As the old year was slipping through my fingers, I jotted down a list of the things which seemed important about it: “the Obama election, the marginalization of the Republicans, the mushy economy, the EU and Euro hanging together, guns in America, the sleeping monster of Islamic fascism, the war against women and resistance to it, the elections in France, Quebec, Greece and what they represent, the continuing hyper-individualization and micro-sizing of media…”
My plan was to write wise things about all these topics, and who knows, maybe I will. But on this New Year’s Day, bright and cold and brilliant in the late northern sun, one notion draws the eye. Buried at the bottom of that list, was the thread that ran through everything else. You might call it a “unifying theme”, except the theme itself, is fragmentation.
When you drive 100 miles or more, with the radio on AM or FM, you will hear a blur of things: the same new pop songs, the same old pop songs, slightly different local news delivered in much the same way, often a great deal about Jesus, or if it is public radio, worries about aboriginals (in Canada) and genetically modified crops (in the U.S.A.). You hear a lot of things, and although predictable, they aren’t sent only with you in mind.
With satellite radio you get something else entirely: you get yourself, reflected back at you, in the mirror of music and talk. The channels are almost comically narrow – “E Street” celebrating all things Springsteen, the Sinatra channel, right wing politics, left wing politics, 70s pop, 70s singer-songwriter, modern-day covers of 70s singer-songwriters. One can settle comfortably in one’s rut, and never get out.
This is the rut we see more and more people dwelling in, more and more: their own house of mirrors. As the internet becomes the dominant purveyor of information, it does so not by broadcasting, but by narrow-casting. Almost any prejudice, taste, preference, prediliction or inclination that may flutter within you, is being serviced assiduously by someone’s website. Or your own, for that matter.
The journalist Bruce Bartlett recently referred to U.S. news media as a kind of church – a place to hear comforting shibboleths repeated, to shore up the insecure and doubtful (I heard this, ironically, on the POTUS satellite radio station, 24/7 coverage of American politics. No jazz tunes or lyric poets allowed). Millions line up in front of Fox News, MSNBC and the infinitely varied chapels of orthodoxy on the web, to be bathed in their own opinions, rendered clean of any different notions or tastes that may have soiled them during the day.
When Orwell painted the dystopian future of 1984 – and indeed, as countless totalitarians have actually practiced it in real life, before and since 1984 – the organs of media were all tuned to the same hymn book. There was a monotheistic faith, spilled down the throats of the masses by the assembled powers of radio, viewscreens, brainwashing and books. Sometimes there weren’t even books (Fahrenheit 451) – a future we seem to be slithering towards, unless you count e-books as books (which we must, I mean, how codgerly can we get). It was one voice, one message.
But a single, unifying doctrine is the very opposite of what our modern media dispense: we get many, and each of us can either find or create our own “camp” – a club of like-minded souls (like-mindless in many cases). And it is this fragmentation, this isolation and self-reflection, that is disemboweling civil society from within. For it is the constant repetition and memorization of concepts which denude them of their content, and convert them instead into catechisms which repel thought. The more you repeat a task, the better your muscles remember it, making the task more fluid the next time; but the more you repeat a belief, the weaker and more rigid becomes the brain.
Anyone who ever studied genetics (and that should be anyone who survived high school) knows that to remain robust, organisms need to mix genetic content. Bulls may breed with their sisters but that’s to produce t-bone steaks, not new synthetic fuels or symphonies; we need to mix it up, to avoid the worst narrowing effects of inbreeding. Yet inbreeding is what we are doing, intellectually at least, as we continually commune only with those who live and think like we do.
This inbred, narrowing way of life does more than make each individual weaker and more stupid. It makes us more volatile, less comfortable with difference, less tolerant and less capable of dealing with surprises. If you only speak English, it will be much more difficult to cope with a visit to France – difficult enough, perhaps, that you’ll decide to stay home and just look at the Louvre through a glass screen in your lap.
We see this everywhere, in all walks of life. While fragmentation creates more opportunity to explore, the less comfortable we are coping with the alien, the less likely we will be to step out and try something new. Millions of people drive past a Thai restaurant to go back to McDonald’s, while a lesser number take the Thai food home and wouldn’t dream of sinking their chops into a Big Mac. The exercise of individual preference is no sin and it is not a civil malady, but if it is repeated infinite times in infinite ways, it may well become one.
The darkest symptom of that malady is not the hermetization of people into their familiar ruts (although that is bad enough); the worst of it is the decision, almost inevitable, that one’s own way is the only way. Once you are in love with yourself, how do you love someone different? We see what this means all over: a brood of troubled young men, hatched and coddled in Wahabist indoctrination, now stalks the earth in search of unbelievers to wage jihad against. Even if their martial spirit has been temporarily subdued, that doesn’t stop them from enslaving women and squeezing any vestige of liberalism or openness from their local societies. And it doesn’t mean they are giving up on their goals. Instead, they plan on taking over the weak societies around them, getting nuclear bombs and pummeling the heretics with them. (And if that sounds alarmist and extreme to you, then it means you haven’t thought about recent history enough.)
In the Americas and Europe, we flatter ourselves with the belief that we are somehow immune to totalitarianism. Tell it to the Indians (um, sorry, First Nations); they’ll set you straight about what genocide looks like on the receiving end. A Bible which is silent about abortion has become the source, somehow, of anti-abortion opinion which is so unreasoning and senseless, that it would render any woman a slave to any sperm lucky enough to latch onto one of her ova. A twisted, wildly incorrect reading of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is now the iron wall behind which Americans keep 300 million guns. (Imagine what it will be like, when we decide to take those guns away – which eventually, we will have to). In Canada, religious fealty to mushy leftist thinking makes it socially incorrect even to talk about whether our public medical care system works, while sick people rot untended in hospital corridors while the one nurse fills in paperwork about people with the head colds. That’s what fundamentalism gets you: a good feeling about the stupid things you are doing.
The moment our beliefs become impervious to debate or new information, the house of our minds becomes a prison. We may be the masters of our own kingdoms inside those walls, but we are also convicts of own convictions. Tyrants in a cell. There is only one way to reconcile competing tyrants, and that is through warfare. These civil wars may be more benign now (or not – ask them in Newtown about that), but they leave casualties, guilty and innocent. We can hide inside until the smoke clears, but more likely than not, eventually we will be wounded too. Perhaps we will just be spectators this time, but we won’t be untouched: the wheels of the corpse wagon run roughshod over any garden, whether the blood was spilled there or not.
Almost every bad thing that happened in 2012, that wasn’t an earthquake or a hurricane, was born out of self-adoration, taken to an insane level by individuals, or on a tribal scale. It is imperative that we wake up from the narcotic effect of hearing our own thoughts repeated to us by others, so we become less enamored of our own image shining back at us. We have to seek out disagreeable and contrary people, with ideas and information that does not conform to our own, and we have to listen. We have to talk to people who don’t like what we say, and learn to do so in a way that doesn’t insult them or send them running back to the safe serenity of their own little chapel.
And we have to get the guns.