There is much lamentation (from the right, at least) about the disintegration of American society, the culture war being waged by the left, and the future of America. I have done more than my share of lamenting. The purpose of this post isn’t to increase this blog’s lamentation quotient (though it probably will do that), but to take a step back and consider the meanings of “society” and “culture” as they apply to America. After having done that, I will consider the implications for the future of America.
Society and culture are intertwined. Society is usually defined as
an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.
Culture is the collection of customs, rituals, and norms (religious and secular) that give a society its identity, and the observance of which marks individual persons as members of that society; thus:
Culture is the protection and nurturing of an identity that marks out how a given group (national, racial, social or whatever) ritualizes and cultivates its identity, gives it form and significance, and defines individuals as members of that group. Culture is not about what we do but the manner in which we do it and how a group defines itself by embellishing the gifts of nature.
Changes in society lead to changes in culture, and conversely. A good example, but hardly the only one of its kind, is Hitler’s exploitation of aspects of traditional German culture to build unblinking allegiance to Germany and to its leader (führer). The trait of fastidiousness was exploited to support the removal of “unclean” elements: Communists, Jews, Gypsys, and persons with mental and physical defects.
Societies and cultures in America can be likened to its topography. There are mountains, hills, rolling countryside, and flat land. The difference between a huge mountain and a somewhat smaller one is imperceptible — they are both mountains. But at some arbitrary point, a hump on the surface of the earth is called a hill instead of a mountain. This regression continues until hills are replaced by rolling countryside, and rolling countryside is replaced by flat land. There are no definite lines of demarcation between these various features, but the viewer usually knows which of them he is looking at.
Thus a person can tell the difference between a society-cum-culture that consists of impoverished inner-city blacks and one that revolves around a posh, all-white enclave. There are gradations between the two, and myriad overlapping memberships among those gradations, but the two are as distinct as the Rocky Mountains and the flatness of Florida.
Between the extremes, there are, of course, some distinct societal-cultural groupings; for example: Orthodox Jewish sects, Amish and Mennonite settlements, intellectually and culturally insular academic archipelagos, the remnants of enclaves formed by immigrants from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and communities of later immigrants from Asia and Central America. But — to sustain the metaphor — America for a long time had been mainly flat land, which spanned not only the earliest (non-Indian) settlers and their descendants but also most of the descendants of the European immigrants.
To change the metaphor, the societal and cultural landscape of America was for a very long time largely amorphous, which was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the interchangeability of the units meant that the divisions between them weren’t as deep as those between, say, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland and Eire (before the Republic went secular), the Basques and their neighbors, or the Kurds and the Turks. (The Civil War and its long aftermath of regional antipathy wouldn’t have happened but for the rabble-rousing rhetoric of pro-slavery and anti-slavery elites.)
The curse was that the growth of mass media (movies, radio, TV) and the advent of social media enabled rapid cultural change — change that hadn’t been tested in the acid of use and adopted because it made life better. It was change for the sake of change, which is a luxury afforded the beneficiaries of capitalism.
Take “noise”, for example — and by “noise” I mean sound, light, and motion — usually in combination. There are pockets of serenity to be sure, but the amorphous majority wallows in noise: in homes with blaring TVs; in stores, bars, clubs, and restaurants with blaring music, TVs, and light displays; in movies (which seem to be dominated by explosive computer graphics), in sports arenas (from Olympic and major-league venues down to minor-league venues, universities, and schools); and on an on.
I remember well the days before incessant noise. It wasn’t just that the electro-mechanical sources of noise were far less prevalent in those days, it was also that people simply weren’t as noisy (or demonstrative).
The prevalence of noise is telling evidence of the role of mass media in cultural change. Where culture is “thin” (the vestiges of the past have worn away) it is susceptible of outside influence. And where culture is thin, the edges of society are indistinct — one flows seamlessly into another. Thus the ease with which huge swaths of the amorphous majority were seduced, not just by noise but by leftist propaganda. The seduction was aided greatly by the parallel, taxpayer-funded efforts of public-school “educators” and the professoriate.
Thus did the amorphous majority bifurcate. (I locate the beginning of the bifurcation in the 1960s.) Those who haven’t been seduced by leftist propaganda have instead become resistant to it. This resistance to nanny-statism — the real resistance in America — seems to be anchored by members of that rapidly dwindling lot: adherents and practitioners of religion, especially between the two Left Coasts.
That they are also adherents of traditional social norms (e.g., marriage can only be between a man and a woman), upholders of the Second Amendment, and (largely) “blue collar” makes them a target of sneering (e.g., Barack Obama who called them “bitter clingers”; Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables”). That kind of sneering is a a socially divisive form of superiority-signaling, a result of which was the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
As the faux-resistance against Trump continues, for reasons detailed here, the wedge between the two halves of the once-amorphous mass is driven deeper by the clamor. Continued sneering would add impetus, but vote-hungry Democrats have (for now) curtailed it (and even made populist noises) in the hope of luring some malleable voters to the dark side if the impeachment plot fails.
But the end of the faux-resistance — one way or another — will not reunite the once-amorphous mass. The sneering, which persists on the dark side, will continue. Legislative, executive, and judicial efforts to impose the left’s agenda on the whole of America will persist. Despite all of that the real resistance might even despite the inevitable conversions to the dark side among the weak-willed. Or it might not, for a reason to which I will come.
The real resistance, it should be noted, pre-dates Trump’s emergence onto the political scene, and could be seen in the candidacies of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace. The real resistance finally made itself felt, electorally, by putting Ronald Reagan into the White House, though his efforts to roll back nanny-statism were hampered by a solid Democrat majority in the House. There was more success later, during the Tea Party era, which enabled congressional resistance to Obama’s leftist agenda. And then, just when the Tea Party movement seemed to have faded away, Trump revived it — in spirit if not in name.
The question is whether a new leader will emerge to ensure the continuation of the real resistance after Trump — whether he leaves the scene by impeachment and conviction, by failure of re-election, or at the end of a second term.
The answer is that as long as sizeable portion of the populace remains attached to traditional norms — mainly including religion — there will be a movement in search of and in need of a leader. But the movement will lose potency if such a leader fails to emerge.
Were that to happen, something like the old, amorphous society might re-form, but along lines that the remnant of the old, amorphous society wouldn’t recognize. In a reprise of the Third Reich, the freedoms of association, speech, and religious would have been bulldozed with such force that only the hardiest of souls would resist going over to the dark side. And their resistance would have to be covert.
Paradoxically, 1984 may lie in the not-too-distant future, not 35 years in the past. When the nation is ruled by one party (guess which one), foot–voting will no longer be possible and the nation will settle into a darker version of the Californian dystopia.