The man was in rough shape. His hair was unkempt. His skin was tanned and covered in dirt. He wore generic track pants and a ratty, sweat yellowed t-shirt. His long toes stuck out of his thrift store soccer sandals. His facial hair was a patchy mess. He asked politely for a cup of water. The baristas said yes. He seemed stable enough. Most of the other street locals were erratic and not welcome. He proceeded over to the condiment bar and grabbed a plastic cup.
California has always been to the American consciousness what the United States has been to the rest of the world. From the gold rush and Horace Greeley, to the dust bowl okies, Disneyland, and Silicon Valley. It’s the land of opportunity in the land of opportunity. In 1964, Chuck Berry released a song about it called “Promised Land.”
As of 2018, California had the world’s 5th largest economy, surpassing even the UK in gross domestic product. Powered by the mega-population centers around San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. It has, in a lot of ways, fulfilled its promise. Los Angeles is an oil town gussied up by red carpets and search lights. San Diego seems to run on military spending, craft beer, and exotic animal jails. The bay area is, I assume, built on microchips and rice-a-roni. All of them, by dint of the coastline and weather, rely heavily on tourism.
Together they’ve produced the iPhone, Die Hard, a handful of top-notch IPAs, SEAL Teams 1,3,5 and 7, West Coast Gangster Rap, Uber, and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where Buffy’s Mom dies. I’d like to explore how the idea of a promise land works and how this helps create healthy industries and cities, but, due to the nature of power laws, can have large downside costs as people accumulate at the bottom.
For the idea of a promised land to take root in someone you need either a tyranny or famine. If you pay attention to stories and fairy tales, tyrants and famines usually go together, so we can use it as a synonymous construct. Now these can be:
External — a pharaoh, a toxic corporate culture, poverty, your close-minded small town, a shitty job, an actual draught, an intolerant religious community, ill-timed corporate lay-offs
Internal — the negative self talk you picked up from (insert adult authority figure here), perceived obligation to the tribe, unexamined religious beliefs, a co-dependent relationship, generalized anxiety, just “the way things are”
The promise land is that favored time-place in the future where the shackles of your internal or external tyrant will be cast off and the flourishing of your people will be restored. You’ll be a free and autonomous individual who can move through the world with grace and impunity. Meanwhile the tyranny has created in the tyrannized a sense of what psychologists are, at the moment, calling learned helplessness but what in a few years will probably be referred to as what it actually is… depression.
Depression, though not pleasant, can be comfortable. And speaking from experience, a lot of depressed people don’t even realize they’re depressed. They just accept their lot as part of life and move on with it. Now obviously, there are levels of depression and I’m not talking about the immobilizing, self-harm, hang yourself in the closet type of depression. That requires professional help. I’m talking about the more common, subtle snake who invades the garden and causes so little trouble you don’t even noticed ’til you’re naked, out on your ass and there’s a goddamned burning sword behind you.
It’s the quiet desperation everyone is always talking about. And it’s in this state I’ve found myself most susceptible to the dream of a promise land. And I’m using this in the abstract. The promise land can be a place, a person, an ideal job, a projected relationship, or the Great Valley past the rock that resembles a long neck and the mountains that burn. It’s the time-place where everything is going to be better.
The problem is not with this as an idea. Maybe there is a famine. If your crops have turned to dust, your fields are blowing away, maybe you should listen to your inner Moses, pack up the Model-A and get the hell out of Dodge. If you find yourself dreaming of a promised land, pay attention, it’s a sign something is wrong. But it might not be what you expect. If your boss is a dick, maybe it’s time to move on. But if you do and everything still sucks, maybe you’re the cause of the plague on Thebes. Maybe you’re Théoden and Wormtongue is whispering in your ear. As I’ve found to be true, maybe the reason the oxen are dying and crops are burnt ash is because of me, or more likely, something I’m holding on to.
