No place for Non-Conformists

Nonconformism has a respectable history. According to Wikipedia:

Nonconformist was a term used in England after the Act of Uniformity 1662 to refer to an English subject belonging to a non-Christian religion or any non-Anglican church. It may also refer more narrowly to such a person who also advocated religious liberty. The term is also applied retrospectively to English Dissenters (such as Puritans and Presbyterians) who violated theAct of Uniformity 1559, typically by practising or advocating radical, sometimes separatist, dissent with respect to the Established Church.

PresbyteriansCongregationalistsBaptistsQuakers (founded in 1648), and those less organized were considered Nonconformists at the time of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Later, as other groups formed, they were also considered Nonconformists. These included MethodistsUnitarians, and members of the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army! It’s hard to believe they were once considered a radical group. But it’s hard to argue with history – although some will try.

In this posting I will try to show that a new conformity has gripped America – all the more insidious because few are aware of it. It might be called the conformity of corporatism: our latest religion. One of the dogmas of this new religion is uncritical acceptance. Of what? Of itself, of course.

One of the hallmarks of modern society was critical thinking. And one of the hallmarks of a non-modern society has always been uncritical acceptance of the way things are. This is the kind of society America became in the Fifties. I can remember it well – and I certainly did not like it. And it has taken me this long to understand what was going on. It was simply a return to normalcy: to a non-modern world – the world mankind has lived in most of its existence.

This new world, the post-modern world, is different, however: it has the latest technologies, but the oldest social structures: repressive and hierarchical. In other words: like China, which has concentrated on increasing wealth, but neglected human values entirely. This is the wave of the future: 1984 with a twist Orwell could not not possibly have anticipated – since it depended on technologies that had not yet been invented.

Allow me to illustrate how this change worked with an example from my own history: its effect on the church I was born in, and which all my family, expect myself, still believes in – even though it now longer exists in its previous form. Back in the Forties, it still believed it was the one true church, that all the others were wrong, and it was going to save the world! Modest pretensions, but not uncommon for the time Mormonism appeared: the early 19th Century. At the time, all kinds a strange religions flourished: the Shakers, for example. These were not tolerant times: the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, was killed by an angry mob. But nevertheless all kinds of deviant behavior existed – including prominent free-thinkers, such as Emerson and Thoreau.

America was becoming more democratic all the time. The slaves were freed and women got the right to vote. This progress stopped late in that same century with growing power of industrialization and capitalism. Populism and the union movement tried to stop it, but were unsuccessful. In the next century, the New Deal tried to stop it, but was also unsuccessful.

After WWII, everything changed. Financial independence, via the small business, especially the family farm, was no longer possible, and Americans were forced to work for large organizations, where they became organization people: something new for Americans – but something most embraced eagerly. One side-effect of this change was complete conformity – which they accepted uncritically.

This sea-change made our little church (the Missouri Mormons) unacceptable, and it had to stop being non-conformist – which it is not done very well.

“But what about the Mormons,” you may ask, “How come they are so successful? They are certainly different.” Yes, they are, but they are different with a difference, one that allowed them to survive, and even thrive. After they went to Utah they were a different as they could be – but they gradually woke up and decided to join America after all: they accepted the inevitable, and became as conservative as they could be: the ideal employees for the new economy. Companies, and especially all our security agencies, love to hire them: they are hard-working and honest. Even Howard Hughes spend his last days with them. A Mormon will never be president, they are still considered too strange for that. But they are the fastest-growing church in America – and you can’t argue with success in America.

America has no enemies

This may strike you as insane, but it is true. We have no external enemies to amount to anything. Why should anyone be our enemy? Who wants to end up looking ridiculous like Osama bin Laden?  9/11 was such a success, publicity-wise, how can it be improved on? And if American wants to bring its own troops to Iraq or Afghanistan, they make fine targets. Why go all the way to America? Everyone knows America is a declining power, so why worry about it?

But this last point is exactly what bothers Americans. If we have no enemies to speak of – like when had the USSR – and this implies that we are not important anymore ourselves – an idea we cannot stand.

So we create enemies, and pretend they are going to rape us in our beds – men and women both.

Extravagant Expectations

I recently got The Image by Daniel L. Boorstin from my mailing service. It was so busy during the holiday season it only had time to move packages from its terminal in Miami to its office in Cartago. The rest of my mail will have to wait until later. I took the book home and put in on the table with many other books. This morning, I picked it up to glance at the first page. It was this:

In this book I describe the world of our making; how we have used our wealth, our literacy, and our progress, to create a thicket of unreality which stands before us and the facts of life. I recount historical forces which have given us the unprecedented opportunity do deceive ourselves and befog our experience.

Of course, American has provided the landscape and has given us the opportunity for this feat of national self-hypnosis. But each of us individually provides the market and the demand for the illusions which flood our experience.

