Saturday, May 31, 2008
Seven New Wonders of the Modern World
The reader will readily note that the “Wonders” of my list below are not external—like the conventional Wonders of the Modern World which tend to laud architectural and engineering marvels of conspicuous construction. Indeed, only three of them are even related to technology—and more so in terms of general sociological process than specific concretizations. Instead, these Seven New Wonders of the Modern World reflect less ostentatiously tangible, but no less magnificent, achievements of soul and society.
And, since America has taken the lead in becoming the vanguard and beacon in the progress not only of the West but of the entire world, it will come as no surprise to the reader that her spirit dominates the list. My intent here is not to supply exhaustive evidence for each one—as it would take seven different monographs (if not whole books) to do them justice—but rather to adumbrate an encomium by an illuminative spotlight on underappreciated marvels of the modern West’s beneficence.
And, although many of the wonders on my list are intimately convolved with the maddening neurosis of PC MC (Politically Correct Multi-Culturalism), I leave my eagle-eyed criticism of that facet largely out of the picture; for today, it is about appreciation and celebration of the good side, the glass half full. God knows I have penned enough essays scrutinizing the West’s emptier half!
For creative purposes, I have imposed upon myself the artificial limit of finding one word for each of the seven wonders beginning with the letter “I” and have found, with felicitous serendipity, that it proved rather fruitful.
The 7 New Wonders of the Modern World:
This is the underlying genius of modern Western technological progress—its geometric rate increasing in astounding leaps and bounds with each passing generation since the early 19th century to the present, with America increasingly the brain, heart and muscle of this progress. Like all the wonders we list, it has deep roots in the Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian foundations of the West, as well as in its amazing career throughout the Middle Ages during which the chrysalis of modernity, in centuries of exploration of science and technology, slowly incubated. And, like the other wonders, its dynamism is hardly finished now, but continues to flower in wondrous and unexpected ways.
No need to explain how this American invention has become, in a few short years, the organizational and creative nerve center for the world in terms of business, communications, research, culture and entertainment. The Internet has not only revolutionized the computer itself, it is revolutionizing societies around the world and constitutes a unique and astounding leap in the globalization process that began over 2,000 years ago. As such, the Internet deserves a place of its own on this list.
This is probably the most under-appreciated wonder of the modern West: it is the invisible yet richly concrete framework that enables all the other technological marvels to function on a daily basis, to function in complex interconnections, and to be sustained in a state of order, efficiency and indefinitely improving quality.
Infrastructure involves two levels: the material level, and the sociopolitical level. On the material level, it involves the matricization of technology: there is the transportation matrix, which takes individual inventions (the train, the car, planes, etc.) and facilitates their deployment in systematic networks; the communications matrix, doing the same for the individual inventions of its sphere (the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, computers); the power matrix, which does the same for its respective inventions (steam, mechanics, electricity, nuclear power, hydraulics, etc.); and so forth.
On the sociopolitical level, infrastructure depends upon two dimensions: a systematization of organizing society in optimal ways to make it conducive to sustaining the concrete implementation of infrastructure; and the dynamic state of sociocultural health that makes society receptive and conducive to such organization and implementation. The West, par excellence, nourishes and expresses this health with an unassumingly spectacular panache and harmoniously orderly efficiency unequalled in the world today and throughout the history of the world. It is worth noting that the much maligned and mocked phenomenon called suburbia—itself the American extrapolation and refinement of the more amorphous European phenomenon of bourgeoisie—combines both the material and the sociocultural levels and has, in great measure, served as a kind of “super-matrix” to facilitate the inter-matricization of most technologies involved with infrastructure (urban and rural cultures, of course, also play their important roles, but they are not unique to the West).
The solicitousness of the individual has been a long development, predating the modern West by centuries, indeed with roots going back to ancient Isreal, and parallel to that, the great Graeco-Roman civilization—both of these harmonized (not without many problems and flaws, needless to say) in the grand synthesis of Christendom which lasted for a good millennium before it began to metamorph through a paradigm shift into a new civilizational configuration whose process, and progress, we are still living through, and which will proceed into the indefinite future. The paradigm shift of Christendom into Secularism has paradoxically augmented the dignity, rights and freedom of individuality, while at the same time intensifying and encouraging many unhealthy aspects of individuality (selfishness, amorality, incivility, anomie, etc.)—but that is part of the unavoidable adventure of humanity changing and growing up, and we cannot say this growth is ever finished. As with the other wonders of our list, America has played a special role in unfolding individuality, particularly in its singular character formed by over a century of expanding its western frontier, and has, in turn, become an example for others in the West, no matter that those others feel bound to color their admiration with that peculiar complex of envy, resentment and amusingly hostile incomprehension known as anti-Americanism. This unfolding of individuality in the West has included a closely related process no less momentous for the ongoing ethical progress of the human race: the dissolution of tribalism along with (among other pathologies) its overbearing suppression of the individual. Again, this has not been without paradoxical flaws, including the attenuation of the sense of community in favor of a kind of cult of the individual: but the same mitigating argument we noted above regarding the other paradox applies here as well.
