Newsletter – July 2013










   “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why.
    I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”



 July Greetings, Dear Friends…

 As I prepare for my yearly return to Vermont, I have a number of thoughts swirling around in this old head. In trying to make some sense of them, I’m focusing better understanding the notion of what it means to be an elder – and what contribution we elders are uniquely qualified to make to our communities. It’s not so hard to recognize what we thought was so important to contribute back in our First and Second Ages, namely those attributes like strength and beauty and cleverness that helped us to meet Maslow’s ‘D-Needs’ (Deficiency-Motivated Needs) of survival, security, belonging and status. He called these needs ‘Deficiency-Motivated’ because we were being driven by feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness, and that certainly describes the dominant personal psychology of my first half-century. In one way or another I was always comparing myself to others in the hopes I was ‘enough.’

 Now at 75 I rarely make such comparisons and am much happier. Even more to the point, I see many of those earlier ‘achievements’ as not nearly so worthwhile as I did back then; in fact, a number of them I now recognize as unkind, self-destructive and even stupid. Somewhere in this last decade I’ve mostly given up ‘D-Needs’ in favor of what Maslow called the ‘B-Needs’ – the need to relax into being ‘self-actualized’ as the simple, flawed person I am here and now. And this me certainly is not the obnoxiously immature imitation of John Wayne, Clint, Bogey, etc., I worked so hard at playing for all those decades.

 So what do we elders have to contribute as the Third Age beings we’ve become now?

When I can pause like this, the answer is unfailingly clear: it’s the patience and wisdom that come with experience, maturity and self-acceptance. I don’t want to gloss over how many years and how much work it has taken me to come to terms with my very inflated ego, but I and it have reached an accommodation that allows us to function together usefully and enjoyably. As Einstein said,

    “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

 Society’s norms are what we engage with (whether by accepting or rejecting them) in First and Second Ages, and, in 20th century America, this usually means mistaking the rational mind as the sacred gift and the intuitive mind as a foolish, even if faithful, servant. In Third Age, as we withdraw from our previous entanglements in the outer world, we can correct this mistaken identity.

 As the last two issues indicated, Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Righteous Mind’ had a major impact on me. I’ve come to equate my ‘rational mind’ with my ego, that part of me that is very concerned about ‘being right’ and ‘looking good.’ Haidt’s description of him as being the tiny rational rider finding specious rationales for why my huge instinctive elephant is lumbering in its current direction works well for me as a visual metaphor of this immature role-reversal.

 I’m now finding my ego to be of great use as a loyal and talented servant – how delightful it is to at last be served by the maturity I’ve finally gained access to! But my ego rightly wants, and needs, specific direction in how to behave as an elder in a primarily Second Age world. Providing that clarity is the contribution our experienced, intuitive minds can make in Third Age.

 Remember the song “What The World Needs Now Is Love”? While I believe that suggestion is theoretically correct, it hasn’t been very helpful in practice. After thousands of years we still haven’t ‘got it’ – as Coke’s turning it into a commercial demonstrates. So, in order to help my experienced ego be more effective in a less immature world, I had the following imaginary internal conversation with him. In it I’m offering my ego, who I call Eggy here, a more practical clarity so he can get on with helping the external world be a bit better place.

    “Eggy, what the world needs now is BOTH/AND thinking!”

    Eggy looks at me skeptically. “So, FW, just how is that more useful than ‘What The World Needs Now Is Love’?”

    “Because it’s something we can learn to do specifically, Eg, and we can learn to know when we’re not doing it. All we have to do is recognize when we’ve lapsed back into black-and-white, good-bad, EITHER/OR thinking and back off. Recognizing our ‘re-lapses’ and backing off allow our maturity to come to the fore, and then we can see again the truth of the world’s complexity. Of course, this makes our ‘rational minds’ feel anxious by being less certain, but our ‘intuitive minds’ can cope with that anxiety and guide our behavior much more maturely and lovingly.”

    “So, how will we actually do this ‘guidance,’ FW?”

    “Glad you asked, Eggy, because that’s what this newsletter about – recognizing when we ‘re-lapse’ into EITHER/OR thinking and backing off until we can return to the maturity of BOTH/AND. In what follows I’ve found some useful alternatives to the polarization so destructive to our world today.

    “Doesn’t it seem obvious no one would want freedom at the cost of security or vice-versa. We want BOTH/AND, not EITHER/OR, and polarizing makes this impossible. It’s almost like BOTH/AND thinking is a second-tier response that is shut down prematurely by our ‘Righteous Minds’ – even though I wrote COMPLEMENTARY WHOLENESS 30+ years ago, I still have to pull myself back from taking ‘righteous’ positions, and I often don’t succeed. My hope is, as BOTH/AND thinking becomes more possible with maturity, that we can give it greater life in our descendants’ generations. See if you don’t find what follows helpful in making our contribution as elders…”

 2. COMPLEMENTARY WHOLENESS paints a fuller picture of how BOTH/AND and EITHER/OR differ. This helps us better recognize when we’re doing which, and how easily our ‘Righteous Minds’ can subvert BOTH/AND into EITHER/OR…

 3. DIALOGUE’S GOALS, BLOCKS & TECHNOLOGY describes very specifically what we need to do when we want to engage in BOTH/AND thinking with others. It’s a very useful structure for ‘backing off’ in groups, and, because the article is long, I’ve put a simple summary at the beginning…

 4. THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE BECOMES THE AMERICAN DREAM offers a fascinating look at how destructive EITHER/OR thinking can become when culturally indoctrinated – in this case using Zombies, Aliens and Vampires!

 5. THIS MONTH’S LINKS are playful and fun – after the dense-pack of the preceding pieces, I thought you could use some lightness!

Much love, FW

 PS: Articles 2-4 are quite long (25+ pages) so remember they’re meant to last for the month…  



 Complementary Wholeness means valuing each aspect of the whole for what it has to offer. Thus, we value BOTH sun AND rain, sun for its warmth and energy, and rain for its moisture and nurturance. Similarly, we could value BOTH work AND play, work for its results and satisfaction, and play for its relaxation and joy. We Westerners find this particularly hard to do because of our EITHER/OR way of thinking. EITHER/OR thinking means I value EITHER this OR that, but certainly not both. This is true despite the fact that Complementary Wholeness and BOTH/AND are deeply embedded in our Western culture. For example, recall Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

This is what Complementary Wholeness means: To value each in its own time. But when Pete Seger and The Byrds used this section of Ecclesiastes for the lyrics of the hit song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” they actually perverted its meaning. If you listen carefully to the song, you’ll find they changed the last line to “A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” In other words, Seger and The Byrds took a BOTH/AND message and changed it to EITHER/OR (peace is good, war is bad). While I personally abhor violence, it does not follow that war is wrong; sometimes (as in the case of Hitler) it may be the best choice.


 It’s impossible to over-exaggerate the power of our EITHER/OR world view. Just as it led The Byrds to distort Ecclesiastes, it leads us into the error of consistently polarizing our personal experience. We may not consciously intend to divide the world up in two piles, but it is what we do—and doing so wreaks havoc with human relationships. Notice how constantly we insist we have “the right way,” and you’ll also notice that means we are “good” and those who differ with us are “bad.” Whether I do this when I judge your dress (“Who would wear a shirt like that!”) or management style (“He’s such a pushover!”) doesn’t matter; it’s my righteousness that cripples my ability to appreciate and work with you.


 If we are to create organizations that truly honor Purpose, People, Productivity and Profit, commitment alone is not enough. I can very much want to achieve a goal and still fail if I lack the necessary abilities. Achievement is the combination of willingness and ability. To build healthy human systems, managers must BOTH want such systems AND know how to build them. To transform our organizations four very different sets of abilities, values and styles are required—and they rarely work together well.


