In ignorance is hope. If we had known the difficulty, we would not have learned even so little. (Wendell Berry)
What is this world coming to? It's a question that my parents used to ask whenever something strange, outrageous, weird, and incomprehensible happened that challenged their mindset and world view. But it's not only a question they asked, but one their parents asked and their parents before them. The question perhaps goes back to Abraham. I can imagine Abe asking himself what is this world coming to when God asks you to sacrifice your only son?
What is this world coming to? It's a question that one asks as they ripen to middle age after they've acquired decades of preconceived notions about what should and what shouldn't be. Perhaps it's a question that will forever be asked. I've begun to ask it myself. Culture shock is nothing new. Remember the infancy of rock 'n' roll? There were people who claimed it was decadent and evil and that it would corrupt our youth. They said the same thing about rap music. They said the same thing about any number of films. They said the same thing about cutting edge comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks who they thought were rude, crude, vulgar, and obnoxious. Although these same comedians are often a culture's canary in the coal mine. Unfortunately, these days it takes comics like David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert to give it to us "straight" because so called "responsible journalists" have abdicated their responsibility to report the facts impartially and without bias. Never mind a certain network who claims to be "fair and balanced". There has been a proliferation of news sites on the web and elsewhere but the actual gathering of the news is still handled by a few news organizations. What actually passes for news is actually commentary based on what the few have gathered. "The truth, you can't handle the truth", as Jack Nicholson once said in A Few Good Men. But that's ok, these days the truth is manipulated, massaged, manicured, and altered for public consumption or simply ignored. We're more interested in Paris Hilton getting out of jail than we are about any number of atrocities occurring around the world. Ask a stranger on the street or at the local coffee shop if they know anything about what's happening in Darfur, Myanmar, or Tibet. Don't be surprised if you're met with blank stares.
What is this world coming to? When we are searching the web, what are we actually searching for? The top two hits for 2008 were Britney Spears and professional wrestling. Britney Spears…enough said. Now nothing against professional wrestling, I used to enjoy the witty repartee between two fat guys in swimming trunks dukin' it out in steel cage death matches. A little cutting of the forehead with a razor blade didn't hurt either if you didn't mind the blood. But these days professional wrestling is populated with pretty glamour boys hopped up on 'roids acting out a convoluted storyline that no one can follow. Its just not entertaining anymore. It's downright stupid. And I guess that's my point to all of this ranting. Its not culture shock that troubles me, it's an acceleration of stupidity and an increasing disconnectedness to real people, real community, and real events. That's what the world is coming to my dear friends. Former CBS news producer Dick Meyer has written about this phenomena extensively in his new book Why We Hate Us (American Discontent In The New Millennium). As Meyer relates on one hand we are disenchanted with this society we created but on the other hand stand idly by as it continues. We are helpless to do anything about it. Things are so bad according to Meyer that someone can show up at the Holocaust Memorial Museum wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Eat Me" and think it appropriate. I recently encountered a woman at a local shopping mall with both breasts nearly completely exposed. Now nothing against exposed breasts…really nothing against exposed breasts but when they are tattooed with the names of former paramours then the argument has really nothing to do with high brow/low brow, good taste/bad taste or conformity/nonconformity. Stupidity or possibly ignorance trumps those characterizations.
Politics in this country has turned into a grade school shouting match. The one with the biggest microphone wins. But if the populace were to stop and examine their political beliefs they would find out they hold a mishmash of beliefs and doctrines. Beliefs that are not easily defined by the media and various talk show hosts. But rigid ideology and polarization sells - not moderation and rational discourse. But having an intelligent conversation with someone assumes there is a shared vocabulary. There is not.
Whenever I want to rid myself of all this lunacy, I return to my badly worn copy of What Are People For? by Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry. There is something refreshing, comforting, and authentic found in his writing. For those unfamiliar with Berry, his writing is rooted in the land, traditions, and commitment to a place and a people. What Are People For? is a thoughtful collection of essays which examine these themes in detail. Berry actually remembers a time when people would gather together on each others porches and tell stories. These stories in turn would be passed down to their children and the community at large. For Berry this is important because "the pattern of reminding implies affection for the place and respect for it". We as a people have no connection to place anymore. We roam from exurb to exurb playing soccer with people we don't know, travelling in vehicles we can't afford, and living in mcmansions that are rapidly being foreclosed. But after all it wasn't so much a home as it was an investment property. Real community has been replaced by "virtual" community.
People who don't have a connection to the land and what it produces shouldn't be surprised at its degradation. Do we really know where our food comes from? Recent cases of salmonella and E. coli contamination of leafy vegetables illustrate the importance of buying food from area producers who have a vested interest in maintaining a "healthy" relationship with the local community.
There are some who are predisposed in assuming that Berry holds a naÃ¯ve, country bumkinish view of things - a return to Mayberry perhaps where problems can be solved with a little homespun wisdom in about 30 minute's time. But that assumption couldn't be further from the truth. Berry not only talks the talk but walks the walk. He has lived on a working farm since 1965 in Lane's Landing, Kentucky where he also writes without aid of a computer. He has taught creative writing at the University of Kentucky. In the 50's he attended a seminar at Stanford taught by the dean of western writers, Wallace Stegner. Other attendees were Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, and Ken Kesey. He has written and edited articles about organic farming for the prestigious Rodale Press. Berry fervently believes that the root of all this discontent can only be solved at the local level whether it's political, social, or personal unrest. Better technology doesn't guarantee better living. And while Berry primarily addresses the concerns of rural America, what he has to say and write can be useful for all communities. And through his writing, Berry doesn't promise a utopia. His novels contain flawed characters who are alcoholics, contemplate suicide and murder, and sometimes have affairs and unconventional relationships. But at the heart of his writing is the concept of hard work, discipline, commitment, dedication to a set of principles, and an old fashioned idea – neighborliness.
A fuzzy spirituality espoused by the likes of Oprah Winfrey that is essentially meaningless and can be changed at the drop of a hat can be no substitute for the hard work required to remedy this malaise. Washington politicians and Dr. Phil can't save us. It's up to us. Where do we start? Do you move to the country? Maybe it's just as simple as taking a walk in your own neighborhood. Disconnect yourself from your cell phone, iPod, Wii, laptop, or any number of devices that have made your life "better". Perhaps you'll be surprised at what you'll see and the work that needs to be done.
In conclusion is the glass half empty or half full? I'll leave that for old cranks like Andy Rooney to figure out. What's important is that the glass is there at all. And with writers like Dick Meyer and Wendell Berry around, the glass will remain there.