Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Isms (1/3)

I would like to alert you to three prevalent mindsets that infect a fair number of thinking people nowadays: doom-and-gloomism, axe-to-grindism, and saint-and-aintism. If you can detect these indicators of deep-seated bias, you are in a comfortable place to ignore or show disdain for their disseminator. Be mindful that all of us succumb to these “isms” once in a while, though some proselytize them more than others.

The first malaise, doom-and-gloomism, stems from a narcissistic notion that the present times in which we live are significantly worse than previous eras. Some of these doomsayers deny their pessimist outlook; others seem to revel in it. In either case you recognize the sentiment when you hear it. For those who seem to sail through life without an intellectual anchor, these self-indignant jeremiads might seem convincing. On closer inspection, though, one would find that these general portraits of Armageddon, painted in dark hues with broad brushstrokes, originate in a petty issue blown out of proportion and disguised as a major catastrophe of our times. It could be something as superficial as partisan dissatisfaction over who occupies the White House. For conservatives the Clinton era of the 1990s marked the demise of American values, whereas for liberal democrats the subsequent Bush years spelled the end of democratic institutions in our country. Doom-and-gloomism could also emerge simply from anger and frustration that a certain issue, be it the Kyoto Protocols or the Second Amendment, is not being addressed to the moral satisfaction of the doom-and-gloomer.

The flipside of this neurosis is what we shall call the Myth of the Golden Age. An equally fallacious mindset, the Myth refers to our innate longing for a lost paradise. We tend to view the early days of any movement or historical development as pristine and exemplary. Christians since the Renaissance have looked back, under the slogan ad fontes, to the early church as a model for theological and liturgical purity, before the papacy evolved into a powerful political institution. Likewise, Muslims long for the golden era of the High Caliphate—a time when the arts flourished and the Mongols and Crusaders had not yet raped and pillaged their way through the Middle East. Emotion drives this longing for the halcyon days of yore more than historical objectivity. Life might not have been so wonderful back in the day, for we know that human nature, with all its foibles, has been a constant in history; but we believe it was better in earlier epochs nonetheless. People individually and collectively look back to a time when life was simpler and the early community held to high moral standards. Whether or not this rose-tinted past corresponds to the reality is a different matter.

Take for example the view that the world today is a much more violent and dangerous place, what with nuclear bombs, industrialized warfare and almost incessant occurrences of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, in both an article and widely-circulated lecture entitled “A History of Violence,” has forcefully argued that we are kindler, gentler and less violent as a species today than in previous epochs and eras, the great atrocities of the 20th century notwithstanding. He bases this claim on close analysis of death rates and body counts of foregone eras, and his observations regarding violent pastimes the modern world, particularly the West, have long since abandoned. On the face of it, he writes, this view appears to be “somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.” Our penchant for a golden age would tell us so, but, according to Pinker’s thesis, you would be wrong.

We as individuals tend to engage in the Myth on a micro-level when it comes to our own life experience. “Kids were not so rowdy and impolite in school as they were 20, 30 years ago,” we might say. “Back in my younger days we weren’t so caught up into materialism.” The return to an earlier paradise is a compelling longing, but those who have studied history know that human nature has been rather static. Pristine eras and golden ages, it would seem, are chimeras captive to the subjectivity, longing, and hopes of the descendent generations.

Doom-and-gloomism is more volitional than delusional per se, though the latter diagnosis seems the case ostensibly. Before we get out our air violin to serenade the doom-and-gloomers’ pathetic lamentations with gleeful mockery, we should at least try to understand the phenomenon. The best offense is a preemptive defense. Doom-and-gloomism serves as a safeguard mechanism; the doom-and-gloomer exaggerates policies, developments and events that he or she finds personally distasteful so as to provide psychological comfort when things turn out to be not as bad as they had told themselves. I tire of it, and so should you.

Is there cause for alarm? Is the sky falling or the heavens darkening? Are the dead lurching from their graves? Don’t get me wrong. You might have gathered that I am not an optimist, except perhaps in Mark Twain’s definition of the pessimist: an optimist with experience. I have a somber understanding of human nature and a proclivity to see grey skies; however, this partisan-based depiction of doomsday is ridiculous. If we were living in Europe during the Black Death of the 14th century or the fascist-ridden and depression-filled days of the 1930s, if we grew up in Darfur or parts of central Africa today for that matter, we’d have reason to think the world had descended into a dark age. The Congolese woman running from Hutu death squads and UN soldier-cum-rapists understandably might believe she’s living in an era of gloom. But is 21st-century America and the world in general on the brink of collapse? Intellectual honesty compels us not to draw such an emotionally charged conclusion.