won, if the country we have loved is going to endure, and not be changed into the very kind of society that Americans have long abhorred.


  2. James

    I am perplexed by the lack of resistence shown by Americans who are certainly capable of confronting the pathology. They live and find succor in a wonderful land of opportunity, a wholsome set of values learned from birth and within a democracy handed down from the amazing Ancient Greeks. They remind me, these capable Americans of Alexander who, at the end of his campaign and, with his troops wanting to go back to their families after years of battle, standing in the freezing cold and finally admitting defeat, as the impassable Hindu Kush blocked his path to further conquest.


  3. Jim C.

    One of the fascinating things about reading this blog over the past few years after spending most of my life hearing and reading mostly conservative political commentary has been the surprising extent to which both sides say very similar things, such as the following:

    This Republican (or Democratic) president is taking us toward fascism;

    The media has a liberal (or conservative) bias;

    The Republicans (or Democrats) seem to get to call the shots, even when they are in the minority. Our side just won’t stand up to them;

    A few rich Democrats (or Republicans) are trying to buy elections;

    Those liberal (or conservative) justices are legislating from the bench;

    And now you say that liberals have stood by for almost forty years while the right has worked persistently to take over the courts.

    I used to hear pretty much that same complaint, in reverse, from conservatives. And it seems to me that they had a point.

    Remember Miguel Estrada? His nomination was strenuously opposed by Democrats, who used the filibuster in new ways to see that he was not approved (per Wikipedia).

    Remember the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings? The Democrats did not succeed in keeping him off the Supreme Court, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

    And of course there was Robert Bork. He was a well qualified candidate, opposed mainly because he believed that the meaning of the Constitution should be understood to be what it actually says, and what the writers meant when they said it. The zealous (and unfair) Democratic opposition to his nomination gave rise to a new verb, “to bork”, meaning to defame or vilify a nominee for a position.

    One can hardly say that the left has just stood by.


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