Keep the Change

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

“So how’s that hopey, changey thing workin’ out for ya?” – Sarah Palin

It’s hard to believe that only four years ago the winning campaign for the American Presidency offered hope and the slogan “change you can believe in.” These days there is a sizable group whose attitude appears to be “keep the change to yourself – we want things the way they were.”

The Republican primary campaign currently seems to be most focused on who can best express the anger and resentment felt by the party faithful. After the South Carolina primary, the winner appears to be Newt Gingrich.  As Howard Schweber observed in the Huffington Post:

…only Newt has captured the key emotive element that drives the Republican core this year: resentment. The hard right core of the Republican Party is filled with resentment, and they have found just the man to let us all know about it.

This raises questions. Why are these people so angry? What do they resent?

For much of the 2000’s, Republicans controlled the White House, Congress and (arguably) the Supreme Court. During that time they did all they could to give free reign to large corporations and the wealthy through tax cuts and deregulation. They worked to shift the balance of power firmly in favor of corporate management over the rights of workers, both in terms of work safety regulations and in terms of union power. They worked to discredit legitimate concerns about environmental degradation and climate change. They even distorted political debate to the point that even being called a liberal is a bad thing.

And yet the Republican base is still angry and resentful, saying things like “it’s time to take our country back.”  From whom, exactly?

All this anger and resentment can be puzzling – if not infuriating – to those who disagree with conservative Republican ideas. And some of the results of Republican primaries can seem crazy for those out of that loop. I mean really, Newt Gingrich is the champion of family values and is a Washington outsider? Really???

But beneath all of the current drama, it’s important to realize that such behavior may be both natural and logical – once you look at the big picture.

The root of the problem is that our world has changed in fundamental ways. For the first time in human history, technology has brought all humans into close and immediate contact. It has also disrupted traditional channels of power and information.

This change has altered societies around the world in myriad ways. But such change has not been welcomed by many – especially those whose identity and values were firmly rooted in the previously established cultures. This reflects a basic but rarely considered fact:  change happens differently for a culture than it does for the society of which that culture is a part.

Ideally, cultures by their nature offer enduring, lasting values. In this way they satisfy the human need for meaning and stability. In the chaos and confusion of life, we need to have a dependable framework that gives meaning to what is happening around us. 

By the same token, healthy societies are continually changing. This is a reflection of changes in demographics, as well as the growth of knowledge and awareness that are a part of a dynamic society. In this way, societies satisfy the human need for freedom and creativity.

However, there is a basic conflict inherent in this dichotomy: cultural values cannot long endure unchanged within an evolving and changing society. Just as pressures build over time along fault lines until there’s an earthquake, over time pressures build up between culture and society until conflict erupts.

That is where we are now.  The world has changed profoundly over the past 40+ years. We humans are much more interconnected, empowered and diverse than we used to be. This change has opened up vast arrays of opportunity for many people – especially those who were marginalized by the prevailing culture’s institutions and power structures. But it has also shaken to the foundations those institutions and structures. And such change is hard for some people to handle.

David E. Stannard discussed this issue in his book The Puritan Way of Death – A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change. He observed:

Whereas certain individuals and certain cultures find adapting to change relatively easy, many others, for various reasons, do not.  Their resistance, which may seem revolutionary because it tends so often to focus on overthrowing the new social orthodoxy, is in fact no more than an effort to forestall or at least postpone dealing with the changes taking place around them.

William O. Beeman, a professor of Anthropology at Brown University and author of “Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival,” also notes this varying response to change and talks about the responses of those who resist change:

In essence, all such movements are a natural consequence of human processes of cultural change. In every society on earth change proceeds at an uneven pace. Some society members embrace change with relish. Others find it oppressive and troubling. When people feel that change is being imposed on them, some will find it necessary to resist–sometimes violently. The dynamics of revitalization thus are tied to inter-group dynamics. When a group in society perceives itself as having its power and authority usurped in the course of social change, the group comes to blame both internal and external causes for its fall from power.

As far as internal issues are concerned, Beeman notes that decline is often associated with individual failings. “They accuse members of society of becoming weak and irresolute to the point where they let others oppress them.”  Regarding external issues, Beeman says “…the group objectifies an Other, and identifies it as an oppressor. Usually the movement advocates resistance — sometimes violent — to that oppressor.”

