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Dam Metaphors

The dam is breaking. There’s a phrase with two diametrically opposite meanings. In the negative sense, nearly 200,000 people locally were given less than an hour to evacuate their homes, as the largest dam in the country, the earthen Oroville Dam, was on the verge of breaching.

Chico is northeast of the dam, so it wasn’t in danger. And to this small city’s credit, it absorbed at least half of the refugees without a hitch.

Purportedly the dam itself was never in danger of collapse. But the real and present danger of a 3-story high wall of water pouring out of a collapse of the spillways is a distinction without a difference if you’re in its path. The entire valley from Oroville to Sacramento would have been flooded, and thousands could have drowned.

The executives and engineers of the now infamous California DWR (Department of Water Resources) had been telling people for a week that there was no danger of a breach. The concrete chute of the primary spillway had broken, and they reduced outflow from the dam, raising reservoir to a level that the emergency spillway, which had never been used, was overtopped.

Then came the order. “Immediate threat of catastrophic flooding. Mandatory evacuation.” The main roads became long, idling parking lots.

Wishful thinking and treating the people like children nearly got many people killed.

A local sheriff, Kory Honea, backed by Governor Jerry Brown’s office, stepped in and became the adults in the valley.

Even now, DWR is still downplaying the danger, which of course allows everyone to second-guess the sheriff in making the decision to evacuate.

Acting Department of Water Resources Director Bill Croyle is eroding public confidence further by saying inane things since the near catastrophe like: “We’re seeing erosion as all that energy moves downhill. It’s hitting rocks and moving in different directions. It’s going to hit weathered material or soil and it’s going to carry it. That’s going to be a part of the normal process as we move forward.”

It’s an example of how institutions have their own cultures, some functioning well, some not, and all operating within a larger, completely dysfunctional socio-political culture that has given rise to a dangerous demagogue.

Why is there such an overwhelming tendency in this country to normalize the abnormal? Is it a universal tendency?

With respect to America, the underlying, structural issues (psychological and emotional, not physical) have been so disordered for so long that the outward expression of chaos doesn’t surprise and disturb.

Is there a positive sense in which the dam is breaking? Are obstructions that have prevented essential, radical change about to give way?

When one observes the entire Trump circus dispassionately (as difficult as that is to do) one realizes that it truly is a sideshow to what is actually unfolding in real time in human history.

At a time when the global ecological crisis presses harder every week for radical change, one cannot say “American leadership” without a smirk or a shudder. Nations have become secondary.

Therefore the crisis goes way beyond the collapse of the American-made and led post World War II order. It goes to the historical end of the primacy of the nation-state, what’s called the Westphalian system.

The Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, ended the Thirty Years’ War, in which the major continental European states – the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, France, Sweden and the Dutch Republic – agreed to respect one another’s territorial integrity. That marks the beginning of the idea of national sovereignty.

Sovereignty means the supreme principle. And the sovereignty of nation-states has become as archaic and irrelevant to the actual world as city-states were when modern nations emerged.

What will replace the sovereignty of nations? That’s first a psychological problem, not a political one. Why? Because humankind remains essentially tribal, even as the primary identification with particular groups has become atavistic.

That’s why it’s stupid to speak of “developing a new kind of nationalism.” Thinking and feeling in terms of ‘my country’ has reached its logical dead end with “America First.”

The United States was the nation that once put an inclusive idea that spoke to people everywhere—“the American dream”— ahead of territorial integrity. Now however, “protect our borders,” not “come to America, work hard, and make a better life for yourself and your children,” is the cornerstone of what can charitably be called the Trump doctrine.

So what dam may be about to break in the positive sense? One more severe storm, metaphorically speaking, and the last strut will be kicked out from under the old order.

By itself, that’s not a good thing. But perhaps enough people are ready, having brought about the requisite psychological/emotional change within us of ending tribalism.

And a few are pouring the foundation for a new order, so that when the dam is breached the waters will not flood and destroy, but free people to move in a new direction.

Sovereignty now belongs to humanity as a whole. Think, feel and act accordingly.

Martin LeFevre

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