The confusion enshrouds you. Every day, you discover some new idea or experience that makes less sense in your life. There are too many emails in your Inbox. Your connections on LinkedIn, friend requests on Facebook, and follows on Twitter go unanswered. Did the Obamacare website just confirm your new insurance? Where did marriage equality expand today? Will anyone remember you this holiday season?
This chaos derives from the social and psychological fragmentation of the global consumer economy. Freedom of individual choice has become so pervasive that few people can sustain systems of consistent expectations. So many people celebrate the new equalities gained by the LGBTQIA, women’s rights, immigrant, and racial justice movements. But men used to be men. Now, men are white, patriarchal, cisgendered heterosexuals. Simplicity – purity – was the cost of equality.
Media personalities from Bill O’Reilly of Fox News to Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg of ESPN Radio lament the various aspects of this revolution. For O’Reilly and others like him, the center has fallen away as nearly every social convention has lost its relevance. Ellen Degeneres, Rachel Maddow, Oprah Winfrey, Gwen Ifill, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama all represent this transformation. Gays, Latinos, Asians, women, and blacks cannot represent traditional American purity. For fully two centuries of the nation’s history, they were the symbolic representation of filth and deviancy.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal opened the door to a consumer society that created these movements for social equality. Although discrimination and inequality remain entrenched in the real estate and financial marketplaces through zoning and underwriting policies, the hallmarks of American culture prioritized inclusion on a global scale. Boxing, baseball, and football changed their rules to reflect this shift. Drugs, cheating, and corruption followed. Only because football leveraged a unique partnership with television and cable networks did it manage to grow since 1970.
Broadcast and cable television built the National Football League and National Basketball Association. The loss of traditional purity in these sports emphasized the highlight – the touchdown dance, the game-winning score, the dunk. Defense, fundamentals, and coaching lost the media battle to offense, style, and athleticism. For millions of men, Chuck Bednarek gave way to Tom Brady. Bob Cousy became LeBron James. Vince Lombardi lost to Eric Spoelstra.
Wherever consumer decisions held sway, the simplicity of conservatism dissipated. In music, classical concerts and opera lost audiences to big band and experimental jazz. Jazz birthed blues, rock, and country, eventually leading to punk, metal, and rap. How did Kirsten Flagstad become Meek Mill? Theater facilitated this transition. The comedy stage featured the transformation of the jester and harlequin into the racial minstrel who allowed European immigrants to ridicule Africans and, thus, become ‘white Americans.’ Bert Williams combined this technique with African traditions of signifying to enable the work of everyone from Al Jolson and Dean Martin to Bill Cosby and Jon Stewart. Comedy ridicules simplicity and tradition; it embraces complexity and redefinition.
Will the introduction of China, Brazil, and India to the world consumer market accelerate the dissolution of cultural purity? Syncretism is the process of blending cultural influences in the creation of new human ideas and experiences. How will a global culture based on American Anglo-Saxonism transform with substantial infusions of Buddhist communism, Hindu democracy, and Aztlanian convivencia?
The emerging principle may be a tolerance for ambiguity. The concept has origins and legacies in multiple national traditions, but was never the dominant factor in social development. Young people who can imagine an infinite range of questions and approaches to organizing answers beyond binaries like cause and effect will redefine science, economy, culture, and politics. A generation from now, the chaos you see today may be the new conservative purity.
Dr. Walter Greason is the keynote speaker for the Norristown Men of Excellence inaugural awards banquet on December 7, 2013, and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).