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Aug 2002 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

Gateways for Billikens
By Barnabas D. Johnson

I was born in the Paraguayan jungles in 1943 of British parents in an idealistic Christian commune dedicated to proving that Germans, French, British, Dutch, Americans, and even Paraguayans, can live together in harmony. Our only "law" was "love"; my father, a fifth-generation lawyer, would eventually come to see how naïve this idea was. But that is another story.

This commune, the Bruderhof, had been kicked out of Nazi Germany and then out of anti-Nazi England, and eventually its desperate members sailed through submarine-infested seas to poor little Paraguay, the only country that would accept this odd assortment of well-educated Europeans bent on living like medieval peasants. Forsaking private property, forsaking individual liberty, forsaking almost everything of "the world" except our beloved four-part harmonies, this group was said to be able to sing for 48 hours without using books or repeating itself. Music remains my passion.

At an early age I learned our "anti-national anthem" — Durch das Tor der Neuen Zeit — focused on singing our way through the "Gateway to a New Time" with flowers in our hair, love all around, and harmonies echoing hither and yon. German was my first language, but when I was five my family returned to England, to our new Shropshire colony. As I grew up, I learned "how sweet is the shepherd's sweet lot." But when I was 12, my family immigrated to the United States, and during the next two years in our North Dakota colony I was happy to imagine that I'd spend my life driving tractors. I still love sheep and tractors.

In 1958, at age 14, I was expelled from the Bruderhof, which by then had a dozen colonies on three continents. I found it increasingly oppressive. A few years later, my family and half the membership were expelled, penniless. Since then, I have followed the Bruderhof's course with increasing sadness, for I believe that — though now apparently quite wealthy — it has become a tragic place: a "closed society" opposed to meaningful choice, democratic governance, and "equal justice under law" (as distinct from arbitrary decrees regarding the "loving solution" issued by the senior "Servant of the Word" — as they call one of my teenage contemporaries, a rather dull but officious lad; he now flies around in his deluxe corporate jet, one of life's little oddities). Of course, the Bruderhof says I've lost my way championing Open Society values. Perhaps; I run a law school in the former USSR, but I'll get back to that soon.

After working my way through a little Quaker boarding school in southern Ohio (I was in charge of brooms and mops), and then college in Cleveland (I was a land surveyor), I had the good fortune of being admitted to Harvard Law School. My studies focused on comparative jurisprudence, and my 1970 graduation thesis thereon was entitled "Cosmic Synergism and the Global Village Discontinuity." The concept(s) of synergism had fascinated me since boarding school; synergism's earliest theological definition echoed Friendly Persuasions regarding "that of God in Man" by which humanity participates with divinity in Creation. As Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address, which I memorized, "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own." However, except for the inspiration that religion gave Bach, Lincoln, and Einstein, etc., I have had little use for theology. My greatest love is "law" (properly understood): liberty under law, equal justice under law, governance under the Rule of Law based on the Rule of Reason ... of "cybernetic reasoning" that cultivates and harvests history-in-the-making. My love is the past instructing the present and composing the future.

Dymaxion map After law school I attended R. Buckminster Fuller's "World Game" conference in Boston. This was a six-week confab focused on "comprehensive anticipatory global design"; most of the 40 attendees were computer nerds, cyberneticians, and dream weavers. Bucky Fuller was headquartered in Carbondale, Illinois, seemingly the center of the universe, and he inspired us with visions of constructing a permanent "world game" facility housing a football-field-size "Dymaxion map" of the world linked to a huge computer that he said had been promised by M.I.T. The idea was that you could make various bulbs light up on this huge map, thereby allowing thousands of people seated around to grok in fullness such design-implicating correlations as — in case you are curious — sheep (white lights), tractors (blue lights), lawyers (red lights), and cyberneticians (twinkles) per acre. I wanted to be part of that.

St. Louis is near Carbondale, so I arrived in late summer of 1970 and spent the next year trying to generate a living doing "comprehensive anticipatory global design" based on the old theological definition of synergism — that is, helping Divinity (however conceived) "design" a better Universe. But over time I came to realize in practice what my law school thesis had proposed in theory: that "old synergism" clashes (perhaps irreconcilably) with the modern definition of synergism, the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their constituent subsystems. In short, "designing" Creation invites unanticipated — indeed, unintended and often unwelcome — consequences. Not all synergies are good.

But they are real, and "cause" — allow? — ineffable complexities. These complexities are exacerbated — glorified? — if one focuses on a "whole system" such as a village, a country, or a global civilization, because these holistic (holy?) phenomena are arguably synergistic in the old theological sense: they are "participatory" systems, self-referential puzzles, self-organizing and self-governing (or misgoverning) phenomena. But are they "selves" or motile colonies of "selves" ... such as the mitochondria and facts and ideas that "compose" me? Seemingly, they are both of these, and more.

The inherent complexity of participatory systems — their fundamental mysteriousness — ought to make us especially hesitant about endorsing slogans like "comprehensive anticipatory global design." What, then, ought we to be trying to do?

