Friday, May 29, 2015

Our Unique Age, A Tempting Falsehood

A while ago, I read an article "Another Signpost on the Road to Destruction" which argued, in a superficially convincing manner, that the mass media, embodied in the early newspapers in this specific example, brought about significant changes -- mostly for the worse -- in American culture. Even as I read it, it occurred to me that, though in some ways sounding quite plausible, this essay suffered from a problem I had identified some time ago. In my essays "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative" and "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events.", I argued that there our current cultural philosophy, which I characterized as being rather juvenile, has a tendency to make us see our own era as unique, and not just unique, but exceptional, a marvel for either good or ill, something that pushes the boundaries of the historical record. In some ways, the case I made in those essays is still quite valid, and helps to explain why I find such arguments as I have described less than convincing, though, before explaining why, I am afraid I must, to some degree, dismiss my own earlier arguments, or, at the very least, qualify them significantly.

The main problem I can see with my earlier argument is, in order to make my case for the detrimental effect of our worship of both youth and novelty, I may have overstated the role it plays in our excessive emphasis on the present age. After all, the tendency to see the present as somehow exception is not only a modern trait, or even a trait limited to the eras since the birth of Romanticism (which I identify as the progenitor of our modern world view), even as far back as the middle ages, or farther, into the classical era, there was a tendency to make of the present time something unique. Whether it was the biblical and Greek view that we lived in an especially debauched "age of iron", the early Christian belief in the impending eschaton, or the medieval view that the present was the last gasp of a world winding down, wasting away from a grand past populated by giants, there seems to be an innate human tendency to see the present as somehow exceptional, though oddly, for much of the past this was a tendency to see the world as especially depraved, rather than the more modern belief that we stand on the cusp of something wonderful. Then again, the philosophy is far from dead, as seen in the ecological belief in impending doom. it is less common, and in modern times often coupled with a belief in the impending salvation through some sort of revolution, but there are still hints of the older belief in an especially corrupt world.

This is not to say that the current embodiment of this philosophy is not colored by our neo-Romantic philosophy. As I said, the Romantic love of novelty has changed the emphasis from the present being the tail end of a world degraded from its primitive purity to a much more optimistic belief that this is the moment when everything comes together and creates some sort of optimal world. Likewise, in a very subtle way, Romanticism has also changed the emphasis of this belief. In the past, it may have been thought the present was part of a particularly detestable age, but it was part of, in most cases -- excluding special cases, such as the Christian belief in the impending return of Christ -- it was a part of the age, not the very end, while most moderns have a habit of imaging the end of history coincides with the end of their own existence, making the present day especially noteworthy. And so, there is still much to the case I made, though I must admit, I may have simplified it a bit too much, and ignored the fact that, to some lesser degree, the behavior described seems inherent in human perception. Romanticism may exaggerate this flaw in human thinking -- and I believe it does to a large degree -- but it is not the root cause, nor is the mistake I described limited solely to those holding Romantic beliefs.

Having said all of that, I can now begin to point out why, bearing in mind my caveat above, this mistaken perception -- whether or not it is related to one's personal philosophy -- can lead us to make some very foolish assumptions about the past and present, assuming some things we see around us are ills exclusive to the modern age, when in truth they have, in one form or another, been around for most, or even all, of human history.

Allow me to offer up one example that seems almost incontrovertible, yet only because we insist on ignoring quite comparable events. It is a commonplace of modern writing to decry the modern obsession with fame at all costs, and to couple that with a denunciation of the worship of celebrities, and to speak of them as specifically modern problems, unknown to past eras. And, in one way, this is true, actually in more than one way.

First, it is true in a tautological sense,  in that every age is in some ways unique. The era of Facebook and "likes" and reality tv and instant celebrities and the like is, quite obviously, incomparable to any other age, viewed in one light this age is of necessity unique. On the other hand, that tautological truth tells us little, as all the past ages were also unique, and yet we have no hesitation to compare the unique problems of today to the presumably more pedestrian problems of the whole of the past, in our comparison ignoring the uniqueness of every past era, noticing only the uniqueness of the present. And so, if we can admit, despite each era being unique in some ways, there is also some commonality to those eras making up the past, then don't we also have to admit the present too may have the same commonalities, and thus, despite the unique nature of some parts of the present, it is also part of the grand flow of history, and thus is also, in one way or another, comparable to other eras, meaning, while some aspects of our problems may be unique, in other ways, they are also cognate to prior issues?