This doesn’t discount the hand of fortune. Luck plays a big role and sometimes she drops a piano on you. Sometimes there’s a plague of locust. Sometimes the Lord’s a dick and the creek is going to do whatever the hell it pleases. Other times the problems are under your control. Maybe it’s time to ditch the pesticides and renew soil. Maybe you need to root out that black mold growing under your sink. Maybe you’ve submitted yourself to the tyrant long enough and revolution is in order, because revolution is just a non-geographic based version of the promised land. Though I do think there are productive and unproductive forms of revolution.
Here’s a digression on the nature of tyrants. I’m going to use examples from the Bible because I grew up in (and grew out of) a particularly conservative religious tradition and it’s helpful for me to try and recontextualize a lot of this stuff. In the older Hebrew stories, the tyrants were external. It was the Pharaoh, or Babylonians, or Assyrians. In the Christian stories the tyrants are both external and internal. You have the civil authorities, or Romans, epitomized by Herod and later Pilot, you have the religious authorities represented by the Sanhedrin and Pharisees, and you have the shackles of the self, or ego, characterized as “flesh” or “sin.” Later, the idea of sin itself became a tyrant, but the word began as an archery term that meant to miss the mark. I think that’s a healthier way to look at it. A company I used to work for gave feedback to its employees based on “action” and “impact.” It took away value judgements and let people adjust based on how their actions impacted things. I’ve found it useful to apply this criteria to myself and use it as a tool to course correct, though it’s not always easy because the internal tyrant is loud and judgmental. In earlier iterations of our culture this voice was referred to as the Accuser, or Satan, or the yetzer hara. It’s what C.S. Lewis dramatized in The Screwtape Letters and The Louvin Brothers depicted on their most famous album cover.
It also seems that freedom from an internal tyrant often to leads to the throwing off of an external tyrant. Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Václav Havel and Harvey Milk are recent examples of this. People like Maximilian Robespierre, Vldamir Lenin, and certain settlers of the American West are examples of people who recognized a real problem, laid out their version of a promised land and wound up sacrificing (in these cases, lots of people) to their golden calves. The difference between the top group and the bottom group was who bore the downside. The top group of people took the downside upon themselves, the bottom group externalized it on others, specifically those who worshipped at different alters.
This idea brings me back to how healthy industries exploit the human propensity for Promised Land thinking. I’ll use Hollywood, because it’s where I live and it’s the god I’ve been sacrificing to for the past ten years or so. Also, as the saying goes, everyone in America has two businesses, their business and show business, so the insights might be transferable to other domains.
From the outside Hollywood promises fame, adventure, glory, glamour, status, sex and even money to those who can “make it.” It’s the perfect promise land for open, creative, and aesthetically minded people trying to escape the internal tyrants of low self-worth, purposelessness, self-hatred or the famines of poverty, boredom, office drudgery, and loneliness. Anyone who lives here or pays attention knows this is not true, but it’s the dream I bought in to when I was younger.
My personal promised land was to feel relevant. I had a low sense of self-worth coupled with a healthy curiosity and need for adventure. I wanted to see if I could hack it at something hard and in doing so find success, validation, love, happiness — the cup of Christ or whatever. I wanted to fix that lonely kid inside who had friends and family and an over-all good childhood, but still felt something was missing. I wanted to feel important and do the thing that no one else could do. And I wanted to be cool. I wanted to reject the values around me and climb my way up some imagined ziggurat. If I did this, all that self-loathing I was pretending didn’t exist would be dropped away. I had an internal tyrant and I was trying to fix it with an external promised land and honestly, it was never going to work.
Not that it was only motivated by that. I love movies and TV shows. I love stories. I love the dramatic form and the idea of creating work someone could get lost in, but I was depending on it to fix what’s wrong. The inner Moses lead me across the Red Sea and into the desert, but like the story, he had to die in order for his people (I contain multitudes) to reach the promise land. The Jesus story is an updated version of this older story, except Jesus didn’t march around the walls seven times and blow a trumpet and then murder everyone in town. He bore the downside himself. The moral arc of history is long and bends towards justice I guess.
