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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 6/17/17

A Better Human Story #4-- Humankind's Perilous Step into Terra Incognita: The Rise of Civilization

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Are there people you know who would answer "yes" to the question with which this piece began? If so, please send them the link to this piece.


NOTE: The comments that follow, below, are from people I've asked to serve as my "co-creators" on this project, i.e. to help me make this series as good and effective as possible.

They are people who have known me and my work. And my request of them is that --when the spirit moves them to contribute -- they add what they believe will help this series fulfill its purpose and give the readers something of value. I've invited them to tell the readers what they think will serve the readers well, and to pose questions or challenges they believe might elicit from me what I should be saying to the readers next.

I am grateful for their attempting to help me find the right path.


Jack Miles:

I was what the University of California Press called (and may still call) the "sponsoring editor" for The Parable of the Tribes. I thought it a stunningly simple explanatory concept for the spread of human violence at the time, backed by an impressive reading of a huge swathe of human history. I'd love for the participants in this discussion to see the cover design for the book, which featured a battle scene taken from an ancient wall painting of unknown origin in the North African desert. That scene, of one tribe fleeing from another armed with spears, seemed perfectly to capture the choices that weaponized warfare has imposed on our species from earliest days. I would love it as well if participants could read the parable proper--an aetiological tale, folklorists would call it--that you wrote and that gave the work its haunting title.

As for the reception of the work, well, after spending years in book publishing at Doubleday and then the University of California Press, then further years in book reviewing as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I found my emerging view of the mystery of publishing success best captured in a remark by Patrick White, a Nobel laureate novelist from Australia. White wrote that sometimes great books become bestsellers, but it is not their greatness that does this service for them. This was, of course, an oblique but nuanced comment on the fact that although many inferior works become bestsellers, we cannot condescendingly conclude that popular success is a proof of inferiority. Just what it is that enables a book like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to capture such a fabulously large audience is a mystery. Similar books before it had no such success. The same goes for innumerable imitators. Quality and quantity sometimes hold hands and sometimes don't.

My own sense, offered with due hesitation, is that when a book of true intellectual merit becomes a significant popular success as well, it is because ideas in it have lent themselves to exploitation by other writers. Such a work, very clearly, was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. At the peak of the vogue of that work, Kuhn told an interviewer that nearly every week he had to turn down some scholar or scientist's offer to partner with him on a new work that the letter-writer had in mind. So, the question to ask then of The Parable of the Tribes would be: What further work did it invite? Into what other agendas was it apt for insertion?

And perhaps (I speak quite tentatively here) those questions invite in turn the question of whether it is only to this very project of a "new world story," a beneficent story to which the world might be converted in lieu of other philosophies and religions and the stories they tell, that The Parable of the Tribes points. If that's the case, then one can well imagine silence ensuing, for who would not quail before a task so large? The founders of the world's religions--Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad--tower above other world celebrities because their achievement is so exceedingly rare. New religions are being founded all the time, but most of them blink out as quickly as they blink on. Very, very few last on for centuries, and, of course, even they often die out eventually. So, the challenge is extremely large, and you, Andy, are well aware that success rests with those who respond to the new prophet, not alone with the inherent plausibility or attractiveness of the prophecy itself. If it is a mystery what it is in the public at any given moment that makes a book a bestseller, this kind of success is an even greater mystery--a far, far greater mystery.

Andy Schmookler:

I am extremely grateful, as you might expect, for your comment Jack. And I also have a question.

To explain the silence following the publication of The Parable of the Tribes, y ou venture the question: "who would not quail before a task so large" as, in essence, altering people's worldview?

I get that "quailing" idea. That task, as you know, is the one that I felt -- literally -- called to undertake one day in August, 1970. And I quailed plenty. In fact, I cried--fearing what it would mean for me and my life to dedicate myself, as I then promised to Something I knew not what, to convey that vision to my fellow human beings.

But I am not sure that taking on the challenge of that enormous task covers the field the world's possible affirming responses.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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