Granting that point, we then reach the second way in which this argument is also true, that being the fact that, thanks to the changes that come with time, there are aspects of problems which are only possible in some given eras. The worldwide communication possible today, for example, has given the quest for fame an urgency and ease of entry that did not exist in most past eras, and has changed in many ways how we conceive of fame and notoriety. On the other hand, these are, in many ways, still simply changes in details, not in the underlying issues. Just as firearms and tanks and planes and missiles and nuclear devices changed many aspects of warfare, but left many of the underlying aspects of war recognizable to someone from thousands of years ago, so too the modern veneer added to many problems only serves to obscure the fact that many of those problems have had a much longer life than many would recognize.

Let us not look at specifics for a moment, but instead boil down this argument to its most basic form. What does it mean to seek fame? What is a celebrity? What does it mean to worship or idolize them? Fame is, in essence, little more than the approval of one's peers. To be famous is nothing more than doing something which others value, and being recognized for doing so. Granted, modern concepts of fame -- being famous simply for being well known, for example -- show a particularly vacuous idea of what deserves praise, but that does not change the underlying definition. (I grant that many moderns actually base most of their argument on the unspoken complaint that modern fame is based upon bankrupt values, rather than actually denouncing the quest for fame itself, but we will deal with that later.) To become famous, one must be recognized for doing something of worth, and to be recognized -- in most cases -- one must actually do whatever it is that society values. In other words, the quest for fame is not much different than the tendency in any era to seek the approval of one's peers. Granted, modern media makes the scope of one's peer group larger, and the changes in mores mean every era has a different idea of what is worthwhile and worthy of praise, but the underlying quest is fairly universal. It is hard to think of an era when one did not seek praise for good behavior. Even among groups superficially obsessed with modesty, men and women were praised for good reputations and virtuous behavior, in short, they were famous, at least in part, for trying to eschew fame, but they were still famous. And doubtless, even in those eras, others sought similar fame, though the need to appear modest probably made it tricky to obtain. (Though no worse than many eras where being cool meant giving the impression you didn't care what others thought. Odd to think Puritans and modern hipsters had anything in common, but apparently they do. Plus ca change...)

The same is true of celebrities. One would think from the way modern critics denounce our fawning over movie stars and singers that there were no comparable people in the past, that prior to Valentino, at the earliest, there was no one famous. Yet, fame is hardly a modern creation. Franz Liszt is often described as a prototype of the modern rock star, for example, and, while not exactly accurate, it does demonstrate how fame predates the modern mass media. Nor was he even the earliest example. The reasons one might be famous changed over time, with each era's values altering what was and was not considered worthy of attention, but in every age, in every culture, there have been celebrities of one sort or another. It is inevitable. Fame might be limited to a smaller radius, national or even regional legends, as opposed to the global celebs of today, but they were still there. Fame was not invented by Hearst, nor did it suddenly appear with the invention of motion pictures, and fame creates celebrities. Which, once again, shows the absurdity of those complaints about modern love of celebrities.

We need only change our perspective very slightly, for example, to find some pretty close similarities between, say, the modern celebrity worship and various periods in history when travelers would go on considerable journeys to visit various monks, column-sitters, hermits, and other potential saints. Not only that, but it is not hard to find many parallels as well between those who sought to emulate the extreme behavior of these would be saints and the behavior of modern would be celebrities. Granted, those who aspired to sainthood claimed they were moved by religious conviction, and likely many were, at least to some degree, but even if we do not suspect their motives, the fact remains that they adopted public modes of worship, such as column sitting, or public self-mortification, not only because they had religious aspirations, but because they sought the approval of their fellows. In short, like the worst of our modern Facebook addicts, so too the column sitters and anchorites also lusted after fame.

And the same is true of other supposedly exclusively modern inventions, such as modern panics, modern hysteria and over reaction and so on.

No, I will grant, in some ways modern circumstances create unique situations, because, as I said above, every era has unique aspects. So, for example, the modern 24 hour news cycle, with its need to fill time with something, and the tendency to make local stories national, has created the modern perception that there are numerous strangers going about abducting children, where, in truth, strange abductions are a pretty constant number relative to population. However, because we now hear of stranger abductions from all 50 states and maybe even abroad, where before we heard only of the local cases, if that, we imagine there has been a tremendous multiplication of such events.

