There's No One Driving the Bus
The habits of authoritarianism run deep. Obedience is only the most superficial. Deeper is to look to authority as a source of truth. Deeper still is to look first for “who is in charge” when seeking to understand and change a given situation.
I am speaking of the reflex to ask, “Who is doing this to me?” This question is useful in power-over situations. It forms naturally in those conditioned to victim-perpetrator relationships, as well as those in authoritarian institutions like schools and prisons. However, when that outlook becomes a habit, one looks for someone-in-charge as the explanation for every injustice and the key to righting every wrong.
Sometimes the explanation works. Sometimes, identifying and removing the bully, abuser, or psychopath solves the problem at hand. Such is the familiar, almost comforting plot line of the typical Hollywood action movie: good guys versus bad guys, hero versus villain. When reality conforms to that plot line, life is simple and moral choices are clear. But when reality is more complicated, then the fixation on the villain conjures one phantom after another that distracts attention from a broader matrix of causes.
In the course of the pandemic I often considered whether the whole thing was orchestrated by a malicious, power-hungry elite. It seemed a reasonable hypothesis, given the way Covid was used to justify authoritarian policies of all sorts: censorship, medical mandates, curfews, business shutdowns, quarantines, lockdowns, suspension of civil liberties, and so forth. If it seemed custom-designed to usher in totalitarianism, then maybe that’s because it WAS designed to usher in totalitarianism.
I rejected that theory as the primary explanation for what happened. That put me at odds with much of the Covid-dissident community, which sometimes concludes I must be controlled opposition, not brave enough to face the truth, too intimidated to speak out directly, too sheltered to countenance naked evil, or unwilling to give up the comforts and safety that come with turning a blind eye to the criminals in power. I can sympathize with those conclusions. That’s how it must look to anyone immersed in the narrative of good versus evil, abuser and victim.
I do not doubt that ruthless, corrupt, and even psychopathic individuals rise to power in our system and exploit every opportunity available. It would be wonderful if we could solve the world’s problems by simply rooting those people out. But if we don’t understand their enabling conditions, and the unconscious social and psychic forces they exploit, then victory will endure only until a new crop of psychopaths rises to replace the old.
We can easily make sense of the world if it is evil people who are the ones administering an evil system. A system of lies must be run by liars. A system that kills people must be run by the murderous. A system that exploits must be run by the greedy, and one that tolerates suffering must be run by the callous. In an evil system, we should expect to find evil people in its leading institutions. Right?
It can be disorienting when direct evidence fails to meet the expectation that evil deeds are done by evil people. A great example came up last week in the Substack column of Steve Kirsch, a zealous partisan of the Covid vaccine opposition movement. He was taken aback to hear from an informant at the CDC that virtually everyone in that organization are true believers in the safety, efficacy, and necessity of the mRNA vaccines. Not cynical liars, but righteous true believers. Steve was surprised because from his vantage point, it is inconceivable that any honest, responsible person could promote the vaccines. The harms are so widespread, the research so flimsy, the failure so obvious—how could anyone promote them to the public in good faith?
The theory that evil deeds result from the evil of the doer, and good deeds from the good of the doer is known as dispositionism. As an explanatory principle, it contrasts with situationism, which says that a person’s choices are best explained by the totality of their circumstances.1
Dispositionism makes it very difficult for people to see the evil that they or their organizations do. Why? Because in their experience, they and their colleagues are not evil people at all. They are good people. They display all the symbols of virtue. They abide by the norms of their in-group. They believe what they all agree a respectable person believes. Anyone who accuses them of villainy seems ridiculous.
Think of the subjective experience of a CDC bureaucrat. We are good people. We believe Black Lives Matter and Science is Real. We studied hard in school. We got good grades. We are rational. We voted for the right side. We raise our children right, take them to the dentist, take them to soccer practice, raise them as best we can according to the latest scientific knowledge. We love our families. We grieve the death of our loved ones. We do our best to be kind and fair. We are good people; therefore it is not possible for us to be doing evil. Evil things are done by evil people.
If we accept the report of the CDC insider, we are forced to discard the simple hypothesis that the CDC is staffed by horrible twisted liars and psychopaths. Having cleared that smokescreen we can now ask fruitful questions. First we can ask, with curiosity and not blame, how could intelligent people in good faith promote an ineffective, dangerous, and unnecessary medicine to the public? If we understand that, maybe we can avert the next debacle.
It’s not my purpose right now to answer that question in detail. In the right information environment, perfectly decent, rational people can believe all kinds of absurdities, and have done so from time immemorial. Contributing factors for CDC personnel might include:
A mythology of medical progress, embedded in the larger mythology of humanity ascending the ladder of science and technology toward utopia.
Trust in the integrity of scientific institutions.
Collegiality with members of the pharmaceutical industry.
Ridicule and ostracism of dissidents, praise and promotion for orthodoxy.
Funding bias and publication bias in favor of research that confirms reigning paradigms.
Psychological investment in having been right and having done good. Investment in the belief system that confers status to themselves.
