A postmodern view of today’s political chaos

We come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others.
Christopher Lasch

JFK-250My Nashville blogger friend Rex Hammock reminded me this week of a wonderful quote from President John F. Kennedy in 1963. My goodness, how those of us alive at the time loved that man and his vision.

“No country can possibly move ahead, no free society can possibly be sustained, unless it has an educated citizenry whose qualities of mind and heart permit it to take part in the complicated and increasingly sophisticated decisions that pour not only upon the President and upon the Congress, but upon all the citizens who exercise the ultimate power.”

We need to think about this today as we gaze upon the sheer madness of the landscape that is America in 2016. And that’s exactly what it is – madness. I know a couple of very sweet Christian ladies who are passing along the most hateful political venom on social media as though it was the most natural thing in the world. I’m talking really vile, hateful stuff. The heartland response to the leftish drift of the culture surpassed anger long ago and now seethes as a horrific rage that threatens peace at every corner.

In the name of God, of course.

I’ve written a book about the role I played in bringing this about, but from my chair today as an observer and chronicler of postmodernity, I view all of it now as an inevitable and necessary portal through which we must pass for humankind to reach its full potential. Hierarchies always corrupt – it’s in their nature – and humankind has had centuries to realize the fruit of powerful institutions with self at the core. Today, however, the very structure of hyperconnectivity judges hierarchies to be inefficient and irrelevant as it routes around them to bring us together. This is the cultural disaster we face through this remarkable cultural shift, and make no mistake, it will be ugly. Of course, there are many of us who don’t view it as a disaster but admit it will have disastrous results.

One of the major shortcomings of humankind is ignorance fed by hierarchies with self-centered motives, especially the elites who write the book of laws. We have a staggering amount of knowledge in the combined library of humanity, but much of it is hidden by those who glean a good living from its protected shelves. Medicine, the law, religion, and higher education, just to name a few, will be judged tomorrow over how well they pass that knowledge along to everybody instead of keeping it from them. This will not go well for modernity’s gasping body, but its inevitability is sure, so long as the network remains free and intact. There’s nothing inherently sinister about it; it’s simply the chaotic, natural evolution of humanity’s desire for self-governance. Those who advance this will be successful downstream; those who don’t will become increasingly irrelevant.

Michael Rosenblum

Michael Rosenblum

A great example of this is my friend Michael Rosenblum, who runs TheVJ.com and has led the way in teaching anybody how to shoot and edit video like a professional, including employees of Fortune 500 companies. I’ve no doubt Michael will always be successful in business, for he understands the need to equip people laterally for the video revolution that’s coming and in many ways is already here. The disruption of media is among the most visible in the world today, but it’s only going to get worse, depending on your point-of-view.

So while forces wishing to maintain the status quo fight for their lives, the people are sparring with each other over elemental differences based on what they know – or think they know. This, thankfully, is leading us back to the cleansing power of argument, which is never a bad thing. Historian Chris Lasch wrote about this in 1990:

Our search for reliable information is itself guided by the questions that arise during arguments about a given course of action. It is only by subjecting our preferences and projects to the test of debate that we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn. Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain opinions in (Walter) Lippmann’s pejorative sense – half-formed convictions based on random impressions and unexamined assumptions. It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of ‘opinions,’ gives them shape and definition, and makes it possible for others to recognize them as a description of their own experience as well. In short, we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others.

“We come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others.” This is profound and the most pressing need for the cultural advancement of postmodernism. It’s a natural part of the evolution of global humanity, and a necessary step if we are to learn to live with each other instead of killing each other.

We simply can’t trust ANY hierarchical institution to educate us. We must do that for ourselves – with postmodernism’s deconstruction as our authority and the practice of exploring associative links on the World Wide Web as our tool – and this, I believe, is in the spirit of President Kennedy meant those many years ago.

Nobody else is going to do it for us.

Our neverending civil war

Let’s look at the Donald Trump phenomenon through a slightly different lens, shall we?

I’ve often written in describing postmodernism that horizontal connectivity makes impossible many axioms of modernity, and one of the most disruptive is that “in war, the victor gets to write the history.” As long as leaders are able to control the narrative, this is a fairly easy proposition. The American narrative, for example, is THE history of Pearl Harbor, unless you find yourself on a Japanese tour boat at the Honolulu memorial. There are thousands of other examples. The postmodern point is that the ability of people to cross formerly limited boundaries today makes controlling the narrative harder and harder. I view this as a good thing for humanity.

leesurrender

Take a moment to read this leaflet.

So let’s have a wee bit of fun with the idea of horizontal connectivity in the wake of the Civil War. American History wasn’t very kind to the Confederacy, and that remains the conventional narrative today. When the Union won, the north simply turned the page. After all, their position was judged “correct,” because they controlled the narrative as victors. Over time, however, the assumption of rightness takes its toll on intellect, because there is no controversy associated with their story. Hence, nobody argues, and so it goes.

