The great Russian social philosopher Pitirim Sorokin argued that when societies reach a sensate stage of historical evolution, it is inevitable that ideational impulses will percolate to the center of culture. This cyclical interpretation of history is driven by forces in the stream of history, a kind of quasi Marxian belief in historical inevitability. While religious zeal often does emerge when sensual pleasures cannot satisfy the soul’s longing for transcendence, the questions that emerge are: what is the catalyst for change and how are ideational beliefs channeled into socially empowering ideas.
As I see it the catalyst for social transformation is found in the culture, yes even the debauched popular culture. The consumption of popular culture represents a powerful medium for change if the message is transferred from the degrading sensate presentations to the uplifting ideational. A lapse into the personal, into cultural narcissism, is a function of disbelief in the transcendent. If there isn’t a God, anything is possible noted Dostoyevsky, including the belief that people can be gods. The restraints that God imposed on human behavior have been lifted by the belief we can recreate the world in man’s image. An existential light suggests there is no wrong except for the limitations we impose on ourselves. Taboos are the social conventions that arbitrarily restrain us from the lure of sensate pleasure.
From these assumptions the institutions that once mediated between the individual and the state have been rendered weak and battered. The family is in disarray and even terms like mother and father have been put through the cauldron of political correctness with terms as parent one and parent two the substitutions. Schools no longer teach social conventions when what counts is expression, the noise of recognition. Churches are less religious centers and more social organizations there to promote the latest fad emerging from the Zeitgeist. The Tocquevillian view that these mediating structures give America unique qualities seems anachronistic against the backdrop of present reality.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001).
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