And so on. It is normal for someone to readily accept evidence and arguments that confirm their beliefs, and to reject evidence that contradicts them. When surrounded by an entire institution that shares the same beliefs, social pressure multiplies individual cognitive biases, creating a self-reinforcing narrative reality.
A subtler and more totalizing “self-reinforcing narrative reality” has taken over society at large. It holds both sides of most issues in its grip. Both sides are “controlled opposition”—the unconscious shared ideology is the controller.
The reflex to ask, “Who is doing this to me?” comes from the same consciousness as “Who can fix it for me?” It is the consciousness of looking toward someone-in-charge for salvation or blame. This is an abdication of our innate sovereignty. Yes, there are rescuers and abusers in this world, and sometimes that lens is useful in understanding events. But as a basic habit of thought, as a go-to explanation for the way of the world, it is part of a self-perpetuating victim consciousness that takes for granted authoritarianism’s premises.
Early in the pandemic I was on a call with a Washington insider (or near-insider) who’d briefly been part of the Obama administration. I broached the possibility that there was some kind of behind-the-scenes orchestration of the pandemic. His response rang with conviction: “There is no one driving the bus.” His experience of being among the elite was one of constant reactivity to one crisis after another, of seeking to exercise a little control over a runaway train of events. Conspiratorial plots and schemes exist within a reality that is much bigger than any human can conceive, contrive, or control.
It looks like there is a bus driver, but his steering wheel and dashboard are for show. Some passengers look to him to deliver them from the maze of garbage piles, street violence, and slums that the bus has circled endlessly. Other passengers blame him for being lost there in the first place. Little do they suspect that it is their own jostling and shouting that steers the bus.
Society is not divided into the obedient sheep and their masters. All of us are sheep. That is the impression I get from watching today’s most popular villain in conspiracy circles: Klaus Schwab. I even read some excerpts from his book. I’m sorry, but the guy is no criminal mastermind. The book lacks much coherency or imagination, but seems rather a flailing attempt to piece together some degree of order and meaning from the shards of the shattered dream of progress. He, along with the technocratic elite in general, have power only in a vacuum of true power, the vacuum left from our own abdication. They have power only because we do not yet agree on a vibrant alternative vision. When we do, when we turn our collective gaze towards it, the bus will enter a new precinct. Whoever pretends to drive it will be well pleased.
All of us are sheep—that’s not the only truth here. Even a sheep isn’t just a sheep. Look at a herd, so coherent in its movement. You won’t find a leader issuing orders through a hierarchy, unless you are so self-deluded that you see what isn’t there. What governs the movement of the herd? It emerges from a million signals and cues within the herd and between it and the terrain, the grass, the wind, the water, the wolf, and all the world. Once a stampede begins, its leaders running in front can hardly change its course or even slow down, lest they are trampled too.
I may with the herd analogy seem to exchange one sort of powerlessness for another. But we are not helpless to change the direction of the herd. We are not mere passengers on the bus. When we realize the driver is a fraud and his controls are useless, we are free to discover the real mechanisms of the steering. Ah, it is connected to a GPS. There is the map on a hidden screen. Can you see it? It says, rerouting, rerouting. Proceed to the route. Rerouting. Rerouting. That’s what it does when we confuse it with a million contradictory destinations.
Let us understand the workings of the GPS so we can name and hold in coherency the destination we choose. Each possible destination has a world aspect, a social aspect, and an inner aspect. Each is more than a vision; it is a state of being, and it is most of all an agreement. Two words lay the foundation-pieces of that agreement: yes and no. Those words are the epitome of choice. They are more than words. What are we in agreement with? What do we turn toward? What do we turn away from?
Reclaiming yes and no from external authority doesn’t mean surrendering authority to the mob. It makes the mob no longer a mob, but an expression of conscious intent. No one is driving the bus, yet its journey ceases to be haphazard. Please don’t answer the paradox of the metaphor too quickly, such as with “Everyone is driving the bus,” or “You are driving the bus.” There is deep mystery here. Please for now stand at the open gate of “No one is driving the bus.”
Note well, the reclaiming of yes and no is not an apolitical escape from a mission of justice or system change. Yes and no are not silent and they do not “start within.” They are inherently relational. They are the atoms of agreement. Therefore they are political. They form the will of the governed. No small group can hold power over the rest for very long without their consent. But are we the masters of our own consent? That is the foundation we must restore if we are to restore democracy. Whatever powers pretend to rule the world today will wither in the radiance of the collective agreement of humans fully empowered in their yes and no.
To recover yes and no requires commitment and community. Strong are the bribes, threats, and habits that induce us to surrender sovereignty, to feign agreement with the intolerable, to shy away from the beautiful. It takes commitment to renounce the bribes, ignore the threats, and change the habits. When my commitment flags, I am blessed to witness others who are strong in their yes and their no, who through their example restore me to my own.
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For a provocative and thorough academic summary of these concepts, see Hanson & Yosifon’s The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal.