If there is one thing that can be said for certain about human beings it’s that they are ambivalent, conflicted, and contradictory. What they think and what they do more often than not has very little to do with one another, because human beings want to eat their cake and have it too. But often enough we choose one thing and don’t realize what we’ve lost until it’s gone. That’s the story of modernity in many ways. We choose freedom and we lose tradition; we choose science and we lose our natural sense for the sacred; we choose Wal-Mart, and we lose our towns and local, community-oriented businesses.
We choose when we think there’s something to gain, but we always lose something, too. That’s just the way it works. But if the modern period, the time roughly marked out from 1500 to World War I, was primarily about rejecting the restrictions that came with an authoritarian, theocratic, feudal hierarchical society, the postmodern period will in large part be about retrieving what the modern period rejected, recovering what the moderns thought not worth keeping. But, and this is the important thing, it has to be done without at the same time losing the great modern values of freedom, individuality, critical consciousness, and innovation.
The idea that Americans are the freest people on earth is an essential part of American identity and central to its sense of national pride. Whether Americans are indeed freer than Swedes, Canadians, or Australians might make for an interesting bar-room discussion, but the important thing is that Americans embrace freedom and choice as their most cherished value. It trumps all other values. In the mainstream public imagination anything that constrains freedom is bad; anything that promotes it is good.
But as with anything, too much of a good thing becomes a problem. As Barry Schwartz argues in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, the presumption that the more choices people have the more free they feel and therefore the happier they will be is just not true. The psyche shorts out when it is confronted with too many choices, and this creates problems that are hard to see because it just seems counter-intuitive to believe that fewer choices would be better because fewer choices means less freedom. Having more choices can’t possibly be a reason behind anyone’s unhappiness.
But the problem with freedom as Americans understand it is that it promotes social fragmentation rather than community. When people have a choice, they do what they want. All things being equal, if the typical human being is given the choice between a bowl of spinach and a bowl of ice cream, the smart money will be on his choosing the ice cream. And the same dynamic applies when it comes to choosing between being free or being restricted by traditional norms and codes necessary for traditional community life—they’re going to choose individualism and freedom over community and restriction. Americans say they value community, and long for it. But that’s not how they behave.
The fragmentation that characterizes American social life is a direct result of people feeling dissatisfied with this or that lifestyle, religion, spouse, geographical location, political philosophy, value system, etc., and moving on to choose or create another one. Such a social dynamic promotes innovation, choice, change, but it shortchanges people in their need for depth, connection, warmth. The American choice-centered lifestyle has created a social world where more and more people are feeling isolated, disenfranchised, and lost. They don’t want to give up their freedom, but they don’t like feeling so disconnected. They may join communities for a while, but at best it’s a provisional arrangement. Sooner or later “it’s time to move on.”
The research shows us time and again that few Americans belong to stable, homogeneous communities. They participate in several, moving in and out between them. The center of gravity is not the community but the autonomous individual. In traditional societies, the community always comes first. In traditional cultures one’s sense of self, one’s values, one’s entire worldview is a given, a pre-established meaning framework that the individual has no choice about and it’s a framework that resists mightily any attempts to change it. Nothing could be more different from what mainstream American society has become.
This kind of social fragmentation that comes with a choice-centered lifestyle isn’t something that just happens out there in the public social world but right at home and within more and more American families. How many families sit down and share the same meal? It’s just assumed that it’s better if everyone gets to choose what he or she wants rather than eat what everyone else is eating. If there are other choices available, what difference does it make if a frozen lasagna or a frozen enchilada gets microwaved. Nuke them both; let people have what they want. Or chances are, when the kids reach their teens, they’ll just fix what they want to eat for themselves when they’re hungry to eat it. No need even to sit down to eat together even if what everybody eats is different, people are increasingly inclined to graze all day according to their own eating rhythm.
How many middle-income families now have more than one television that gives different family members different options to watch the show of their choice rather than to sit together and watch whatever’s on? With the enormous proliferation of channel choices, does anyone expect anymore that the water cooler conversation at work will be about a show that everyone saw the previous evening? Sports these days seem to be the only kind of culture-wide event that has resisted this kind of choice-driven fragmentation of interests. And yet what could be more different than the worlds of the millionaire athletes and the fans who watch them?
Freedom and individuality have always been in a precarious balance with tradition and community. People want both, but the balance is hard to find, and in American culture since the sixties, there has been a greater-than-ever emphasis on freedom and liberation from the constraints of community and tradition. But as suggested above, we want to eat our cake and have it, too. But mostly we want to eat it, and when it’s gone we miss it. And we want it back, and some of us might romanticize how wonderful it would be to live in a traditional community, but when it comes down to it, few are willing to pay the price to live in one. Traditional communities are something people live in when they don’t have other options. The restraint and discipline required to live in them are the opposite of what most Americans think they need to live freely and happily. It’s like most people’s response to public transit. Great idea, but not for me. Takes too much time, too many limitations on one's freedom.
