There can be nothing more frustrating than trying to explain something to someone who cannot perceive it. It is not that they will not; if they had that kind of decision on their hands, they could understand. Not did not; they simply lack the ability to, now or forevermore, process the kind of detail required. This type of thinking is not detail-obsessed, but it require that one build a mental picture of the future based on many tiny details, because, and I hope this isn’t a news flash, life rarely spells out its plans in big bold letters on the wall in front of you. All myths to the contrary, life is plenty happy to let you wander right up to disaster and linger by it for awhile until, figuring the coast is clear, you take one too many steps and BOOM, it comes crashing down on your ass.
When I tell people that modern society has a great and pervasive disease, the common response is either (a) I don’t see it or (b) well, I’m doing okay, so why would I worry? The former is at least honest; the paradoxical bitterness of relativity is that it doesn’t excuse one for not seeing the truth, but admits that most people literally have limitations as to how much complexity they can handle, and thus what they can perceive. An idiot sees a house on fire; a genius sees a fire extinguisher in one corner. The second group of people need more analysis, as they claim to have knowledge of impending doom, yet paradoxically, claim it does not affect them. A genius sees a house on fire and gets the fire extinguisher; an idiot simply closes the door to his room – out of sight, out of mind.
So here we are in the world where no one can perceive how deeply screwed things may be. There are thousands of details that must be correlated to see the whole picture. Most people can’t drive a car through an intersection in a timely manner, or figure out routine transactions. They are distracted by their own drama, and thus they screw everything up and take forever, then get weepy if confronted. The streets are lined with giant, ugly buildings in which impersonal agencies dole out rigid policies and god help you if you’re an exception. Government takes in money and sends out fines and prison sentences for gross violations. Those who are smart avoid the law while ripping people off, legally, and thus have the best of both worlds.
Few notice, but we’re steadily consuming more nonrenewable resources. There will be no more gasoline; there’s a finite amount. Most people cannot even comprehend that sentence to understand its implications. There is no more land that is going to be created; there is only so much land, and we use more of it each year. Everywhere one looks, the signs are there, if one knows what to look at. Jobs are hilarious shuffling of papers and conning of fellow humans into believing one illusion over the other and, thus approved, transferring one sum of money into another. People live for empty, pointless lives. The highpoint of their day is often television, or consumption of products. Interpersonal relations consist of attacking others and trying to drag them down to make yourself feel better. What kind of life is this?
One thing that astounds any sane observer is how people are isolated mentally in modern society. For example, today I saw some guy in a wheelchair selling candy at an intersection. He’d pull up right beside cars and sell you M&Ms for a couple bucks, a 100% markup for the size, and made his living that way. What was worse was that people would stop and buy candy, holding up everyone behind them in line – while they had a green light. It must be amazingly peaceful to be aware of nothing but yourself. And this same critique undoubtedly applies to people who cut down ancient forests to make clones of apartments that exist in ten thousand other locations, or people who dump toxic waste in rivers or junk in empty lots, or people who write those clever cellular phone contracts that ensure that no matter what you do, it’s wrong but there’s an extra charge that will make it all right.
This is the face of modernity. There’s no way to tackle a specific issue in it, because the whole thing is wrong. Sure, we could make rules about stopping at intersections, but then you need a cop in every intersection to enforce that rule, or people learn they can get away with it, most of the time, thus they don’t change the behavior. Similarly, we’d have to assign an infallible cop to every single person out there to prevent littering, toxic waste dumping, or sodomizing rape. Even worse is that no matter how many rules we write, there are always new ways to do something that is technically legal yet completely devoid of moral consideration for society and nature as a whole. You can make sodomizing rape porn illegal, but someone else will find something legal that’s similar and will market it, and they’ll be cheered on by those around them because hey, everyone loves money.
Modernity is the cause of this. We often think that our time suffers because it has no unifying philosophy, but the situation is even worse: our unifying philosophy is one of making no decisions. Instead of having a government you trust, you have the “freedom” to escape actions by your government, since it is assumed that you and the government will never come to accord on a sane way to live. You wanted a sensible job? Too bad – it’s more important to have competition so that if your job sucks, you can devote the next month to finding a better one. Let the jobs that suck continue to exist, so long as we have the freedom to choose a lesser degree of suck. We’re so afraid of legislation that we resist any restrictions on development, so if people destroy your neighborhood by covering its forests with concrete, your can move to a less-destroyed neighborhood.