We want and believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations. We expect too much of the world. Our expectations are extravagant in the precise dictionary sense of the word – “going beyond the limits of reason or moderation”. They are excessive.

The making of the illusions which flood our experience has become the business of America, some of its most honest and most necessary and most respectable business. I am thinking not only of advertising and public relations and political rhetoric, but of all the activities which purport to inform and comfort and improve and educate and elevate us: the work of our best journalists, our most enterprising book publishers, our most energetic manufacturers and merchandisers, our most successful entertainers, our best guides for foreign travel, and our most influential leaders in foreign relations. Our every effort to satisfy our extravagant expectations simply makes them more extravagant and makes our more attractive. The story of the making of our illusions – “the news behind the news” – has become the most appealing news of the world.

We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more than the world can give us or than what we can make of the world. We demand that everyone that talks to us, or writes for us, or takes pictures for us, or makes merchandise for us, should live in our world of extravagant expectations. We expect this even of the people of foreign countries. We have become so used to our illusions we mistake them for reality. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid. They are the world of our making: the world of the image.

Non-Being and Destructiveness

“To be or not to be; that is the question.”, said Hamlet. But he could also have said “To create or destroy; that is the question.” They amount to the same thing, because being, or  individuation, is a creative act that every person has to perform for himself – or not. The simplest choice is often simply not to be – to abdicate responsibility for our most important responsibility, simply because this is what our society demands.

In a previous posting I said our society was evil, and people thought I was using unnecessarily harsh language. But any society that destroys its members and itself, and probably other societies too, is evil – the worst kind of evil.

At this point, I may be getting a lot of blank looks that say “What the hell are you talking about, crazy?” This is because the idea of a self has been forgotten – one of the basic ideas that formed the modern world. The post-modern world has waged war on this idea, along with other modern ideas – and it has won, without even much of a fight. We are returning a high-tech version of the medieval world. To see what this will be like, we only have to look at China, who is far ahead of us this way.

You may respond by noting how successful the Chinese economy has been. True, and if that is the only criteria: to be a rich totalitarian state, that is the way to go. We are pretty far along that road ourselves. There is only one catch: the loss of the self – and, as it turns out, the loss of the earth itself. It amounts to the same thing.

Objective Reality

We are losing our awareness of objective reality – because subjective reality is so much more attractive: we can make it be whatever we want it to be.

Mankind has always believed that the real world was not our everyday world. Something else was running the show. Originally these were the spirits: the animating forces that resided in everything: animate and inanimate. Our first specialists were those who could communicate with them: the shamans. Much later, these evolved into Gods and Goddesses who ruled over us in a capricious manner – and religions to serve them. The Hebrews consolidated the many gods into one God: a male. But the situation was still the same: outside forces ruled the world.

Then something strange happened: we began to think that we, by the use of reason, could understand how the world worked – without the intervention of religious authority. This was called the Reformation, and it started the long, painful, violent process that formed the modern world. Part of this process was the Scientific Revolution: where people discovered Objective Reality: a reality where Scientific Laws ruled the world – not the supernatural beings we had believed in before. Humanism, another movement in this era, emphasized the importance of human achievements, and therefore of humans themselves. Our belief in human rights comes from this era: the belief that all people have rights that cannot be denied them.

The discovery of the objective world coincided with the discovery of ourselves: territory which did not exist in the pre-modern world. We also discovered objective morality, and began to insist on honesty as something absolute, and not relative – as it had been before.

All of this had an unintended side-effect: affluence: something new in the world. And this affluence, which was largely due to the exploitation of fossil fuels, made us forget the discovery of the very thing made us so affluent: objective reality: which by definition is a reality that we must conform to, not one we make ourselves: that is, subjective reality.

We can no longer tell the difference – and most amazingly: we have also lost our sense of ourselves as individuals. We see ourselves as part of a group (a tribe), just as we did in pre-modern times.

This plays out in the larger world as our refusal to accept climate change, because it is inconvenient for our subjective belief in everlasting growth.

Murderous Idealism

One of mankind’s worst faults is the tendency to idealize. The key philosopher here is Plato, whose idealism became incorporated into Christianity, along with the Jewish notion of an ideal, all-powerful God. As Islam has correctly noted, adding Jesus to this pure mix was a perversion. But Christians don’t see it this way, and are perfectly happy to slaughter anyone who disagrees with them. Idealism is murderous and needs enemies to destroy. But its main enemy always turns out to be itself, and it self-destructs.

This approach has now morphed from a theology into an ideology, with business being our new religion. But the attitude is the same: the market economy (previously referred to as capitalism) will solve all our problems – if we only allow it to take over completely. The same approach used by the Taliban.

We still haven’t learned that the more perfect the answer, the more horrible its consequences.