 First, there is the existing, imperfect situation. It is The Evaluators who audit and analyze, forcing us to confront realities we wish to avoid. They insist our systems produce results—and that we recognize where we are less than excellent. These are the hard-nosed, “show me” types who demand system maximization and settle only for logical, documented proof of performance.


 Second, there is the vision, the image of what we want to create. This is our long-term target, our global goal. Its role is to capture our hearts, to inspire us to persevere through all the muck of Murphy’s Laws. Where will such a vision come from? From The Imagers, from those who can see what has not yet been and help the rest of us to see it, too. These are the idealists, the dreamers who reach for the stars and want to bring heaven to earth.


 Third, there is humaneness, the love of people with all their flaws, that moderates vision and system so they serve, rather than subjugate humanity. It is The Developers, full of compassion and compromise, who humanize the often rigid demands of Imagers and Evaluators. These are the communicators, the feeling folks who live in the non-linear world of human emotions—and it is they who lead us in the design of truly human systems.


 Fourth, there is actualization, the organizing and operation of the vision-inspired and humanist-softened system. This is the province of The Implementers who, with an earthy humor and a little baling wire, make the whole thing work day in and day out. These are the sleeves-rolled-up, “let’s get moving” people who—come hell or high water—get the job done.


 All four personality types are required to create the organizations we need—and we do not know how to get them to work together. The results are visions without impact, systems that suffocate life, compassion that cripples and activity for its own sake. We can do better—much better—if we will outgrow our childish paranoia of human differences. The immature (of all ages) in their frightened confusion have always sought “evil ones” to blame for their own inability to improve their situations. And this scapegoating goes back and forth between doer and thinker, between idealist and realist, between vision and system.


 It is our EITHER/OR way of thinking about our world—our infantile good/bad, right/wrong, black/white polarization of reality—that undermines our personal and organizational sanity. Choose any institution you like—business, government, military, religious—and watch the visionaries (like DeLorean, Kennedy, Billy Mitchell and Joan of Arc) and the systems (like General Motors, the CIA, the Army and the Catholic Church) depreciate and ostracize each other to the detriment of both their interests. Why do these natural partners quarrel so viciously when they have so much in common—and need each other so desperately? And what can we do about it?


 Recall how for centuries our artists and merchants have scorned each other as “parasitic dreamers” or “philistine materialists.” Yet whose life has not been powerfully enriched by an artist’s vision? And how would we have been exposed to those visions without the far-reaching distribution systems created by our merchants? And hear our prophets and clerics calling one another “Pharisee” or “heretic” in their ridiculous attempts to corner the market on God. What would be the use of our religions if they were not built on visions generated by prophets like Buddha, Christ, Moses and Mohammed? And what help would those visions be without effective churches to help people incorporate the wisdom into their lives?


 There is another way of seeing reality; it is the way our scientists have learned to see. Instead of EITHER/OR we can see—and think—in terms of BOTH/AND. This way of thinking is more common, more comfortable in Eastern cultures. It is based on the concepts of Yin and Yang. I like to call it Complementary Wholeness. It means that, instead of fragmenting reality into EITHER/OR partialness, we look for the wholeness that is always composed of complementary parts. Our Western physicists are now saymng quite clearly that the Complementary Wholeness model is a more accurate representation of the universe than is EITHER/OR. For examples, consider the protons and electrons of atomic structure, the north and south poles of the magnetic field, the mother and father of the newborn infant. (If you’d like to pursue this, read The Turning Point by Capra or Order Out of Chaos by Prigogine and Stengers.)


 The essence of this Eastern thinking is that we create wholeness by combining its complementary parts, by synthesizing the best of both vision and system. This synthesis will be easy for neither East nor West.  Nations like China and India lack the action tradition that effectively builds and runs systems. Countries like Germany and the United States are so action-oriented they often build systems the world could better do without. But the integration is certainly not impossible, and it is inevitable.  Look at how many Western systems (Quality Circles, among others) Japan has successfully incorporated—and in only two hundred years!


 Basic to this success is the appreciation and application of Complementary Wholeness. The Art of Japanese Management by Athos and Pascale provides a fascinating example of a manager practicing this art:

 A Japanese executive invites a key subordinate into his office and, after pleasantries, proceeds to tell the younger man that he needs his help. The executive is to go to New York to meet with a key U.S. customer; he will make a presentation on a number of important changes in the design of next year’s products. He anticipates that the customer will not be pleased with one or two of the changes, and wants the presentation to diminish as much as possible any negative response. He tells his subordinate that he is still uncertain while speaking English, and perhaps as a result tends to get flustered and lose track of where he is during a talk. Once this happens, usually after a surprising interruption that may raise a matter requiring him to think on his feet, he expects that his normal difficulty with such a situation in Japan will be much worse in another language. Therefore, he asks the subordinate to design a presentation that will take his limitations into account. He offers only as an illustration the possibility of a lights-out slide show, which is less likely to be interrupted, followed by a small panel to respond to the Americans, which he could chair. In such an instance, he says, he would be pleased if his subordinate were to accompany him to New York to help in any appropriate capacity.  (p. 117)

 Notice how this Japanese manager acknowledges his vulnerability, his incompleteness, his humanness. Contrast this simple honesty and assumption of interdependence with another manager’s approach to a similar problem:

 An American executive stops one of his promising new subordinates after a weekly meeting and tells him he has an important assignment for him. He wants him to put together a presentation that is to be made to the corporate financial staff a month hence. (He does not mention that he is very nervous about the presentation because the last time one of the corporate staff attacked his figures and made him look bad in front of his own vice-president. He knows he has only a limited grasp of the financial side of things and is determined not to look ignorant and flustered again.) He tells the young man he wants a presentation that is well thought out, double checked with the controller of the division, and organized to conform to the general pattern of such presentations—that is, a lights-out, slide-based, tough-minded analysis, no jazz or frills. He adds he wants the complete presentation one week before it is to be made so he can make any changes necessary. (He also intends to practice giving it at homm, and to double check it with both the controller and a neighbor for financial sophistication.) He ends by telling the junior executive laughingly that “all those courses at Wharton should help you do a terrific job, and you can count on my remembering it in June.” (the next regular time for salary increases). When he returns to his office, he begins to think of a way to ensure that the controller will be at the meeting so that he can refer any really difficult questions to him after the slide show.  (p. 117-118)

 This manager’s behavior is not unusual; we all feel the pressure to “look good,” to be “in control,” to have “the right stuff.” To manage using Complementary Wholeness requires acceptance of our own incompleteness—and that we do with great difficulty.


 Much of our personal and organizational floundering results from our confusion about the meaning of inter-dependence. When we think in EITHER/OR terms, then it follows we are EITHER independent and complete OR we are dependent and incomplete. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff is a penetrating look at our phobia of being incomplete. In this documentary of the astronaut’s selection and training, Wolfe captures the heart of what it is to be male in America: To be OK you must have THE RIGHT STUFF. And there is one way (and only one way) to tell whether or not you have IT—you never falter, you never fail, and, God forbid, you never need help or support.


 As we grow in years, hopefully we grow in maturity. Four stages of psychological growth—Dependency, Counter-Dependency, Independence and InterDependence—can be thought of as concurrent with four stages of life:

 1. AS A CHILD my vulnerability makes me dependent on my parents, teachers and other adults. DEPENDENCE is immature over-reliance on the authority of others. It is not adult behavior.

 2. AS AN ADOLESCENT my need to grow creates a counter-dependence toward those I must now break away from. This is the opposite of dependence; it is also immature behavior. COUNTERDEPENDENCE means resisting all authority no matter how appropriate or helpful the authority might be.

