Thursday, July 8, 2010

Our (Post)modern World

I can't believe what I'm hearing...

Is this where you find yourself? Is it hard to believe what you hear, or read, or view on the internet, or the radio, or the TV? Is reality a big shell game, and description of it a giant con?

I've blogged recently about how hard it is to find trustworthy sources, people or institutions that you can believe in to give you honest, accurate information and advice.

In thinking further about this, I've concluded that what we're seeing today in the United States, and to an only slightly lesser degree in other countries, is another consequence of the rise of the Postmodern mind.

"Postmodern" is a term that has a checkered history. It's been decried as nothing more than a buzzword that is meaningless in itself. It's also been used by various social critics and philosophers to describe sometimes contradictory interpretations of recent and current attitudes and beliefs.

I'm going to proceed from the notion that it describes, however generically, a real phenomenon that needs to be named if we're to get a handle on what is happening in our society.

My understanding of the postmodern world is that it is one where the notion of objective reality has been devalued, where those who proclaim that "reality" is this way or that way are viewed with suspicion, and where everyone is skeptical of the motivations of those proclaiming a "reality." In other words, a world that is a natural for the creation of conspiracy theories, the more elaborate the better.

Does this sound like the modern American landscape, political, social, economic?

We don't trust our government. Incumbents are in danger of being voted out of office. Government agencies are routinely criticized for being clueless about their assigned tasks. The government can do no good, even as we depend on it to do those things we're powerless to do individually.

We don't trust our institutions. If a school district wants to teach science, battle lines are drawn between advocates of Intelligent Design and Darwinian evolution, between proponents and opponents of human-mediated climate change, between adversaries arguing about nature and nurture in how human beings develop. Churches engage in partisan political activity - wink, wink, nudge, nudge - even as they try to maintain their tax-exempt status. Social activists, political parties, lobbying organizations, all are routinely targeted and painted as racist, socialist, communist, fascist, sexist, agist, whatever-ist.

We don't trust corporations. Politicians apologize to British Petroleum for being abused by the Federal government, financial reform is filibustered by a Republican Party that is against everything the administration does, even as Wall Street investment bankers enjoy extremely low approval ratings among the population. Apple introduces the iPhone 4, and immediately gets sued for reception issues concerning its antenna design. Even as workers at the American automobile companies go to work each day, other people bitch and moan about the bailout money that was used to save two of the Big Three car companies. The notion of working for one company for your entire career is a quaint memory, rapidly fading in light of unemployment hovering around ten percent, and underemployment much higher yet.

Our political landscape is in disarray. The Pledge of Allegiance reads thus:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

People sue to have "under God" removed, because it's an "establishment of religion." People are skeptical at best that there truly is "liberty and justice for all" under the existing government. And "one nation... indivisible" - do you honestly believe that any more?

What brought us to such a pass? Is it just the political climate, or is something deeper working against us?

World Wars I and II showed us that science, far from being the genie that was going to make our lives something close to paradise, was capable of ending all our lives, in new and horrible ways.

The Great Depression showed us that investment bankers and speculators could drive any nation into a pit from which it would be hard to climb back out. Out of the vengeance applied to Germany after WWI, and after the Great Depression, Nazism was almost inevitable.

Vietnam showed the United States that we could be defeated by a small, entrenched, and determined foe, willing to suffer years of privation and loss if they could but maintain their commitment to ultimate victory. Since 9/11, we've faced just such a foe again, in militant Islam.

In other words, the comforting assurances of the Modern world have been scuttled by real-world events, and shown for the sham that they are.

The current political climate in the US is just another in-your-face example of the kind of disruption and discord that the Postmodern world exhibits. In other words, it is an inevitable consequence of this time in history.

Where does that leave us? If you're a believer in the Man from Galilee, then you can draw some comfort from what he says. If you're not, then you can attach yourself to one polarized position or another. I don't think it really matters - Liberal or Conservative, Tea Party or MoveOn, you're subscribing to a blindered view of the world, and you can't help but see only part of the landscape. You won't have reasoned discussions or debates about important issues. Instead you'll call the other side names, use bumper-sticker phrases to echo your disgust with their views and actions, and work like hell to get your side in office, in power, forever and ever, amen. Cynical political operatives and "entertainers" will stir this pot to advance whatever side they're allied with, not caring one whit for the social disruption and even disintegration it produces.

Again, if you're not a believer, what are you to do, to survive this time of struggle, and make some sense of it? Can you just turn your back on it and do mindless things to entertain yourself until you die? Can you zone out and let yourself be tossed this way and that by forces that you can't control? Do you react with tried and true kneejerk platitudes, and just dismiss the whole frickin' mess? What's your answer?

I don't know what the next phase of our present social malaise is going to be. My prophetic gift seems to be on the fritz at the moment. Post a comment - they'll be moderated, so stay on topic - and offer your opinion. Let's get a conversation started.

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