But what about the people of the Confederate states? To them, edicts that came down from the Union – even generations later – do not carry the same weight, and it’s easy to imagine Facebook exchanges among the varying perspectives. A great many of the “defriendings” that take place in our little adventure are over these fundamental disagreements. Meanwhile, the positions of each side are solidified, as each group validates itself through common beliefs. In the South, no amount of righteous indignation from northerners is going to alter a core belief that “the South shall rise again.” The people may go along with what’s foisted upon them legally, but they’ll always do so reluctantly and teach their progeny what’s actually “right.”

You can see this being played out globally today, and it’s only just begun.

It’s like the boy who’s being punished by his father. “Sit down,” the old man screams, but the boy just stands there. Again, he shouts, “I said sit down!” The boy still refuses, so the father grabs him by the shoulders and forces him into the chair, to which the boy responds, “I’m sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”

During all of this, the press assumes a position of recording history after the war, which includes the narrative of the victor. They fall into the trap of assumption that events that unfold in the wake of “victory” are natural and uncontroversial, and so opposite views become increasingly deviant and unnecessary points of view in reporting “the truth.” This is the case whether speaking of the Civil War or culture wars, which, by the way, are always started by the silk stockings, those who suffer from the deadly and relentless fear that they won’t get what they think they deserve or that someone is going to take away what they already have (See Stephen Prothero’s new book “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).”

Fast forward to today where we find a vast army of people who’ve been sitting down on the outside while watching the things they hold dear destroyed by the natural assumptions of those who’ve won the culture wars and controlled everything for too long. Their jobs and consequent lifestyles have disappeared. Their faith is ridiculed. They don’t like what their kids are being taught. They don’t feel safe in any real sense of the word. They hear the judgments of their ancestors from the teachings they were given long ago. They’re filled with rage against things outside their control and feel they’ve been enslaved by those with the power to dismiss them and diminish their humanity. They witness the unchallenged complaints of those who march along the assumptive narrative’s path and get all the news coverage. The tyranny of the minority opinion is given free reign – the war over “rights” no matter how far removed from their core beliefs – which produces even more rage over being taken for granted, because the enemy narrative continues to move farther and farther away from everything they know. Their suffering – and it is very real – is irrelevant, because it is judged deviant with regards to the developing history.

In the above light it’s easy to grasp the enormity of the gap between both sides and the intellectual void in those attempting to understand the support for the candidacy of Donald Trump. Over the past year, I’ve watched as he was dismissed by literally every professional observer and journalist, because they’ve lived for so long on the narrative’s path that they’re completely unaware of this other America. Moreover, they’ve been taught and trained that people follow candidates when, in Trump’s case, it’s the exact opposite. The people following Trump are actually leading him, and that’s what makes the whole thing so interesting. They hear in Mr. Trump their own voices, and that’s new for them. It’s not about political party; it’s about deviance standing up and saying, “You WILL listen to me!”

The chorus of groans from the “normal” world is growing louder, and threats by people to leave the country if Mr. Trump is elected have taken on an aura of seriousness since his nomination now seems likely. The press continues to grasp at straws in a vain attempt to get their arms around what they disparagingly view as the absurd. The most common press narrative the past few days has been that a Trump/Clinton campaign will be one of extremes, and that is likely quite fine with Mr. Trump.

I don’t view this as apocalyptic whatsoever, because the union has been fractured for a very long time. It’s simply that it’s dismissed, not discussed, and it has to be on the table before the light of examination can produce anything other than division. In the end, we will be stronger for it. Some think it’s all about education, and I agree. My view, however, is that everybody needs to be educated, not just those whose views are held as ignorant.

Nobody wins culture wars. Not really. It is the scent of victory that produces change, not victory itself, and even then, the subsequent narrative cannot be held as universal.

We aren’t nearly as advanced as we claim.

Applying a Postmodern context

horizontal

Current events continue to reveal what our culture is up against as the age of Postmodernism continues to unfold and expand. This vision is so clear to me that I see things that others don’t, and while I’m sure some people view that statement as arrogance gone to seed, it would be foolish of me to deny reality. The problem most folks have with this is a lack of context with which to view ongoing events.

Premodernism: I believe, therefore I understand.
Disruption: The printing press.
Modernism: I think and reason, therefore I understand.
Disruption: The internet.
Postmodernism: I participate, therefore I understand.

The single, most important difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is that the former is hierarchical while the latter is horizontal. This produces an inherent conflict, and while these conflicts can be obvious, they don’t mean anything other than just news items unless and until they are put into the context of a significant cultural shift.