 3. AS A YOUNG ADULT my accumulated power creates an independence of thought and action. INDEPENDENCE is the capacity for mature and healthy self-direction, and developing this ability is part of everyone’s struggle out of adolescence.

 4. AS A MATURE ADULT my wisdom tempers my power and thereby allows an inter-dependence to emerge that, at its best, can move the mountains of the world. INTER-DEPENDENCE combines self-direction with cooperation, and results in the ability to work mutually with others to achieve common goals. It is the psychological foundation for Complementary Wholeness.

 In EITHER/OR realities there is no room for incompleteness, for need, for inter-dependency. We are EITHER independent (with all the “right stuff” self-sufficiency and perfection implied) OR we are dependent with all the whining subservience implied). Psychologically, we know this is a misperception.


 To many of us, incompleteness equates with the frightening dependence of childhood, and so of course we hide our incompleteness from each other—and even from ourselves. And since we cannot admit we are incomplete, we cannot work with each other unless we have no need to do so. (If I truly need your help, I don’t have “the right stuff.”) This is why we cannot yet build the healthy, productive organizations we need; they require us to acknowledge and use our interdependence, and this we have been terrified to do. But it is here we must begin, and Corinthians offers an age-old vision to guide us on the way…

   For the body is not one member but many.
   If the foot shall say, Because I am not of the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
   And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
   If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?
   But now hath the Spirit set the members every one of them in the body.
   And if they were all one member, where were the body?
   But now they are many members, yet but one body.
   And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
   Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary;
   And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.
   For our comely parts have no need: but the Spirit hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked:
   That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care for one another.
   And when one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.
   Now ye are the body of the spirit, and members in particular.

    So, let us work together to create organizations that embody the Complementary Wholeness that is life for then we will joyously and proudly commit our energies to their causes!




 We all stay engaged, learn – and are changed.
We create something new that none saw fully before.

Discussion has the same root as percussion and concussion (knocking things about). It rewards aggressive verbal skill and seldom leads to truth. We need a better way to work together.

 Dialogue comes from the Greek dia (through) and logos (meaning). It’s the process of finding meaning through interacting with others. It involves everybody looking at the whole thing, outwardly and inwardly, and sharing freely for the sake of learning and discovering.

We need deep commitment to engage in Dialogue. We must each come to the meeting wanting to learn — and to be changed — instead of wanting to win. This is terribly difficult for us. To engage in Dialogue we must challenge our deepest cultural conditioning.


 We think winning is the point.
We automatically defend our beliefs.
We perceive different opinions as threats.
We are conditioned to adversarial discussion.
We equate openness with naiveté and vulnerability.
We can’t tolerate the frustration of conflict without focus.



 Dialogue, as we are choosing to use the word, is a way of exploring the roots of the many crises that face humanity today. It enables inquiry into, and understanding of, the sorts of processes that fragment and interfere with real communication between individuals, nations and even different parts of the same organization. In our modern culture men and women are able to interact with one another in many ways: they can sing dance or play together with little difficulty but their ability to talk together about subjects that matter deeply to them seems invariable to lead to dispute, division and often to violence. In our view this condition points to a deep and pervasive defect in the process of human thought.

 In Dialogue, a group of people can explore the individual and collective presuppositions, ideas, beliefs, and feelings that subtly control their interactions. It provides an opportunity to participate in a process that displays communication successes and failures. It can reveal the often puzzling patterns of incoherence that lead the group to avoid certain issues or, on the other hand, to insist, against all reason, on standing and defending opinions about particular issues.

 Dialogue is a way of observing, collectively, how hidden values and intentions can control our behavior, and how unnoticed cultural differences can clash without our realizing what is occurring. It can therefore be seen as an arena in which collective learning takes place and out of which a sense of increased harmony, fellowship and creativity can arise.

 Because the nature of Dialogue is exploratory, its meaning and its methods continue to unfold. No firm rules can be laid down for conducting a Dialogue because its essence is learning – not as the result of consuming a body of information or doctrine imparted by an authority, nor as a means of examining or criticizing a particular theory or programme, but rather as part of an unfolding process of creative participation between peers.

 However, we feel that it is important that its meaning and background be understood.

 Our approach to this form of Dialogue arose out of a series of conversations begun in 1983 in which we inquired into David Bohm’s suggestion that a pervasive incoherence in the process of human thought is the essential cause of the endless crises affecting mankind. This led us, in succeeding years, to initiate a number of larger conversations and seminars held in different countries with various groups of people which in turn began to take the form of Dialogues.

 As we proceeded it became increasing clear to us that this process of Dialogue is a powerful means of understanding how thought functions. We became aware that we live in a world produced almost entirely by human enterprise and thus, by human thought. The room in which we sit, the language in which these words are written, our national boundaries, our systems of value, and even that which we take to be our direct perceptions of reality are essentially manifestations of the way human beings think and have thought. We realize that without a willingness to explore this situation and to gain a deep insight into it, the real crises of our time cannot be confronted, nor can we find anything more than temporary solutions to the vast array of human problems that now confront us.

 We are using the word “thought” here to signify not only the products of our conscious intellect but also our feelings, emotions, intentions and desires. It also includes such subtle, conditioned manifestations of learning as those that allow us to make sense of a succession of separate scenes within a cinema film or to translate the abstract symbols on road signs along with the tacit, non-verbal processes used in developing basic, mechanical skills such as riding a bicycle. In essence thought, in this sense of the word, is the active response of memory in every phase of life. Virtually all of our knowledge is produced, displayed, communicated, transformed and applied in thought.

To further clarify this approach, we propose that, with the aid of a little close attention, even that which we call rational thinking can be see to consist largely of responses conditioned and biased by previous thought. If we look carefully at what we generally take to be reality we begin to see that it includes a collection of concepts, memories and reflexes colored by our personal needs, fears, and desires, all of which are limited and distorted by the boundaries of language and the habits of our history, sex and culture. It is extremely difficult to disassemble this mixture or to ever be certain whether what we are perceiving – or what we may think about those perceptions – is at all accurate.

 What makes this situation so serious is that thought generally conceals this problems from our immediate awareness and succeeds in generating a sense that the way each of us interprets the world is the only sensible way in which it can be interpreted. What is needed is a means by which we can slow down the process of thought in order to be able to observe it while it is actually occurring.

 Our physical bodies have this capability but thought seems to lack it. If you raise your arm you know that you are willing the act, that somebody else is not doing it for or to you. This is called proprioception. We can be aware of our body’s actions while they are actually occurring but we generally lack this sort of skill in the realm of thought. For example, we do not notice that our attitude toward another person may be profoundly affected by the way we think and feel about someone else who might share certain aspects of his behavior or even of his appearance. Instead, we assume that our attitude toward her arises directly from her actual conduct. The problem of thought is that the kind of attention required to notice this incoherence seems seldom to be available when it is most needed.


 Dialogue is concerned with providing a space within which such attention can be given. It allows a display of thought and meaning that makes possible a kind of collective proprioception or immediate mirroring back of both the content of thought and the less apparent, dynamic structures that govern it. In Dialogue this can be experienced both individually and collectively. Each listener is able to reflect back to each speaker, and to the rest of the group, a view of some of the assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided. It creates the opportunity for each participant to examine the preconceptions, prejudices and the characteristic patterns that lie behind his or her thoughts, opinions, beliefs and feelings, along with the roles he or she tends habitually to play. And it offers an opportunity to share these insights.

 The word “dialogue” derives from two roots: “dia” which means “through” and “logos” which means “the word”, or more particularly, “the meaning of the word.” The image it gives is of a river of meaning flowing around and through the participants. Any number of people can engage in Dialogue – one can even have a Dialogue with oneself – but the sort of Dialogue that we are suggesting involves a group of between twenty and forty people seated in a circle talking together.

