Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

the great turningThe Great Turning
By David C. Korten

Narrated by Sandra Swafford


Respect is certainly earned by David Korten. Korten is a 75-year-old Stanford graduate, former visiting professor at Harvard, and social activist with credentials as a Vietnam’ veteran, and 15 years tenure in Southeast Asia as a business development consultant. Life experience gives Korten intimate understanding and earned credibility when writing about imperialism and its neglect of human rights.

An avowed liberal feels like Brutus justifying the murder of Caesar in criticizing “The Great Turning”. Shakespeare’s Brutus said, “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” Korten loves his idea of the great turning more than he acknowledges the real  state of the nation.

There is much to agree with in Korten’s book. The gap between rich and poor is wreaking the American dream. Money corrupts the election process and becomes more medium-of-repression than measure-of-success. Human natures’ habiliments are destroying the world’s ecology. Global warming is real.

Where Korten’s train-of-thought jumps the tracks is in cherry-picking historical events to fit his idealistic belief in a human awakening that will create “The Great Turning” in imperialist cultures.

Thomas Jefferson was no saint and Alexander Hamilton was no devil. They were human beings with their own visions of what was good for America.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1755 OR 1757-1804)
ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1755 OR 1757-1804)

Thomas Jefferson was born into the ruling class; Alexander Hamilton was born poor and illegitimate but each rose to fame with Jefferson recognized as a man of the people while Hamilton was seen as a representative of the rich and privileged. The truth of their lives paints a different picture.

ca. 1860s, Near Savannah, Georgia, USA — Slave Family In Cotton Field near Savannah — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Jefferson was a slave owner that treated his slaves as property and bequeathed their servitude in his last will and testament. Hamilton was an officer in the Revolutionary War that craved a combat command while serving as George Washington’s right hand man, an indispensable administrative officer.

Jefferson talked the talk in the U.S. Constitution but he did not walk the walk.  Hamilton created the precursor to the Federal Reserve; without which the American government and independence would have failed.

Korten’s firsthand knowledge of the use of money, both public and private, to corrupt and indenture nations is disgusting and is reasonably argued as an extension of an imperialist mentality. However, the word is not the thing. Call it imperialism; call it whatever name fits your argument. It is fundamentally human nature.

Pinker does not deny that nature and nurture make us who we are but he argues that balance between genetics (nature) and environment (nurture) is distorted; genetics are under valued and environment is over valued as human nature’s source.

Human nature is the key to change; without dealing with the reality of both good and bad in humankind, change will not occur. As ugly as corruption of money is in life, it will remain a medium of value. “The Great Turning” will or will not occur based on how money reinforces good rather than bad behavior. Greed is not going to magically disappear.


Government is perfectly suited to mitigate greed. It will not eliminate it.

Working on the issue of money’s corruption in politics will become a priority to all Americans; not just the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  Growing literature about corporate greed, lobbyist control of electors, financial indebtedness of nations, and financial institution regulation will re-educate the public. As the public becomes more aware of how it is personally affected by money’s corruption, Korten’s great turning becomes a more plausible possibility. As the public’s ox continues to be gored, it will eventually act to preserve its life.

Global warming becomes more real every year. Whether rich or poor, the devastation from global warming will scare the world into action. As fossil fuel resources decrease, prices increase. Like cigarette and fossil-fuel addictions, the economics of paying an exorbitant price for a pack of cigarettes or a gallon of gas, will compel a great turning.

Human behavior changes when compelled by externalities that affect their lives. The American Revolution occurred when Americans were taxed without representation. Women began to become more equal when WWI and WWII needed more able-bodied people to work in factories and keep home fires burning. Slavery was legally eliminated by the civil war. Equal Rights became the law of the land when Rosa Parks boarded a bus and Martin Luther King said, “I Have a Dream”.


All of these sociological changes were great turnings in history but they were accomplished when the pain of public goring reached a tipping point. Women and minorities still suffer from inequality of opportunity because the tipping point for further change is yet to be reached.

Korten is correct in suggesting that “real” change occurs from the bottom up; not from the top down.  The revolution’s tea party, the working-women’s movement during the great wars, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were all “great turnings” that started from the bottom.  “Occupy Wall Street” boils in the same cauldron of despair as these earlier bottom-up movements.  That cauldron is still boiling.


Korten over-simplifies America’s role in the world. His book is written before Syrian conflicts rise to the level of moral turpitude with gassing of its own people. Not knowing whether Syria’s President or the Taliban are the perpetrators of this horrendous act, America is handcuffed. What support should be given the Syrian government? What support should be given “Syrian” revolutionaries?


Is the world making the same mistakes in Syria that it made when Jews were being slaughtered in Germany? Can America stand by without doing anything? It is one thing to suggest “boots on the ground” is an act of imperialism.  It is another thing to suggest supporting whatever government exists (or is more democratically elected) is morally correct.  Syria is a complex issue with no simple answers–whether imperialist, or bottom-up believer.

“The Great Turning” is happening but it is a giant ship; with miles to go before it changes direction. Korten’s book is, at best, a tiny bolt in the ship’s steerage and one wonders if American government evolution will progress fast enough to forestall revolution.

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