Change

Presumably liberals are, by definition, progressive in that they push for the new and regard change in and of itself a good thing. So I’ve been told. I must conclude, then, that I am not a liberal, since I do not think change is a good thing, necessarily, and am not “progressive” in my thinking. Rather, I am “old-fashioned.” I am more Tory than Whig on many topics, especially education and child-rearing. Not so much on social and political issues, however. My conservatism, if such it is, does not extend to wealth and power, which I regard as something to be divided rather than hoarded. I have always thought people were more important than profits. I worry that ethics get lost in the frenzy to make more profit.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that progress in medicine has prolonged life and, indeed, made my so-far long life possible. I have had a number of surgeries in my lifetime and am currently dealing with several medical complaints. Years ago I would be dead by now.

But aside from that, I can’t think of any changes in my lifetime that suggest progress, which is to say, movement forward, an improvement in the hurly burly of everyday life. Instead I see around me people in a tizzy, lost in their electronic world pushing buttons and ignoring the real world around them which, if they looked up, they would realize can be quite stunning. The artists among us, and there are still a few, keep reminding us; but increasingly their pleas fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.

The steam engine found itself squarely in the middle of the garden during the industrial revolution, and the noise it made drowned out the sound of the birds and the gentle stream at our feet. Our ears can no longer pick up the soft sounds of the real world that surrounds us. Then came “progress,” and now we wallow in noise and confusion, dizzy and disoriented. The steam engine has run amok.

But, one of the most insidious factors in the brave new world in which we live is the entertainment industry. I have come to fault that industry, among others, for many of the ills of present-day society. It creates a make-believe world that invites people to escape from reality which, generally speaking, they have a weak hold upon to begin with. And that hold weakens as time goes by. This has allowed so many people to buy into a flawed presidential candidate who promised them the power they feel when they play video games, folks who feel a deep need to build up their tottering self-esteem as they admire a president they can identify with and attend occasional religious ceremonies that assure them they are really good people.

But, ignoring for the moment the deluded state of such people, think about it. Things happen faster these days and so many us fail to see what’s going on around us. We don’t even look around. Moreover, we are convinced bigger and faster are good things when, in fact, slower and smaller are often to be preferred. I am fond of quoting a passage from one of George Eliot’s novels in which she says she sometimes prefers when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

That pretty much sums it up. We simply assume that the new is better and that progress inevitably follows upon change of any sort. This is surely not the case. At times we need to stop and look around and think about the “crumbling, picturesque inefficiency” we have lost sight of in our hurry to get somewhere else.

I am fully aware that “the good old days” were full of pain and suffering. But, then, so are the good new days. And the really sad truth is that we are now much more aware of the sufferings of others, not to mention the planet itself, and we simply look away because we are too self-involved to care. It is not a formula for happiness.

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Progress?

We tend to be a bit smug here in America. We are convinced that we have made huge strides over the rest of the world that has been left behind in our tracks. Our technical wizardry is at or near the top of the pile, we have licked most communicable diseases and have the most powerful pickup trucks. In a word, we are more intelligent and just plain superior to the rest of the world — especially the so-called “third world” which we disdain, confident that they will assuredly never catch up with us. Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Perhaps. But I doubt that there are many out there that doubt that those with the highest IQs in the world are the product of the industrial revolution that arose in Europe and soon was capped off by American “know-how.” Is it possible that this is all bollocks?

In a recent book written by the biologist Jared Diamond titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, these pretensions are called into serious question. Diamond will have none of it. In fact, he suggests that our technical wizardry, for example, has placed us behind undeveloped countries we like to think of as “primitive” or “backward” precisely because it is leaving us passive and without a thought in our heads.  Speaking of the folks in New Guinea whom he has come to know well, he rejects the notion of genetic superiority in the West on the grounds that our medical advances have resulted in a shallower gene pool than those “backward” countries that have developed natural immunities, noting that

“Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections. . . and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems procuring food.”

In a word, intelligence is likely to be greater in those societies where the struggle to survive weeds out those who cannot “think on their feet,”  than it is in those medically advanced societies where those with low intelligence survive and  reproduce. He goes on to argue that

“. . .there is a second reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

Now, bear in mind that this was written in 1997 before iPhones and iPads became attached to virtually every child in this culture. The development of these electronic toys, many of which are now required in the schools — even, in some cases, provided by the taxpayers — has surely added grist to Diamond’s mill. These toys increase the inactivity and passiveness which he rightly associates with reduced mental development — of the left-hemisphere of the human brain, at least. I say “rightly” because all the data we have, including brain scans and MRIs of the human brain, reveal a lower level of activity while watching essentially passive media such as television than they do when being told stories, for example.

We like to think we are somehow an “advanced” civilization and it will not readily be accepted in this culture that we are not — and that those in a “backward” culture such as New Guinea could actually be smarter than we are. But, then, most of us don’t like to accept the evidence about the role humans are playing in climate change, either.  Indeed, we tend to turn away from unpleasant truths, especially since we have become convinced that progress is an inherently good thing, that if something can be done quickly and easily it is ipso facto better or more advanced than another way of doing things that is slower and takes more effort. This is a conviction that goes deep into our collective psyches and all the research in the world will almost certainly not convince the majority of us that what we call progress is in fact taking us backwards.

