- I stumbled on this article today from far-left outlet Salon, which was actually quite excellent. For those who dont know, liberals often distance themselves from Salon for it being too progressive. Through my studies of ancient cultures, ancient spirituality, and ancient wisdom literature, I have arrived at a mindset deeply conservative and I will often find mainstream conservatives to be a weird mix of shallow ideas that dont really seem at all conservative to me. Which is why I was quite surprised to agree with basically everything said in this Salon article:
https://www.salon.com/2022/08/28/cultur ... own-myths/
The author recounts traveling through Africa and Eurasia as a youth, experiencing many different cultural norms and notes that the biggest cultural shock was returning to the West and seeing it from an outsider perspective. Already a striking similarity as this exact same thing happened to me besides that I didnt go to Africa.
I know most wont want to read a long cultural essay by this random guy, but to summarize he sees modern Western culture as inherently flawed because its designed to enhance economic well being with no regard for cultural, social, and spiritual wellbeing.
Here is a nice little excerpt:
Most societies have tended to reinforce values that emphasize social obligations and self-restraint, and to discourage those that promote self-indulgence and antisocial behavior. Virtues are concerned with building and maintaining strong, harmonious personal relationships and social attachments, and the strength to endure adversity. Virtues serve to maintain a balance — always dynamic, always shifting — between individual needs and freedom on one hand, and social stability and order on the other. "Vices," on the other hand, typically involve the unrestrained satisfaction of individual wants and desires, or the capitulation to human weaknesses.
The author rightly points out that:
Modern Western culture undermines, even reverses, universal values and time-tested wisdom. The result is not so much a collapse of personal morality, but a loss of moral clarity: a heightened moral ambivalence and ambiguity, a tension or dissonance between our personal values and our lifestyles and the institutional values of the organizations we work for, and a deepening cynicism and mistrust toward social institutions, especially government.
He also draws attention to the fact that there is a great disconnect between issues like this that people actually worry about when they think of the future, and the issues that are discussed in mainstream media and politics. The author seems to see a similar long term result of all this, that is people slowly coming to truth and shifting their worldview as it becomes harder and harder to ignore the flaws. However while I think this will be a long painful process, he seems much more the optimist:
As Western culture becomes more harmful to health, we are seeing a diminishing "cultural consonance": Increasing numbers of people in Western nations are rejecting this dominant ethic of individual and material self-interest, and making, or trying to make, a comprehensive shift in their worldview, values and ways of life as they seek to close the gap between what they believe and how they live.
This is a driving dynamic behind various countercultural movements such as simple living, downshifting, minimalism and transition movements. We are witnessing parallel processes of cultural decay and renewal, a titanic contest as old ways of thinking about ourselves fail, and new ways of being human struggle for definition and acceptance.
Another great point he brings up is our deeply embedded notion of constant progress and how it is fundamentally flawed:
Essentially, we equate progress with modernization. Modernization is a pervasive, complex, multidimensional process that characterizes our times. It includes industrialization, globalization, urbanization, democratization, scientific and technological advance, capitalism, secularism, rationalism, individualism and consumerism. Many of these features are part of the processes of cultural Westernization and material progress (measured as economic growth). This equation of progress and modernization reflects a deep cultural bias.
Western nations dominate the top rankings of most indices of progress and development, and Western nations are promoted as a model of development for other countries. On the face of it, the equation seems compelling. The UN Development Programme has noted that past decades have seen substantial progress in many aspects of human development. Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services, it reports; they also have more power to select leaders, influence public decisions and share knowledge.
Let us notice that indicators focus on those qualities that characterize modernization and that Western culture celebrates as success or improvement, such as material wealth, high life expectancy, education, democratic governance and individual freedom. However valuable these gains are, they do not represent the sum total of what constitutes optimal well-being and quality of life. Emotional, social and spiritual well-being barely register in this view of progress. It is precisely in these areas that progress has become most problematic, especially in rich nations.
The article also surprised me with its ability to tie spirituality and some history into this, contrasting modernity with medieval European values and world view and the tumultuous process which brought it about. I especially connected with this notion:
Today, humanity faces another rupture or discontinuity in its view of what it is to be human, and that rupture will profoundly change how we live. Just as it was impossible for the medieval mind to anticipate the modern, so too is it impossible for the modern mind to grasp what might come next. A greater awareness and acknowledgment of the flaws and failings of material progress and modernization, however, can encourage us to think more positively about alternative ways of living that deliver a high quality of life with much lower material consumption and social complexity. Growing and deepening crises will help to precipitate this change.
What struck me about this is that it mirrors closely some of my thoughts that I originally learned from reading the thoughts of Romantic Nationalists from the 1700s and 1800s. Hegel's notion of the "new myth", Herder's wish to connect to a forgotten cultural spirit. And speaking of Herder, this next part of the article seems like it was written by he himself:
Anthropologist Wade Davis' writing offers an eloquent exposition of this viewpoint. In his books "Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures" and "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World," he urges us to heed the voices of other cultures because these remind us that there are alternatives, "other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual, and ecological space." They allow us "to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny is therefore not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise." By their very existence, Davis argues, the diverse cultures of the world show we can change, as we know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet.