For example, here’s a cute story about 9-year old reporter Hilde Kate Lysiak breaking a murder story ahead of the local press. Ha-ha. Funny, huh? No, this is heavy-duty stuff in light of the culture change. Miss Lysiak has her own printing press – a.k.a. website – and considers herself a journalist. Here’s the way the Washington Post put it.

As the editor and publisher of the Orange Street News, in her hometown of Selinsgrove, Pa., about 50 miles north of Harrisburg, Lysiak is a dedicated multi-media journalist who loves going after crime stories. Her father is an author and former New York Daily News reporter who took Hilde to his newsroom and to stories he covered around New York and hooked her on the rush of chasing news.

“I just like letting people know all the information,” Hilde said Monday. It’s also what she sees as her career, no matter what stupid adults might say about the future of journalism. “It’s just what I really want to do. And crime is definitely my favorite.” She said she learned of the murder story because “I got a good tip from a source and I was able to confirm it.” Well, that’s how it works.

When community members squawked on Facebook that a 9-year old has no business reporting on such, Miss Lysiak went ballistic: “If you want me to stop covering news, then you get off your computers and do something about the news. There, is that cute enough for you?”

Meanwhile, across the sea, two people described as “freelance multimedia journalists” produced a video about Israel bulldozing Bedouin homes and a school in the occupied territories, presumably to one day build Israeli settlements on the land.

And of course, the big story worldwide this weekend was the release of what are being called “the Panama Papers” from an unknown whistleblower. Wired reported that the cache of documents leaked was enormous:

”In total, the leak contains: 4.8 million emails, three million database entries, two million PDFs, one million images and 320,000 text documents. The dataset is bigger than any from Wikileaks, or the Edward Snowden disclosures.”

So the whistleblower – presumably someone with access to the knowledge of the “business” dealings of the Panamanian law firm that was the source of the documents – was able to transfer these files to investigative reporters around the world via the same network that makes participation in the distribution of knowledge files possible in the first place. This has nowhere to go but up, and if you’re involved in some hierarchical dealings that you’d rather not your underlings know about, I’d be pretty damned nervous about what’s going on in this “Age of Participation.”

Technology may be providing the means, but it’s the culture’s rebellion against hierarchies that is providing the heat for the Postmodern awakening. The press, in the form of a 9-year old neighborhood reporter, freelance multimedia journalists in the Middle East, or whistleblowers distributing confidential business documents, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of disruptions to modern western culture. Every complex organization will be impacted, because the view from the top is no longer private, and as I wrote long ago, every day that an average person uses the internet, they become more and more disruptive. This principle shows no sign of slowing down, as long as the Web remains open. Efforts to close it – through government or privatization – are already beginning to appear, for example, with net neutrality threats.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Those who have eyes to see, let them see.

Another postmodern signpost – banks

Here we go again.

A new Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions (GPS) report on how financial technology is disrupting banks provides another look for us into our rapidly ascending postmodern future. According to the report, mobile distribution will be the main channel of interaction between customers and the bank, which will mean a dramatically reduced need for bank branches. This will lead to the loss of 1.8 million employees between now and 2015, down a whopping 40-50% from its peak in 2007.

banks

An article in Business Insider referencing the report compares it to earlier projections:

That’s in line with former Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins’ recent prediction that pressure from the tech industry “will compel banks to significantly automate their business” and “that the number of branches and people may decline by as much as 50% over the next years.”

The CITI report suggests that as more and more transactions move to mobile, there will be a “rebalancing of staff from transaction-based roles to advisory-based roles,” but I don’t believe such jobs will pay as much. As such, I’m not certain this “rebalancing” will make much difference for those out of work.

This is downside of the Great Horizontal, when it’s viewed from a strictly modernist, top-down perspective. These bank executives know that reduced expenses mean increased profits, so their concern about employees is disingenuous, at best. They will be surprised when faced with the granular investment opportunities that will occur along the bottom of their top-down paradigm, and then the real postmodern disruption of the banking institution will begin. A modernist culture requires banks, but I’m not convinced they will be at all relevant as the twenty-first century moves along.

One thing is absolutely certain: making a living will be completely redefined, and the time to start thinking about that is today.

The Tiny Homes Disruption

From time-to-time, I come across little signposts pointing to the disruptive nature of our horizontal culture. Here’s one that requires a certain vision that’s not commonly shared. It’s an article from fastcoexist.com, a niche vertical information site from the folks at Fast Company.

tinyhomesThis is a fascinating look into the tiny home movement and the work of Auburn University engineering students. The idea is to build a house that costs less than $20,000 in order to sustain somebody living below the poverty level. If you’re a student of the movement, however, you know that people are looking at tiny homes in many places and in many ways. It’s an idea percolating from the bottom of culture, because, well, it costs so much money to own a “regular” home.

