CULTURE-DOUBT

There’s now a word for that end-is-nigh feeling.

I wonder how many of those ancient, unexplained social collapses – the Anasazi, the Classic Mayans – happened not really because of military defeat or climate-change, but because of a runaway chain-reaction in people’s minds, a belief that their society was fundamentally broken?  The German in me yearns for a concatenation that precisely expresses this concept: culture-doubt.  (Kulturskepsis?)

Societies are always peppered with free-thinking “eccentrics” who seem predisposed to have this culture-doubt.  They are perhaps naturally creative and contrarian; they glimpse possibilities invisible to others, even as they find it hard to go with the social flow.  They are the rude kid, in that fairy tale, who sees right through the emperor’s new clothes.  Sometimes they apply their odd perspicacity to the making of money, and in a Faustian bargain they change from culture-doubters into culture-spreaders – e.g., Steve Jobs – but I guess that more often they just eke out a living at society’s margins, their energy and direction sapped by their skepticism.  What’s the point? they ask.  They are culture-doubt’s natural reservoir, but they are usually too few (and disorganized) to make a social revolution on their own.

What happens, though, when culture-doubt starts to spread through the very purveyors of conventional wisdom: the culture’s P.R. people, as it were?  I thought of this the other day when I read in BusinessWeek about a young entrepreneur whose faith had slipped:

After a couple years at Facebook, Hammerbacher grew restless. He figured that much of the groundbreaking computer science had been done. Something else gnawed at him. Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at companies like his own, Google and Twitter, and saw his peers wasting their talents. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” he says. “That sucks.”

The former Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, also discovered recently that American culture has shortcomings.  Her epiphany, like Hammerbacher’s, may seem laughably obvious to a natural culture-doubter – but let’s remember that the sentiments she expresses here are usually censored from official American reality, so the average solid citizen may find them startling in a red-pill kind of way:

Don’t we have some reasons for pause, for self-questioning? Don’t we have a lot of cultural repair that needs doing?

Imagine for a moment that you are a foreign visitor to America. You are a 40-year-old businessman from Afghanistan…. You land at JFK, walking past a TSA installation where they’re patting the genital areas of various travelers. Americans sure have a funny way of saying hello!

You get to town, settle into a modest room at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue. You’re jet-lagged. You put on the TV, not only because you’re tired but because some part of you knows TV is where America happens, where America is, and you want to see it. Headline news first. The world didn’t blow up today. Then:

Click. A person named Snooki totters down a boardwalk. She lives with young people who grunt and dance. They seem loud, profane, without values, without modesty, without kindness or sympathy. They seem proud to see each other as sexual objects.

Click. “Real Housewives.” Adult women are pulling each other’s hair. They are glamorous in a hard way, a plastic way. They insult each other.  [Etc.]

My guess is that these mainstream expressions of culture-doubt are unlikely to amount to anything just now.  Culture-doubting writers will never be permitted to reach a critical mass in the culture-carrying media.  Also, even at low doses, culture-doubt creates a cognitive dissonance, which not everyone can bear.

But I expect to read and hear more mainstream culture-doubting.  And I think it will eventually dawn on the doubters (as they get past the denial, anger and bargaining stages) that there is no real chance of “cultural repair” as Noonan suggests.  Repair with what? The American cultural core – the central set of beliefs and habits continually sustained by our institutions, the essential kernel from around which all other traditions have been eroded during these past two centuries – is really an anti-culture, a disbelief that culture even matters.  It puts personal and commercial freedom above nearly everything else, has next to nothing to say about positive collective values and goals, and sets the Bill of Rights in the way of any attempt to “repair” – that is, restrict – objectionable media content like that referred to by Hammerbacher and Noonan above.

There are other expressions of culture-doubt out there, such as economist David Stockman’s mouthful yesterday in the NYT about our “quasi-bankrupt nation saddled with rampant casino capitalism on Wall Street and a disemboweled, offshored economy on Main Street.”  But again, it seems to me that none of the cultural flaws identified by these doubters could be fixed without first deeply altering our present Constitution and politics.

The Constitution began with a mild libertarian bias – the founders probably took traditional values and institutions for granted back then – but obviously that bias in our laws has intensified as we’ve become more of an immigrant cultural mix.  It’s so basic now that to get rid of it, I think we’d have to start over somehow.

Which is more apocalyptic than I really wanted to be here.  But anyway I feel a little better now that I have a word to describe my doubting.

CULTURE-DOUBT