The Berlin Wall and the Shame of Self Promotion

I've been blessed in my work life with some decent media coverage recently. I gave a television reporter from a station called KRON a tour of several new transit-oriented developments (TODs) in San Mateo County, in preparation for a TOD tour we're giving in May as part of Affordable Housing Week. The piece even featured an image of my hands on the steering wheel of my car as I drove us around.

Anyway, that's the shameful self-promotion.

Appearing on television was a little strange for me, because I don't own a TV. It is a little weird to access images of oneself on TV through the web. (Unfortunately for my self-promotion purposes, the clip on KRON is no longer on their website.)

So, being on TV reminded me of a thought experiment I came up with a while back: First, consider the state of our nation today. In the United States, many people and entire systems of production and consumption are enthralled by a Domination System, as Walter Wink calls it, that values immediate self-interested gain over the well-being of our fellow humans, creatures, and creation.

What would it take to turn the Domination System back to Gospel Order? To the inbreaking Kingdom or Kindom of God?

These are very big questions, and involve a lifetime's work, not something I can blithely prescribe in the course of a blog post.

Consider instead, the state of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. What was the symbol of the old system that was crumbling as people stopped believing in and cooperating with it? The Berlin Wall, of course. Nothing symbolized the shattering of the old totalitarian regimes more than the destruction of the wall by the people of Berlin.

Here's the crux of the thought experiment: What is the Berlin Wall of OUR society?

What is the symbol that helps hold us back -- collectively as a society -- from seeing the truth about ourselves as a society? To me, the answer is television. Of course, it's more than a symbol, it's a way of transmitting messages straight into our brains. But there's something about the very TV-ness of American culture that seems important to me.

I could go on, but would be interested in others' thoughts before I say more.


Liz Opp said...

You raise an interesting question... My first answer to the question What is the Berlin Wall of OUR society? is "The Declaration of Independence." My second answer is "The Bill of Rights."

Without even studying these two documents very closely, I question if we've become a nation of individuals (as opposed to a people) who value our independence and who believe we have certain irrevocable rights--

the right to have (and in some states, conceal) weapons;

the right to drive alone in our cars;

the right to have our own personal computer;

the right to live in a single-family dwelling;

the right to have a television just to ourselves;

the right to have an allowance;

the right to say and write and draw whatever we want, without needing to consider our words' or cartoon's impact, no matter who it hurts or how it offends;

the right to insist that our way is better than your way, and we'll not only defend ourselves but we'll attack those who say otherwise.

Eeewww, it makes my stomach turn.

My third answer? Corporations. The documentary The Corporation makes a few statements applying the Bill of Rights to businesses and corporations as if THEY were individuals. Oy vey!

I also want to add: If we're going to start tearing old systems down, we better know what new systems we're going to build in their place.

What if we replaced the Declaration of Independence with a Proclamation of Cooperation?

...the Bill of Rights with the Count of Responsibilities?

...and corporations with family businesses?

Thanks for jogging my brain this morning! I needed a jump-start.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

David Korfhage said...

The Proclamation of Cooperation and the Count of Responsibilities reminds me of something. Simone Weil, in The Need for Roots begins her book with a list of paired human needs--things which seem contradictory but in reality aren't (something like freedom and order, or equality and hierarchy). I tend to agree. We need both the Declaration of Independence and the Proclamation of Cooperation.


Lorcan said...

Well, Berlin Walls come down because people change on the ground, not that we reform the image from above. The Berlin Wall as a symbol became weak. Our individual rights are crumbling, not because there is a flaw in the concept of individualism, but we loose sight of the idea that the right to swing our fist ends at the face of our neighbor. The same folks who call us to war to inflict individual rights on others, eviscerate individual rights here at home. In the same light, many Friends claim that Gospel Order is anything that supports their point of view and their politics of power in Quaker meetings ( where my experience of Gospel Order is rooted ). So, the point for me, is that it is not the medium or even the message, it is the intent towards others... and today the intent towards others in the United States is a terrible and a dangerous, hurtful, thing.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful discussion!

I like Liz's approach very much: like her, I believe that the "rights" approach is bankrupt. The idea of "rights" is historically derived from the idea of what is right, and one can see how, for example, the "right to assemble peaceably and petition the government for the redress of grievances" (Amendment I in the Bill of Rights) is grounded in our sense of what is right. The problem is in the influence that this approach has had on our way of thinking; ultimately, it has led us to a very self-centered "I have the right to do thus-and-so" as our answer to almost every sort of interpersonal problem. It is one-sided; it lacks an awareness that rights must be balanced by obligations, and the claim to a right with the obligation to be accountable.

