Those who want war are instruments of ill omen.
—Tao Te Ching, trans. Thomas Cleary
I went to the Cirque du Soleil’s “Love” performance of The Beatles’ music last week and was struck by the sheer fun of it all.
The costumes and acrobatics are as stunning as you’d expect, of course. But what defies expectations is the feeling of the show itself, which reflects back to us a time when the Left took the Right utterly by surprise and, for a short while, ran rampant like tiny nimble mammals between the hulking legs of slow-witted dinosaurs.
It is a celebration, in other words, of a time when the pendulum of the Culture War swung in the other direction. The audience, spectacularly multi-cultural, loved the show — as much for reminding them that reality doesn’t have to be oppressive, I suspect, as for the skill and art of the entertainers.
Since I am old enough to remember those days half a century past, I hope I am old enough to have gained some perspective on the whole matter of culture, history and the future.
My worldview is grounded in ideas that sprouted in ancient China at least 4,000 years ago, particularly those pertaining to the way that change occurs. Based on their observations of nature — and the way human beings internalize nature to make it part of their collective psyche — the ancient Taoists conceived of the world as created and maintained by the interaction of two complementary forces, Yin and Yang. Like the two poles of a magnet, or like the shaded and sunny sides of a mountain, they were not conceived as independent or mutually exclusive. Yin and Yang, when not disturbed, sought a harmonious balance that benefited the whole.
And because these twin forces were observed at work in human nature as much as nature itself, they became the primary way to describe how individuals and societies change over time. In this sense, Yin was associated with the moon and Yang with the sun, and then, through further associations, Yin came to symbolize the feminine half of the world and Yang the masculine half. This kind of symbolization proved astute, since it carried down to the individual level, where each person, regardless of gender, was seen to possess a feminine half and a masculine half to their psyche. Somewhere between the great cosmological Yin and Yang making up the whole of the universe and the unique Yin and Yang making up the whole of each individual, there lies civilization itself — a unified whole whose social changes are driven by the relationship between its Yin and Yang halves.
The closer I look at our nation here in North America at the beginning of the 21st century, the more I am struck by the polarization taking root and threatening to tear us apart. The feminine and masculine halves of our society are settling into antagonistic mindsets that could take generations to reconcile. It is resulting in a culture war that is spilling over our borders and impacting the rest of civilization.
When one half attempts to dominate the other, polarization sets in, the natural balance between necessary alternatives is disrupted and the will to turn back from a downward spiral of self-destruction becomes harder and harder to sustain.
The Yin half of our society today is found in the Left, whose concerns for the collective welfare manifest in the Progressive agenda advocating social change in the arenas of health care reform, a social services safety net for the poor and disenfranchised, environmental protection and equal rights for all citizens, to name a few. In this sense, Progressives represent the feminine half of our culture, whose priorities are justice and humaneness.
The Yang half of our society today is found on the Right, whose concerns for the collective welfare manifest in the Conservative agenda advocating social restoration of cultural stability, national homogeneity, global supremacy and governance by Judeo-Christian values, to name a few. In this sense, Conservatives represent the masculine half of our culture, whose priorities are national sovereignty and wealth preservation.
It is easy for Progressives to view the Right as paranoid warmongers who side with dictators and multi-national corporations to maintain an obsolete world of national borders, when the thrust of history and technology is rushing us toward a single world of social and environmental harmony. It is just as easy for Conservatives to view the Left as deluded idealists willing to destroy the soul of America with socialism and abdicate the destiny of America to lead the world into an era of universal progress.
This kind of stereotyping has led to a deep divide of distrust and disdain that cannot be bridged without mutual respect based on a widespread recognition of equal importance.
One yin and one yang make a tao.
—I Ching, or Book of Changes
Tao is the union of Yin and Yang. It is the Way of wholeness and the well-being of the whole. It defies definition or description because its unchanging principal is constant change. It is an underlying harmony that, like water, simply benefits everything it touches. It is translated as The Way, implying the single road all of creation travels together from a common origin toward a common destination.
Right and Left are going to have to recognize the importance of the role each plays in the well-being of the whole. If we do not accept one another and join in conversation where multiple points of view are respected and given due consideration, then we are doomed to a disastrous culture war that both sides will inevitably lose because they couldn’t stop trying to win every minor battle.
This is more than simply a matter of compromise. If the Right doesn’t recognize the value in social diversity and authentic compassion, then it risks becoming a police state occupying its own nation. If the Left doesn’t recognize the value in consolidating power in a time of historical transition, then it risks falling into the kind of social anarchy and rampant criminality that have recently befallen other nations.
Knowing the Male,
But staying with the Female,
One becomes the humble Valley of the World.
— Tao Te Ching, trans. Chang Chung-Yuan
For the ancient Taoists, the Valley is the symbol of abundance shared by all; it is where rivers run and food grows and cities flourish. The above quote implies that by holding the strength of the Yang masculine half in reserve while enacting the universal goodwill of the Yin feminine half, we can make of ourselves a benevolent nation devoid of high-handed arrogance.
It will take more than simply tolerating one another, however. We are going to have to appreciate one another, recognizing that resources have to be channeled according to circumstances, not ideology. And we are going to have to filter out the divisive rantings of extremists on both sides, keeping in mind that we all share the common goal of national well-being. To paraphrase the Tao Te Ching, “Those who want culture war are instruments of ill omen.”
Something more profound than a truce will have to be declared between Yin and Yang in the culture war, for this is not, after all, a real war in which there can ever be a victor — it is a marriage from which there can be no divorce.
We are going to have to see each other as having the best of motives with complementary priorities. We are going to have to quite thinking in issues and stands and begin trusting one another to fulfill our respective roles. We are going to have to stop blaming one another for past betrayals and begin moving forward together. We are going to have to stop listening to the vicious in-laws in politics, commerce, religion and the media sniping from the sidelines to keep this power struggle alive. And we are going to have to shake off this mood of oppression and make this nation fun again.
We are, in a word, going to have to fall in love with one another all over again.
This article first appeared in the Huffington Post on Feb. 25th, 2011.
The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just received a Silver Award in the 2010 Nautilus Awards. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.