The Four Post-Modernizations

Slag from the Melting Pot

The first suspicion is that perhaps of America has never left the Middle Ages: the half that is functionally illiterate, the half that believes the world created less than 10,000 years ago - complete, doubtless, with fossil trilobites, for the edification of the faithful , - the half that believes in the literal existence of demons and angels, in astrology. The fraction one-half haunts the reports; it is the leitmotif of our Repuliksdammerung. I don't know that anyone has checked if it is the same half always...

But the hypothesis collapses. Half a century ago only a third of Americans accepted astrology; as recently at the 1910s it was declared all but extinct. This is not, thus, the survival and natural transmission of a medieval superstition. (Actually, astrology's European repute was greatest during the Renaissance, when one ingenious forecaster went so far as to cast the horoscope of Jesus and read in it the Crucifixtion: the Church was not amused.) Or, to take another example, consider the vampire: for fully a quarter of us believe it is possible he exists as a ``real entity.'' (The very question has a fine Scholastic feel to it, and one is surprised to find no discussion of it in Aquinas; perhaps I overlooked it.) We are all familiar with vampires, of course: we know their origins, their habits, their haunts, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as any peasant of 17th century Serbia or Silesia. Yet the resemblence between their vampires and ours is slight. Ours is Stoker filtered through Hollywood, a pale, befanged aristocrat with vaguely sexual designs on the local maidens and (more recently) global conquest; yet more recently, amis-understood, self-pitying libertine - an undead Bohemian, as it were. (It would be fascinating to learn how and why the surviving monsters of tradition have lost their evil character in the popular imagination, for they have done so or are doing so now - vampires, werewolves, witches, dragons, trolls, giants, ghosts, etc. - to say nothing of the fallen angels. Lucifer had become a mere Whig by Dr. Johnson's time, and by that of Anatole France a moderate yet progressive Epicurean. This last, clearly, must be connected to the decline of traditional religious passon - but the others? In any case, let us return to our sheep.) Such, in sum, is the modern vampire. The traditional vampire is a ruddy-faced peasant, plump to fat, who appears in dreams to his relatives and neighbors and torments them to death; his stigmata do not include fangs, and in general correspond closely to what actually happens to buried bodies after death. (The details, both of traditional vampire lore, and of the process of decomposition, may be found in Paul Barber's Vampires, Burial and Death - a marvellous book to read in Berkeley coffee houses. [I think Barber has a nice constrast of the traditional and modern vampires. Find and quote if it's short enough.]) Not even Americans whose ancestors, coming from Eastern Europe, knew the traditional vampire, have preserved him.

I don't care whether the Hollywood vampire is an improvement over the ancient one - though either is surely better than those of Anne Rice! Rather, I want to ask, how did this century-old belief change so oddly? More generally, what has happened to tradition?

What has happened is that the nations are moving as they have not moved for millennia, since the barbarian invasions - if then. The motion has been growing since the beginning of the Age of Exploration and now has the character of a force of Nature; of History. Between 1900 and 1910 8.8 million people moved to the United States, 1.3 million in 1907 alone; we are now conducting a highly unsuccessful effort - we had perhaps 1.2 million immigrants in 1993, a quarter of them illegal (Economist 26 Nov. 1994, p. 27), using means of dubious morality, to keep this from happening again. Millions have been moved by the slave trade (Christian and Muslim); as hired labor - hence the Indians in Malaysia and the Chinese in Australia and America; as refugees from a century of revolutions, variously liberal, communist, anti-communist, fascist and less classifiable (it is to one of these that I owe my own existence); as refugees from a century of wars, variously cold, civil, hot and total; as refugees from a century of genocide (starting with the Assyrians and continuing today with the Bosnians); at the mere whim of governments - Stalin gives one order and the Crimean Tartars are no longer in the Crimea, another and the Baltics become half Russian and half the Balts Siberians, an American general gives a third and every Japanese Ameican on the West Coast gets shipped to a concentration camp in the desert; as aspirants to urban prosperity, or at least something other than rustic destitution; as ``guest workers'' (there are an estimated 25 million of them today [Kotkin, Tribes, p. 234])... In short, the nations have been moving like tidal waves these last few hundred years, and their crests have not yet come.

