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What Does it Mean to Be a Decent Person in an Indecent Age? Plus, Quantum Leaps in Human Consciousness, and Leadership in the 21st Century

What Does it Mean to Be a Decent Person in an Indecent Age? Plus, Quantum Leaps in Human Consciousness, and Leadership in the 21st Century

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. ‘Outdated and misleading’: is it time to reassess the very concept of money? (The Guardian)
  2. Here’s why Americans under 40 are so disillusioned with capitalism (WaPo)
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  4. Trump Media stock plunges as 2023 Truth Social loss put at $58 million (WaPo)
  5. ‘They scream in hunger’ - How Israel is starving Gaza (Al Jazeera)

What Does it Mean to be a Decent Person in an Indecent Age?

Hi! How’s everyone? Thanks for joining, and helping us build this community, plus welcome new readers—and old ones! Today we’re going to start with a beautiful reflection slash comment slash lament from the weekend’s open thread.

Good morning! I’ve been reading your work for a while and realized today that it’s time to subscribe. Thank you for talking about the hard things, and also for reminding me that I can bring a human-centered and heart-full approach to life. When I first found your work, I was in a place of deep hopelessness. The situation we have created for ourselves on this planet is incredibly hopeless, if the goal is to maintain status quo. You helped open my eyes to see that I don’t have to collapse into forced acceptance of status quo.

Maybe I have no control over the macro (or mid) forces, but I have choice over my mind and actions - setting into play micro forces. Through your work and that of others, I’ve rediscovered the one thing I can do consistently: and that is to lead with love. To always ask, “what would love do?” I’m not at all hopeful that we can find a way forward by continuing to drive this complicated doomsday machine we seem to have built. Something will have to give, and that something will have to be the human race - one way or another. At this point, my hope is completely vested in serving others and this planet without any hope for an outcome. It’s easier that way - spending all the days I can loving nature and loving the people and beings in it. So those are my thoughts for Sunday morning. Thank you for speaking hard truths. I am grateful.

You’re very welcome – and thank you for subscribing! Let me try to summarize…what a lot of us are wrestling with these days. What does it mean to be a decent person in an age like this? Of collapse, ruin, extinction? A good person, in times…like these?

I think this question gets (badly) overcomplicated. Today, our culture is sort of obsessed with “messiness” and “complicated people” and hate-watches and hate-reads and whatnot. The central theme there is that goodness is unattainable. But is it? I don’t think so—not really. I think it’s actually pretty simple, and the hard stuff…comes afterwards. Let me explain what I mean by that.

My old, old childhood friend Christian (Hi bud!) called me up not so long ago. And he said: “I’ve been reading what you write for years. And it used to make me so angry. I used to disagree so much. And now…I have to admit…you were right.” I chuckled. We talked. 

It’s not about being right. But it is about transformation, change, learning, wisdom, growth. This is what we lack—and need—now, in this age, this century. Along what lines? In what way? Here are five principles for leadership, if you like, or just what it means to…be a good person. I’m going to sort of divide them into “us” and “them,” meaning people on the authoritarian side, and the side of democracy, just for simplicity’s sake.

Now, you might “disagree” with some or most of these. That’s emphatically not the point, just as it wasn’t for Christian, and I’ll come back to that after we discuss them.

  • When their side insists that democracy’s foolish and weak, we should insist on democracy and freedom for everyone, and then for every living being, too.
  • When their side insists that some people are subhumans, and don’t deserve personhood, we should demand that everyone is a person, in the fullest of ways, deserving of all the advanced rights that we know of (and so is every being, too.)
  • When their side says that conflict is the way to solve problems, and brutality is permissible, we should demand an end to war and violence, period, full stop.
  • When their side insists that nobody deserves anything, and that chaos and brutality are the human condition, ruled by clan and tribe, our side should demand that everyone has universal rights towards an end to want, period, with no exceptions
  • When their side says that the point of life is competition and dominance and exploitation, we should demand that everyone be able to live in peace, and aim their lives, through self-determination, towards fulfillment.