 Some notion of the significance of such a Dialogue can be found in reports of hunter-gather bands of about this size, who, when they met to talk together, had no apparent agenda nor any predetermined purpose. Nevertheless, such gatherings seemed to provide and reinforce a kind of cohesive bond or fellowship that allowed its participants to know what was required of them without the need for instruction or much further verbal interchange. In other words, what might be called a coherent culture of shared meaning emerged within the group. It is possible that this coherence existed in the past for human communities before technology began to mediate our experience of the living world.

Dr. Patrick de Mare, a psychiatrist working in London, has conducted pioneering work along similar lines under modern conditions. He set up groups of about the same size, the purpose of which he described in terms of “sociotherapy”. His view is that the primary cause of the deep and pervasive sickness in our society can be found at the socio-cultural level and that such groups can serve as micro-cultures from which the source of the infirmity of our large civilization can be exposed. Our experience has led us to extend this notion of Dialogue by emphasizing and giving special attention to the fundamental role of the activity of thought in the origination and maintenance of this condition.

 As a microcosm of the large culture, Dialogue allows a wide spectrum of possible relationships to be revealed. It can disclose the impact of society on the individual and the individual’s impact on society. It can display how power is assumed or given away and how pervasive are the generally unnoticed rules of the system that constitutes our culture. But it is most deeply concerned with understanding the dynamics of how thought conceives such connections.

 It is not concerned with deliberately trying to alter or change behavior nor to get the participants to move toward a predetermined goal. Any such attempt would distort and obscure the processes that the Dialogue has set out to explore. Nevertheless, changes do occur because observed thought behaves differently from unobserved thought. Dialogue can thus become an opportunity for thought and feeling to play freely in a continuously of deeper or more general meaning. Any subject can be included and no content is excluded. Such an activity is very rare in our culture.


Usually people gather either to accomplish a task or to be entertained, both of which can be categorized as predetermined purposes. But by its very nature Dialogue is not consistent with any such purposes beyond the interest of its participants in the unfoldment and revelation of the deeper collective meanings that may be revealed. These may on occasion be entertaining, enlightening, lead to new insights or address existing problems. But surprisingly, in its early stages, the dialogue will often lead to the experience of frustration.

 A group of people invited to give their time and serious attention to a task that has no apparent goal and is not being led in any detectable direction may quickly find itself experiencing a great deal of anxiety or annoyance. This can lead to the desire on the part of some, either to break up the group or to attempt to take control and give it a direction. Previously unacknowledged purposes will reveal themselves. Strong feelings will be exposed, along with the thoughts that underlie them. Fixed positions may be taken and polarization will often result. This is all part of the process. It is what sustains the Dialogue and keeps it constantly extending creatively into new domains.

In an assembly of between twenty and forty people, extremes of frustration, anger, conflict or other difficulties may occur, but in a group of this size such problems can be contained with relative ease. In fact, they can become the central focus of the exploration in what might be understood as a kind of “meta-dialogue”, aimed at clarifying the process of Dialogue itself.

 As sensitivity and experience increase, a perception of shared meaning emerges in which people find that they are neither opposing one another, nor are they simply interacting. Increasing trust between members of the group – and trust in the process itself – leads to the expression of the sorts of thoughts and feelings that are usually kept hidden. There is no imposed consensus, nor is there any attempt to avoid conflict. No single individual or sub-group is able to achieve dominance because every single subject, including domination and submission, is always available to be considered.

Participants find that they are involved in an ever changing and developing pool of common meaning. A shared content of consciousness emerges which allows a level of creativity and insight that is not generally available to individuals or to groups that interact in more familiar ways. This reveals an aspect of Dialogue that Patrick de Mare has called koinonia, a word meaning “impersonal fellowship”, which was originally used to describe the early form of Athenian democracy in which all the free men of the city gathered to govern themselves.

 As this fellowship is experience it begins to take precedence over the more overt content of the conversation (sic). It is an important stage in the Dialogue, a moment of increased coherence, where the group is able to move beyond its perceived blocks or limitations and into new territory, But it is also a point at which a group may begin to relax and bask in the “high” that accompanies the experience. This is the point that sometimes causes confusion between Dialogue and some forms of psychotherapy. Participants may want to hold the group together in order to preserve the pleasurable feeling of security and belonging that accompanies the state. This is similar to that sense of community often reached in therapy groups or in team building workshops where it is taken to be the evidence of the success of the method used. Beyond such a point, however, lie even more significant and subtle realms of creativity, intelligence and understanding that can be approached only by persisting in the process of inquiry and risking re-entry into areas of potentially chaotic or frustrating uncertainty.


 Dialogue is not discussion, a word that shares its root meaning with “percussion” and “concussion,” both of which involve breaking things up. Nor is it debate. These forms of conversation contain an implicit tendency to point toward a goal, to hammer out an agreement, to try to solve a problem or have one’s opinion prevail. It is also not a “salon”, which is a kind of gathering that is both informal and most often characterized by an intention to entertain, exchange friendship, gossip and other information. Although the word “dialogue” has often been used in similar ways, its deeper, root meaning implies that it is not primarily interested in any of this.

 Dialogue is not a new name for T-groups or sensitivity training, although it is superficially similar to these and other related forms of group work. Its consequences may be psychotherapeutic but it does not attempt to focus on removing the emotional blocks of any one participant nor to teach, train or analyze. Nevertheless, it is an arena in which learning and the dissolution of blocks can and often do take place. It is not a technique for problem solving or conflict resolution, although problems may well be resolved during the course of a Dialogue, or perhaps later, as a result of increased understanding and fellowship that occurs among the participants. It is, as we have emphasized, primarily a means of exploring the field of thought.

 Dialogue resembles a number of other forms of group activity and may at times include aspects of them but in fact it is something new to our culture. We believe that it is an activity that might well prove vital to the future health of our civilization.



 Suspension of thoughts, impulses, judgments, etc., lies at the very heart of Dialogue. It is one of its most important new aspects. It is not easily grasped because the activity is both unfamiliar and subtle. Suspension involves attention, listening and looking and is essential to exploration. Speaking is necessary, of course, for without it there would be little in the Dialogue to explore, But the actual process of exploration takes place during listening – not only to others but to oneself. Suspension involves exposing your reactions, impulses, feelings and opinions in such a way that they can be seen and felt within your own psyche and also be reflected back by others in the group. It does not mean repressing or suppressing or, even, postponing them. It means, simply, giving them your serious attention so that their structures can be noticed while they are actually taking place. If you are able to give attention to, say, the strong feelings that might accompany the expression of a particular thought – either your own or another’s – and to sustain that attention, the activity of the thought process will tend to slow you down. This may permit you to begin to see the deeper meanings underlying your thought process and to sense the often incoherent structure of any action that you might otherwise carry out automatically. Similarly, if a group is able to suspend such feelings and give its attention to them then the overall process that flows from thought, to feeling, to acting-out within the group, can also slow down and reveal its deeper, more subtle meanings along with any of its implicit distortions, leading to what might be described as a new kind of coherent, collective intelligence.

 To suspend thought, impulse, judgment, etc., requires serious attention to the overall process we have been considering – both on one’s own and within a group. This involves what may at first appear to be an arduous kind of work. But if this work is sustained, one’s ability to give such attention constantly develops so that less and less effort is required.


 A Dialogue works best with between twenty and forty people seated facing one another in a single circle. A group of this size allows for the emergence and observation of different subgroups or subcultures that can help to reveal some off the ways in which thought operatives collectively. This is important because the differences between such subcultures are often an unrecognized cause of failed communication and conflict. Smaller groups, on the other hand, lack the requisite diversity needed to reveal these tendencies and will generally emphasize more familiar personal and family roles and relationships.