On the other hand, if mass media has fed into some hysterias, it has also tamed others. For example, when foreign news was carried by letter or word of mouth, when it took weeks for news to travel from Moscow to London, and months to get to the colonies or early United States, it was quite easy for the most absurd rumors to persist, since confirming or denying the same would be almost impossible, considering the time involved. I admit, even today, people will believe some pretty silly things (I have written about a number of them), but what our credulous fellows (or perhaps we ourselves) will believe doesn't hold a candle to what many believed of foreign lands a few centuries ago. With travel rare, costly and dangerous, with news coming slowly and from unreliable sources, and even correspondence taking weeks or months, not only were the most absurd tales presented as fact, but they persisted for years, decades, even centuries, as there was simply no way for the average person to learn the truth.

And if we wish to speak of unfounded panics and worries, the modern age may have given us a number of examples, but let us not forget that in the past the term "witch hunt" was not always used figuratively. It may not have been quite as common as popular histories would have us believe, and may not have taken quite as many lives as some writers (especially ones critical of religion) suggest, but there still remains the fact that periodic mania for burning witches did exist, not to mention frequent outbursts of violence against Jews, gypsies, foreigners of all kinds, and any other group, usually prompted by some ill founded slander, or, at best, perhaps a single event which the popular consciousness exaggerated into a threatening conspiracy. So it is absurd to think such follies are the product of the modern age, of mass media or the popular press, just as the quest for acceptance and approval have made us eternally hungry for fame, so too had our tendency to accept overly simplified explanations, to find patterns where none exists also makes us prone to periodic manias and panics.

I am sure at this point I am being criticized alternately for being too much of an optimist and too much of a pessimist, seeing too little threat in modern ills, while espousing a pretty negative view of humankind. And in some ways I suppose there is some merit in both claims, though I think I can answer both. Allow me to deal with the optimism first.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, I admit the particular features of our age allow for some ills to take on unique aspects. For instance, the internet's tendency to duplicate the same information hundreds of times in hundreds of places means errors, absurdities and conspiracy theories of all kinds will appear more legitimate than they would normally, as they appear to enjoy massive support simply through duplication*. On the other hand, is this really all that different from the remote past when, because of the lack of travel, one's sources of information were limited to a few dozen neighbors, who generally repeated one another's prejudices? Obviously, there are great differences between the two in one regard, but in practical effect, the repeated lies of the internet don't produce any worse circumstances than the collective ignorance of an isolated village without outside contact. Thus, while admitting the modern world may produce some unique superficial traits, in essence, most human follies are timeless, and would exist with or without our modern society and technology.

Which brings me to my last argument, my attempt to dispel the appearance I may have given of seeing humankind in too negative a light. I will grant, in this essay I have tended to focus on the ignorance and folly of man, but that is only because that is the point of the essay. Of course, having said that, I must add that man, throughout much of history, even into modern times, has had a tendency to lapse into folly with alarming frequency. But that is almost unavoidable, if you think about it. Take any question, any problem, and look for solutions. The number of solutions which are "right", that is which accurately describe the situation, or which produce solutions which improve one's circumstances, are a tiny percentage of all possible answers. In short, there are infinitely more ways to get things wrong than right. Given that fact, the odds are against us from the start. The fact that we get things right as often as we do, that we manage to advance knowledge more often than set it back and collapse into barbarism tells me that human reason is an incredibly powerful tool. Even in ages rife with superstition and idiocy, we have managed to slowly claw our way forward and advance human understanding, and that fact alone fills me with hope.

Of course we will continue to make mistakes. Of course people will continue to hold foolish ideas, some maybe even will be accepted by the majority. There may even be times in the future where we will lose some of our hard won knowledge, either through collapse or through intentionally tossing it away. But, in the end, I have faith in man and think that, despite all his foolishness, all his tendency to make mistakes, all his delusional and destructive habits, man will continue to better his lot and continue to progress.

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* I wrote before in "Mystery Quotes" of the time I found a typographical error in Wikipedia that had been reproduced verbatim on over a hundred web pages. That alone showed me how absurd it is to rely upon "citations" on the internet, since anyone can post anything online, and, without fail, some page will pick it up and duplicate it, giving even the most absurd claims the semblance of legitimacy.

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