still trapped in Plato’s cave!
“The prisoners would mistake the shadows for reality.” – Socrates, The Republic, Book VII
About 2,376 years before Fox News was founded (1996), Plato wrote his renowned Allegory of the Caves (380 BCE), introducing it with Socrates saying, “And now, I said, let me show in an allegory how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened (my italics): Imagine this–human beings living in a underground cave which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood …”
If ever there was a definition of prescience, this is it. In modern day lingo, Socrates ‘nailed it.’ The prisoners in the cave? This is us.
The following is a brief story, a mere glimpse at a few of the evolutionary, historical and contemporary reasons why we humans are who we are, do what we do, and don’t do what we should. Why our competitive self-interest is cancerous. Why it might be incurable. Why we will probably remain prisoners in the cave, forever (or until we blow it up). Why the US Supreme Court is one of the biggest shadows. Why Putin’s shadow is a reveal that might actually … maybe, save us.
The us is the good, the bad and the ugly of humanity and it cuts across every generation and class of our species from the good of Plato, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Bacon, Einstein, Sagan, Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai to the bad and ugly of Caligula, Cleopatra, Vladimir Putin, Jeffrey Epstein, Tammy Faye Bakker, Will Smith, Tucker Carlson, Kevin McCarthy, the House of Medici and the House of Trump (see earlier blog). Plus a few billion of the rest of us living in the shadows and chains of everyday life, desperate to avoid facing our homo sapiens reality.
“Fox Nation:” A modern day cave
“They are the ruling class, they threaten everything you believe in.” – Tucker Carlson
Tucker Carlson knows the truth in Plato’s allegory. He is Exhibit A in an endless string of evidence that shows how the projection of shadows on the cave wall create a facsimile of the reality we live in – put up with. The Tucker Carlson Tonight show gathers more than 3 million people in a cave every night to watch a parade of shadows on the screen that are not about ‘news’ or truth or fairness, they’re about money. Ratings. And the bigger and more ominous the shadows, the bigger and more frightened the audience – us (a portion of us). In another cave not far away are other dwellers who prefer watching the shadows spinning out of Wolf Blitzer’s robotic, tone-deaf, repetitive hyperbole. Of course, the shadows change according to whatever makes the cave dwellers feel better. It’s not ‘news’ it’s a combination of comfort food, entertainment and therapy.
Carlson’s cave members are 92% white and primarily older, and different from the dwellers watching CNN, NBC, ABC, CBC, BBC, Russia’s VGTRK or the billions who dwell in the labyrinth of cultural caves on the Internet. Each needs the safety, security and confines of their own cave and are not much interested in other caves. Of course, cave size and shadows vary and it’s this difference that allows dwellers to reaffirm their identity, find a sense of belonging and build a foundation of beliefs to fiercely defend their identity and their cave.
Carlson is only one of countless untold shadow-makers who project a different version of reality across the walls of our small caves – and across big caves too, like nations.
“They want to control and then destroy you.” – Tucker Carlson
The New York Times and investigative reporter Nicholas Confessore have just published a fascinating, three-part series, How Tucker Carlson Stoked White Fear to Conquer Cable (Part I, 30 minute read, great video clips). It’s an illuminating peek inside a modern day cave. Although Plato would be amazed at the power of modern technology to reach so many caves, he would not be surprised by the power of the shadows, or the consequences. He’d probably say, “I told you so.”
Here are a few highlights from the NY Times article of Carlson’s nightly vitriol proffered as some kind of conservative wisdom. The only wisdom – if we dare call it that – is how much money it makes for Fox and Carlson (apparently he earns $6 million/year). Not bad for an average talking-head from a broken home.
- Americans inhabit a civilization under siege … from Black Lives Matter, diseased migrants, alien cultures, tech companies and cultural elites.
- The January 6th violence “barely rates as a footnote.”
- January 6th was a false-flag operation by shadowy actors to persecute innocent Americans.
- Americans (white) are threatened by the rising power of Black and brown citizens (the “brown menace”).