With a few groups we have had as many as sixty participants, but with that large a number the process becomes unwieldy. Two concentric circles are required to seat everybody so that they can see and hear one another. This places those in the back row at a disadvantage, and fewer participants have an opportunity to speak.

 We might mention here that some participants tend to talk a great deal while others find difficulty in speaking up in groups. It is worth remembering, though, that the word “participation” has two meanings: “to partake of”, and “to take part in”. Listening is at least as important as speaking. Often the quieter participants will begin to speak up more as they become familiar with the Dialogue experience while the more dominant individuals will find themselves tending to speak less and listen more.


 A Dialogue needs some time to get going. It is an unusual way of participating with others and some sort of introduction is required in which the meaning of the whole activity can be communicated. But even with a clear introduction, when the group begins to talk together it will often experience confusion, frustration, and a self-conscious concern as to whether or not it is actually engaging in Dialogue. It would be very optimistic to assume that a Dialogue would begin to flow or move toward any great depth during its first meeting. It is important to point out that perseverance is required.

 In setting up Dialogues it is useful at the start to agree the length of the session and for someone to take responsibility for calling time at the end. We have found that about two hours is optimum. Longer sessions risk a fatigue factor which tends to diminish the quality of participation. Many T-groups use extended “marathon” sessions which use this fatigue factor to break down some of the inhibitions of the participants. Dialogue on the other hand, is more concerned with exploring the social constructs and inhibitions that affect our communications rather than attempting to bypass them.

 The more regularly the group can meet, the deeper and more meaningful will be the territory explored. Weekends have often been used to allow a sequence of sessions, but if the Dialogue is to continue for an extended period of time we suggest that there be at least a one week interval between each succeeding session to allow time for individual reflection and further thinking. There is no limit to how long a Dialogue group may continue its exploration. But it would be contrary to the spirit of Dialogue for it to become fixed or institutionalized. This suggests openness to constantly shifting membership, changing schedules, or other manifestations of a serious attention to an implicit rigidity which might take hold. Or merely, the dissolving of a group after some period.


 A Dialogue is essentially a conversation between equals. Any controlling authority, no matter how carefully or sensitively applied, will tend to hinder and inhibit the free play of thought and the often delicate and subtle feelings that would otherwise be shared. Dialogue is vulnerable to being manipulated, but its spirit is not consistent with this. Hierarchy has no place in Dialogue.

 Nevertheless, in the early stages some guidance is required to help the participants realize the subtle differences between Dialogue and other forms of group process. At least one or, preferably two, experienced facilitators are essential. Their role should be to occasionally point out situations that might seem to be presenting sticking points for the group, in other words, to aid the process of collective proprioception, but these interventions should never be manipulative nor obtrusive. Leaders are participants just like everybody else. Guidance, when it is felt to be necessary, should take the form of “leading from behind” and preserve the intention of making itself redundant as quickly as possible.

However, this proposal is not intended as a substitute for experienced facilitators. We suggest, though, that its contents be reviewed with the group during its initial meeting so that all the participants can be satisfied that they are embarking upon the same experiment.

   Subject matter

 The Dialogue can begin with any topic of interest to the participants. If some members of the group feel that certain exchanges or subjects are disturbing or not fitting, it is important that they express these thoughts within the Dialogue. No content should be excluded.

 Often participants will gossip or express their dissatisfactions or frustration after a session but it is exactly this sort of material that offers the most fertile ground for moving the Dialogue into deeper realms of meaning and coherence beyond the superficiality of “group think”, good manners or dinner party conversation.


 So far we have been primarily discussing Dialogues that bring together individuals from a variety of backgrounds rather than from existing organizations. But its value may also be perceived by members of an organization as a way of increasing and enriching their own corporate creativity.

 In this case the process of Dialogue will change considerably. Members of an existing organization will have already developed a number of different sorts of relationship between one another and with their organization as a whole. here may be a pre-existing hierarchy or a felt need to protect one’s colleagues, team or department. There may be a fear of expressing thoughts that might be seen as critical of those who are higher in the organization or of norms within the organizational culture. Careers or the social acceptance of individual members might appear to be threatened by participation in a process that emphasizes transparency, openness, honesty, spontaneity, and the sort of deep interest in others that can draw out areas of vulnerability that may long have been kept hidden.

 In an existing organization the Dialogue will very probably have to begin with an exploration of all the doubts and fears that participation will certainly raise. Members may have to begin with a fairly specific agenda from which they eventually can be encouraged to diverge. This differs from the approach taken with one-time or self-selected groupings in which participants are free to begin with any subject matter. But as we have mentioned no content should be excluded because the impulse to exclude a subject is itself rich material for the inquiry.

Most organizations have inherent, predetermined purposes and goals that are seldom questioned. At first this might also seem to be inconsistent with the free and open play of thought that is so intrinsic to the Dialogue process. However, this too can be overcome if the participants are helped from the very beginning to realize that considerations of such subjects can prove essential to the well-being of the organization and can in turn help to increase the participants self-esteem along with the regard in which he or she may be held by others.

 The creative potential of Dialogue is great enough to allow a temporary suspension of any of the structures and relationships that go to make up an organization.

 Finally, we would like to make clear that we are not proposing Dialogue as a panacea nor as a method or technique designed to succeed all other forms of social interaction. Not everyone will find it useful nor, certainly, will it be useful in all contexts. There is great value to be found in many group psychotherapeutic methods and there are many tasks that require firm leadership and a well-formed organizational structure.

 Much of the sort of work we have described here can be accomplished independently, and we would encourage this. Many of the ideas suggested in this proposal are still the subjects of our own continuing exploration. We do not advise that they be taken as fixed but rather that they be inquired into as a part of your own Dialogue.

 The spirit of Dialogue is one of free play, a sort of collective dance of the mind that, nevertheless, has immense power and reveals coherent purpose. Once begun it becomes continuing adventure that can open the way to significant and creative change.

   – Copyright © 1991 by David Bohm, Donald Factor, Peter Garrett

 The copyright holders hereby give permission to copy this material and to distribute it to others for non-commercial purposes including discussion, inquiry, criticism and as an aid to setting up Dialogue groups so long as the material is not altered and this notice is included. All other rights are reserved.

 If you will read the copyright notice on Dialogue – A Proposal (reproduced above) you will see that we are keen to get its message as widely distributed as possible. So if there are any listservers or FTP or WWW sites that it would be useful on, please put it out. We would like to know where it ends up if that’s possible. We do want to keep the copyright notice intact because it makes the point that it not to be used without express permission for any commercial purposes.

   – Sarah Bohm, Don Factor, Peter Garrett





 We seem to have survived the Mayan apocalypse predicted for December 21, 2012, but maybe we should not get too cocky. American popular culture is overflowing with doomsday prophecies and end-of-the-world scenarios. According to film and television, vampires, werewolves, and zombies are storming across our landscape, and alien invaders, asteroids, and airborne toxic events threaten us from the skies. We might as well be living in the late Middle Ages. Our films and television shows seem locked into a perpetual and ever-more-frenzied Dance of Death. Whatever happened to the popular culture that used to offer up charming images of the American dream? Where are the happy households—the Andersons, the Nelsons, the Cleavers, the Petries—when we need them? Film and television today are more likely to present images of the American nightmare: our entire civilization reduced to rubble and the few survivors forced to live a primitive existence in terror of monstrous forces unleashed throughout the land. Has the American nightmare paradoxically become the new American dream? Is there some weird kind of wish-fulfillment at work in all these visions of near-universal death and destruction?


