Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Universal Value

In the previous post, I suggested that modernity has used “time” as an overriding frame of reference and that the “latest” ideas, fashions, etc. were usually viewed as the best. But the folly of this modern/postmodern scenario is demonstrated in the American musical “Oklahoma” where a farm boy returns from the big city, and sings, “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City. They’ve gone and built a skyscraper seven stories high, and that’s about as high as you can go.” More to the point was the 20th Century’s exposure to the great depression, WWI and WWII, Nazism, Fascism the holocaust, Stalinist purges, the fear of nuclear winter, and the devastating realization that maybe the “latest thing” was not the best thing. Maybe progress was not inevitable after all.

Anyone who has a cursory understanding of the work of Albert Einstein knows that both time and space are relative rather than absolute, therefore time is an inappropriate frame of reference -- regardless of whether the model of understanding is based upon premodern time, modern time, or postmodern time. Time and space make up a space/time continuum where time is measured in terms of the interval it takes for light to travel from one space/time point to another. Indeed, the whole of twentieth century science, from Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity to contemporary space probes, confirms the fact that everything in the universe is in motion -- The earth is rotating on its axis and orbiting around the sun; our galaxy is hurdling through space; and the universe, itself, is expanding.

Around 1923, American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), for whom the Hubble Telescope in named, discovered that there were multiple galaxies outside of our own Galaxy. In 1929, relying upon the constant speed of light as a standard, Hubble was able to measure the speed and direction of eighteen of these other galaxies. His discovery that the velocity of each galaxy increases in proportion to its distance from the Earth provided scientific evidence that the universe was expanding and is now known as Hubble’s Law.

I would argue that premodern absolutism with its fixed frame of reference has outlived its usefulness and that the modern/ postmodern idea of “time” has failed as a frame of reference. Therefore, we are left with no frame of reference, and the resulting muddle has lead to moral and cultural relativism.

Since the whole cosmos is in perpetual motion, perhaps motion is the most promising frame of reference for the development of a new model of understanding. Cosmic motion would certainly apply to all people, all places, and all times. Maybe the Latin term moto, meaning “motion” or “to keep moving,” paints a better picture of life in our universe than the “just now” of modernity’s modo.

In recent years, I have struggled to break free from modernity’s “just now” assumptions and to develop an alternative “model of understanding” that would unite all people around a “general theory of value” -- a model based on motion rather than time. The basic problem in developing a general theory is that the “general” idea must incorporate “particular” ideas without losing their individual distinctiveness. For example, a general theory must affirm the differences that abound within and among various cultures, but it must also reaffirm the existence of universal value.

The goal is to integrate the variables of contemporary pluralism with the traditional idea of universal value. However, to achieve this objective, the model would have to overcome three obstacles: The model would have to have a general point of view; it would have to preserve both the sameness and the differences of particular points of view; and it would have to be value-based.

Without in any way suggesting the existence of a mathematical formula, I have used the following three components to conceptualize such a model:

Moving frame + Uniformity/Nonuniformity + Constant value = General Theory of Value

Stay tuned for the next installment…

Sunday, November 25, 2007

My Journey

When I awoke, I was comforted to realize that the jeremiad was just a dream, but then it dawned on me that my dream was a compilation of the actual news stories that I have seen and heard over the last forty years. As I began to reflect on the social changes that had occurred, I realized that a cultural revolution had occurred and that I had witnessed an unprecedented transformation of Western civilization.

As a young man, I had been fascinated with politics and even aspired to a career in public office. To further that goal I attended law school, engaged in government service for a time, and then returned to my hometown to practice law and begin a political career. After a couple of years of groundwork, I jumped into the political arena and was elected to the office of prosecuting attorney. As the new “county solicitor,” I was responsible for prosecuting people who were charged with serious criminal violations. However, my ideas regarding a traditional political career began to take second place to the extraordinary changes that were taking place around me.

The court system was rewriting the law regarding the rights of defendants in criminal cases; the civil rights movement was rewriting the law regarding the rights of racial minorities; the women’s movement was rewriting the law regarding gender; traditional ideas regarding home and family were being abandoned in favor of free love, cohabitation, and children born out of wedlock; and there were increasing confrontations with religious orthodoxy. Instead of continuing my political career, I left office before the end of my elected term and began trying to understand the social revolution that was sweeping through Western civilization.