- White Americans are an oppressed caste.
- Democrats are importing “more obedient voters from the third world” to “replace” the current electorate and keep themselves in power (borrowed from a racist conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement”).
- The United States is “ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.”
When you read the NY Times article you might wonder if Carlson’s angry spewing is rooted in his childhood, due to family trauma and abandonment by his mother. After his mother’s death he said, “She’s a bitch from the grave.” Certainly, his psyche is well-suited to portraying an angry, abandoned victim, which resonates with his audience at a gut level.
Some truth doesn’t make everything true
I want to be clear, a lot of what Carlson says is true. Corruption, elites and governments that don’t work, etc. etc. But his blatant lies and fake certitude that these are somehow new-found insights from his little corner of the world is the epitome of aggressive arrogance and predatory practices. His purpose isn’t truth, it’s anger and fear. He wants “you” to feel like a newly minted victim, worse off than billions of less fortunate folks. His not-so-subtle dog whistle is fear. He wants your outrage, not so you will stand up and fight but so you will sit down and watch him. He doesn’t want you to reconcile your anger and fear, he wants to poke it and stoke it. He’s stoking fear, which, in turn stokes ratings, which, in turn, stokes his bank account. He’s pretending to be a self-anointed patriot, a ghost of Paul Revere riding into your living room every night. He’s no patriot, he’s a sophisticated con-man with a large, loud shadow show. Nothing more.
A sidebar: A shadowy US Supreme Court
An even bigger shadow show is the United States Supreme Court. These nine black robes cast one of the biggest shadows across the nation. Supposedly, this is the pinnacle of justice but it has shown, again and again, it’s just another political puppet show, albeit a convincing one. All those robes and pillars and solemnity, who wouldn’t buy it?
We are supposed to accept that these are nine of the most intelligent, unbiased, buy-the-law homo sapiens on the planet, but don’t let the robes hide the reality. Enlightenment doesn’t spring to mind when recalling Brett Kavanaugh’s childish performance at his confirmation hearing or Ginni Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, texting wackiness to the White House (we all know she would be in her husband’s ear, they share the same cave). And if we need any further persuading, the recent leak about overturning women’s abortion rights tells us all we need to know. At least five of them (one a woman), believe we should cling to the mythical, immaculate conception of some guy in a stable 2,000 years ago who still maintains the right to rule – over rule – two of our species most natural and innate needs: Sex and survival.
Who doesn’t understand two of humanity’s most powerful forces? We are sexual beings driven to procreate. And we always do whatever is necessary to survive.
Sex and survival are genetic. Unavoidable. And yet, five of the nation’s appointed minds – not necessarily the brightest – ignore this reality. They buy into the cumulus religious cloud hanging over us that declares a woman does not have the right to be human, to have sex, and if an unwanted pregnancy occurs, to have the right to determine her own survival. It’s that fundamental. Fundamentally wrong! And yet, these justices are guided by – blinded by – man-made, “fundamentalist” religious beliefs. This is not very bright. But … this is us.
“The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision …” – Justice Samuel Alito
Alito, the robe-wearing author of the leaked “majority opinion” has already had his fact-free logic and argument blown up. Jordan Smith, an investigative journalist covering criminal justice has written an excellent article for The Intercept (5 minute read). She states, in part, “This completely ignores the historical significance of the 14th Amendment, a Reconstruction-era addition meant to ensure individual liberty, including the right to decide whether and with whom to form a family. “Most Americans understand the plain truth reflected in these protections,” Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, said in a statement. “A person cannot truly be free, and is not truly an equal member of society, if they do not get to decide for themselves this most basic question of bodily autonomy.” Alito’s opinion, she said, “frighteningly bulldozes past the Constitution.”
“The one thing I do have faith in is that a nation full of furious feminists can make that happen. As the organization Shout Your Abortion put it this week, “Fuck SCOTUS, we’re doing it anyway.” – Jessica Valenti (read her incisive blog – 2 min)
The lack of women’s rights in our parochial, misogynistic cultural caves is one of the best examples of our inability to evolve and advance the species – despite “a nation full of furious feminists.” This is us.
