For some reason you’re questioning why
I always believe it gets better
One difference between you and I
Your heart is inside your head
— from “Changes” by Yes from the album 90125
Barack Obama campaigned on the promise of change, and right now culture and society is on the tipping point of radical and revolutionary changes. Why do I say that?
Technology. Although technological development has been a constant for the last 200 years, the rapid rise of new information technologies is certain to not only cause a radical transformation of politics and life, but may ultimately undermine the modern state system and global politics as we know it. Just as the printing press brought down the old system dominated by the Catholic church creating the sovereign state era, this technology will be just as momentous. But it’s not the technology alone that brings or shapes the change.
Globalization. This is obvious and often referenced so I’ll be short: global trade, global communication, culture clashes and a rapidly expanding world economy create unprecedented conditions world wide. The old system (and the old way of thinking) can’t handle it. (And, of course issues like climate change are all connected here).
Superpower blues. The Soviet Union already collapsed, and the US is struggling to maintain its position as the dominant world power. Yet with private debt over 100% of GDP, industrial production down, and public debt nearing 100% of GDP, the US is unlikely to continue its every upward climb without going through an economic restructuring. The US political system, however, is locked in partisan fights, while the public is so used to consumption without production that they see any kind of change in our ways as some kind of defeat. Moreover, changes in warfare make having a large traditional military less important than before.
Change in culture. To some, this is the scariest, and I think it’s the most important. Change is trumping long held traditions. For example, not that long ago suggesting gay marriage was radical — it was even seen as far out to propose civil unions. Now it is common place and spreading. The reason was crystallized in a ruling the other day overturning California’s proposition 8 banning gay marriage (though the case will be appealed). The judge, a Reagan appointee, went through the evidence and came to the inevitable conclusion that there is no rational reason to discriminate against homosexual couples wanting to marry.
They aren’t worse parents, children aren’t better off raised by parents of different genders, there is no damage to society, and no rational reason to deny them that right. In the trial, none could be presented by those arguing to keep the ban in place. Simply, more than ever before people are rejecting tradition in favor of rationalism. The only reason to deny gay marriage is “that’s just not done. Marriage is between a man and a woman.” That isn’t a rational reason, but one overtly pointing to tradition.
This takes us back to technology. The upcoming generation is not as attached to things that seemed “normal” and “natural” twenty or more years ago. They are living through tremendous change and have gotten used to it. They ride change like a surfer rides the waves. They may embrace a tradition for the sake of novelty, but more than ever in the past, they roll with the changes.
This isn’t exactly new. The enlightenment was built on the idea that reason and rational thought was trumping tradition and religion. This led to the downfall of monarchies, decreased power for the church, rising divorce rates, interracial marriage, the overthrow of slavery, giving women equal rights, etc. All of those things were the result of letting go of tradition when it seemed to have no rational basis to continue. Yet with globalization and the information revolution, change is spreading and increasing in speed and scope.
In Japan the young generation is breaking with traditions that just twenty years ago seemed to define Japanese life completely. In the Muslim world women are pushing back against oppression, and youth that Bin Laden wanted to recruit find themselves more drawn to what the market has to offer. Muslim conservatives fear western culture far more than they fear western bullets. And they should, this is a wave of change they aren’t going to be able to stop.
The so called ‘tea party’ movement in the US is a reaction to this change. For the most part, the fears of folk like Glenn Beck reflect the fact “America has changed,” and they want the America they grew up in. To be sure they idealize it, but they are sensing the same thing I’m describing: traditions are dying faster than ever, and change is speeding up. Could a Barack Hussein Obama have been elected twenty years ago? I think many people can’t comprehend that Americans are not standing up to stop this change, hence it must be from an evil liberal media or some group that ‘hates America’ and wants to destroy it by changing it.
This isn’t going to end. There may be political turmoil back and forth, and if the economy collapses instability could develop. Overall, though, we’re entering a new era of human history. I mean that. This is like the time after 1439 (when the printing press was invented) and people were just beginning to spread ideas and expand information. Then it brought the renaissance, rise of science, fall of the church and the enlightenment, as Europe leaped ahead of very one to dominate the planet by the 1800s.
This transformation is global in scope, and we’re about where the old era gives way to the new. Just as Gutenberg couldn’t imagine the enlightenment and Luther had no idea how he would contribute to religious change, people now really can only guess at where this might go. Traditions no longer have their hold. Universities, newspapers, television, sovereign states, and other institutions that seem permanently embedded in society will vanish if a rational reason does not exist for them to continue.
While some can rage against change, I think its better to embrace it, recognizing it has to be guided and can be negative. Rationality and reason are only tools, they do not provide meaning — and that weakness of enlightenment thought will only be magnified as global transformation unfolds. That’s why thinkers like Edmund Burke put so much stock in tradition: it is the glue that holds society together and provides meaning.
Yet humans need meaning and purpose, and if traditions are disappearing and reason dominates, there needs to be a way to look beyond pure rationalism and create or discover meaning. Or, to relate back to the song lyrics quoted above: We can’t lock our hearts inside our heads if we want things to get better.