 To explore these questions, we need to examine one standard notion of the American dream. There are, of course, as many versions of the American dream as there are Americans, but by the middle of the twentieth century, one common pattern emerged. This dream was very much embodied in material terms—a family happily ensconced in a spacious house, preferably in the suburbs, with the most up-to-date appliances and two or three cars in the garage. This dream was founded on faith in modern science and technology, which seemed to be continually improving the human condition. The path to achieving this American dream was clearly laid out. One got a good education in order to land a good job, which might or might not be fulfilling in itself but would in any case provide the financial means of buying all the material components that seemed essential to the American dream. As usually envisioned, the job—in order to pay enough—would be in one of the professions, chiefly law or medicine, or in some kind of business, probably a corporate position that would provide financial security. The notion of security was integral to this version of the American dream. One would find a job for life that included solid medical and retirement benefits. This model of happiness was often on view in film and television in the 1950s and 60s, supplying the framework for television situation comedies, for example, or providing the happy endings in many Hollywood movies.

This vision of the American dream was bound up with trust in American institutions. The goal of long-term security rested on faith in financial institutions, such as banks, insurance companies, and the stock market. Medical institutions, such as hospitals, clinics, and the pharmaceutical industry, were supposed to keep extending our life expectancy. Americans also looked up to their educational institutions, from primary schools to universities. After all, they were relying on their schools to prepare them for the careers that would underwrite their financial prosperity. In short, Americans relied on their institutions to shape them properly in the first place; in many cases they looked forward to being employed by institutions such as corporations and the professions; and they trusted these institutions in turn to work for their benefit, providing, for example, health care and financial security.

Overarching all these institutions was the grandest institution of them all, American government: local, state, and above all the federal government. Especially during the Cold War era, Americans looked up to the Washington establishment because it was protecting them from foreign and domestic enemies. Given the widespread faith in technical expertise after World War II, Americans generally trusted their government to regulate the economy and produce the prosperity that would make the American dream possible. In the second half of the twentieth century, the American government kept expanding its scope as a welfare state, with the goal of insuring the security of all aspects of its citizens’ lives. Moreover, the federal government steadily increased its role in financially supporting and regulating the various institutions that were woven into the fabric of the American dream, especially educational and medical institutions. In sum, for decades the American dream came boxed in an institutional framework, and most Americans, without thinking much about it, assumed that they could not realize their dreams without these institutions.

 But even at the peak of this conception of the American dream in the 1950s, this faith in institutions did not go unchallenged. Dissenting voices charged that Americans were being increasingly “institutionalized,” sacrificing their freedom in their quest for comfort and security. Talk of the “organization man” (the title of a 1956 book by William Whyte) reflected fears that Americans were selling their souls to corporations, giving up their individuality and autonomy to work in bureaucratic organizations. Skeptics also voiced concerns that the standard conception of the American dream might be self-defeating. In the course of trying to provide material benefits to their families, men—and later women—were losing touch with the very spouses and children they claimed to cherish. The notion of the happy, close-knit family was at the core of the American dream, and yet career values often seemed to conflict with family values. Working hard at the office left men—and later women—with little or no time for their children. And everywhere institutions seemed to be coming between people, preventing them from interacting in face-to-face situations. The very institutions that Americans had turned to in order to achieve and secure their dreams seemed to have trapped them in a vast impersonal system that by its nature was inimical to personal fulfillment.

 These anxieties about the American dream sometimes surfaced in popular culture in the middle of the twentieth century. Movies such as the 1957 The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit portrayed corporate life as empty and stultifying. And the immense popularity of Westerns during this era signaled a dissatisfaction with comfortable suburban life. Dramas set in the Wild West provided an imaginative escape from the safe and boring world of modern institutions—an image of a rugged, frontier existence, in which earlier Americans, especially men, were on their own and could act heroically in their struggle with hostile and dangerous environments.

 Disenchantment with the mid-twentieth-century formulation of the American dream gradually increased and became widespread at the turn of the twenty-first century, as people lost their confidence in American institutions. A series of bubbles and meltdowns led people to doubt the fundamental honesty and integrity of financial institutions, above all, their ability to provide long-term economic security. Confidence in the competence and caring nature of the medical establishment began to erode, as witness the alternative medicine movement, the return to traditional home remedies, and skepticism about vaccination programs. Whether these doubts are scientifically justified is irrelevant to the larger cultural issue. The fact is that doctors and the medical profession in general are no longer held in the high esteem they once enjoyed in America. Educational institutions are also being challenged on a wide range of fronts, with critics complaining that they fail to deliver on their promises and charge exorbitant rates in the process. The home schooling movement offers concrete proof that many Americans have become disillusioned with the educational establishment. As for government institutions, with one “-gate” scandal after another, polling suggests that Americans’ faith in institutions such as Congress and the Presidency is at an all-time low. Looking at the world around them, Americans may be excused for concluding that the financial-medical-educational-government complex that was supposed to help them achieve their dreams has failed them. At this point, it becomes tempting for Americans to wish away their banks, their hospitals, their schools, and their government. Perhaps life might be easier and more fulfilling without them.

 Popular culture has stepped forward to offer Americans a chance to explore these possibilities imaginatively and to rethink the American dream. Films and television shows have allowed Americans to imagine what life would be like without all the institutions they had been told they need, but which they now suspect may be thwarting their self-fulfillment. We are dealing with a wide variety of fantasies here, mainly in the horror or science fiction genres, but the pattern is quite consistent and striking, cutting across generic distinctions. In the television show Revolution, for example, some mysterious event causes all electrical devices around the world to cease functioning. The result is catastrophic and involves a huge loss of life, as airborne planes crash to earth, for example. All social institutions dissolve, and people are forced to rely only on their personal survival skills. Governments around the world collapse, and the United States divides up into a number of smaller political units. This development runs contrary to everything we have been taught to believe about “one nation, indivisible.” Yet it is characteristic of almost all these shows that the federal government is among the first casualties of the apocalyptic event, and—strange as it may at first sound—there is a strong element of wish fulfillment in this event. The thrust of these end-of-the-world scenarios is precisely for government to grow smaller or to disappear entirely. These shows seem to reflect a sense that government has grown too big and too remote from the concerns of ordinary citizens and unresponsive to their needs and demands. If Congress and the President are unable to shrink the size of government, perhaps a plague or cosmic catastrophe can do some real budget cutting for a change.

 One might even describe these shows as “federalist” in spirit. The aim seems to be to reduce the size of government radically and thereby to bring it closer to the people. Cut back to regional or local units, government becomes manageable again and ordinary people get to participate in it actively, recovering a say in the decisions that affect their lives. In cases where the apocalyptic event dissolves all government, these shows in effect return people to what political theorists call the state of nature. As if we were reading Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we get to see how people form a social contract. No longer locked into institutions already in place, the public gets to assess their value and see if it really needs them or might be better off under other arrangements or perhaps no government at all.


 In the television show Falling Skies, invading aliens destroy civilization as we know it, and they are quick to eliminate governments around the world. Set in and around Boston, the show revives the tradition of the New England town meeting, as the characters get to deliberate on their own affairs and debate courses of action in the absence of any higher political authority. The characters have been left to their own devices because, in a decisive blow to civilization, the aliens have destroyed communication circuits and in particular the internet. The internet is a perfect example of the kind of technological advance that has usually been featured in the formulation of the American dream. The characters in Falling Skies of course miss the internet, but they learn to live without it and develop more intimate, and perhaps more satisfactory, modes of communication. The loss of modern technology is characteristic of all these apocalyptic scenarios and reflects Americans’ love-hate relationship with their machines, appliances, and devices. These shows display an ambivalent attitude toward modernity in general, perhaps a genuine disillusionment with it, a sense that all the technological progress upon which we pride ourselves has not made us happier and may, on the contrary, have made us miserable by depersonalizing our relationships and limiting our freedom.