Inevitably, such systems spiral out of control, because of two principles: relativity, and time. Relativity is a problem in that you can find something that sucks less, so you pick that instead instead of fixing the problem. Time compounds that by introducing a succession of greater suckstates, and you keep picking the lesser suckstates, until at some point the less-sucks sucks as much as the original, and you still have no recourse to change it – you’re looking for something that sucks less, instead. Everything affected by this model is a vortex of decreasing standards that eventually culminates in either apocalypse or third-world-style anarchy. But remember, you need that “freedom,” because instead of fixing the problem and creating a sensible government, we want you to be able to defend yourself against all governments.
This is clearly diseased reasoning, if looked at from an architectural perspective, but since such things don’t pay, no one does. No one is willing to target the whole of modernity, for at least the simple reason that it makes change a seemingly large task. I think it makes it a simpler task, as when we’ve found out where we went wrong, we can systematically replace those beliefs with something healthier. But in a modern time, we’re used to external ways of change. Use money as a carrot, and the law as the stick; “educate” (brainwash) people, or make them sign off on decisions like bureaucrats. We understand force, and treating humans and nature alike like machines, but we don’t understand internal motivation, or how we could actually make people understand what they do and why. Reversing this attitude would alone undo modern society, and would give us a clear and relatively easy path of change.
William Faulkner treated this subject tangentially in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech way back in 1950:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat…Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands…I decline to accept the end of man….I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
The gestalt we find by combining the many details of society’s failing shows us that things are not well; things are diseased and destructive. We are oblivious to them not because we ignore the details, but because we pay attention only to certain details, and we do this because modernity more than being a “thing” is a state of mind. We look at the external forces we can impose, the qualitative measurements we can use, or the ways we can manipulate each other and thus feel clever about ourselves. These are passive ways of looking at the world, and as they don’t encompass all of it, they constitute only a certain segment of its detail, and leave us oblivious to the larger picture.
It’s time we stop shying away from declaring war on the modern world. The effete greens demand we recycle more, and stop drilling in national wildlife refuges, but that won’t stop this tide. The neo-Nazis tell us to kick out all other races, but that won’t fix the problem itself. Democrats wail on about social issues and wonder why no one takes them seriously except in boom times, and Republicans periodically give lip service to traditional values so that their weapons sales and oil profits can be unimpeded (Democrats seem to have no problems with these profits, either). None of these groups offers a comprehensive solution, because none of them will say the obvious: the system of thought known as modernity has failed, and over the last 400 years, has increasingly led us into a disaster from which it’s hard to extricate ourselves, because the illusion upon which that disastrous system is founded now controls our thought process, and thus has us asking the wrong questions and missing the obvious.
The war in the human soul is not being fought over specific issues, or political allegiances, but over the courage to take on this task; the courage to start seeing our society for the sham that it is. What happens when an individual picks up on this process is an avalanche of increasing disbeliefs. Suddenly, the saccharine feelgood messages of commercials and government announcements are seen as what they are: distractions from reality. Issues like abortion, Terri Schiavo’s right to live, and civil rights are seen for what they are: smokescreens to distract from the big picture. All of the drama of our personal and work lives, which fills our hours so thoroughly we’re always “too busy” to read Aristotle or Faulkner, is seen as the emptiness masquerading as meaning that it is, and we realize that the reason we pursue it so fanatically is the same reason a heroin addict chases the next fix in desperation: once the illusion is gone, we need more, or we have to face the naked reality of our lives.
Running from fear never got us anywhere as a species, or as individuals. If we face this fear, and conquer it, we can start attacking the real enemy, which isn’t Republicans or Negroes or Corporations, but our own lack of a meaningful philosophy. We can throw out the empty philosophy of modernity and instead achieve something greater. This would end our isolated personal worlds in which we alone matter, but those haven’t brought us joy – have they. They’ve clearly brought us greater environmental destruction, more tedious jobs, and more interpersonal politics of a revengeful and snipish nature. So what we’re losing, that reality which is comfortable because it’s familiar, isn’t anything to be mourned. With modernity falls the illusion, and to fill that space, we need to return to a life based on meaning. Step up to that challenge and declare war on modernity today.
Tags: consumerism, individualism, liberal democracy, modernism, modernity, solipsism