The shell game of postmodernity

This week I’m drawing disparate threads together from recently digested media.  Hopefully these will inspire some critical thoughts on worldview, whether it be your own or of those around you.

In anticipation of the first Hobbit movie, my wife and I re-watched The Two Towers and The Return of the King.  This insightful quote by Gandalf struck me:

The old wisdom that was borne out of the West was forsaken. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry or in high, cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin. The line of Kings failed, the White Tree withered, and the rule of Gondor was given over to lesser men.

Can you think of a place like this?  Perhaps the ivory tower of the academy.  Or better yet, Europe.  This image captures the predicament of the post-industrial world.  There is a concerted effort among elites of the “West” to unlearn its culture and traditions.  The great project of social democrats in Europe, Canada, Japan, and beyond has built an edifice that’s more a civilizational masoleum than a regime to edify humanity.  This is the modern welfare state.

Rather than be bothered with commitments of marriage, the raising of children, and the fruits of free enterprise, people are more concerned with securing their siestas and thirty-five hour work weeks, to the exclusion of the dwindling numbers of youth annually pouring onto the unaccommodating labor markets.

And even those jobless youth lap up the same tired ideas.  I recently caught a few episodes of Portlandia, the sketch comedy that pokes fun at a city where the young move “to retire.”  The program, often crude and in keeping with the laughing-at zeitgeist of The Daily Show, illuminates nonetheless.  In gentrified cores of our cosmopolitan metropolises an army of grown kids paste pictures of birds on objects to self-soothe and are more concerned for the welfare of animals than of children.

This inversion of priorities gets to some of the news of the day.  We have a citizenry that is more concerned about feeling good than getting it right.  And so the silly story that Obama’s pardoned turkey ended up being euthanized anyway.  It speaks to the lesson that liberal intentions don’t guarantee results.  Take heed the next time a politician proposes to spend some trillions to end poverty, restore jobs, or save the environment.  That which was to be prevented will probably pass, and we’ll only have more debt to show for it.

All the while, the ethic uniting the masses of the well-intentioned is tolerance, or as is often seen on California bumper stickers, the relativistic imperative to “Coexist.”  But everyone’s got a dogma in the fight.  Just look at the controversy of Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s GQ interview.  Being asked what he thought the age of the earth was, he ducked with “I’m not a scientist, man.”  In this day, scientism–a narrow view where science is the only deliverance of truth–is a cudgel secular liberals deploy against any threat to getting absolutely everything they want.

Yes, the 24-7, self-reinforcing materialist culture is ascendant.  To quote another sage of Middle Earth, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

There are baby steps.  In the hopes of starting an apologetics study group in my church community, I’ve been scouting William Lane Craig’s On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision.  The second chapter launches a reductio ad absurdum, a negative apologetic that comes from asking, what would be the implication of God’s nonexistence?  Dr. Craig notes Jean-Paul Sartre’s concession that life without God has no meaning.  Yet, he took up for himself Marxism.  The choice was subjective and merely arbitrary.   Without an objective point of reference, no life lived can be both happy and consistent in its worldview.

The great work of reshaping society to foster lives both happy and consistent remains before us.  Humanism will only find its logical end in a re-commitment to the sanctity of marriage and a valuing of children.  The partnerless Julia will discover her Obama-daddy culture to be utterly unsustainable.

There is a parallel reformation in showing that fulfilling livelihoods come not from the cold top-down transactions of the welfare state, but from an embracing of free markets under the rule of law.

There are those who will try hard to thwart this course correction.  A culture of relativism enables ultimate shell game.  If we point out the shell that holds objective truth, whether it be policy or morality, the Phrygian-capped ideologue can deny it or question whether there is even a game going on.  The task for the civic-minded will be to figure how to effectively expose and counter such silly moves.

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Democracy of the dead

What is democracy of the dead?  No, it has nothing to do with zombies voting Democrat.  Although recently a dead dog did receive a voter registration form.  What I’m referring to comes from that emir of aphorisms, G.K. Chesterton.  Consider this idea from Orthodoxy (also available as a free PDF):

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

That those many souls who came before us might not have been complete fools is a refreshing perspective in our age of progress for progress’ sake.

Chesterton–himself now among the dead–enriches our idea of tradition with literary wit.  Meanwhile, Thomas Sowell  provides us a more rigorous understanding, by way of broad philosophical survey in A Conflict of Visions.  Looking to English arch-conservative Edmund Burke, Sowell posits “the constrained vision” : a philosophy that directs human society to seek “cultural distillations of knowledge” within the confines of a “tested body of experience.” The idea is not a mere impulse to conserve tradition, but an acknowledgement that wisdom flows down naturally and systemically through culture, from one generation to the next. Between Chesterton’s democracy of the dead and Sowell’s constrained vision, we glimpse what may be the most appropriate definition of conservatism.

Not everyone is so fond of tradition. There are those invested in seeing each generation break free from the tyrannical chains of its ancestors. Consider this inscription at the Jefferson Memorial:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Progressives should be quite fond of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking here. He speaks of humanity’s “progress” and how it will “advance” from a “barbarous” state.  Just as he took scissors to his least favorite parts of the Bible, there are those today all too eager to make their own redactions to the traditional moral fabric.  Take New Atheist Sam Harris.

In a 2011 debate on the foundations of morality, Harris dismisses the God of the Bible as a mere “Iron Age god of war.” His epochal delineation recalls the popular formulation that certain Abrahamic belief systems may have been tolerable enough for goat herders or a pastoral society, but are utterly unsuitable for our modern age.  A bit later in the same debate, Harris insists that anyone today could come up with a moral code superior to the Mosaic law if given five minutes’ thought.  So much for his estimation of past wisdom.

Whether inspired by the Enlightenment or the New Atheists, there’s no question modernist arguments hold serious sway over the contemporary mind.  But postmodern sensibility won’t tolerate the sweeping assumptions.  For all the aspersions the modernist might cast on the dead of generations past, the postmodernist would be right to call him “judgmental.”

The critique is rooted in history.  From gas chamber genocide to the threat of thermonuclear annihilation, the distinctives of the twentieth century disabuse us of the naivete that mankind is steadily rising above some past state of barbarity. To characterize people long-gone as “barbarous” or less thoughtful than those living today is to ignore a twin loss of epistemic and moral confidence the world has yet to recover from.

Where does that leave us?  We were never without hope.  Harris’ debate opponent, philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig insists on the way: backward, not forward.  Modernity is overly confident in its presuppositions.  Postmodernity is quite useful at deconstructing worldviews, but not so helpful with building up a shared body of knowledge.  If we want to access the lasting truths about human existence, how to live, and how society was meant to be, we need to recover a premodern worldview.

Just think.  We’re all here kicking and alive today.  All those dead and buried folks of past generations must have gotten something right.

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