Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Age of Bifurcation

We live in a most interesting time (as if that's news!). What I'm thinking of in particular is what seems to be a kind of cultural bifurcation – fault lines appearing across nearly aspect of our society and our lives – some of them revivals of age-old divisions, and some quite new.

What got me started thinking about this is the contrast between the conventional wisdom that we are becoming a nation of overweight, malnourished (as opposed to undernourished) couch potatoes who spend most of our waking hours staring at screens of various sizes, tapping out cries for help on keyboards ranging from standard typewriter size to microscopic – and the omnipresent health clubs, runners, joggers, trekkers, marathoners, triathletes, cyclists, parkour adepts, and other physical overachievers that one sees on an endless stream of TV shows. Which is it? It's both, clearly – the populace is dividing itself, of its own relatively free will, into a nation that is one part jocks and one part blobs, with very few people in between – a kind of fitness gap, if you will. And this is not just a matter of age, although it has to be correlated with overall health (either as a cause or effect). There is a new cohort of war veterans with an assortment of missing limbs achieving things that would be forbidding to most “able-bodied” people. Any discussion of the overall fitness of Americans has to take this into account – and yet I never see it dealt with in any meaningful way. Apparently we have now evolved into two cultures on this particular continuum – that of the fit and that of the dangerously unfit. And as far as I can tell, no one has forced anyone to be one way or the other; they are just doing what they prefer doing. But anyone interested in public health and the cost of medical care has to ask why, and maybe even how we can turn more blobs into jocks. (Unplugging the Internet for a few hours each day might be a start.) (And yes, you are reading this on the Internet, by a guy who just enjoyed a vodka and tonic and a cigar.)

A related issue is that of medicine -- “alternative”, holistic, etc., with a surprising (to me) rise in popularity of homeopathy, not to mention massage, reiki, aromatherapy... the entire panoply of natural treatments, remedies, and cures... side by side with the explosion in vaccination, prescription drugs (and their abuse), “designer drugs”, and so on, to the point where we probably have a higher percentage of addicts (of some sort) in the population that at any previous time in our history. (I suspect that the apparent rise in transportation accidents – trucks, buses, trains – can be traced to this to a large extent.)

But that's not all, by any means. We also have a spiritual bifurcation, with a large proportion of the populace being “unchurched”, as the saying goes, and having no alternative activity in the spiritual realm. We may not yet have arrived at the point where most of us are atheists/agnostics/skeptics, but I have a feeling the day is not far off. But at the same time, the legacy of the 60s has made “New Age” spiritual endeavors pretty much mainstream, and they do constitute a serious challenge to established churches, religions, and creeds. (Maybe I should describe this as “trifurcation”.)

And when it comes to politics – well, of course that has always been a hotbed of conflict, debate, and outright hostility, but now it has seeped into new and novel areas of life. It's no longer enough to have two major political parties based on differing visions of government; you now have to show your “creds” by declaring a position on abortion, same-sex marriage, LGBT “rights”, GMOs, global warming, evolution, the ever-present race issue, marijuana legalization, fracking, oil pipelines, fossil fuels... the list is pretty much endless. (Remember the good old days when it all boiled down to fluoridation and communism? Ah, those were simple times.)

But I'll allow this much – the political fault lines of our time are still on the “soft” side compared to other eras. Everyone likes to complain about “political extremism” (on both sides, depending on which side you're on), “rhetoric” (as if that's a bad thing), “unwillingness to compromise”, etc. Apparently they forgot the Sixties, or weren't around then, or were too young. There was a civil war on then, folks – and the blacks vs. cops struggles in places like Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, and St. Louis can't compare.  We had a fragmented populace then too, along a number of fault lines -- but since the fragmentation was relatively new, there was also a great unsettledness about it all -- frustration leading to hostility leading to violence.   Things had a hard edge then, a product of the newness of it all.  At least that's how I see it.  There were more true radicals then as well, as opposed to the chic "nonconformity" of our time with political correctness of some sort having an impact on virtually everyone.    

Then there's food, and there was a time – believe it or not – when “liberals” and “conservatives” all ate and drank pretty much the same things. But now you can be a locavore, vegan, vegetarian... you can find an “artisanal”, or gourmet, or green, or free-trade, or no-animal-testing version of practically any type of product... you can shop exclusively at Whole Foods or some boutique “gourmet” store, or at farmers' markets... or you can stick with the fast-food offerings with all of their chemical enhancements, toxins, and terrible effects on your innards. Again, people tend to gravitate toward one position or the other, although there are a few of us who occasionally find ourselves wandering off the reservation. (Yeah, I like Whole Foods and farmers' markets, but I also indulge in the occasional Baconator at Wendy's. My bad. And when I'm on the road, I hold out for Cracker Barrel.)

(I thought of including clothing and hair in all of this, but then I realized that pretty much everyone these days dresses like a slob (when compared to the 1950s, say) and has “unfortunate” hair. When I happen to be downtown on a weekday and encounter an old-style businessman sporting a tailored Brooks Brothers suit, I'm startled. He looks like he wandered off the set of “Mad Men”.  All he needs is a double martini to go with his briefcase and we're good to go.)