Davis learned as a student to appreciate and embrace the key revelation of anthropology: the idea that distinct cultures represent unique visions of life itself, morally inspired and inherently right. Cultural beliefs really do generate different realities, separate and utterly distinct from each other, even as they face the same fundamental challenges.
The significance of an esoteric belief lies not in its veracity in some absolute sense but in what it can tell us about a culture, he says. "What matters is the potency of the belief and the manner in which the conviction plays out in the day to day life of a people." A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective spirit will be a profoundly different human being from one brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. A child raised to revere forests as a spiritual home will be different from one who believes that they exist to be logged.
Davis cautions that modernity (whether identified as Westernization, globalization, capitalism or democracy) is an expression of cultural values: "It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. And it is certainly not the true and only pulse of history." The Western paradigm, for all its accomplishments, and inspired in so many ways, is not "the paragon of humanity's potential," he writes; "there is no universal progression in the lives and destiny of human beings."
The article then turns to the future, wondering what might it look like. It looks at a UNESCO commissioned project from the early 90s that basically wonders how globalization and modernity will affect cultures(UNESCO are the guys who designate heritage sites and stuff like that, very much interested in cultures not being extinguished):
Background papers for the UNESCO project proposed two scenarios: one pessimistic, one optimistic. The pessimistic scenario was that cultures and authentic cultural values will be, throughout the world, bastardized or reduced to marginal or ornamental roles in most national societies and regional or local communities because of powerful forces of cultural standardization. These forces are technology, especially media technology; the nature of the modern state, which is bureaucratic, centralizing, legalistic and controlling; and the spread of "managerial organization" as the one best way of making decisions and coordinating actions.
The optimistic scenario was that humanity will advance in global solidarity, with ecological and economic collaboration, as responsible stewards of the cosmos. Numerous vital and authentic cultures will flourish, each proud of its identity while actively rejoicing in differences exhibited by other cultures. Human beings everywhere will nurture a sense of possessing several partial and overlapping identities while recognizing their primary allegiance to the human species. Cultural communities will plunge creatively into their roots and find new ways of being modern and of contributing precious values to the universal human culture now in gestation.
Participants in the UNESCO project appeared to see the pessimistic scenario as more likely, as things stood then (it is perhaps even more likely today), while the optimistic scenario was more an ideal to guide policy.
And then a solid conclusion:
With culture as with so many other areas of modern life, humanity's destiny hangs in the balance: A dominant culture that is deeply flawed is nevertheless spreading throughout the world. Epitomized by today's global, technocratic, managerial elite, this culture has become hugely powerful, the default setting for running national and world affairs. Yet its failures grow correspondingly more profound, with growing inequality and concentration of wealth and power, growing mistrust of government and other institutions, growing global problems such as climate change. At the same time, ethnic and other "tribal" feelings have become more fervent and exclusive, often fanatical, including in the West. The 20-year war in Afghanistan offers one powerful symbol of this cultural contest.
On the other hand, somewhere beyond this ugly mix, largely hidden by the outdated and dysfunctional cultures of mainstream politics and the news media, through these same dual processes, there is also the potential, the possibility, for the optimistic scenario: a world where rich cultural diversity underpins a new and vital cultural universality.
At least we should hope so. Humanity's fate hangs on the outcome.
So why exactly was this allowed to be published in Salon? It masks itself well, eluding to the problems of climate change, oppressed indigenous tribes and their rich spiritual knowledge being destroyed by Western man, the dangers of Chauvinistic clashes, the failures and emptiness of capitalistic materialism. Whats interesting though is it seems like these are just issues that milquetoast conservatives push back on but the far right doesnt really care about. We are happy to embrace environmentalism as long as it doesnt involve a crippling tax being paid into the one single environmental issue that is inevitable and we are not entirely sure how much we contribute to. We also lament the loss of unique cultures and admire much about them, we just dont like making a dramatic self-flagelating theatre out of it that promotes a culture of guilt. We know the origins of capitalism and how certain elements of it betray our more traditional values.
The main thing I would change about this article is the emphasis, in addition to few things mentioned above that I would de-emphasize, I would also emphasize that things will get worse before they get better. People learn the hard way, typically when their society becomes a flaming trainwreck. Our struggle going forward will rely on learning from the spirituality and culture of other groups, but in particular it will come from learning from the ways of our forgotten and neglected ancestors, those who's worldview is most directly connected with the primordial truth of the world. The closest to this of the modern world cultures we are familiar with is the Dharmic tradition of Hinduism, Buddhism, etc, but it is not enough to learn a thing or two from a Hindu, we must realize how the axial age created religions and worldviews with similar flaws to modern capitalism, where the utilitarian aspect of gaining devotees(i.e., capital) outweighs the primordial aspect of understanding the truth which benefits a society.
Finally I think another source of study for modes of social being is those who are most experienced in thriving while navigating a position of being despised and throttled, which ironically enough seems to correlate closely with movements from the axial age. Take for example the Socratic philosophers, their path wasnt easy but in the long run it was them who steered the direction of thought. Another example being the Jews, especially in the capacity of the early communal establishment and later opportunistic utilitarianism. I could think of some more modern examples though they wouldnt necessarily be linked to a particular spiritual worldview.