Having studied political science and philosophy in college, I began a self-study project that eventually dominated my life and destroyed my interest in the practice of law. Rather like Richard Dreyfus’s movie character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the only thing I was interested in was my “project.” Over the next few years, the self-study consumed most of my time and energy as I read and reread everything from Aristotle to Zen. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, but as I continued my search, I came to realize that Western civilization was and is engaged in a massive transition from modernity to whatever is going to come next. Indeed, I now believe that the so-called global village is caught up in an ongoing paradigm shift comparable to Europe’s transition from medieval times to the modern era. Unable to find writers that I agreed with, I began to write and to keep a journal.

From the beginning, the various issues seemed to focus on the idea of being “modern,” especially what was and is happening to modernity and what is going to come after modernity. Part of the problem, of course, is the naming process, itself. If there is no name for a new thing that is happening, then the old way has a decisive advantage. Indeed, the naming process can inhibit people from thinking outside the box, just as parents can preclude their children from coloring outside the lines. The term “modern,” for example, is based upon the Latin word modo that means “just now,” and it places a premium on time, especially, the most recent developments in the time continuum. Ideas that are new and experimental enjoy an avant-garde status that is reminiscent of aristocratic privileges in former times. For nearly a thousand years, “modern” discourse has assumed that time is the proper “frame of reference” for understanding our world and that the latest developments are the highest and best.

However, the truth is that our desire to “be modern” is actually a form of linguistic imperialism that has conquered verbal space to such an extent that the totality of Western civilization is now perceived in terms of premodern ideas, modern ideas, and postmodern or ultra-modern ideas.

“Postmodern” writers have tried to distance themselves from the modern era, but no matter how much they analyze or criticize modern ideas, they can’t escape the avant-garde mentality. The “just now” model functions like an invisible spider on a giant web continually spinning out more and more time. Of course the “new” ideas around the edges of the web are the most important, so both the modern and postmodern bugs are caught up in modernity’s ever-expanding web. So where do we go from here? Stay tuned…

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Continuing Nightmare

In my continuing nightmare, I saw a society in which violence had become a way of life. Earlier generations had left their doors unlocked, but later generations were obsessed with personal safety. Security had become a major factor in design and construction, and the production of burglar alarms and window bars had become a growth industry.

Domestic violence had also become an increasing problem. Instead of settling domestic differences or abiding by court orders, more and more men were guilty of abusing their wives, and battered women fought back with their own brand of violence until “battered wife syndrome” became part of the vernacular. The sad consequence was that increasing numbers of adults were guilty of physical and sexual abuse against children. Some children died at the hands of abusive stepfathers or live-in boyfriends, and some of the children’s mothers helped cover-up the crimes.

Equally outrageous was the strange phenomena of violence committed by children who seemed to have adopted an amoral value system. Children in elementary schools assaulted fellow students over minor differences and teenagers killed each other for breaking off high school romances. Perhaps the most shocking part of my dream was the school violence in affluent suburbs and small towns. Parents, experts, and journalists speculated about the causes of bazaar behavior, but what was to be expected from children born into a society that had traded the traditional value system for a moral vacuum?

The violence and self-indulgence had a ripple effect across the whole society as victims looked to the government for relief. The court system was virtually overwhelmed with domestic problems, juvenile offenses, and criminal violations. Cases that should have been vigorously prosecuted were dispatched with plea bargains for reduced sentences, and prisons became training academies that turned petty offenders into hardened criminals.

Even the rules of the road had changed, as more and more people practiced “road rage.” All too often newspapers carried horrifying stories in which blowing the horn or cutting someone off in traffic resulted in fistfights or gunfire. Another kind of rage was seen in “sporting” events where rival participants, coaches, and even referees, were sometimes physically assaulted. In arts and entertainment, as in sports, the “anything goes” mentality led the public to tolerate and then clamor for increasingly graphic forms of violence and sexuality, especially in movies and television. Dramatic programs pandered to the public appetite for sexuality, pseudo-sports glorified personal violence, and talk shows sought out bizarre stories and relationships. The more outrageous the show was, the better its television ratings.

The situation was aggravated by an expanding mass media where publicity was the stock-in-trade, and the end product was the creation of celebrities. The media, especially the electronic media, spewed forth the publicity that turned entertainers, sport figures, and even politicians into an elitist clique that was bigger than life. Public relations experts worked incessantly to manipulate or “spin” publicity in favor of their clients. The cult of celebrity was such that even “bad” publicity sometimes enhanced the careers and marketability of celebrities.