What these folks at Auburn are doing, however, is exploring (and changing) the problem of a housing industry that doesn’t fit the requirements of this new model. In addition to designing and building these tiny homes, a second objective is to do so in such a way that supports the workers who will build the homes. This is why they’re designing homes outside a pre-fabrication model. Apparently, that would be too culturally disruptive, which is the very real danger to the broader culture in the destruction of its institutions.

What they’re learning, however, is the depth of reinvention necessary in the new era. Rusty Smith is associate director of Rural Studio, the undergraduate program handling the work. According to Smith, they’ve had to study and work with zoning laws and banks in order to craft new approaches for each. These have been incorporated into guidelines that Rural Studio is publishing along with actual instructions for building the homes.

“The most daunting problems aren’t brick and mortar problems,” Smith told Fastcoexist, “they’re these network and system problems that are threaded together and all intersect in the build environment. We’re able to attack all these problems simultaneously—when we see a lever over here and wiggle it, we can very clearly see the implication it has on other systems down the road.”

And this is exactly the problem with infrastructures designed to support the top-down culture of a fading industrial age. Silos that are connected at the top each have their place in an elaborate – and highly inefficient – system in which each is rewarded for its disconnection with the people actually doing the paying. The Auburn University group is trying to overcome this, but it will likely only see limited success. There’s just too much at stake for the housing industry to up and revolutionize itself, and yet here we find evidence of its inevitability in a culture where the bottom is able to cut across everything to overcome the inherent bias of modernity.

Postmodernism isn’t just some weird philosophical theory; it’s a new age in Western civilization, and we – that’s you and me – really need to be paying attention.

Sadly, it’s not the kind of news beat that sells.

The horizontal church

pomoLet’s get one thing absolutely straight about institutions, postmodernity, and the Great Horizontal, a.k.a. the age of participation: hierarchies are inefficient, self-centered, and therefore, unacceptable governors, and this truth is universal. Therefore, anyone proposing hierarchical governance – regardless of the logic applied – is cutting a path back to modernity and even premodernity by virtue of its one-to-many paradigm. This is where those writers of postmodern Christianity or postmodern churches do themselves a disservice in their prophecies. They don’t look beyond the immediate future, and thus are prone to error in advancing postmodern Christianity today.

Of course, culture change isn’t a zero sum game, for vestiges of all will remain in Western civilization, but the rejection of hierarchies as self-serving is a core concept of the postmodern era, which has just begun. It will be viewed as anarchy and chaos for those who long for the equilibrium of external command and control of the masses. Ah, those good old days. Let us never forget the social engineering words of Edward Bernays, the father of professional public relations, in his 1947 essay and 1955 book “The Engineering of Consent:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.

Or from his 1923 book Crystalizing Public Opinion:

Those who manipulate the organized habits and opinions of the masses constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

Bernays and cronies like Walter Lippmann may have brought these concepts into sharp focus at the start of the twentieth century, but this knowledge has existed throughout human history. Humankind has always known individuals striving for the top with the unspoken goal of raising one’s standard of living by arranging for lesser “others” to do all the work. As Ricky Scaggs sings in his song My Father’s Son, “The rich man writes the book of laws the poor man must defend.” It’s our innate animal nature. The strong thrive and survive, right?

For most people, the word “postmodern” causes a subconscious roll of the eyes or a conscious face palm. Christians have heard about the postmodern practice of deconstruction, but only insofar as it relates to their faith, and this is not an accurate depiction of postmodernism or our response to it. It’s much, much bigger than that.

Deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique, or a method, and I’m afraid that those who are defining postmodernism within the church today have reduced it to exactly that. Let’s be real here, folks. Postmodernism rejects much of what has held up the modern world, including processes and systems that were used to justify the institutions themselves. Just allow your imagination to wander, for example, to the institution of medicine, which is one of my favorite targets. Horizontally shared information and knowledge is a profound threat to anyone who has a stake in maintaining the medical status quo. It is fundamentally naive to think that protecting its turf isn’t job one for any institution, including medicine. As Clay Shirky points out, it’s the duty of institutions to help maintain the problems for which they are the solutions. I think this is true, and as such, health care in the West will always default to the haves, unless and until everyday people do something about it. And as I’ve discussed many times in the past, this is already taking place without crossing the line of “practicing medicine,” which is the government endorsed task of the institution. Postmodernism won’t do away entirely with institutional medicine, but it will alter its value proposition considerably.

This is why I’m so outspoken regarding those with something to lose (or gain) within Christianity by writing about postmodernism and deconstruction as if they were handy tools for reinventing the faith in the image of itself. This is not what’s in store for Christianity, and I will pull no punches in expressing that view as I further explore the disruption of equilibrium in Western culture.

Along the way, we’re going to try out some pretty neat stuff. I hope you’re ready.