More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Unity of the Political Animal

The astronaut Edgar Mitchell was a member of the Apollo 14 crew, and became the sixth person to walk on the Moon. Upon the conclusion this mission, he famously reflected on his experience by saying:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’

Whenever I watch space documentaries and see the Earth as this gigantic unified object that we’re all a part of, I feel the same thing too. I’m sure you do as well. There’s always an element of profundity that seeps in when you notice that borders, countries, and territories are not natural features of the planet. Sometimes we need reminders that division is an invention, and not a given.

Aristotle said that man is a political animal, and we learn this truth at an early age. After all, the moment we are shown a map of the world, we are introduced to the reality of our political nature. Every border is the result of a conflict, a concession, an annexation. It’s the result of strife between two ends of a spectrum, and the victor is the one who draws the lines that signal this wielding of power.

A political mind is a categorical one, as it needs to understand which side holds this torch of power at any given moment. Nuance is a nuisance, as it only serves to complicate the picture. A clear outline of who is to be accepted and who is to be defeated comforts the political mind, primarily because strategy is best drafted when simplicity is at its peak.

But of course, any attempt to distill a person’s life into a blue or red dot ultimately leads to violence. Not because the colors rest on two opposing sides of a spectrum, but because this type of categorization leads to dehumanization. If the first thing you know about a person is that they support a candidate you hate or a specific view you detest, then the desire to befriend that person drops to zero. Curiosity is a liability in a political mind, and a mind that is devoid of curiosity often becomes a violent one.

In a sense, the realm of politics is unavoidable. Politics informs culture, and culture is the operating system we use to craft our values and norms. If you want to live as a functional human being in this world, you’ll have to understand how to move in relation to others, and this is defined by forces that are greater than any one individual mind. Politics is a top-down mechanism that applies subtle pressures on how we interact in the form of norms, and applies direct pressures in the form of laws. Even if you opt out of election cycles and never pay attention to Fox News or CNN, you will still feel the effects of political decisions in your day-to-day life.

Perhaps the most apparent way you’ll feel this pressure is in the form of general agitation from others. For example, there’s a reason why presidential election cycles generate so much fervor and chaos in both metropolitan and rural areas alike. For this concentrated period of time, millions of people are playing the Us vs. Them game together, and the result is far more consequential than something like the Super Bowl. Replace the reward of receiving a trophy with the crafting of public policy, and it’s no wonder why anticipation reaches its zenith during this time.

It’s in this context where the image of the Earth as a unified, borderless mass serves as a powerful symbol of wisdom.

The thing about the natural world is that there are no straight, defined edges to it. There are no geometric shapes in nature. Everything is a series of wiggles, and these wiggles make a mockery of our desire to draw straight lines through them. Mountain ranges are continuous, and desert stretches show no regard for clear boundaries. Fluidity is the only feature, and all this fluidity is contained on this one gigantic rock that’s hurtling through the universe.

The reason why we want to visit national parks or take treks through forests is because we want to experience this fluidity in our lives. We desire a respite from the endless compartmentalizing of both ourselves and of others. When we take a moment to take in the grandeur of a beautiful landscape, we realize that control is an illusion, and that all this categorizing of our goals and other people is petty and insignificant. Ultimately, it’s the recognition of this pettiness that’s the biggest lesson of all.

Personally, my involvement as a political animal is constrained to two simple things: I vote, and then I make an effort to listen. That’s it, really. Voting is my way of acting upon what I know, and what I know is dependent upon my ability to listen well. And when it comes to listening, I try to take in the opinions of those who would have disagreed with how I voted. Perhaps these people have something interesting to say that I may have missed, whether it’s due to my ignorance or my own biases.

But here’s an important caveat: I don’t listen to just anyone. The person has to be someone that also has the values of intellectual curiosity at the forefront, and also attempts to be compassionate toward those they disagree with. This is why I don’t pay much attention (if any) to conspiracy theorists, because they tend to use their words as a violent weapon of sorts. Anyone who speaks this way only seeks to divide, and any mind like this is essentially deadened gray matter.

My involvement as a voter and listener is my way of balancing the rigidity of the political world with the fluidity of the natural world. By voting, I actively contribute to the pressures that shape culture. By listening, I take a step back and observe the thoughts of other fellow human beings that are figuring this all out too. I have to categorize my views along party lines when I vote, but then I try to break down those walls once I reflect on how I may want to vote next.

What’s interesting is that a number of astronauts, some of which had similar reflections as Edgar Mitchell did in 1971, have become politicians themselves. In fact, former astronaut Mark Kelly (who said that “when you’re looking down from space at Earth, it really puts it into perspective that we’re all in this together”) is now a Democrat who holds a Senate seat in Arizona.

Here’s how I interpret this: Even if you’ve internalized the oneness of the human condition in a way that only a few people ever have, you still can’t escape the fact that you have beliefs about how culture should be shaped. So the antidote is not to deny that you are a political animal, but to accept that you’re a political animal who understands that we’re all navigating this conundrum together. By doing so, you reveal that compassion and conviction can coexist, and that a unified world is possible once we embody this paradox at scale.


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For more stories and reflections of this nature:

Knowledge Is Not a Thing

The Power of the Dissenting Voice

It’s Mainstream to Hate the Mainstream

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