Why do we believe the shadows?
A brief, even cursory look at history can perhaps enlighten (as Socrates said) our perspective on the human condition and see more clearly why we do what we do. Plato can still, 2,400 years later, open our minds and eyes and help us see in the darkness of our caves. I’m sure Tucker Carlson would not have been allowed to attend Plato’s Academy and study alongside Aristotle (I hesitate to use these names in the same sentence), but in some rudimentary way Carlson realizes what Plato knew and Darwin confirmed: We have not evolved very far from “the indelible stamp of our lowly origins.” And he preys on it.
“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” – Howard Beale, movie Network (1976)
Carlson, Blitzer, Trump, Trudeau, Johnson, Ford, local politicians and a cadre of media and corporate ‘elite’ (to use a Carlson term) have gamed the system, painting our lives with propaganda that we accept because it either facilitates our comfort or stirs our anger, both of which make us feel better. They will only stop when we start accepting that we are part of the problem, guilty of being mute witnesses to the shadow shows. Being compliant, submissive, silent audiences. Perhaps getting mad but doing nothing – too afraid, too lazy, too self-centered.
Worse, we ‘ain’t seen nothing yet.” Wait until Musk ramps up to out-compete Zuckerberg and Bezos in the shadow projection room (three of the biggest, riches story telling, shadow enablers on the planet). And wait until we get more of the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and J. D. Vance in Congress … the inmates will be running the asylum, and our caves. Howard Beale, the fictional news anchor in the movie Network, who said, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” voiced what everybody felt back then and yet, here we are fifty years later still ‘taking it,’ acquiescing in the darkness of our caves.
“Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a unit in an economy, a citizen in a state … we may ask what history says about the nature, conduct & prospects of man [woman].” – Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History.
Recorded history can never present an accurate depiction of the mysteries and complexities of humankind but it can paint a mural in which we can observe the changing times, follow the rise and fall of civilizations and see the consilience in centuries of evidence. Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power,” and history gives us the foundational knowledge needed to form a more accurate, less shadowy picture of who we are. And it’s not just about ‘who we are?’ It’s about understanding our lack of progress. Sure, we’ve made progress in living standards and technology (from arrowheads and caves to computer chips and skyscrapers) but we are woefully lacking when it comes to any progress in human values, ethics, morals and purpose.
“The strong do what they have to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” – Thucydides (460-400 BCE)
A higher purpose?
As a species with higher intelligence do we have a higher purpose? Is higher purpose the measure of progress for a civilization? Or are we limited to being a species living on the spectrum of ever-shifting power between competing empires?
Thucydides, author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, knew a thing or two about wars and opined on the reality of war and politics. Considered the ‘father of political realism‘ (conflict in the pursuit of wealth and power), he posited that human behavior, and the behavior of the states we build, are constructed on fear and self-interest (maybe Carlson read him). Thucydides probably wouldn’t be surprised to see that nothing has changed in the ensuing 2,400 years.
Despite the exponential growth of human endeavors through cooperation, from economics and literature to medicine and technology, our self-interest still dominates and drives us to compete and that causes us to default to our genetic decree of “survival of the fittest.” On the grand stage of the planet and at the grandiose scale of empires, this competition manifests in a proclivity to destroy the ‘other’ rather than construct for all.
Are we not just a collection of empires who have made little to no progress in advancing human values, behavior and purpose? Exhibit B: Assyrian Empire (c.2025 BCE–c.605 BCE); Babylonian Empire (c.1894 BCE–c.1595); Egyptian Empire (c.1550 BCE–c.1077 BCE); Greek Empire (c.700 BCE–c.146 BC); Roman (c.27 BC–c.476 AD); Ottoman Empire (c. 1299 AD–c.1453 AD); British Empire (c. 1500 AD–c.1945 AD); American Empire (c.1850s AD– ?); Chinese Empire (?).