 

In Search Of Soul

I have made passing references to Carl Gustav Jung’s remarkable collection of essays titled Modern Man In Search of a Soul. The book is exceptional in so many ways, but in particular it provides a great many insights into our current cultural malaise and takes us closer to an understanding of its causes. For example, it is a sobering thought to consider that despite our considerable scientific progress and the immense gains in material well-being and health care, we might in fact be poorer than our predecessors. Our blind conviction that the passage of time necessarily entails “progress,” that the latest is the best, may well be a fiction. In one of the later essays in the above book, Jung contrasts our modern age with the medieval period which we tend to equate with blind superstition, brief and painful life spans, and widespread human suffering. Jung suggests otherwise:

How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe, encircled by the course of the sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. Such a life no longer seems real to us, even in our dreams. Natural science has long ago torn this lovely world to shreds. That age lies as far behind as childhood, when our own father was unquestionably the handsomest and strongest man on earth.

The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness. . . . And while man, hesitant and questioning, contemplates a world that is distracted with treaties of peace and pacts of friendship, democracy and dictatorship, capitalism and Bolshevism, his spirit yearns for an answer that will allay the turmoil of doubt and uncertainty.

It is hard to accept the notion that our world may have regressed rather than progressed, hidden as we are behind our piles of material goods, expecting relatively long and painless lives, and diverted by all our electronic toys. But it is worth pondering. The possibility that those who lived in more austere times might be happier than we are was suggested about thirty years before Jung by Henry Adams who visited Chartres and Mount St. Michel in France and came away with the conviction that medieval men and women found peace of mind in a coherent, unified world contemplating eternal verities and devoted to the Virgin Mary. This, according to Adams, rendered their seemingly miserable lives spiritually rich and rewarding, and allowed them to pursue the immensely difficult challenge of building impossibly tall cathedrals, which took generations to complete but always kept their attention directed toward a better world.

One must wonder if our world-view, focused as it is on the present and built around the notion of linear progress and material success, might not be poverty-stricken. Perhaps, after all, we are all worse off for having bought into the notion that this frenzied, incoherent world of ours has brought us closer to the ideal of human happiness. One reads blog posts like those of my friend “Z” in Ecuador and one wonders whether those simple people in “third world” countries are not indeed much happier than we in spite of their poverty and lack of material goods. It’s just possible that those folks know something we don’t.

Civilization at Risk

Ortega y Gasset thought that civilization is above all else the “will to live in common.” I referred to this claim by Ortega in a previous blog and want to return to this notion in a second. But I also want to evoke the authority of Clarence King who was a close friend of both Henry Adams and John Leslie Powell and who insisted that there is a natural “pilgrimage” in the development of human societies — from savagery, through barbarism, to civilization, and finally vulgarization.

The notion that humans evolved from savages (a word that is no longer politically correct, even if it connotes a stage in human development) to civilized humans with religion, art, literature, written history, language, and science is most provocative. All of this, of course, takes place in the name of “progress.” But the claim to the superiority of the “civilized” has come under fire of late as we learn that savage and barbarian people have a culture that in many respects is superior to that of “civilized” people. Indeed, we are now being sold the fiction of the “noble savage,” a notion that has long been around but which has become ever more prominent as colonization has come under fire. I find the notion of the “noble savage” borderline absurd. But the notion that we should impose our way of life on others rests on the assumption that our way of life is paradigmatic, which it most assuredly is not. In saying this, however, I seriously doubt whether even the most zealous among us would want to trade our “civilized” way of life for a more primitive one. The notion that we have progressed does seem to hold water, though I sometimes wonder if the “pilgrimage” that King talks about isn’t circular: we end up pretty much where we started from.

There is something to say for civilization, for art, music, science, and above all else language. But it does seem that in our urge to “tame” the wilderness, bring railroads, highways, airports, towns, and commerce, we have also brought the vulgar, and the next step may indeed be a return to the level of the savage. King doesn’t deny the possibility: the steps we take may not be linear, they may be circular. We do appear to be regressing, not progressing. What we are doing to the wilderness is inexcusable. But what we are doing to ourselves is even more distressing. Without language, sophisticated language, not just grunts and gestures, we cannot think. And thought at this time is absolutely necessary for our survival as a species. The “will to live in common,” that Ortega speaks of is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as we lose self-restraint and the good manners that take others into account.  Our sense of trust in one another, not to mention our basic awareness of others, is in retreat. The cause of this regression, in my view, is the weakening of the pillars of a civilized society: the family, religion, civil law, and the schools. These four institutions are essential for civilization to stand firm against the tide of self-interest and greed which foster the regression that is apparent. And while we remain, for the most part, a law-abiding country, the other three pillars are weak at the foundation.

I don’t say that we should bottle Western civilization and sell it to other “savage” or “barbarous” peoples. On the contrary.  But we should not allow it to vanish altogether. We should be aware that we are on the verge of becoming if not savage then barbarous ourselves — if we haven’t become so already. Jacques Barzun thought it was happening in the 1960s and warned us to lock up our treasures. The Romans were invaded by barbarians who brought about the fall of their empire. We are breeding our own with the failure of three of the pillars that support this civilization. I can’t believe this is a good thing.