Then we have not only the race issue, but race per se. The great American underclass is no longer the exclusive domain of urban blacks and rural whites (the first poverty program was aimed at Appalachia, the "whitest" region in the country), but is being reinforced on a daily basis by new arrivals from Latin America and refugees from pretty much everywhere else on earth (except the ones who show up already middle class, like the South and East Asians). Upward mobility as a prominent fact of life in America seems to be a thing of the past – replaced by the ruling class vs. the dependent class. (Ironically, the refugees all seem to prefer this country to the one they came from – which, I guess, shows you how really lousy things can be elsewhere in the world.)

There are other fault lines that are more or less derivative of those already mentioned. When it comes to cultural offerings and entertainment in general, we enjoy an astonishing level of diversity, and frankly I'm all for it. (I remember when pretty much everyone watched Ed Sullivan.) The numbers involved are not by any means equal, of course, which is a data point in itself. You can fill a stadium with Kenny Chesney fans, but a world-class string quartet is lucky to half fill a modest-sized auditorium. No, I do not begrudge people their tastes (or lack thereof); it's just an illustration that pretty much everywhere you look there's a bimodal distribution with few in the middle.

And I'm not saying that these trends are even bad, per se – the 50s, when you look back on it, were, after all, a pretty dull time in our history, culture-wise. But there were, at least, various subcultures (including ethnic ones that were way more genuine than the poster children for “diversity” these days). There were thriving, self-contained black neighborhoods in any large city, most of which are long gone – destroyed by, first, “urban renewal”, then by social policy, drugs, and so on. (White ethnic neighborhoods in those same cities were destroyed by forced integration, which resulted in those neighborhoods now being entirely black, or at least “minority”.) (The last I knew, “Little Italy” in Manhattan was one block long – about the same size as Washington, DC's “Chinatown”.) We first commit cultural genocide, then put what little remains up on the wall at the “It's a Small World” ride.

What else? Urban vs. rural? Most of us are suburbanites now – the living death, culture-wise. Few are farmers, and most of those who are are “big” -- massive, industrialized, high-tech. They line up to worship at the pagan altars of Monsanto and Ethanol. Large areas of some cities are becoming “gentrified”, much to the dismay of social activists, who apparently prefer ghetto life and squalor to clean streets and (relative) safety. And the elite are fleeing to gated communities where you can be picked up for using the sidewalks without a permit.

I can trace most, if not all, of this to – as usual – the Sixties, when people started to break out of their accustomed molds. Suburban kids decided they wanted to live in large cities – or on rural communes. The drug culture trickled up from the underclass to the middle class, at least among the young. Rock served to “clean up” black music – blues in particular – at least until Little Richard came along. But now we have rap, hip-hop, etc. etc., which in a way is a re-assertion of black identity, but with more attendant pathologies than we ever witnessed with jazz. There is a huge difference between the self-contained black communities of old and what we have now, which is a relationship – a cultural overlap – fraught with tension and ambivalence.

And don't forget economics and the standard of living. Not a day goes by but what one reads, or hears, something about the demise of the middle class – not only as a political force but as an economic reality. And I think this is pretty much the case. The process is slow, but steady and inexorable – the middle is being carved out of the society and the economy the way some wise guy will eat the middle out of a pie and leave the crust (either upper or lower). And apparently this is perfectly OK with the Regime, i.e. with those in charge. The lower classes feel plenty of pain, but at least they're used to it; it's pretty much all they know, and every time their expectations are raised (like in the case of “the first black president”, who was going to solve all their problems and make all the rough places plain) it's not long before they feel disappointed, and then you get riots, demonstrations, etc. -- all part of the same dreary cycle. The middle class, on the other hand, has – OK, I'll say it – a sense of entitlement, not as extreme as that of the elite, but they at least expect that their standard of living won't get worse as time goes on. And when it does, they're dismayed and confused, not realizing that theirs is mere collateral damage from the overall plan.

But unlike many of the factors mentioned above, the demise of the middle class is a truly serious matter, because, for all we know, the middle class is the driver – essential to the development, prospering, and survival of any “advanced” society. It is at the same time a cause and an outgrowth of the process and progress of civilization, and along with it urbanization and technology. Try to imagine a modern, successful society without a middle class. Whenever it's been tried, i.e. by communist regimes, the results have been less than idyllic – the lower class is no better off, the elite grow fat, and things eventually fall apart, unless those in charge decide – grudgingly – to alter conditions so that a middle class can again be formed (slowly, painfully, and with great ambivalence, since they will inevitably be called “bourgeois”). In our case, the middle class is like the proverbial golden goose, except that no one realizes where the golden eggs come from; they apparently just appear, courtesy of the government. And yet, once that goose is cooked, it's too late – no one can un-cook it.

Another way of putting it – harshly, perhaps – is that if you eliminate the productive class and keep the parasite classes, how is society going to survive, much less prosper? But again, no one seems to worry about this except those who see their vision of the good life slipping away.

So there you have it – everywhere you look, there are the poles... the extremes... and a missing middle. There is a great pulling-apart going on, and this is reflected in virtually every area of life.  And again, I'm not even saying that all of this is necessarily bad; it's just the way things have evolved, and whether it's all part of a master plan or simply an effect of some other agenda matters little. There are people (a few) who benefit, many more who lose, and some who sink into despair (even as the stock market soars and skyscrapers rise to new heights). Is it part of the natural evolution of a system that is flawed? Is it inevitable? (See previous post on that topic.) And as for those who “think we're heading in the right direction” -- that may be true for them in the short run, but eventually they too will pay a price – if only the loss of their delusions.

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