The very activity of participants trying to understand and improve the systems they help to compose (a) changes the relationships of the participants to those systems, (b) changes those systems, and (c) changes those participants. They are co-causal, co-evolving; in a word, cybernetic. During my six years in St. Louis, I found myself delving ever more deeply into the history of "cybernetic thinking" — starting (not surprisingly) with the ancient Greeks, who coined the word. It denoted the "art" of governance.

Now, for most people who know this word, "cybernetics" conjures visions of robots, intelligent machines, etc. But the original "intendment" of this concept was far deeper, and needs resuscitating. As I refused to allow communism to co-opt my favorite color, red, so too I will not allow engineers (even software engineers) to co-opt "cybernetics"; it is a deep and precious subject, possibly as deep and precious as synergism. Indeed, these two words "map" essentially the same territory — which itself composes a "blueprint" for a house of many mansions.

For three decades I have sought to comprehend the cybernetics of society. Cyberneticians know little about law, even though (properly understood) it is the quintessential cybernetic calling. And lawyers know even less about cybernetic, self-referential, self-organizing "systems theory": that is, they don't know how much they know, and how much cybernetic theory can enhance their efforts to build law-based democracy. Now, working in the USSR and post-Soviet world since 1989, I have had compelling occasion to ponder how best to "popularize" the idea of a constitutional democracy as a "learning organism" — a sort of slow motion "controlled experiment" we humans are conducting upon ourselves and our institutions ... possibly with a view to determining whether the evolution of intelligence is viable, at least as it has evolved on this lovely little blue planet.

Billiken I enjoyed my years in St. Louis. I especially enjoyed the nighttime play of moving lights upon the Gateway Arch. During my six years there, I became familiar with a new word and metaphor, the Billiken: "God of things as they ought to be." The Billiken is a funny little fellow, an old man, a little boy, a wise optimist, a contented realist, a leprechaun whom you cannot take seriously. Yet I do. To me, the "good society" must be a billiken — ever old, ever young, never finished, always open to new adventures. The aged, eternal child. As I wrote in my law school thesis, the "good society" must never be viewed as a plateau of perfection that can be reached; it must be viewed as an ongoing process of reaching, of becoming, of open-ended evolution. Like the Christian Trinity (for those who find this metaphor useful), it can never be comprehended, let alone "designed"; rather, it should be adored and served.

How served? By upholding the abiding value of liberty and equality under law. My personal liberty is very valuable to me, of course, for what it allows me to do; but "liberty as such" — including your liberty — is even more valuable to me for what it allows every other "me" to do, using knowledge and skills which I cannot possibly judge the value of. If you can be the best "me" you can be, and if each of us can be the best "me" we can be, then lots of extraordinary things are possible. If these "possibilities" are "bounded" — limited — by Open Society governance — by freedom of inquiry, association, expression; by "peer review" in its deepest sense; by periodic elections to resolve political disputes; by independent judiciaries to resolve legal disputes, etc. — then creative prudence and prudent creativity are served. Your symphony might be junk, your "theory of everything" might be nonsense, but through cybernetic "feedback cultivation" based on Open Society values, that is all right; no great harm is done. However, if you are not free to compose that symphony, we all lose, and civilization is immeasurably impoverished, because you will be deprived of the chance to compose what might turn out to be the greatest symphony ever.

This is what Adam Smith meant by "individual initiative bounded by justice" — bounded by what Solon, the ancient Athenian lawgiver, called "isonomia": general law, prospectively applied, binding all equally. As we are equal in our liberty, so we must be equal under its legal restraints. Historically, "isonomia" was the parent of "demokratia"; if we are to be equal under the law, we should be equal in the making of law — or, at least, in our opportunities to compete for public office, etc. Every generation must rediscover these abiding truths anew.

A good constitutional democracy is a "learning organism" endowed to enhance societal self-knowledge and self-governance; it strengthens that "eternal vigilance" by which liberty under law is secured; it upholds equality of justice and opportunity, and — in short — all Open Society values. It keeps civilization young, yet firmly rooted.

Now I am 59, and I've had a wonderful life. I'm still exploring all these fascinating subjects. I would love to be transported back in time to when the United States was young, when "the dew was fresh" on constitutional democracy. But today, living and working in this post-Soviet region, I find myself quite adequately challenged and inspired. Considering the prospects for a global constitutional democracy is almost as interesting as things must have been for Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison.

For almost a decade I have been playing with the idea of constructing a sort of "encyclopedia of constitutional democracy" that arrays information and ideas not alphabetically but, rather, via hotlinks imbedded within a constitutional text which, if adopted, would make "real law" ordaining the establishment of a genuine constitutional democracy.

This project is in its infancy, and will be modified by new "pedagogical technologies" as they develop. You may visit it at www.jurlandia.am. I see it as a synergistic whole, impossible to describe. Its parts, however, could be conceived as gateways for billikens.

Barnabas Johnson is Professor of Law and Resident Associate Dean of the Department of Law at the American University of Armenia, affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley.

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