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Indistinguishable From Magic

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Sometimes events conspire to reveal an essential truth. If you are a Liberal or Progressive, your world view is dynamic and unlikely to be anchored to just one point of reference, one point of view, one set of cherished beliefs. If you are a conservative of most any stripe you are more likely to be anchored, as it were, tethered, and in fact bound to a set of axioms about life and how to live it. Not all Liberals and Progressives are eager thinkers, and not all conservatives are mired in outdated dogmas, but even those of either camp who can chew gum and walk, tend to flinch one way or the other about the idea of modern life being better. Liberals instinctively lean into a new idea or point of view; conservatives lean away, more or less shielding themselves ... and their long held belief systems ... from the hard radiation of change.

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.

In fact democratic voting is and always has been a problem in western cultures as well. In the U.S. the question of whether we have a democracy is answered by conservatives with the retort: "we have a republic, not a democracy."  Liberals and Progressives quickly answer "democracy," even though they know that our form of government is a representative rather than a direct or "pure" democracy. They answer "democracy" without the trepidation that Ayatollahs and American conservatives have, because they easily understand the essential principle that belief systems are directly and inherently related to the material bases of culture. A sharecropper may vote for a policy to provide irrigation in fallow lands. As soon as his material condition changes because of that irrigation, the sharecropper's view of the world changes.  It evolves. The conservatives want this to happen slowly, if at all; the "progressives" are there already, chafing at the present, leaning into the next future.

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.

There is no guarantee that evolution can proceed without periods of revolution. The American Revolution was the culmination of a very long process begun in the Renaissance and given strong vocabulary in the Enlightenment. The continuation of the American Revolution, the strong discord and divisiveness we see today, has many backed up against their principles ... both sides ... with tantrums flying and demagogues making little fortunes stoking the prejudices and fears of the minority. In Iran, though, the minority is the progressive side, invidiously more successful, but self-aware of the discrepancy.  The evolution in both countries must be accomplished from within, yet there is a commonality that should not be overlooked. Progress will come when the conservatives no longer fear the emergent future and its unfamiliar things! Does this not suggest that progressives and liberals in both countries need to learn how to persuasively communicate fearlessness and confidence in the future!

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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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