In addressing the question of how we arrived at this cultural moment, people often point to the effect of technology on communal disengagement. Technology has indeed altered the way we interact and arguably has in some ways made us less likely to engage in face-to-face communication and left us less aware of our mutual responsibility as human beings, but there is also evidence that the very generation that grew up with technology from the beginning also seems to value community more than its precursor. In short, technology seems to have contributed to a generation that wants community without responsibility, but there is another development that has had at least as much of an effect on our current situation that is cited far less often.
In 1968, tensions in Europe and the United States reached an apex. In France, massive general strikes and volatile protests erupted. On this side of the Atlantic, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Riots broke out during the Democratic Convention, and demonstrators disrupted the Republican national convention. The nation found itself at a tense crossroads in which two visions, one represented on ABC news by Gore Vidal, the other by William F. Buckley, Jr., clashed. The series of debates between these two were more remarkable for the vocabulary of the participants and the animus with which they wielded them than for any political insight. Regardless of the view with which one's sympathies lay, there was an increasing sense that issues could not be resolved politically. (Indeed, both Mr. Vidal and Mr. Buckley were later defeated in politics and themselves felt somewhat disenchanted.) The ABC debates introduced a popular trend away from thoughtful analysis seeking solutions towards information as entertainment.
In general, doubts that political action could provide solutions spread. In what is referred to as the linguistic turn, intellectuals began to look in other areas through which they might influence society. Theories about how power is imbedded in the language we speak were developed, along with ways of analyzing that power in the hope of altering society. These theories contributed to our understanding of language, but like any theory, their popularization led to a diminution of their insight. People began to suggest that merely changing the words by which we call things, in particular, by which we call groups of people, would change the lived experiences of those people. In reality, whether we say Indian or Native American, the indigenous peoples of this continent will continue to suffer the effects of intentional and unintentional cultural decimation. Saying Native American lifts no one out of poverty and returns no one to a vibrant culture that preceded the great dying as a result of the Columbian Exchange in which epidemic diseases such as small pox and yellow fever killed between 85% and 90% of the Amerindians. It shields no one from the effects of the Indian wars and the cultural humiliation brought about in many instances by the church. Responsibility, when limited solely to the words we use, becomes greatly attenuated. Nevertheless, people who feel empowered by a theory rarely stop to check its accuracy. Identity politics became common.
Having given up on politics, people lost the urgency to vote as cynicism spread. Lack of engagement produces the ultimate divide and conquer. We now find a greatly diminished middle class and an increase in poverty in the United States despite a worldwide and rather remarkable decrease. These conditions have caused a backlash against identity politics as the lived conditions of people’s lives cause them to feel increasingly powerless and frustrated. This has produced a presidential election in which the candidates are more starkly different than in several decades as people seek a remedy. The Republican Party had difficulty accepting its nominee, and the Democratic Party was for a time widely split. We may abandon identity politics as a failed experiment and return to political struggle, but that requires that those in both parties sense more fully their responsibility to their constituents. If the ruling class instead continues to ignore the lived experiences of the people and persists in politics unmoored by responsibility where neo-liberals seek community based on aesthetic agreement, a culture of trendy internationalism, and conservatives seek a return to a past that never existed, we invite people to seek undemocratic solutions to their problems. Though Christians do not place our hope in powers and principalities, we are called to responsible action in the world. We know that disengagement, no matter what its form, invites abuse. We therefore have a responsibility to pressure all our representatives to make policies that address the lived experiences of the people.
1 See David Brooks, “The Great Affluence Fallacy,” New York Times 9 August 2016, retrieved August 11,2016.
2 The Best of Enemies, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Morgan (Los Angeles: Media Ranch, MottoPictures, Tremolo Productions, 2015).