Except for the dentistry, this old world seems to be going from bad to worse. It’s been downhill for decades. Neighborhoods going to hell. Small businesses and specialty shops closing. Anti-Semitism at a toxic high. Quaint, historic towns and country spaces overtaken by gas stations and fast food joints. Whole domains of inherited culture dropping out of memory.
Everybody has his or her own list.
However, on a separate track, unnoticed by the culture critics and the pundits, a remarkable change is taking place.
People are getting lighter.
On TV, I watched a film about the old, but recently revived, gag show, “Candid Camera” –then and now. In case you don’t know the show, it films people without their knowledge as they try to cope with problem situations that have been rigged so that they can’t solve them. At the end, they are told, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”
We first see the confusion and frustration they go through and then we see their embarrassment, as they realize that countless viewers will be enjoying the sight of them looking like fools.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, the ordinary American shoppers who were made inadvertently to knock over cereal boxes, looked appalled when the boxes fell and consternated when they realized how they’d been played. Their sense of how things ought to work was turned upside down and they were pretty much up-ended with it.
Not so the kids and grownups of today. Told, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!,” almost immediately they begin to clown it up for the camera in ways that show a real sense of fun and natural showmanship.
Compare people in 19th century daguerreotypes. Heavier still.
Perhaps postmodernism, with its world-dissolving claims (that there is no objective reality, no subjective reality either, only texts – and no privileged interpretation even of texts) is part of this trend. I think many valid objections can be made to postmodernism’s signature claims, but it may belong to a strategy of getting lighter – itself part of the spirit of the times!
It used to be that, if you sailed from New York harbor across the Atlantic for seven or eight days, you landed in a place where everything was foreign. Now, if you want to find “far away places with strange sounding names,” you have to look for them high and low. You really have to sweat, to get there.
I know an anthropologist who investigates exotic tribes. He told me that no longer will he write anything for publication that he wouldn’t want the educated younger members of the tribe to read.
There are no more far away places!
Of course, it must be acknowledged that all this shrinkage of the globe has made it easier for enemies, who know our ways, to fool us and to hurt us. In some cases, however, it can make it a bit harder even for them to remain what they profess to be. Everybody’s a little bit of a mixture. Even fanatics can flip. We are all somewhat more porous than our forebears.
We float easier.
If I’m right about the new lightness, I’m also a bit optimistic about it. I see it as a plus. Perhaps we are more open to good changes, not just – as the culture critics lament – to the ominous ones.
It doesn’t make everything relative to anything you please. It doesn’t mean there are no metrics. It doesn’t put good-heartedness on a par with malice. It’s only that, maybe, we are all getting less hard-shelled. If so, more light, more truths, more good changes can get through to us.
And that ain’t so bad.