To be sure, the characters in Falling Skies regret the loss of the benefits of modern civilization. Many of them wish they still had access to the advanced medical technology that used to be available in Boston’s world-class hospitals. Several of the episodes take place in an abandoned school, which points to the loss of modern educational institutions. But the show portrays major compensations for the destruction of modern medical and educational facilities. The featured band of survivors includes a female pediatrician. As she herself admits, she cannot provide the services of a big-city, hospital-based physician, but she makes up for her lack of scientific expertise with her personal concern for the welfare of her patients, who are also her friends. Deprived of urban hospitals, our survivors now have access to a genuine family doctor and what is in effect home health care (their doctor lives right among them). Similarly, all the children are now home-schooled. Their teachers are their parents, and in the absence of professional educators, the students seem to thrive, actually enjoying their lessons for a change because they are now being taught by people who know them and care about them as individuals. Perhaps there is something dreamlike about this nightmare after all.

 The way the relationships between parents and children have changed in light of the apocalyptic events goes right to the emotional core of Falling Skies. The characters have lost everything that used to make up the American dream—all their material possessions, their social status, their professional careers, and of course their three-bedroom houses. But that means that they can now focus on each other. Careers no longer distract them from their family obligations. For the adults, parenting becomes their full-time job. They used to put their careers ahead of their family life; now they will sacrifice anything for the sake of their children. The main character is a father who gets to bond with his sons in a way that was not possible when he was pursuing his career as a history professor at Boston University. Now he spends all his time with his sons at his side and gets to watch them grow up under his guidance. This logic takes us to the heart of these end-of-the-world narratives. The characters have lost everything that used to make their lives seem worthwhile, but they discover that those elements of the American dream were at best distractions from, and at worst obstacles to, their true happiness and sense of fulfillment. Liberated from material concerns and impersonal institutions, the characters have the opportunity to search for what makes life truly meaningful, and that turns out to be devotion to friends and especially family.

 With its setting in Massachusetts and its main character a history professor, Falling Skies frequently refers to the American Revolution. The names of Lexington and Concord keep coming up, and our heroes become latter-day Minutemen. Their resistance to the alien invaders is repeatedly compared to the American colonists’ resistance to British tyranny. The Spirit of ’76 thus comes to prevail in Falling Skies. The characters have lost their material possessions and the security that institutions used to give them, but they have regained their independence and self-reliance. In the midst of a nightmarish existence, an older conception of the American dream comes back to life. The characters grow in self-respect because they learn that they can rely on their own resources to deal with the challenges they face. They do not need a whole network of impersonal institutions to preserve their lives and to take care of their welfare—and in particular they do not need the federal government. In the spirit of the American Revolution, they form militias and become citizen-soldiers, defending themselves. As do many of these apocalyptic narratives, Falling Skies features boys who have to grow quickly into men, a process epitomized by their learning to use weapons and thus assuming the adult role of protecting their loved ones. Taking pride in their maturation, these boys reveal what these shows stand for—they champion people who assume responsibility for their lives, rather than passively accepting a role as wards of institutions or the state.


 If alien invaders are temporarily unavailable, fortunately American pop culture can supply us with all the zombies we need to re-examine the meaning of our lives. In the television show The Walking Dead, a zombie plague has quickly spread around the world, annihilating all but a remnant of the human population. In all these end-of-the-world scenarios, whatever triggers the apocalypse tends to affect the entire Earth more or less simultaneously. The fear of modernity in all these narratives is specifically a fear of global modernity. What upsets people is the sense that they are losing control of their lives in a world of impersonal and unresponsive institutions, and the fact that all this is happening on a global scale is especially unnerving.

 Among their many meanings, zombies have come to symbolize the force of globalization. National borders cannot stop the zombie plague from spreading, and it evidently dissolves all cultural distinctions. The zombies lose their individuality, freedom of will, and everything that makes them human beings. With their herd mentality, they are precisely the kind of mass-men that impersonal institutions seek to produce, and in a curious way they represent the docile subjects that governments secretly—or not so secretly—desire. Zombification is a powerful image of what governments try to do to their citizens—to create a uniform, homogenous population, incapable of acting independently. It is no accident that zombies sometimes are portrayed as the products of scientific experiments and specifically of government projects gone awry (or gone all-too-well).

 In The Walking Dead, it is not clear what produced the zombies, but in any event they set off the typical end-of-the-world scenario. Governments have fallen everywhere, and in the power vacuum that results, the characters are plunged back into the state of nature, with a decidedly Hobbesian emphasis on the war of all against all. Chased by relentless if plodding zombies and also by marauding gangs of the remaining humans, the main characters at first think of turning to traditional authorities to protect them. Coming from semi-rural Georgia, they head for Atlanta, assuming that a big city will have the resources to keep them safe. But the city, with its concentration of zombies, proves to be even more dangerous than the countryside. The characters keep thinking of the federal government as their ultimate protector. Pinning their hopes on the military, they talk about going to Fort Benning for security, although they never get there and are warned away from it by other human fugitives they encounter.

Season One of the series culminates in a quest to find safety with a famous federal agency, the Centers for Disease Control, conveniently located in Atlanta and a seemingly ideal refuge from a plague. Viewing the CDC as their salvation, our band of survivors finds instead that it is a source of destruction. The gleaming modernistic edifice is a deathtrap, run by a sole survivor, who seems borderline sane and fast approaching a pop culture stereotype of the mad scientist. Far from finding a cure for the zombie plague, the CDC may be the source of the infection. We learn in the sixth episode that the CDC weaponized smallpox. It is holding so many deadly germs and viruses that the building is programmed to self-destruct once its generators fail. Our heroes and heroines barely have time to escape before the building blows up, taking the last of the CDC scientists with it. If the CDC functions as a symbol of the federal government in The Walking Dead, then the medical-military-industrial complex proves to be a dangerous and self-destructive force.1

 In the second season of The Walking Dead, the characters find a refuge, but it is in an isolated farmhouse, presided over by a sort of Biblical patriarch. The answer seems to be to get as far away as possible from the modern world and all its complex interrelations. Retreating into the narrow realm of the nuclear family, the survivors find a momentary peace and even a degree of safety. Given the primitive conditions under which they live, it is almost as if they have journeyed back in time to the simpler and happier age of nineteenth-century America, when living on a self-contained farm was the typical way of life. As in Falling Skies, the characters miss modern medicine and often have to go scavenging in cities for stores of drugs and other medical supplies. But when a boy named Carl is shot, they look to the patriarch, Hershel, to save him. To their shock, Hershel turns out to be a veterinarian, not a board-certified surgeon. But as in Falling Skies, the fact that the old man genuinely cares about his patient and is willing to sit up with him all night by his bedside trumps his lack of medical expertise. Once again home medicine beats the big city hospital. In fact, we see in flashbacks that when the main hero, Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes, wakes up from a coma, he finds himself in a hospital at its most hideous, portrayed as a prison-like containment facility for zombies being slaughtered by military forces. In The Walking Dead, public health institutions seem to be devoted to imprisoning and annihilating their patients, not curing them.

 Zombies eventually overrun the pastoral retreat at the end of Season Two of The Walking Dead, and in Season Three the band of survivors finds a new refuge—this time in a prison. An institution originally designed to keep criminals in turns into the best way to keep the zombies out. Season Three deals with various efforts to move beyond the nuclear family and restore order to society, but they are not portrayed in positive terms. At the end of the second season, Grimes ominously proclaims, “this isn’t a democracy anymore,” and the specter of autocracy haunts the third season. A prison is obviously not an attractive model of social order; it suggests that the overriding concern for security requires locking down everything and allowing no scope for freedom. Later in Season Three, we encounter an alternate model of order, the town of Woodbury, presided over by a character named simply the Governor. At first Woodbury seems nice enough, indeed the very model of small-town America, almost a re-creation of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. In the third episode of the third season, the Governor says with some pride: “People here have homes, medical care, kids go to school…. And people here have jobs. It’s a sense of purpose. We have community.” It sounds as if government institutions have been reconstituted to good effect. But we soon discover that Woodbury is a gated community in the bad sense of the term, basically just a prison with a Main Street, U.S.A. façade. The armed guards posted to keep the zombies out are also tasked with keeping Woodbury’s citizens in, thus maintaining their subjugation to the Governor’s arbitrary commands. Once again the price of security is freedom, and the more we learn about the Governor, the more he appears to be a tyrant and a crazed one at that.