I disagree with Lorcan when he says that the problem is "not [that] there is a flaw in the concept of individualism." The problem, IMHO, is very definitely that there is a flaw in the concept of individualism. Francis of Assisi once asked, "What is the use of renouncing the riches of the earth, if you intend to keep those of self-love?" And George Fox wrote, in his letter #48 (written in 1653), "Now, all loving the light, here no self can stand, but it is judged with the light; and here all are in unity, and here no self-will can arise, nor no mastery, but all that is judged out." I see clearly what these two visionaries were trying to get across, and I feel and believe that they had the right of it. There is a very good reason why the early believers in Jerusalem held all things in common (Acts 2:44).

I would say to Lorcan that the alternative to "individual rights" may be *either* the loss of such rights in a totalitarian order, or the discovery of community. To trade "individual rights" for a totalitarian order such as Homeland Security is the path downward. To trade "individual rights" for the discovery of community, as happened in the early church in Jerusalem and in the early Quaker movement and in many other places, is the path upward. One should not imagine that the only alternative to "individual rights" is something worse!

Finally, a response to Chris M. Chris, I don't think that the way out of the Domination Society begins with the giving up of a symbol such as the Berlin Wall, television, or the Bill of Rights. I think that the way out begins with the giving up of self, AKA the acceptance of the cross.

For what that's worth --

With all good wishes --

Chris M. said...

Wow! Thanks for the thoughtful conversation.

I do think there are exterior as well as interior aspects of the needed conversion, or "turning." The Berlin Wall was an exterior symbol of a system that people cooperated with, with varying degrees of willingness or grudgefulness.

The wall came down when people made the internal change and realized they didn't have to cooperate with that system any more.

Similarly, we are cooperating with the system around us to varying degrees, with varying self-awareness, and with varying levels of regret (or lack thereof). The point of the thought experiment was to ask: What are the symbols of that system that help keep us in thrall to it thereby?

So, yes, Marshall, you're right: I really must change internally, to die to self and to take up the Cross. Meanwhile, given that my conversion away from my too-often idol -- Self -- and toward God is incomplete, what are the symbols and projections that I rely on to comfort myself that really I don't have to change? (For that matter, to what degree do I allow the concept of a "Domination System" to become an idol?)

And what are the symbols and projections that allow the people in the culture around me to keep themselves enthralled? What would happen if they stopped enthralling themselves, and DID see the world anew?

Chris M

ef said...

Wow, this is an interesting discussion!!!!! So many different things to think about!!!

I don't know what I think we need to 'tear down' to move towards gospel order (I don't even know what gospel order would look like, really)

TV and obsessive individualism are good suggestions though.

I haven't had a tv for a long time, though a friend just gave me her old one to entertain petsitters, so I have one again, and am not sure about it. I've watched a movie on it, I'm not sure it actually gets any channels though :)

I remember being saddened, when the wall came down, at how quickly it turned into "freedom to buy nikes" (as I remember it) I tend to wonder if TV is our wall, or the declaration of independence (what a bold statement, Liz! even reading it caused me to look over my shoulder, as if I was doing something subversive!)

I would echo the position of corporations as a big part of the problem (and recommend the movie!) perhaps the biggest. Right now it seems that the "rights" rhetoric has been exploited and extended to corporations, it's very scary.

I think to some extent we can't even start to strive for "gospel order" when we don't have local businesses, local responsibility. Of course, people standing up to corporations is a big part of bringing it about, but it's exhausting work, and something major needs to shift. My question is how do we even bring about a situation where people want to change this? It's not like the wall. The propaganda is much better, and corporate rule (and the right to eat big macs, regardless of who is hurt in their production!) doesn't seem like a problem to most people, as far as I can tell.

Now I'm depressed.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for commenting. I think it's not so much a matter of struggling against all the corporations one at a time. Rather, we need to move beyond the legal fiction that a corporation has the civil rights of a human person. Then the behavior of the corporations changes to match the new paradigm. (Easier said than done, of course!)

Oh, and I use the term "gospel order" to mean that world for which we all strive. It's loosely based on Lloyd Lee Wilson's definition, which I don't have at hand.

ef said...

Chris -

I had meant to say much the same thing, but don't seem to have done it.

I think that addressing the current legal standing of corporations is key.

But I also wonder how much that can do.

I am distressed by the lack of community in our communities these days. Not that I think it was so much better in the 50s or anything, but sometimes I wonder a little bit. There are so many "culprits"

*TV- so we "commune" with other folks in the world by all watching "survivor" - and then when we do see people in real life, we talk about tv, rather than our lives (and so many other things, have you read "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television"??)

*Cars - I don't have one (but my sweetie does) - I really notice how enclosed I feel when I ride in one - so much less aware of the human beings who pass within my range of vision, than when I am on a bike or on foot (or, just think! on the bus WITH them!)

*Corporate consumerism - can you even imagine what it would be like to know the person who made your shoes?? Even to know what they look like. I try to sometimes, I feel like it would be a powerful difference

*nuclear families, suburban existence, highways, single family houses on single family lots, personal computers, etc etc.

In any case, I'm voting for tearing down the power of the corporation as our "berlin wall" - I think it's a long way off, but then I'm often a pessimist.