Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Podcast 7

Relieveddebtor and Corbusier take on green architecture and the changing institutional landscape in their most recent podcast. Enjoy!

Friday, April 17, 2009

As Institutions Crumble, What Will Take Their Place?

Life is always changing. But sometimes, change happens so quickly that we consciously stop and take notice. This is one of those times. With great expectations, we hoped the rust from the Bush years would fleck off. Instead, there seems to be a sense that more rust, a lasting rust, is forming. While Bush had his strengths (not least of which was his surety), he didn’t inspire confidence, especially when it was clear he had run out of ideas and support. For better or worse, Americans still need able leadership, even though we are remarkably independent in nature and history, and we were indeed ready for a change. And the results aren’t uplifting. At least, not yet.

This isn’t a screed against the current president. Rather, it’s a recognition that we were naïve at worse and overly optimistic at best to think that one person could fundamentally change the suspicions that had been growing within us for some time: suspicions that something wasn’t quite right, suspicions that the numbers weren’t adding up, and suspicions that a growing detachment from reality was here to stay. All of these suspicions were put on hold while we put our hopes in one man to make them go away. But he, because he is only a man, couldn’t possibly quell all such suspicions, and the basic detachments we’ve long sensed are now becoming realities. These are the detachments that we are no longer able to ignore, and they are motivating us to take real stock of where things are, and where they’re going. But what are the fundamental detachments from reality that have given us pause?

On a philosophical level, the first and most basic detachment is from the truth. The assumption that truth is relative is a devastating philosophical point-of-view, one that seems to promise freedom, but ends in enslavement. If truth is relative, then what exactly does one hang his hat on? And what protects your version of the truth, if another’s version is more popular, armed, or powerful than yours? Truth, detached from central, traditional, historic mores is not truth at all, just one man’s opinion. And if that one man has a following, an army, or a judicial system in his favor, what about your precious truth? Who will defend it, and on what philosophical grounds? I won’t be so naïve to say truth is an easy discernment. But are we even attempting anymore, or have we given up, using the excuse that it’s not real anyway, so why bother?

Postmodern relativism is simply an untenable philosophical framework, and it has led to a confusion in reality. It is certainly helpful for polite society, as it is a quick way to end an argument (“Well, you can think what you want and I will think what I want, and we can agree to disagree”). But if nothing is true, then nothing is real. If nothing is true, nothing can be trusted. If nothing is true, there is no legitimate need for respecting, much less loving, those around us. The only possible result is increased alienation, meaninglessness and rampant secularism, no recipe for social harmony to be sure.

Leadership that adopts a relativistic framework is bound to decrease confidence and increase anxiety, and this leads to our second unsettling detachment, detachment from our government. Does anyone have a hand on this thing anymore? President Bush acting against his own principles to save his principles is still a startling example of a lack of clear thinking that resulted in a panicked market. Our current president also has a tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear habit that leads to confusion, if not outright disgust.

Even worse than personal shortcomings in our government leaders is the sense that its size is starting to get away from us. In reality, it already has; we’ve officially become detached when our staggering debt load is more than we’re even worth as a nation. We’re officially detached when the interest on our debt is our fourth largest expenditure as a nation, following Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those four expenditures don’t even take into account our annual federal budget! So while our government encourages us to save and be frugal, it is living on the domestic equivalent of credit cards with no prospect of income to justify the current purchases. When political promises are completely detached from what is fiscally possible (unless we charge more of China’s credit cards), we sense that governmental detachment is real, and worrisome.

This leads of course to our growing detachment from economic matters. If only 53% of Americans prefer capitalism to socialism, we must have a serious lack of understanding. Worse, we must have a lack of trust in the market, and hence, each other. As massive companies engage in billion dollar boondoggles, only to get trillion dollar bailouts, we lose any sense of connection to the market, and let these failed experiment define the market for us. The market has become those rich guys stealing my taxes instead of the diverse, brave and industrious system that it is. The market, according to 47% of Americans, has become the source of our problems, be they environmental problems, healthcare problems, unemployment problems, or inequality problems. For too many of us, the market is not the solution, and we are simply feeling detached. 

(Other institutions are suffering as well, especially the Church. This article is an insightful essay on the dissolution of the American Mainline Protestant Church. This article outlines the future downfall of the evangelical movement.)

So amid all of that hopelessness, is there any hope? Of course. There is always hope. But it will be found in places we deem “authentic.” We see it in our food preferences as celebrity chefs are always on the quest for authentic food (eyeballs and testicles are always great fare for television). As our trust of massive systems and persons beyond our control depletes, we’ll rely on what we see in front of us. Local churches, local government, even neighborhoods may all experience revivals of sorts, if not in numbers, in intentionality. My guess is that we will seek ways to withdraw from the systems we do not understand, much less trust, and that instead of getting irate about the federal goings-on, we’ll be forced to ignore them. We’ll give credence to those on the ground floor, to those “in the know”, to those with experience, who have lived and gained experience. When institutions fail and demagogic promises don’t come to pass, authority will pass to those who are authentic from those who failed to deliver. At least, I hope so.


From a spiritual point-of-view, the little things of religion stand a powerful opportunity to become absolutely vital again, the exact opposite of rote. Communion, liturgy, the Bible, small groups…all of these things could again become “mainstream” sources of hope and meaning. After all, haven’t these things always stood, through the decline of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, Communism, and world wars? These little things have always proven to be authentic and lasting. I suspect they will continue to be seen in such a light, even as the big things around us become detached.


(Sometimes, it’s odd how articles with similar themes are born at the same time. I thought this said some of the same things I was thinking, in some ways better than I could.)