Lowering the Bar (6/12/11)

What have been the long-term consequences of dismantling, discrediting, and dissolving the hierarchical and aristocratic elements within Western culture—in favor of the more egalitarian, anti-aristocratic mindset and value scheme we inhabit now? I suppose I don’t need to point out the fact that this is the only form of life known to most Americans living today. Are many of the cultural, educational, spiritual, and political conundrums in which we are collectively immersed bound up in some way or another with the systematic dismantling of formerly aristocratic values and hierarchical structures—an enormously important ‘cultural revolution’ that those of us living today had little to do with—since we have merely inherited these values and structures? We take them for granted, do we not? I am referring, of course, to a series of social and cultural revolutions (principally in Europe and here in America) which resulted in a general shift of power from privileged elites (within the Church and the traditional political institutions) to the common (white) man. The more recent extension of that power (and expanded social/personal freedoms) to women and formerly oppressed groups within society has simply been a continuation of that process which began, roughly, in the 17th century, leading to the French and American Revolutions of the 18th century, and the eventual decline or eradication of monarchical and ecclesiastical authority throughout the West.

Before it is assumed that, like some knuckleheaded reactionary or cultural ‘arch-conservative,’ I would have preferred that these momentous, ‘world-historical’ revolutions never occurred—and that the former sort of religious and socio-political elites were back in charge—let me disabuse the reader of any such unwarranted suspicions. I will be the first to applaud the fact that more men and women (of every color, race, and creed) enjoy freedoms and a level of material well-being undreamt of under the rigid old hierarchical way of things. Because these social and economic rights and benefits are all that many of us have ever known (since we never had to fight for them or make terrible sacrifices to preserve them), we tend to take them for granted as our birthright. As with so many other things, these rights and privileges came cheaply to many of us. Moreover, because so relatively few of us have ever directly suffered under the deplorable social, political, and educational conditions forcibly endured by our not so distant ancestors (and by many less fortunate persons living in cheerless and impoverished authoritarian regimes today), many of us simply cannot have any clear notion of just how fortunate we are to enjoy such exceptional conditions. And due, in part, to a conspicuous neglect of genuine historical learning and/or direct, immersive encounters with other less ‘developed,’ less free and prosperous contemporary societies, many of us here in the U.S. are further cut off from the sort of knowledge and experience which might help to correct our ‘innocence’ about such matters. Of course, in using the word ‘innocence’ I am politely avoiding the word ‘ignorance,’ lest—God forbid!—I offend anyone.

Americans are probably no more susceptible to irritation and indignation than a French or English or German citizen when he or she is apprised of his/her ignorance. Perhaps we are dealing here with a universally human characteristic—this touchiness we display whenever we have our ‘innocence’ rubbed in our faces. But at what point does such mental and experiential innocence begin to bear a suspicious resemblance to its nominal opposites—guilt, culpability, and complicity? Darn it, that’s the bloody trouble with speaking politely! Ultimately it covers up so much more than it reveals, while seriously devaluing the currency of meaningful discourse—our words. But an exploration of this worm-infested topic will have to be postponed to a later date, as we have more pressing business before us.

In the gradual but decisive replacement of its hierarchical, culturally aristocratic structure with the more broadly enfranchising democratic forms, it may be fairly claimed that the skeletal system of Western culture—considered here as an organism—has undergone some rather dramatic modifications. One could argue, figuratively, that because of these decisive changes to its skeletal system, the transformed organism is no longer able to stand upright as it formerly did, and must now sprawl out, as it were, upon an enormous couch. In the past—modeled as it was after the prevalent ‘great chain of being’ idea, where the ‘nobler’ elements are at the top and the broad base of solid mediocrity is securely positioned (sequestered?) below—the organism resembled a triangle with its wide base dug into the mud and its gleaming, pointed pinnacle aimed toward the stars. Nowadays, from a cultural standpoint, it would seem that the triangle is inverted, so that the wide base of mediocrity is on the top while the point (the ignored nobler elements—those who are presumably equipped to offer wise guidance and who possess a more comprehensive understanding) is below. This is a very unwieldy arrangement, by any way of reckoning. Some might even argue that wisdom and exceptionality (of heart and spirit) have ‘gone underground’ in order to shield themselves (and the rather special conditions required for their cultivation) from the neglect and abuse they reliably attract from the ‘innocent,’ whose clever spokesmen and cynical exploiters have indisputably seized command of the ailing organism that we, as individual cells of varying types, together comprise.

So, while this decisive shift from a vertical, monarchical-aristocratic scheme to a horizontal, democratic, popular-based one has involved a significant redistribution of power, we might have a difficult time arguing that power is managed more justly and responsibly today than it was under the earlier arrangement. The stakes are higher now, also, if only for the simple reason that the power at humanity’s disposal today—for good or ill—is incalculably greater than it was in the 16th century. Because the power for creation and destruction in the hands of humanity has so far outstripped our apparent ability to ethically assess and wisely manage that power, many of us live in a state of constant anxiety about the future, on virtually every front—and with good reason. The two world wars from the 20th century provided a pungent foretaste of what such unleashed power can do. The situation we are presently in is perhaps just as fraught with peril as it was one hundred years ago, when WWI was just around the corner—if not more so. As a species with such a shocking and sobering history behind it to examine and to learn from, we don’t seem to be much wiser or any more sensible than our ancestors from two, three, four, or five hundred year ago. And while we have access to all sorts of scientific and technological information that was unavailable to our ancestors, here in America we seem, in many obvious respects, no less barbaric and no more culturally enlightened—in terms of our moral, spiritual, historical, and social maturity—than most of our educated distant ancestors. The blame for this embarrassing and potentially explosive situation cannot be laid entirely at our own feet. The culturally regressive and philosophically bankrupt situation many of us are in has taken time to develop. As an organism, Western culture fell into a perilous state of decline quite some time before those of us living today came onto the scene, as I’ve suggested. Like children born in the Gaza strip or into the slums and shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai—children who become adults who know nothing different throughout most of their lives—we have been born into a cultural situation that is held together by aging and brittle epoxy cement that is evidently cracking and disintegrating. And this is all we have in the way of a dike between ourselves and the ever-rising tide of fears, anxieties, and aggressive instincts that swarm and surge within us. And are our so-called leaders truly leading us to safer ground? Are they outlining and implementing repair efforts upon these dikes and levees that still precariously shield us against outright inundation and infection by psychic epidemics? Or rather, are not these often self-serving mis-leaders and demagogues stirring up the very fears and fear-based hostilities that wise leaders have always sought to calm down, to dispel, and to master with courage and with nobler methods?

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