Now the idea with Hollywood is that it mines people with Promised Land thinking. Aspirants come to this city hoping to cast off a tyrant or escape a famine and create their own thriving Kingdoms™. And sometimes it works, the problem is that it only works for a small percentage because of power laws.
In 1968 sociologists Robert K. Merton and Harriet Zuckerman coined “the Matthew Principle,” a term used to describe the fact that people’s wealth, fame or status tended to accrue exponentially based on the amount of each they had already. Or to put it more simply, they noticed that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and decided to give it a name. The name comes from the parable of the talents in the book of Matthew where Jesus proclaims:
“For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who does not have, even what he does shall be taken.”
That’s a hard truth. And regardless of your feelings on religion, it’s a phenomena that’s been noted across domains as diverse as the population of cities and the size of stars to the number of screenplays sold by individual writers or World Series titles won by Major League Baseball franchises.
The winner-take-all effect has always been around, but the increased connection between people and places are a large reason we’re seeing such massive disparities in this country and the world. Humans are memetic beings and tend be attracted to what everyone else is attracted to. That means the vast majority of people will listen to the same music and watch the same movies and buy the same things. First the interstate highway system, and then the information super highway (not to mention globalization) obliterated a lot of our disparateness and has allowed a smaller and smaller number of corporations and individuals to amass at the top. It’s not all bad, interconnectedness also allowed us to address some real instantiated injustices and come up with some world changing innovations, though we may be reaching a point of diminishing returns because all we are currently producing is Marvel movies and angry Presidential candidates from New England.
Power laws are one of the reasons the capitalist super powers of LA and San Francisco are so perinially obsessed with socialist ideas. Both cities are prime examples of the Matthew principle, making the difference between the top and the bottom wealth brackets large and visible. In more conservative places with seemingly more stable industries, the path seems less unpredictable and so the trade off in costs for the social safety net seem less appealing. This isn’t to say stability is without costs. As Nassim Taleb points out in *Antifragile*, to much stability allows problems to accumulate and increases fragility in unforeseen ways. You should read his book.
The problem I’m exploring is what to do about the people accumulating at the bottom, and how and where are new promised lands opened up so people can throw off their tyrants, escape their famines and seek their fortune. Or even better, find the promise land inside themselves.
Tent cities have proliferated throughout LA. Every business and coffee shop has an ignored mentally ill homeless person screaming outside or wandering around muttering to themselves. Is it a break down the social fabric? Is it just a fact that when so many people aggregate in one place this kind of thing is going to happen? And it’s not for the lack of people who care. People do.
In the past thirty years the major American cities have had a massive reduction in crime and from what I’ve read it wasn’t just one thing. People have pointed to the removal of environmentallead, to broken window policing policies, to the legalization of abortion and increased contreceptive awareness so parents with limited time and resources had fewer kids who could get into trouble once they become teenagers. I think the homeless issue will be solved in a similar way. If some incremental improvements, like mental health and substance treatment, different policing policies and affordable housing, as well as increased support and interventions from faith and community groups are on the table as solutions, in a few years we may be saying “remember when” about the fact our under passes look like Dante got a good deal at an REI Co-op sale. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
I hope by writing about this new ideas will open up or planted seeds will bring forth solutions in the future. Everyone along the political/personality spectrum has strengths they can use to solve this problem. If we stop pointing fingers and start working together maybe things will get better. Now back to the gentleman from the beginning.
He was taking a long time at the condiment bar. He’d downed a few cups of filtered water, but was working on something else. The barista asked him if he was okay. He said he was and turned back to his project. He’d filled his cup with a thick, white liquid and created a beautiful geologic pattern by squeezing an inch or so of golden brown syrup at the base. He turned away from the barista and drank it all in one gulp. He said thanks and left. The barista came over and surveyed the damage. The cream carafe was empty. I told him what I saw. He made a comment about how gross that must have been to drink. I agreed and went back to writing. Just another day in the land of milk and honey.
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