All attempts to turn to institutions to solve problems in The Walking Dead seem to fail. The show suggests that its characters must ultimately rely on themselves and their own resources. In various flashbacks, we learn that, prior to the zombie plague, the characters had all sorts of problems in their relationships. The husbands and wives were generally unhappy in their marriages, with soap opera consequences. Again as in Falling Skies, a disaster in material terms proves to have some good results in emotional terms. Under the pressure of the zombie threat, family bonds grow tighter, and people learn who their real friends are. On one level, the zombies represent the absence of true humanity, a mass of beings who are brain dead. They go through the mere motions of living, but their existence is completely meaningless. By contrast, life has become meaningful for the surviving human beings. As shown in several episodes, they have had to make conscious choices to go on living and thereby recover a strong sense of purpose in their struggle for survival.

 Given the survivalist ethic in all these end-of-the-world shows, they are probably not popular with gun control advocates. One of the most striking motifs they have in common—evident in Revolution, Falling Skies, The Walking Dead, and many other such shows—is the loving care with which they depict an astonishing array of weaponry. The Walking Dead features an Amazon warrior, who is adept with a samurai sword, as well as a southern redneck, who specializes in a cross-bow. The dwindling supply of ammunition puts a premium on weapons that do not require bullets. That is not to say, however, that The Walking Dead has no place for modern firearms and indeed the very latest in automatic weapons. Both the heroes and the villains in the series—difficult to tell apart in this respect—are as well-armed as the typical municipal SWAT team in contemporary America.

 Being able to use a weapon is the chief marker of status in The Walking Dead. At first the need to go armed restores the men to positions of unchallenged leadership, overcoming feminist tendencies in the pre-apocalyptic world (suggested in several flashbacks). In a throwback in human evolution, the men again become the hunter-gatherers, while the women return to household chores. But the gun is actually a great equalizer and is particularly effective in overcoming women’s disadvantage in physical strength vis-à-vis men. A character named Andrea starts off as a stereotypically weak, dependent woman, but once she learns to shoot—more specifically to kill zombies—she is completely transformed into a powerful figure, who can take command in difficult situations, even over aggressive males. Andrea is emblematic of the overall tendency of The Walking Dead to show ordinary people moving from situations of dependence (relying on institutions to save them) to genuine independence (relying only on themselves and each other).

 Amazingly, this tendency applies even to children in The Walking Dead (as it also does in Falling Skies). The young boy Carl wants nothing more than to learn how to shoot a gun, and, although his mother and father are at first hesitant, they allow a family friend to initiate the young boy into the company of trained marksmen. Carl graduates from shooting zombies to taking out fellow human beings, and, in one of the more shocking developments in a series that thrives on shock value, the youngster eventually reaches an elite plateau of cold-bloodedness when he shoots his own mother, rather than let her turn into a zombie. Carl is the ultimate example of how the characters in The Walking Dead must toughen up or fall by the wayside.


 Carl’s father is Rick Grimes, and earlier in the series he gives the boy his lawman’s hat. In the February 17, 2013 episode of The Talking Dead, a fan discussion show that follows the weekly broadcasts of The Walking Dead on AMC, actor-director Kevin Smith cleverly referred to Carl as “Wyatt Twerp.” Smith’s evocation of a classic Western hero is right on the mark. Beneath all the horror-story gore in The Walking Dead beats the heart of a good old-fashioned Western.2 The show transposes the Wild West to a contemporary setting, reviving the spirit of rugged individualism that Westerns promoted as an antidote to the comfortable version of the American dream in the middle of the twentieth century. By stripping away all the institutions that constitute modern civilization, The Walking Dead gives us what the Western used to provide in American pop culture—an image of frontier existence, of living on the edge, of seeing what it is like to manage without a settled government, of facing the challenge of protecting oneself and one’s family on one’s own, of learning the meaning of independence and self-reliance.

 The zombies play the role traditionally assigned to Indians in Westerns—the barbarian hordes lurking on the borders of the civilized community and threatening to annihilate it. Just like the Indians in many Westerns, the zombies are nameless and virtually faceless, they never speak, and they may be killed off indiscriminately, with their genocide being the apparent goal. The odyssey of the characters in The Walking Dead through the shattered landscape of Georgia resembles the wagon trains of Westerns, navigating through one danger after another, fighting or negotiating with rival groups, troubled by dwindling supplies, searching in vain for refuge in military outposts that turn out to have been overrun and abandoned, slowed down by stragglers and delayed by searches for lost comrades, torn by disputes over their destination and other challenges to their leaders, dealing with childbirth or other medical emergencies on the fly—the list of parallels goes on and on. People have been lamenting the closing of the frontier throughout American history. Zombie tales and other apocalyptic scenarios turn out to be a way of imaginatively reopening the frontier in twenty-first century popular culture.

 In general, all these end-of-the-world shows are re-creations of that most basic of American genres, the Western. A character in Falling Skies says of the post-apocalyptic environment: “it’s the Wild West out there.” The 2011 film Cowboys and Aliens explicitly unites the Western and the alien invasion narrative. Once we realize that contemporary end-of-the-world scenarios share with Westerns the goal of imaginatively returning their characters to the state of nature, we can see how the American nightmare can turn into the American dream when rampaging aliens or zombies descend upon a quiet American suburb. The dream of material prosperity and security is shattered, but a different ideal comes back to life—the all-American ideal of rugged individualism, the spirit of freedom, independence, and self-reliance.3


    1. Given the way the CDC is portrayed in The Walking Dead, it may be difficult to believe that the real CDC has a section called “Zombie Preparedness” on its official website, but check out <>. According to this site, if you are “looking for an entertaining way to introduce emergency preparedness,” you should read the CDC’s own zombie novella. Unsurprisingly, in the CDC novella, the CDC responds quickly and effectively to the zombie plague, although readers might not be fully reassured by the doctors’ claim: “we’re using the same type of vaccine that we use for the seasonal flu.” In general, the CDC’s version of a zombie apocalypse is the exact opposite of what we see in popular culture—and much cheerier. In response to the plague, government institutions at all levels function perfectly and are credited with saving the ordinary Americans in the story, who would apparently be helpless if left to their own devices. And, as far as I can tell, no zombies were injured in the making of the CDC novella. Even when being overrun by zombies, the soldiers in the story say: “We can’t just shoot them. These are our fellow citizens.”

    2. It occurred to me that the way Carl is torn in the first season between his real father (a good guy) and a substitute father (a bad guy) is reminiscent of the situation of the young boy in the classic Western Shane. Then it occurred to me that the substitute father in The Walking Dead is named Shane.

    3. In a brief essay, I have been able to discuss only a few examples of the patterns I am identifying in contemporary popular culture. In my book The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012), I discuss Falling Skies at greater length (341–44) in a chapter devoted to alien invasion narratives, which includes analyses of The X-Files, Invasion, The Event, V, Fringe, and several other examples of the genre. I discuss the convergence of science fiction and the Western at a number of points in the book (see, for example, 87–90 and 342–44) and also the way that apocalyptic disasters propel characters back into the state of nature (see, for example, 144–45, and 423–424 n33). I devote a chapter to showing how state-of-nature thinking can be applied to understanding Westerns in the case of Deadwood (97–127).

 Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV (2012).










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