An end to war. Violence. Hunger. Want. Universality of self-determination, fulfillment, possibility, the Mother Right of Personhood. 

This is what being a good person is. Not just in the modern context, but I think sort of throughout history. Can we really say that Jesus or Buddha or any great mind from ancient history wouldn’t have agreed? Don’t tell Ron DeSantis, but Einstein was a…socialist. This is also what leadership is in the 21st century, and we’ll come to that.

The Last Quantum Leap in Human Consciousness

All of this is stuff that emerged at the last great evolution, or quantum leap, in human consciousness, and that happened during the 60s. Thanks to “flower power” or however you want to summarize it, ideas like these actually became widely shared beliefs. Widely enough to be immortalized in film, song, books, art—and even aimed towards having a political impact.

And then, as Joseph Heller once said, something happened.

When did the center left begin to die? And when did the hard right really begin to win? It wasn’t in 2016, or in 2022. It was way back in the 1970s.

You see, this great leap in human consciousness, towards universality, a kind of minor enlightenment, an end to violence, war, hunger, want—it lasted barely a decade, if that, before it was convulsively squelched.

How did that happen? They killed off the leaders of this new movement, moment, this set of ideas, one by one. From JFK to MLK to Malcom X to John Lennon himself. You don’t have to believe in some sort of grand conspiracy—the process then was much as it is now, violent lunatics radicalized by conspiracy theories, often mired in race and “replacements” and so forth, taking it upon themselves, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, to finish the job. 

And as they did that, the center left’s moment of transformation began to die. It began to cower, and it’s been there ever since. Think of today. The center left has long, long since given up on any of these great and grand ideas—an end to. Today, it laments Gaza, and rightly so, but the idea of an end to violence or war or hunger or want isn’t even on its radar anymore.

They beat humanity into submission. They destroyed its last great moment of evolution in consciousness. With what they always destroy goodness with. Violence. They taught us to fear them, and since then…we have.

So today, we’re left in this sort of mire. We pretend not to know what it is to be a good person, because it’s become trendy and fashionable to pretend it’s confusing, or bewildering, or perplexing. But I don’t think it is. I think it’s pretty simple, like I said, and in fact, we figured it out quite some time ago. But they beat it out of us, with violence, terror, and pain. We forgot, in just the way Orwell warned us about.

Leaders, Followers, and Tipping Points in Human Consciousness

So how do we turn all that around? Can we? Where does that sort of bleak history leave us? Just because the goodness was beaten out of human consciousness half a century ago—does that mean it’s gone, for good?

Let’s think about their strategy. It worked. You can see how well it worked: half a century later, democracy itself is imploding at light speed, and meanwhile, the side of democracy doesn’t even remember what it was supposed to stand for.

That’s the power of killing off a generation of leaders. And that’s why I framed the beliefs above as leadership principles. What the brutal success of their strategy teaches us is that leaders matter, intensely so: they are the linchpin which changes societies. Today, scholars will speak of “social tipping points” as the only way to address the challenges of this age, and that’s killing off the last leap in human consciousness thwarted

But leaders don’t evolve in vacuums, either. Those leaders who were violently killed off the moment they preached a quantum leap in human consciousness in the 1960s—they gained following around that time precisely because people were ready for them. Attitudes and beliefs had begun to change, thanks to the bloody morass of the Vietnam war, thanks to the aftermath of the last World War, thanks to the birth of social democracy in Europe and Canada, and much more.

And so today, our challenge is much the same as before—that is what that period in history tells us. Not to wait around, magically, for such leaders to emerge. But to sort of invoke them. To demand them, to create social space for them to emerge, to make it more and more inevitable that they can rise. Or even to be such leaders.

And it’s in that sense that changing and transforming our own mindset and attitudes is so crucial.

