Last week’s post completed the cycle that started with Pulled by Values in January where, ‘I suggest that what the United States has represented in the world above all else is a set of values’ by noting that with mindfulness of ecology, ‘The values of consumerism are turned upside down; everything looks different from the other side of this abyss.’ It is an open question how the United States will respond to the age of limits. I would just like to add a few words about the larger, historical context in which this reevaluation of values is taking place.
The most corrosive inheritance from the mass mobilization for total war in the last century is a widespread perception that life is cheap. The value of the individual human life has been cheapened in the world of mass man entertained by mass media and kept occupied with mass production. Hero worship continues unabated but there is a sense that the really important events involve the activities of those powerful nation states that first arose in their modern form to organize whole societies during this total war effort.
As our involvement in the World Wars increased it did not take long for the republic of the United States to adopt a militant form. It’s important to recall just how quickly and thoroughly these changes took place. Factories retooled from manufacturing cars and washing machines to turning out tanks and munitions; text books were rewritten so word problems concerned themselves with logistics and other overtly militaristic subjects; women were drafted from the home to work the assembly lines while hundreds of thousands of men were hauled off to march on foreign soil. Altogether extraordinary amounts of material filled the seas once dominated by the transportation of trade goods; an estimated 17.5 million tons were delivered to the Soviet Union alone between ’41 and ’45. All these efforts had to be coordinated by nation states which saw the reach of their bureaucratic charter grow to encompass almost every aspect of society. Churches were enlisted, Bibles were sent to the front and thousands of “four minute men” we’re trained to speak out in public about the value of war bonds and the importance of the war efforts at home. All this was accompanied by media censorship and targeted propaganda which completed the psychological restructuring of social norms, aligning them with the economic and institutional changes.
Two lessons from this history lesson seem pertinent just now. The first is how quickly the total transformation of the society took place. As politics once again becomes bellicose we should remember how much difference just a few short months can make in the history of societies. The second lesson recognizes the deep wound this industrialized brutality created within the collective human psyche. With the nightmares in waking life of the bloody, muddy trenches and death camps human beings were remade in the image of the machines we thought we were the masters of. Piles of teeth with gold fillings reduce the human body to a resource; ovens and gas chambers process meat, not people with faces.
Today suicide bombers and school shootings have reopened this same wound. Targeting the innocent is designed to make human life look cheap and meaningless. During total war the civilian population was targeted intentionally for the first time. As horrific as that was, morally it was said to be in response to the fact that the whole society had been mobilized in support of the war effort. This is what historians mean when they talk of total war as a product of modern industrialized economies. Today however, though civilians are targets, there is no equivalent of the international hot war. Lacking this justification, admittedly weak over-generalization that it was, the acts of violence perpetrated against our communities just increase our sense of meaninglessness. When the German blitz bombed the UK the violence just increased the resolve of the British people to win against their despicable enemy. Our enemy and their grievances are not so clearly defined.
As we have seen, in the case of school shootings the enemy seems to be some sort of psychological anomie. What weapons are we to take against this shadowy evil? The complete inability of guns, knives and bombs to do the least bit of good defeating this enemy is a large part of why mindfulness plays such a critical role in our societies. Awareness of the issues, though complex and thorny, is our only approach that holds out any promise of making a real difference.
In the case of the suicide bombers we are told the use of guns, knives and bombs can make a difference and we go after strongholds of supportive infrastructure with all the fury of modern mechanized warfare; all in our pursuit of making the world safe from terrorism. Though we can disagree about how necessary and effective this violence is in the present circumstances, few believe it alone will bring about the changes in the world needed so that radical Islam no longer looks to be an attractive option for young Muslims throughout the world. Involvement in fundamentalism seduces the understanding with easy answers until only death dealing remains a meaningful gesture.
Our societies find themselves ill equipped to deal with this tide of nihilism. When God was in his heaven we could almost believe not a bird fell from the sky unnoticed. We humans, though somewhat wayward children, had a loving father watching over our every thought – that is how important we were! It is not hard to see how this faith was translated into ‘life makes sense; do good and good things will happen to you, God guarantees it.’ Things are not the same now. That naivety of faith did not survive opening the gates of Treblinka and Auschwitz and the unleashing of the destroyer of worlds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After that, fitting our species experiences into such narratives feels forced and false. True believers unable to escape this element of disingenuousness cling just that much more desperately to their overly simple theologies. It has never been easy to admit that bad things happen to good people. Desperate faiths breed desperate measures.
In 1945 as WWII came to an end and the world saw the camps and tallied the war’s carnage, the global human population stood at 2.2 billion. The impersonal smoke stacks and assembly lines of big business managed to carry on non-stop by inventing consumerism, the mass market for their expanded industrial output. The U.S. republic was reformed around the military-industrial-complex as large bureaucracies were reassigned roles for organizing the masses. Bureaucracy is government without a face; just try and get a bureaucracy to change one of its pronouncements if you want to experience their amorphous nature first hand.
Seventy years on and the human population has grown ever more massive, weighing in now at just over 7.1 billion souls. The impersonalization has proceeded so far that today faces are little more than icons attached to sound bites and Twitter accounts. Think Steve Jobs and Apple, President Obama and healthcare, the Kardashians and. . . Well you get the point. People reduced to product are made 2D, like our ubiquitous screens. These icon + sound bite products can be intellectual – left, right, religious, scientific – but they remain products.
In spite of the pervasiveness of the life-deadening flatness of mass man, that faceless target of utility calculations and polling, each individual experiences their own world as inescapably 3D, inescapably rich in emotion-filled cognitions and immediate sensations. The citadel of the individual remains untouched by the delusional perceptions created by viewing the world through our 2D screens. Valuing these things, we are not afraid to talk about them; caring and cooperation increase by publicly talking about compassion, everywhere and often. The mass media message, where it pornifies violence and mayhem and where it encourages mindless consumerism, is actively proselytizing the set of harmful values that embody the tide of nihilism.
Where is the recognition in the public square of the full dimensionality of mankind? Where are the vast reaches of caring and compassion, cooperation and kindness celebrated? Mass man lacks the dirty, loamy compost of our profound emotional pain and wonder. Lacking that, we are left with a sterile image of our potential in our antiseptic, man-made echo chamber.
These are topics I believe we are adult enough to discuss in public even though many of them involve unsavory aspects of the human experience. We don’t need to repress all discussion and remembrance if we are not convinced man-as-beast is the last word. By not burying our heads in the sand we have the best chance of dealing skillfully with the choices our times present.
In these essays ‘our times’ is almost a technical term. We will begin looking at what it refers to next week.