from the desk of H. Bowie...

desktop with typewriter


The Personal vs. The Institutional

An image of architectural detail from the United States Supreme Court building
image credit: iStock/drnadig

Trump as Person Writ Large

In some ways we can think of the Trump presidency as the ultimate triumph of the personal perspective over the institutional outlook.

For Donald Trump, of course, everything is personal, and all institutions are disposable. Personal loyalty to Trump is deemed to be more important than loyalty to the office, or to the party, or to institutions of our government, or to the US Constitution, or to any religious, moral or ethical traditions.

And this devotion to the personal, of course, is a large reason why he was elected in the first place. Before anyone knew him as a candidate, or as an elected official, he was known to people only as a media personality. His businesses were built around his outsized personality. And his entire campaign was built around this image, including personal appearances before thousands of admiring supporters.

And his candidacy primarily appealed to those who had become divorced from large institutions, including many who actively felt abandoned by all such institutions, such as corporations and governmental agencies. Here at last, they felt, was a candidate who asserted the ultimate right of each citizen to be their own person, to be judged only as a person, and who demonstrated a belief in the primacy of personhood with every media appearance, every tweet from his own personal account, every personal attack on other persons, leading to chants of “Lock her up!” Policy discussions were cast aside and largely ignored as Trump’s cult of personality came to overshadow all other concerns. And this cult has only grown and deepened as Trump’s term has progressed, culminating now in the attempts of Trump and his followers to explain and justify why it should be acceptable for a sitting president of our country to strong arm the leader of another sovereign nation simply in order to extract a bit of dirt to be used in his next run for office. And of course there is only one conceivable justification: personal loyalty to Trump comes first, before all else.

The Teaming Nature of Humanity

The problem here is that this conflict between the personal and the institutional is a false dichotomy. Here’s a quotation from evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson’s excellent book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution to help me flesh out this assertion.

Multilevel selection theory tells us that something similar to team-level selection took place in our species for thousands of generations, resulting in adaptations for teamwork that are baked into the genetic architecture of our minds. Absorbing this fact leads to the conclusion that small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Individuals cannot be understood except in the context of small groups, and large-scale societies need to be seen as a kind of multicellular organism comprising small groups.

And so, while we are right to believe that the ultimate goal of human society is the welfare of the individual persons within that society, it is folly to believe that these ends can be met without participation in and reliance on human institutions. For if the human individual has been designed by evolution to function within small groups, and our society is best considered as a multicellular organism made up of these small groups, then our durable human institutions must surely be thought of as the organs within the social animal. Turns out that the nature of our reality is not turtles all the way down – it’s teams all the way up.

The Necessary Balancing Act

This tension between the personal and the institutional cannot be resolved by the triumph of one over the other: rather, this tension can only be managed as an ongoing balancing act. There will be times when our institutions fail us, leading someone like Grace Slick in 1967, when the US was still deeply embroiled in the Viet Nam War, to declare (paraphrasing Irish writer James Joyce) that “I’d rather have my country die for me.” And Trump’s ascendancy can be seen, I believe, as another indication of failing institutions, as our US government, along with other neoliberal institutions around the world, allowed national boundaries and distinctions to become blurred, while putting their blind faith in the global workings of free market capitalism to unite all of us in some sort of mythical world order.

Our human institutions are, of course, fallible. Boeing celebrated its centennial in 2016, noting how rare an achievement it is for a corporation to succeed over the course of a full century, and at the same time setting its sights on continued health over the next hundred. And yet here we are, only three years into that next century, with Boeing’s CEO called to testify before Congress, and asked repeatedly to resign, while trying to explain how the institution that he led could possibly have designed a commercial airliner that caused hundreds of individual persons to uncontrollably plunge out of the skies to their fiery deaths below.

To make matters worse, human institutions are often opaque, mysteriously complex, and seemingly unaccountable for their actions. And so individuals become suspicious of a “deep state” operating within the institutions of our government, unresponsive to the will or needs of the persons the institution was designed to serve, or to the direction of the persons ostensibly heading these institutions.

Given these sorts of issues, it’s no wonder that we humans have trouble placing our faith in large, impersonal institutions.

Which is a problem. For the very continued existence of our species.

The Institutional Imperative

Yesterday I attended a screening of the film Chasing Coral. It’s not a great film, as judged by the aesthetic rules of cinema. Perhaps not even a very good one. But it convincingly conveyed a critically important message. All over the world, coral is dying at an astonishing rate. Vast beds of coral are completely dying out because our oceanic temperatures are inexorably, continually rising far beyond historic norms due to human-caused climate change. To put it in terms of the personal, it’s as if a human had a raging fever, but with no ability to return their internal temperature back to the normal range that would allow continued survival. These vast, living organisms, comparable to forests on land, provide homes to all sorts of sea creatures. And they will soon be gone. All dead. Taking entire ecosystems with them. Having what irreversible effects on living humans? No one knows for sure. We’re conducting an experiment. And you and I are inside the confines of this experiment. If it’s any consolation, you and I will be among the first to know the results.

No one can set an exact date to the start of the Anthropocene epoch, but almost all scientists are in agreement that we’re now in the thick of it. This means that our current geological age is defined, not by some cosmic event that changed the course of life on earth, but by the rise of our human influence over other life forms.

And here we run into the limits of the purely personal perspective. It may well be that you and I feel happy with the way things are going. From our personal perspectives – even our collective personal experiences – things perhaps seem to be pretty good. Maybe they’re even getting a bit better.

And yet, from a global perspective, scientists look around us and see, not just a few isolated problems, but wholesale environmental collapse. And a complete and accurate perception of the scope and depth of this collapse can only be obtained through the careful and extensive collection of unbiased data. Which can only be done by large groups of humans working together – working within and through various human institutions.

Richard Powers quite accurately put his finger on the nub of this problem in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory.

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

The problem, you see, is that we are dealing with the tragedy of the commons on a truly global scale. And it is impossible for any one of us, perceiving and acting personally, to even apprehend anything like the full scope of the problems we are facing, let alone do anything about them.

As much as we may distrust our large institutions, we are at a point in history where we have no choice except to act through them.

And so, like young Greta Thunberg, we have no choice except to confront these institutions face-to-face and demand that they accept responsibility and take meaningful action; like Thunberg, we must resist the appeal from institutional leaders to share our merely personal perspectives; like Thunberg we must instead insist that they listen, not to us, but to the scientists.

And additionally, for those of us beyond our school years, we must call upon ourselves to contribute to these institutions, to participate in them, to build new ones when needed, to fix them when they break, to help them become more effective and more reliable, to help them succeed in doing what none of us can do individually.

Rather than retreating to our own personal perspectives, history calls upon us to instead make our best efforts to once again form a more perfect union, this time to promote the global welfare. And it is only through institutions attempting to make real this more perfect union – as imperfect as they may be – that we can hope to secure the continued blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Our personal fates are not separable from the fates of our human institutions. In order to save ourselves, we must save them, direct them, and ensure they are working effectively to achieve the goals that we set for them.

There is no other choice open to us.

November 1, 2019