The rule of law
It appears as if the current evolution of empires will pit an axis of China-Russia/autocracy against Europe-America/democracy with a flotsam of tribal confrontations drafted into the endless division and devastation. At the core of the divide is a founding principle of civilization, the rule of law. Without the rule of law we have anarchy, with it we have a chance – at survival. Our chances diminish when a Putin invades a sovereign state or a Donald Trump incites violence “to take back our country.” The demise of the rule of law is far more threatening to humanity than the demise of democracy, and Putin’s war is not simply autocracy versus democracy, it’s the rule of law versus anarchy. And that should raise more fear in us than a babbling, bullshitting, greedy Tucker Carlson. Across 4,000 years, the empires and characters have changed but the division and devastation have not. This is us.
Our historical record underlines – in red – how our human behavior mirrors, at the cellular level, the genetic phenomenon of ‘divide and conquer.’
“If we manage to drive ourselves extinct as a species, it will be the same kind of shortsightedness that causes cancer cells to hasten their own demise.” – David Sloan Wilson author of Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.
David Sloan Wilson’s book is a great read and his biological analogy between cancer cells and self-interest groups of homo sapiens is astute. Penetrating. Illuminating. Frightening.
If you read nothing else, read chapter 19, Divided We Fall (four short perspicacious pages). He explains the parallel between how groups of our biological cells interact and how small groups of humans interact. Both pursue shortsighted self-interests versus cooperation among and across cells/groups in the farsighted interest of the common good. In biology, the former can become cancerous. Cells, driven by their genetic, “survival of the fittest” decree (this is what genes do), advance by “beating the competitive cells” and “colonizing other areas of the body.” At some point they can become cancerous. It’s rare but causes the death of nearly 10 million people every year (someday we might say the same about nuclear war).
The irony for the genes, whose only goal is to adapt and advance, is that the cancerous cells “hasten their own demise” because in the end they kill the body they depend on. They die with it. Similarly, are we killing the only body we have, planet earth? As Wilson points out about our genes, “they lack any mechanism for getting from one body to another.” [They have no Elon Musk to get them to another planet, and for us it’s probably a fool’s errand to count on Elon as a last hope].
Wilson’s analogy is fascinating. Homo sapiens are an expansive collection of diverse groups living, and dependent on, ‘the body earth’ (193 nations and thousands of cultures and races), and they are driven by self-interests toward short-term goals, which are only shadows on the wall of their small caves. The shadows are created by memories of lost empires, or myths of religions perpetuated, or myths of privilege earned, or the power to dominate ‘others,’ or the need to control more of ‘something.’ Whatever the myths they become sclerotic beliefs that metastasize into aspirations of colonization of other parts of the body earth.
Metastasis is the term typically used when referring to a cancerous tumor (Putin/Hitler) and a pathogenic agent’s spread from an initial or primary site (Russia/Germany) to a different or secondary site (Ukraine/Czechoslovakia) within the host’s body (earth).
Just as we have not yet, and might never, find a cure for cancer, it is possible we might never develop the capacity to find a cure for our genetic, cancerous self-interest. We have seen in just our lifetime, with our own eyes, the serial transformation of the “survival of the fittest” into crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide (i.e., the Holocaust, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, genocide of the Bosnian war, and today’s genocide of the Uyghur in China and, of course, Ukraine).
How can we not see the reality? Not admit it? Not face it? And most importantly, not recognize that it’s possible the diagnosis of our self-interest cancer has reached ‘stage four’ and is incurable. That we may well be trapped in our caves and the incessant injection of shadows is nothing more than a form of chemotherapy that can’t cure us, only delay the inevitable. Instead of dismissing this as ‘doom and gloom,’ can we not see it as enlightening.? As a possibility? As a way out of our caves. As failure that can be turned into opportunity.
