I had a subscription to Popular Science at age ten or twelve. Back in the 'fifties this was a magazine dedicated to modern life and particularly technology. The editors had no idea how completely technology would change American and ultimately everyone's lives, but they were optimistic. The transistor is a good example, an invention which when first devised was a thing about the size of a Chiclet. It quickly replaced vacuum tubes in a variety of applications, radios and telephones particularly. Now the size of one transistor is almost a laughing matter. They are hardly visible they are so small, with hundreds and thousands fitting in the space that the first ones occupied, produced en masse and so inexpensively that they are deliberately disposable. Transistors were at the beginnings of one of the current accelerations of the magic of progress that has divided our culture and the cultures of half the countries of the world. Transistors represent a form of invisible electronics about which few people have a minds eye understanding. In this sense the technology in a modern home is for all practical purposes indistinguishable from magic. This is not a new thought, but I wish to put it into a slightly different, perhaps new, perspective.
The mind's eye seeks a lens through which to observe the world and its people. The lens of "progress" has its blind spots and distortions, to be sure, but the lens of tradition, although it appears to be clear, undistorted, and reassuring is that way only because the experience is always very much the same. The curious thing is that Liberals will inevitably settle for a while on ideas and points of view, just like conservatives, but they are restless and do not reify them and take them to be final. Conservatives, having conducted periodic inventories of what they like and what frightens them or makes them uncomfortable, have trouble projecting an idea of themselves into new situations. Yes, they are often comfortable in complex situations, but the more uncertain outcomes become the more stressed become the conservatives. If they cannot see themselves living in New York City for more than a couple of days, they simply write off New York City and reify Middletown, which is much less complicated and much less likely to present them with difficult choices and contingencies. The conservative jet fighter pilot masters his machine, but has no time to understand his town and its people, so he establishes "dogmatic" benchmarks that reassure him that his ideas are "reasonable."
So, the countries of the world are amalgams of people who are futurists or traditionalists to one degree or another. Iran, for instance, is a country where the gulf between "liberals" and "conservatives" is wider than in the Netherlands, for one example, and the traditions of the conservative groups in Iran are respected through a process of religious kinship. In fact, the kinship is something of contrivance, a public illusion, growing out of the necessities of a waxing and waning material progress. Put more straightforwardly, cultures like the Iranian one are deeply riven, with robust "progressive" values supported and enunciated by a vigorous and dynamic minority, while traditional values are given credible lip-service to avoid civil unrest. The actions of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the current circumstances is understandable, given that as a cleric his world view is essentially based on traditional values, that his understanding of modern technology and the life it creates is minimal ... (but envious). Democratic voting is an anomalous activity to clerics. One does not vote on Allah's creation or ideas. The idea of democracy has a long way to go in Iran.
There was a book reviewed in the Sunday New York Times this past weekend entitled "No Smiting", Paul Bloom's feisty review article on Robert Wright's new book, The Evolution of God. "No Smiting" draws out the essential point that the Abrahamic religions' deities have evolved right along with the cultures that gave rise to them. Yahweh smote, Jesus (whether trinitarian or not) does not smite, in the course of 1200 years the followers of the Prophet Muhammed have evolved from bloody scimitars to ... what more genteel form? This is the essential question for Islam. The middle class citizens of Teheran and hundreds of other modern Muslim cities across the planet have evolved to a more abstract and less tribal view of civilization and their religion has evolved accordingly. But even if they understood it perfectly, most Muslim clerics do not have the courage to express themselves in the same vernacular. The very same thing obtains for the current and many past Popes of the Roman Catholic Church. In the U.S. and elsewhere, religious conservatism aligns with political conservatism in search of the answer about what will become of us in a culture of Change. The answer already evolved by the urban progressives and liberals ... a more abstract view of God and importantly, of the evolution of culture and world views correspondingly. In other words, a more tolerant and optimistic view of the course of history.
Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and Frank J. Sulloway's "Born To Rebel" are clear markers along the path to understanding the contest between modernity and tradition. From these two accounts it becomes obvious that these contrasting impulses are part of the human condition. They are not political planks or perspectives. They are not religious tenets or dogmas. They are, nevertheless, present and kicking within the expression of religion and politics. The kicking is the working out on small scales the evolving of a culture.