This is not a conflict that began in the 1970s; it’s been a long time in the making, at least for five hundred years in the West, and it’s what scares the spit out of traditionalist Muslims, because they see that as soon as the choice-centered lifestyle typical of Americans and other Westerners gets a toehold in their traditional societies, goodbye tradition, goodbye community, goodbye everything that they hold sacred. Because the mullahs know that the West is offering their people ice cream, and their traditional spinach dish can’t compete. It would take enormous personal discipline or group cohesiveness to resist. No wonder they think of us s the Great Satan.
Resistance will occur here and there, but in the long run, maybe even as soon as the end of this century, traditional cultures will all but have disappeared. This assumes there won’t be some cataclysmic ecological, political, or economic catastrophe that could send us all back to the Dark Ages, but it will otherwise be a gradual generation by generation global transformation. Why the inevitability? Because choice-centered societies and tradition-centered societies are completely antithetical, and the more choices people in the developing world are given, the more quickly will their traditional way of life be destroyed. The temptation to eat something other than spinach will be too strong. In the long run these local traditional cultures merge into what looks like it will be a global fusion culture.
I think that a key theme to frame at least one aspect of the changing American lifestyle is the idea that as the developing world modernizes, the modern world will be "pre-modernizing." This is what I mean by retrieval. Americans, while they cherish their freedom, also feel that something is missing. This profound longing in certain precincts of the American soul to restore this “something” that has been lost is explored in an interesting way in Tom Cruise’s recent film, The Last Samurai. Cruise plays Nathan Aldren, an American ex-Civil War and Indian Wars veteran hired by the Japanese government in 1876 to modernize/westernize its army. He’s portrayed as a fearless a warrior who nevertheless feels the need to drink away his shame because of his participation in a My-Lai-like massacre of innocents during the Indian Wars.
His story is one of finding his soul and restoring his honor after spending time in captivity with the Samurai tribal leader, Katsumoto. During his captivity he was forced cold-turkey to stop his drinking and to eat his spinach; he found out it wasn’t half bad, and he chose to keep eating it. He’s someone who recognized that there were refreshing spiritual depths in this ancient traditional culture that he had been asked to destroy. So, like Lawrence of Arabia, he goes native, and becomes its defender.
This is ultimately a story meant to contrast the nobility of the chivalric, premodern warrior vs. the mechanized, soul-less affair that modern warfare was becoming, but it’s really about so much more than that. The entire dramatic movement of the film is driven by Aldren’s longing to recover what the modern
world no longer affords, and which the film suggests can only be found in a
traditional way of life.
The film illustrates the urge for “retrieval.” Retrieval runs parallel to the historic dynamic that’s driving change in the developing world. As the developing world modernizes, people in the developing world seek to retrieve and preserve what is being lost—to "pre-modernize", but in a post-modern idiom.
People born today into traditional societies don’t have any choice about it, but as they become increasingly aware of other options available to them, most if given the choice will choose to modernize. Though cultural conservatives would like to, Americans can’t go back to a tradition-structured society in which the culture is a unified world of pre-established traditional meanings. You can't go home again, in this sense of the phrase.
A choice-centered culture cannot coexist with a tradition-centered culture except insofar as the former tolerates the latter as subculture, like the Amish, Hutterites, or Hassids are tolerated in the U.S. American conservatives who extol free-market capitalism while at the same time excoriating American society’s loss of traditional social norms are astonishingly naïve in their assumption that the two can go together. They never have and they never will. It’s just another case of wanting to have your cake and eating it, too. But somehow or another this is a tension that must be resolved.
Because while there is no possibility of the mainstream culture returning to a traditional way of life, the longing
that drove Cruise’s Nathan Aldren to make his choice is one that resonates with many Americans. For they long for what was lost in modernity’s destruction of the traditional. The option that is still left open to Americans is “retrieval,” which is like Nathan Aldren’s choice for the traditional, but instead of going to where there is a traditional culture, you retrieve the parts of a traditional culture you admire and bring them here to where you are—you integrate elements of the traditional into a contemporary, post-modern, post-secular, choice-centered lifestyle. And in time a consensus will develop about what is worth retrieving and what is not.
In other words, as cultures in the developing world modernize, there will be a continued and probably increasing interest among Americans and others in the already-developed world to retrieve the premodern elements in those cultures that are being lost . We see it already in the increased interest in Asian religions, martial arts, Chinese medicine, shamanic ritual, in the celebration of aboriginal art forms. I’d argue that the body piercing, tattooing, rap, raves, fight clubs, street gangs, and any number of trends popular among the young are driven by this longing to retrieve the cake that earlier generations ate. They are all driven by the longing to break out of the anonymity and isolation which a society that overemphasizes freedom has created. And they seek relief in primitive traditional forms whose origins more often than not lie in premodern cultures.
In the short run this is an eclectic, often superficial, syncretistic, trendy cultural phenomenon. But the longing behind it is real. And this blog is about exploring what it means for religious and political life. For it is, when everything lines up in the right way, which it may or may not do, the basic social dynamic for renaissance. For retrieval is an essential social dynamic driving any renaissance, large or small.