Unification News for January 2000

A Matter of Scale

Tyler Hendricks
January, 2000

By the nature of the newsprint medium, before the millennium turns I am writing the article that will appear after the magical midnight has passed. It seems to me that the real excitement about this transition peaked about a year or two ago. It peaked for me when the digital clocks counting down the hours started appearing. Life has a continuity to it that defies abrupt changes, especially when one is active.

And yet change is in the air. In Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe there are huge displacements of populations wrought by war. One of our American national messiahs recently returned from Africa with reports of large numbers of our members losing their lives in the former Zaire. He continued by describing horrid assaults on human life in Sierra Leone. The dogs of war have yet to be leashed. Kofi Annan recently admitted the culpability of the UN in allowing the devastation in Rwanda to assume the proportions that it did. Such terror stakes its claim to inevitability, as some sort of historical necessity, in the minds of Americans.

In the West dramatic changes are also underway. As has been true for the past two hundred years, technology is stimulating big changes. Peter Berger, in the first chapter of The Heretical Imperative, provided a brilliant exposition of how technology, in the form of telephones, jet travel and the like, have affected how we live, relate as people, and even the way we think. His observations predate, and are buttressed by, the impact of the computer revolution.

Some eight or nine years ago, Gary Fleisher, who worked at HSA HQ at the time, set up a link between my computer at the office and my computer at home. By going through a few steps, I could send documents between the two computers. I didn’t consider this operation to be all that earthshaking, but people such as Bill Gates did. They realized that while two computers talking to each other is no big deal, fifty million computers talking to each other is a very big deal. The difference is nothing more than a matter of scale. Receiving $20 a month from one person for that access, again, is no big deal. Receiving $20 a month from one million people is a very big deal.

Do you notice, by the way, the preponderance of computer and internet-related advertisements in the print media and on billboards? In the New York area, at least, it is everywhere. There you have a simple way to identify the cause of America’s present-day prosperity. It’s technology. Mike Leone pointed out to me recently that two years ago the world’s economy was on the edge of collapse. The powerhouse of Asia had melted down, Russia headed south and South America was, well, staying firmly south. If it were not for America’s stability during that crisis, who knows what would have come?

And so big changes do take place, although not necessarily on specified dates. In this context I would like to introduce a few visions for the future. These appeared in the January 2000 issue of First Things. These strike themes close to a Unificationist’s heart. The first concerns the inability of our government and schools to overcome immorality.

"Against the growing power of the immoralizing imperative, our democratic institutions have so far proved to be powerless. Far from resisting it, our schools have largely surrendered to it, and so for the most part have the courts. Our political leaders talk about ‘family values’ yet do nothing to support the moral integrity of marriage and the family. There are pockets of resistance, of course. I think the home-schooling movement may be the most significant, for what seems to be the driving force of this movement is not only the desire to secure a more sound education for children than can now be obtained in the public schools, but also a well-founded fear of the immoralizing influence that the culture of the public schoolroom may now be expected to exert on innocent minds." (Hilton Kramer)

I am reminded of those moments when discussions of movies come up in our family. I find myself surprised at the number of movies that my teenagers have seen and I ask them when they saw these movies. They tell me that they saw them in school. IN SCHOOL! It is common practice for teachers to educate by showing movies. For instance, high school students learn about Shakespeare not by reading his plays but by viewing the movie, "Shakespeare in Love." Here we have a complete evacuation of any distinction between education and pop culture. Truly the home schooling movement is a reflection of God’s love working through parents to reach the children.

Let us continue to another commentator’s view of what lies in the coming century. "The rise of Asia will present us with an ideological challenge as great as the economic and military challenges. The American notion that our own political system constitutes man’s highest political achievement will come under assault. This challenge will come most strongly not from dictatorships such as China, but from variants of the Singaporean—or perhaps a future Chinese—system that put far greater emphasis on community, order, and duty than on individual rights and personal autonomy.

"Once the Asian systems become reasonably democratic, … it will force us to reconsider what the American system is and why we want to keep it. Too often in recent decades we have described it as a mixture of free markets and electoral institutions, a dry and lifeless formulation that would have surprised the Founders. They, like those in the Confucian tradition, understood that some conception of virtue—of what constitutes a life well led and a society well organized—must underlie our political institutions if they are to be sustained. The external debate over Asian vs. American ‘values’ and political systems will enrich the discussion within this country. It will remind Americans of their own communal values, their own understanding of personal and civic virtue, and the Founders’ now nearly forgotten conclusion that religion was the irreplaceable source of both. Meanwhile, the large numbers of Latin and Asian immigrants to the United States, and the related debates over issues such as bilingual education and affirmative action, will force us to consider once again what it means to be an American and what ‘American values’ really are." (Elliott Abrams)