Beeman also talks about the historical perspective of these movements:

All of these movements invariably create a dual myth. This myth links a supposed Golden Age in the past with a Utopian future. The past Golden Age is seen as a time when the members of the movement or those they identify with were strong, vital, and in control of the world. The Utopian future presages a time when movement members will return to that sense of group strength and wholeness.

This may sound a bit familiar to those who follow the news. Take Islamic extremism. Back in September 2001, David Plotz posted an article in Slate titled “What Does bin Laden Want?”

These extreme “Islamists,” as Bin Laden biographer Yossef Bodansky dubs them, hope to re-establish the Caliphate, the golden age of Muslim domination that followed the death of Muhammad. They regard the Taliban’s Afghanistan as a model for such Islamic rule.

Elsewhere, while we haven’t heard much about it in the United States, Israel is having problems with members of its ultra-Orthodox Haredi population. Among other things, this group has been pressuring other members of Israeli society regarding the segregation of women from men. In writing about this issue in Jewish Ideas Daily, Yehudah Mirsky refers to “…an imagined Haredi idyll in the shtetl that never was. ”

Meanwhile, back here in the USA we have Newt Gingrich expounding on an “historic America.”  This prompted one of his acolytes at the American Spectator – former Reagan aid Peter Ferrara – to invoke a “Golden Age” and to “objectify an Other” in claiming:

Gingrich is the only candidate remotely capable of carrying the flag for the true, original, historic America in this fundamental, existential battle for national survival. He so rightly identified the public mood in his South Carolina speech, saying, “The American people feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half-century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system.” He further identified the pending danger, “If Barack Obama can get re-elected after this disaster, just think how radical he would be in a second term.”

Obviously, there are many differences between Islamic extremists and conservative Republicans. But one thing they appear to share is a certain myopia about the source of today’s social change. This change isn’t the result of an invasion by infidels or a conspiracy by shadowy elites. Instead it’s a product of  modern technology, with its concomitant interlinking of humanity. As Walter Truett Anderson observed in his book “Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be”:

The collapse of belief we have been witnessing throughout the twentieth century comes with globalism. The postmodern condition is not an artistic movement or a cultural fad or an intellectual theory — although it produces all of those and is in some ways defined by them. It is what inevitably happens as people everywhere begin to see that there are many beliefs, many kinds of belief, many ways of believing. Postmodernism is globalism; it is the half-discovered shape of the one unity that transcends all our differences.

There is an absurdity inherent in much of the resistance we see to modernity and its attendant social change: the resisters are frequently using the tools of modern technology to advocate resistance to its effects on society.

If resisters truly object to how the world has changed, they should live their lives in accordance with their supposed Golden Age – whether it’s the 12th century or the 1920s. They should at least have the integrity of groups like the Amish and do without televisions, telephones, computers, the internet and the like.

But as soon as they begin using modern technology they are co-opted by it. There is no logically consistent way you can protest modernity with a videotaped message, or claim to be an anti-government individualist while using communications technology that was developed by the government and that was created to link people together.

It is this inherent conflict between past values and present facts that inevitably dooms the aspirations of those who resist the social changes we are confronting today. As Stannard says regarding those resisting social change:

…such movements rarely enjoy long-range success.  They result from an opposition of the needs of the emerging social structure with those of the existing group culture…and when such incongruity is not resolved by effective integration of the two competing elements, it has historically been the almost inevitable fate of the traditional culture to give way to the needs of the ongoing social structure.

Today’s changing world is unsettling to most of us; an unfortunate fact of life is that when you’re in the middle of an era of great change you’re unlikely to have much confidence in how things will turn out. We humans are not comfortable with such uncertainty.

In times like these, perhaps we can seek counsel and solace in the wise words of others who were confronted with similar times in the past. Consider, for example, the words of Thomas Carlyle:

Today is not yesterday: we ourselves change; how can our Works and Thoughts, if they are always to be the fittest, continue always the same? Change, indeed, is painful; yet ever needful; and if Memory have its force and worth, so also has Hope.

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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