Insouciance essentially means, in a nutshell, and pardon my French: “I don’t give a fuck.” Of course, insouciance has a much wider palette and amplitude than that rather crude expression might connote, though any insouciance that does not embrace that vulgar way of putting it, is no insouciance worthy of the name. Beyond that, insouciance involves the sense and cultivation of, and respect for, such intangible yet vital values as whimsy, nonchalance, satire, mockery, carelessness, freedom to disrespect other values, and freedom to push the envelope of vulgarity and sexuality. The main historical impetus for the development of insouciance as a psychosocial penchant and predisposition was America throughout the 19th century, although one can detect its precursors also in Europe at the time, and with such outbursts as the “Gay 90s”, the “Roaring 20s”, and most quintessentially “the Sixties Revolution”, we see its flowering career in the 20th century. By the 1970s, insouciance was firmly entrenched socioculturally and it has been here to stay ever since. The French sociologist Jean-Francois Revel recounts the epiphany he had while visiting America during the 1960s—a bouleversement of the worldview he had taken for granted, quasi-Marxist and reflexively anti-American, and when he looked around at the amazing changes going on in society during that time, he realized: “It was obvious to me that the real revolution was taking place not in Cuba, but in California.” All these values, as we have already expressed thematically, operate paradoxically in a dynamic balance of good and bad—but in the interest of the imperfect adventure of democracy, and in the test of time and our experience with the resilience of the free West, the good outweighs the bad, and is not so threatened by it as to warrant the kind of transfigurative revolution, or restoration, or rapture, that betrays the toxic fruit of an obsession with perfection.
And this brings us—not to be flip—to the flip side of perfection. The West recognizes most lucidly, tenderly and powerfully the concept imperfection: that the growth of Mankind, as it continues on its adventure of “knowing thyself”, is never finished, and though not flawless, is to be cherished and protected. This is the sense of imperfection: the word literally means “unfinished”. As the philosopher Eric Voegelin noted, the nature of human being is unfinished, in process, and yet at the same time, paradoxically, this dynamic unfinished nature is in tension with a sense of ontological integrity and fixed identity. Man is in a tension of Being-Becoming, Perfection-Imperfection, Life-Death, Death-Rebirth, Knowledge-Faith, Truth-Mystery; and so forth. This constellation of qualities all revolve around what Voegelin called “the tension of existence”: its mysterious reality, while a constant in one form or another in all cultures throughout history, has been most intelligently, beautifully and comprehensively cultivated in the West. The 20th century, it is true, saw major bouts of pathologies in rebellion against imperfection—Communism, Fascism and Nazism—and yet the West rallied around courageously to resist and decisively destroy those mass-murderous utopianisms that grew as terrible malignancies in her Body Politic. While the West is being unconscionably laggard with respect to recognizing and taking action against a new fascist utopianism on the horizon—an Islam Redivivus—I have hope that the heart, mind and muscle of the West will recover its former and essential rationality, and will therefore eventually prevail against this latest enemy of the wonders of the world. The only question is whether the West will wait too long before it takes rational action, as it did throughout the 1920s and 30s, stuck in denial about the metastatic growth of Fascism, Nazism and Japanese Supremacism, thereby missing a chance to prevent millions of lives from being slaughtered.
I have coined this term as an alternative to multiculturalism insofar as the latter is hopelessly infected with the neurosis that is, unfortunately, mainstream and dominant throughout the West. In keeping with our ulterior theme whereby all the laudable wonders we list paradoxically have their darker side, multiculturalism contains within it, or it is a perverse outgrowth from, the uniquely Western virtue of curiosity about, respect for, interest in, and protection of non-Western cultures. This xenophilia cultivated by the West—in academe, archeology, anthropology, comparative religions, art, literature, pop culture, news media, politics and society—far outweighs examples one can find of Western xenophobia—and indeed, xenophobia is a far stronger feature of non-Western cultures (most especially and virulently, Islam). Hopefully, as the West regains its former, and essential, rationalism, it will also put its respect for the Other, and other cultures, back on the right track—instead of the track it is currently on, whereby this respect irrationally extends more to other cultures than to its own, and even extends to embrace that other culture, Islam, that is positively hostile to all the liberal values and virtues the West holds dear. As opposed to multiculturalism, which puts other cultures ahead of our own, an interculturalism would seek a partnership with the Other—as long, that is, as that Other is not itself hostile to its Others, as is Islam.