Remember my friend Christian? What changed his belief in…me? My predictions and so forth? He got sick. Really sick. He’d had heart trouble since he was a kid, and in middle age, it hit him hard. And then he realized that despite being a very, very successful doctor himself, not having universal healthcare, as is the case in America—it left him a sort of devastatingly precarious position. If not financially, then just socially, emotionally, as a human being. That provoked a literal…change of heart, if you’ll pardon the bad pun. Humanity’s sort of in this position.

Can We Change Before It’s Too Late?

Change is hard. Much harder than we often think. And when it comes to us, to humanity, there are three possibilities.

  • We don’t change fast enough, and the result is an age of growing catastrophe and chaos.
  • We don’t change at all, and the result is sort of unlimited catastrophe and chaos.
  • We change fast enough, and stave off the worst of climate, democratic, social, and economic collapse.

Now, of those three possibilities, we can pretty much rule number three out. We’re not going to change fast enough to stave it all off. We’re in the Event Horizon of the Event—the single greatest one in all 300,000 years of human existence, which is extinction. Not ours, but in the sense of deep time, transitions between geological ages. 

The question isn’t if we change, but when. Think again about Christian. If it hadn’t been middle age, it would have been…later. But he still would’ve come around, because of course, we all develop health problems, and in his case, maybe it would’ve been a heart attack in old age that changed him from die-hard wannabe capitalist to something a little more enlightened.

The same is true for us. The question for humanity isn’t if, but when. In that sense, though people can paint me as a “pessimist,” I’m not. I believe we can and will change. But the question is: in a decade? Two? Three? Or a century from now?

You see, we are now at our limits. Planetary limits. Economic limits—no sources of growth left. Political limits—just 20% democracy left. Social limits: our social contracts are ripping themselves apart, as our societies are. All of this means that we can’t go on the way we have. We have three to five decades, if we’re lucky, of even this left. This sort of destabilizing descent into pure chaos.

And as we approach that limit, of course, it will only become more and more transparent: none of this is working anymore.

There are no certainties in life. All of that might yield an authoritarian age. It might yield a solid half century where we decide, foolishly, that the answer to a dying planet and imploding economies is…fascism…as if that’s going to solve anything. It might provoke a descent into theocracy, as the American Supreme Court would have.

So the question is: what can we stave off? And in that sense, history matters. Just the history I tried to take you through. The sooner that we remember the purpose of our side, of democracy, of civilization—which is those grand, noble goals, aspirations, ideas, an end to hunger, war, violence, want, universal personhood, self-determination, emancipation from exploitation and hatred and conflict—then we will have some road to power again.

But the longer we go on forgetting all those, the longer we will be the disempowered, impotent thing we are now. Without those beliefs, deeply held, we create no social space for such leaders to emerge. We invoke no larger purpose. And our coalition falls apart, as it is now—Gaza teaches us clearly how little the center cares about any of these ideas at all anymore. 

We are going to have to begin at the beginning. Of the modern chapter of our sociopolitics. They beat it out of us—the hunger, the desire, the fight, the self-belief, the goodness. All of it. Through violence. They taught a lesson that we are still busy learning, and so we’re cowering, instead of sort of being as open and vocal about change and transformation as we should.

And of course, in all that, there’s a struggle, make no mistake. Christian’s a lightweight social democrat now, but if I say: should nature have rights and personhood? Should there be a universal human right to, say, education and income, and should we actually give it to everyone around the globe? He’ll pause and hem and haw. He’s not there yet. That’s OK. This is what growth and transformation is, and we all have to take our own journeys. 

But make no mistake, they end in the same place—which is the unfinished quantum leap of human consciousness squelched by violence, the very one that we now have to finish. We learn that through our own suffering, stupidity, folly, and self-deceit—the hard way. Or we learn it by reflecting on the nature of goodness, the lessons of history, and the challenges of now. That part is up to us, and this is humanity’s great struggle in the 21st century.

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