“Problems are opportunities in disguise.” – Og Mandino
Intellectually, we understand we are all part of, dependent on, and share one earth, but we are cursed with animal instincts to have power over ‘other’ and it dominates our fragmented tribal existent. In turn, this ‘will to power’ (Nietzsche) trumps our capacity to evolve toward a greater, across groups, collective purpose. Altruistic genes lose to selfish genes, every time, with some exceptions in the narrow confines of Darwin’s kin selection.
“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” – David Sloan Wilson & Edward O. Wilson (not related), co authors of Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology (pdf).
The Wilson organizing principle of altruistic groups “beating” selfish groups is self-evident in most of the animal kingdom, but rare among one species, homo sapiens. Altruism among our species, across groups, does work, and we have a great deal to show for such cooperation, but our Achilles heel gets exposed when a hard-wired choice between altruistic interests and self-interests has to be made. Altruism loses, almost every time.
The current NATO versus Russia confrontation has the potential to validate the Wilson wisdom. The altruism among 30 nations just might defeat the selfishness of one nation. But, and it’s a big but, history has many examples that suggest differently. One hundred years of altruistic intentions by the League of Nations (1919) and United Nations (1945) “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security” has exposed our inability to achieve such empty, shadowy promises – just ask the people of Ukraine. These international schemes for cooperation are mere shadows of hope on the cave wall, that, over time, reveal the charade – if we choose to see it. Living proof of the deception is the United Nation’s ‘slogan’ that 193 cave dwellers “can gather together, discuss common problems and find shared solutions.” The UN, with all its well-intended shadows, has never found the altruistic power to “beat selfish groups,” especially the five big powers who have veto power over anything (i.e., China, Russia, France, United Kingdom, United States). And as Ukrainian atrocities erupt out of our televisions and devices every day, more than half the world’s nations are not condemning Russia, or at best, they’re abstaining from voting against Russia. These small caves of homo sapiens will not sacrifice short-term, self-interests in order to cooperate and contribute to the protection of the whole.
Short-term myths trump absolute truths.
“To them, I say, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” – Socrates
Democracy, freedom, liberty, equality, constitutions, patriotism, nationalism, national anthems, political ideologies, ‘declarations of independence,’ ‘bills of rights,’ the ‘rule of law,’ religions, conspiracy theories … are all human constructs designed to not only keep us civilized but to make us feel better about staying in our relevant caves. If the shadows tell us Jesus forgives us no matter what or Allah supports flying planes into buildings, we believe it. If the national anthem praises “bombs bursting in air” or “stand on guard for thee,” we think war is a necessary norm. If the president says, “take back your country” or “we’re cleansing Ukraine of Nazis,” millions support him. If five shadowy lawyers in black robes declare women have no right to abortion, millions are okay with it and millions more yell at the cave walls … for a while, then shrug and retreat into the shadows.
There is a mythical image, a long historical shadow, on the wall of the Russian cave that deceives many Russian prisoners into seeing members of the Ukrainian cave as part of some old Russian cave, causing them to hail down fire and brimstone and destroy the Ukrainian cave in hopes of reorganizing the shadows.
It’s clear the shadows of democracy and humanity are fraying and the longstanding pretense is in stark relief. Many in democratic caves are disillusioned as the fear becomes chronic but, for many others the fear draws them to the pseudo strength of autocracy. And the divide and conquer of cave dwellers continues to metastasize. Plato told us that the social contract between the governed and the governing is tenuous, at best, and so did James Madison.
“You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” ― James Madison
“Control itself” has always been a myth, and today the likes of Trump, McConnell, McCarthy, Putin, Netanyahu, Erdoğan, Trudeau, Ford are just the current characters – bad actors – on the stage who, once again, expose the inability of the government to “control itself” and its self-interests. The lying, hypocrisy, greed, ruthlessness and violence are, in fact, much closer to who we really are than the shadows we pretend to see and prefer to imagine.
Just think, Kevin McCarthy, an outright liar and hypocrite, a man with no moral soul, a man of average intelligence (if that?) could become the US Speaker of the House, the third most powerful position in the world’s most powerful government. And the same traits can be attributed to Trump, who could, once again, in 2024, turn our fear into his power.