Abrams foresees a crisis of confidence in American values, but concludes that our American values will be re-affirmed. By confronting this challenge from the East, our understanding of, commitment to and pride in our own values will grow. And yet one wonders where in those values we will find the resources necessary to solve the problems articulated by Kramer and echoed nearly everywhere. "It is already a fact of life that the telecommunications revolution has had the effect of … immoralizing and infantilizing almost every aspect of popular culture, which is now massified on a greater scale than ever before," Kramer says. "It is also a fact of life that our democratic society has lost the power to protect its citizens—and particularly its children—from the evil effects of this [immoralizing] cultural imperative."

Now, given the fact that adherence to American values was stronger in the past than in the present, and that the persuasiveness of these values has been eroding continually, it is hard to see why one would expect that erosion to cease. Abrams simply predicts the victory of American values, without any explanation of how that might transpire. But erosion continues until the conditions that bring it about change. Erosion ceases when the rains stop. This would be equivalent to the "immoralizing" tendencies of human nature ending. It ceases when all the topsoil washes away—i.e., when there is nothing virtuous left in the culture. It ceases when a new agent is added to the soil to keep it in place. Those new elements usually are seeds that sprout root systems. Hillsides with vegetation withstand the elements; hillsides without vegetation wash away.

In fact, the first generations of our republic’s leadership feared the loss of public morality, what Kramer calls "Immoralizing." They were very aware of the aristocratic fear of the masses—not fear, but perception that the mass of humankind is, well, depraved. Of course, depravity exists on all levels, but the view of the aristocrats seems to have been that within a smaller circle it could be controlled. Again, it is a matter of scale. In any case, they had a fear of the appetites of the people, geared toward the basest form of satisfaction in sex and violence. They feared that if the masses gained control of the culture, the society would slide into ruin.

Were their fears justified? The best we can say is that the jury is still out. America has produced no high culture, no art, music or dance on a par with what was produced as a fruit of the throne-altar alliance between the 17th and 19th centuries in Europe. America’s contribution to world culture consists of jazz and rock music, graphic art, automobiles, skyscrapers and mass marketing. Among the world-famous American products are fast food, casual clothing, movies, Coca-Cola and a whole slate of labor saving devices. And this popular culture, this mass culture, is definitely losing touch with morality. Consider that the American clergy considered rock’n’roll to be of the devil when it first came out in the 1950s. Fifties rock is considered morally uplifting when compared with current fare.

Again, it can be seen as a question of numbers. The American founders equated "masses" with "mob." The choice they perceived was that between aristocracy and what they called "mobocracy." Mobs have a life of their own, as we witnessed recently in Seattle. An aristocracy has a certain self-awareness and sense of responsibility. A mob has nothing but demands. The tastes of a mob tend toward the lowest common denominator. American cultural leaders have perfected the task of defining and promoting the lowest common denominator. Food of minimal quality becomes world-famous, with the restaurants’ napkins explaining how nutritious it is. Clothing is promoted as a means to enhance ego and attractiveness to the opposite sex. Popular movies market sex and violence as art. Underlying it all is the achievement of sex without responsibility through birth-control patches, condoms and abortions. The twentieth century delivered us the lowest common denominator. But it doesn’t bring peace or happiness. There was a temporary confidence in the early nineties that two countries that housed McDonald’s would never fight each other. That has been disproved. People in Calvin Kleins and Nikes are cutting off children’s hands. People are destroying a nation with the aid of databases informing them of the wealth—hence potential ransom value—of their hostages (viz. Colombia).

What do we conclude from this? We conclude that wealth and power mean nothing. We conclude that true love is what matters. We conclude that there are saints and sages among us. And yet our sages point out the problems and provide partial solutions, adding the nostrum that this world is imperfect and until the perfect comes, it is dangerous to claim perfection. If that is illogical, so be it. And the saints make the world livable but have not transformed it. A Messiah is needed. A saint excels with the world’s definitions; the Messiah redefines the world centered on himself. Therefore many look upon him as, well, as something strange. Such is his lot.

I will close with a final word from the First Things’ contributors:

"Success on the mission field of the West may come only when the West is no longer the West. Perhaps the rubble must be cleared before new building can begin. … If it survives, the West will have to relearn the habits of Christian civilization from those once considered barbarians; and light will shine from what was once the deepest darkness. If good things can come from Galilee—and they can—then surely good things can come from Kenya and South Korea." (Peter J. Leithart)

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