Basking in the glow of the new tolerance, movies, radio, and television became more and more outrageous until “shock value” took on a life of its own. Indeed, the “shock jock” became a new genre in radio and television. Along the way, softcore and then hardcore pornography achieved unheard of levels of public acceptance. The lust for publicity and celebrity status gradually spread to every corner of the culture until it was said that everyone would be famous for at least fifteen minutes. Emblazoned artists and their “shock art” eventually gained access to established art museums although their only claim to fame was that they were provocative and anti-establishment. As soon as the new shock art had battered down the doors of the secular establishment, it turned its artistic guns against the religious establishment. An increasingly anti-religious, especially anti-Christian attitude, could be seen in bizarre exhibits where the image of Jesus Christ was exhibited in a bottle of urine and a picture of the mother of Jesus was encrusted in animal dung. Western civilization had, indeed, developed an “anything goes” mentality.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Nightmare

“Oh woe!” Einstein cried out so loud that he awoke himself as well as his wife in the next room. Fearing that he was having a heart attack, she hurried to his side.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered.
“I just had a terrible nightmare,” he said, as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. “It was the worst dream of my whole life.”
“It must have been bad,” she said. “You haven’t said ‘Oh, woe!’ since they dropped the bomb, and nothing could be that bad.”
“This might be worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together -- it would be felt all over the world and would continue indefinitely into the future.”
“You’re beginning to frighten me,” she said. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“I dreamed that Western civilization had abandoned the wisdom of the ages and that I was being held responsible for the development of a dysfunctional society. You know that there is a limited sense in which my theory of relativity means that everything is in a state of motion and that every motion is relative to every other motion. Needless to say, that idea could be understood as having implications for human values, and people could jump to the conclusion that all values are relative. In my dream, people thought my work had abolished the old absolutes and created a philosophy of life that says truth is based on custom or convention, or worse, that truth is just a matter of opinion.” “Go back to sleep,” she said. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Grand Sez Who

Yale law professor Arthur Leff found himself caught on the horns of a dilemma when he used the existence or nonexistence of legal standards to present the issue of the "old absolutes" versus the "new relativism." The same issue is presented with the statement that something is either true or not true or right or wrong. To make his point, Leff invoked "the grand sez who" that is identified with both the playgound and the barroom, depending upon the age of the combatants: no matter what one person says, the other person's retort is -- "Sez who?"

This blog sets the stage for the relativism vs. absolutism debate by using the intellectual equivalent of "the grand sez who." The basic problem is presented when anyone suggests that something is either right or wrong. In reply, the other person says, "What gives you the right to tell me what is right and what is wrong?" Indeed, the issue is the same whether the situation involves a barroom brawl or an academic discussion.

In his Duke Law Review article, Leff reviewed the history of ideas and then adopted both sides of the dilemma. But the 21st century requires that we find a better solution to this age old problem. Leff concluded his article with the new and the old value systems in sharp contrast. He said, "Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us 'good,' and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.


Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved...

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us."

We have to develop a global consensus that replaces the "sez who" dilemma of right and wrong -- of what is true and what is not true. Unfortunately, we have to deal simultaniously with the issue on two separate fronts: On one hand there is the ongoing conflict within Western civilization, especially the traditional/early modern vs. the late modern/postmodern. What is to be the enduring legacy of the West? On the other hand, the West is engaged in external conflicts with its global neighbors, especially the world of Islam. Can the West survive, or will it go the way of all the other great civilizations that had their day in the sun and then passed from the scene?

Where do we go from here? We cannot go back to the "good old days," and there is no middle ground to be found, any more than there is a middle ground between the positive and negative poles in a storage battery. We must find a way to go forward by developing a new consensus, that is, a general theory of value that will appeal to all people, at all times and in all places. I invite anyone and everyone to join the conversation.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

What Would It Take

What would it take
To change the way people think?
Revisiting the Renaissance,
Reviving the Reformation,
Reinventing the Enlightenment?
Perhaps it's time to consider
The emergence of a new consensus
Regarding the meaning of life.
Being transformed
By the renewing of the mind
Is the purpose of this work,
But such things are not
For the faint of heart.