We are absorbed, entertained and deceived by the endless stream of manufactured truths from the likes of CNN, FOX, Netflix and SNL to the NBA, NFL and a contagion of echo chambers rampant in the back streets and alleys of the Internet. They tell us what we want to believe, and those wants manifest in our demand to live in a world of myths, hiding from brutish reality.
All of this is anchored in our genetic choice: Fight or flight. And we default to a flight from reality. This is us.
Of course, the siren song of the shadows is not new, Thucydides told his learned Greek colleagues all about them as he watched the creation of indulgences like the Olympic games (684 BCE) for the purpose of distracting citizens from the privations of every day life. The infamous Roman diversion was to pack the plebeians into the Colosseum to cheer on the lions [b]eating the Christians. Today it is slightly more civil with Lions (from Detroit) trying to beat the Green Bay Packers, but there’s no end to the distracting choices. In any given year there are 272 games in the NFL, 2,460 in the NBA, 4,860 in MLB, and Netflix alone serves up more than 5,000 movies and TV shows. Modernity offers more but it’s not new. We can go back in history and see the fictional stories of the Iliad and Odyssey, Adam and Eve cavorting in the garden, Moses parting the Red Sea, and for indigenous peoples their shadows stretch back into the homo sapiens era … since time began.
Mythology and its attendant hope keep us sheltering in place, mesmerized by the shadows, always in fear of facing the light of reality.
Think about it
“The immense past is only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale.” – Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History
We’ve had an “immense past” to learn from and yet, learned so little. As the scale of our endeavors increase and the capacity of the stage we live on decreases, the margin for error shrinks. Putin’s invasion and his nuclear arsenal have disclosed our vulnerability and at a visceral level we know our species is being threatened by the psychopathy of dancing shadows in one man’s head. We know this is us. But will we attempt to change it?
Putin may or may not blow up a whole bunch of cave dwellers outside of Ukraine, and whether he does or doesn’t, he has given us a glimpse of reality. He just happens to be the current culprit with the requisite power (Alexander the Great couldn’t get his hands on nuclear) to lead his fellow homo sapiens to self-immolation, self-annihilation and self-destruction. At this moment in history, like no other, Putin is showing us who we are. He didn’t get here on his own, he’s been aided and abetted by countless other self-centered, short-sighted cave dwellers. But here we are. How could we do this to us? Why would we let it get to this?
Of course, billions of us are not quite like Putin but how many powermongers does it take to convince us that we, collectively hiding in our insular caves, are the problem? Putin is not the exception. Here are a few of the bad actors on the “Dramatis Personea” (persons of the drama) of just the last 100 years: Putin, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, MBS (Saudi Arabia), bin Laden, Milošević, Pol Pot, Khrushchev, Tōjō Hideki, Hitler, Stalin, and a few US Presidents who employed their power to kill fellow homo sapiens (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, Bush). And Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first drunken Prime Minister, had a hand in the digging the graves for thousands of Indigenous children.
This is us.
If we escape the worst of the current existential threat are we capable of answering this question in the affirmative?
Can we accept our limited evolutionary progress so that we can find the requisite number of homo sapiens of extraordinary intelligence, will and altruistic capacity who can lead us away from our cancerous self-interest and toward a common, collective human purpose?
If I can stretch the cave metaphor: If the writing is on the wall, will we continue to ignore it?
Does history not tell us a glaring truth? We homo sapiens have not yet shown that we have the capacity to unite around a common human purpose that can save the species and the planet?
Think about it.
Understanding and accepting our human reality, not only provides an opportunity to leave the darkness of our caves but can also open us up to a deep accepting calm and personal peace. And that’s a helluva lot better than living with endless empty shadows.
“I think, therefore I am.” – René Descartes
David – You are fulfilling your purpose, indeed. Very thought provoking and deep, thank you for writing and sharing.