Now the mere fact of moving does not imply a loss of tradition: nomads are so extraordinarily traditional that one can read passages in Herodotus' description of the Scythians - and not the least fantastic ones - and find them still true of the Kirghiz in 1917. (See, e.g., Paul Nazarov, Hunted Through Central Asia: On the Run from Lenin's Secret Police.) Yet it is the tradition of nomads to move, and they routes they take are traditional as well: there is no disorientation to moving if you have been going from summer pastures to winter camps all your life, and are surrounded by your family and tribe, which has been doing it from time out of mind, as you travel. The case of even a voluntary migrant from Upper Ruritania - or Arkansas - to Chicago or Los Angeles is rather different; and an involuntary migrant, still worse.

I must now beg the reader's pardon for a short discussion of belief. People either acquire their beliefs retail, one at a time, or wholesale, in large consignments, from someone else. Historically, almost everyone turned to tradition. It is not my duty nor my inclination to eulogize tradition here, but I must say at least that traditions are not too badly mismatched to the places they evolved in: they work well enough to perpetuate the species or they die out. Yet even the most superb tradition of Ruritania is unlikely to work as well in Los Angeles as it did in the old country; and Los Angeles presents problems for which tradition has no solutions. There are traditional ways to treat horses, but not to buy a used car.

Tradition survives migration only in ghettoes, and even then only when families, neighborhoods, tribes, remain intact. (Otherwise, there is no one to pass on the tradition to the young, or to check departures from tradition.)

Now the other important fact we must accept is that most of humanity does not form is opinions rationally and critically. I have no hope of concealing my distaste for this state of affairs, and haven't tried. Nor shall I discuss - here - whether this is an incorrigible flaw in humanity, other than to note that there has yet to be any concerted attempt to remedy it. That it is a fact, I do not think anyone is inclined to dispute.

So then: if people no longer hold to their traditional beliefs - and if they still do, their children do not - and do not form their beliefs critically and rationally - why then they will take uncritical, irrational beliefs from wherever appeals to them: the Party (any Party), the Church (any Church), the Schools (all Schools), the Media (every Media). ``God is a shout in the street.'' The great exception, of course, is when the State decrees that certain things shall be believed, or disbelieved. The Soviets and the Chinese seem to have been more effective at uprooting traditions than implating ideological purity, but this may have had much to do with the fact that the hostility to the pre-revolutionary past was constant, while the correct affirmative line changed every few years. (Cf. the works of Robert Jay Lifton.)

[Insert little dissertation on the peculiar efficacy of the aural media in inducing belief here.]

Need one add that California, the state of migrants, of recent migrants, of moves, was without (much) State control of belief, the home of the aural culture and saturated in it, soaked in it to the marrow, was ripe for an anarchic explosion of belief, which could include everything from the Whole Earth Catalog and the New Left to est and the Pentacostal church? It was a boom-time for memes, when the pressures of selection were very, very low.

[Memos: mention the black migration to northern cities; mention decay of political machines as another anarchic force - cite Riesman; mention decline of extended family, long-term employment, frequent moves. Might electronic communities somewhat counteract this? In re medievalism, cite the following: From Yi-Fu Tuan, Landscapes of Fear, James Given's estimates of homicide rates in medieval England, per 10^5 people per annum: Bedford, Kent: 28; Warwick: 19; Norfolk: 9; Bristol: 4; London: 8-15. (Over several decades.) (Tuan's p. 132.) From The Economist,22 Oct. 1994, p.4 of supplement: USA 12.4, EU 1.6, Japan 0.9 - ``of males, by males'' (Tuan gives Britain as ``around 0.4 since 1930'' and America in 1974 as 9.7.)]

Cf. Eric Hobsbawm's ``Barbarism: A User's Guide'', New Left Review 206 (1994) (some material in which also shows up in Age of Extremes)