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The Parting Shot with Herb London
The great Russian social philosopher Pitirim Sorokin argued that great civilizations cycle through three inevitable stages. First is the "ideational" stage, in which spiritual reality is primary; second is the "idealistic" stage, in which the spiritual is synthesized with the material; and third is the "sensate" stage, in which material reality is primary. When a society, such as ours, is in the sensate stage, it is inevitable that, at some point, transcendent ideals will move back to the center, beginning the cycle again.
Sorokin predicted the fall of Western civilization into sensate decadence, followed by the return of a new "ideational" period. Is this possible? While religious zeal often does emerge when sensual pleasures prove unable satisfy the soul's longing for transcendence, we need to ask ourselves: What is the catalyst for such a change? And how can transcendent beliefs be channeled into socially transformative ideas?
As I see it, the catalysts for social transformation are found in the culture itself. Yes, even a debauched popular culture can be a powerful medium for change—if its underlying message is transformed from the degrading and sensate to the uplifting and ideational.
But this requires a renewed belief in the transcendent. A lapse into the merely personal, into cultural narcissism, fosters the belief that God isn't necessary, that people can be their own personal gods, who can re-create the world in man's image. The restraints that God imposed on human behavior, and the institutions that once transmitted transcendent beliefs and that mediated between the individual and the state become weakened and battered. Schools no longer teach traditional social conventions and morals, and churches become less religious centers and more social organizations to promote the latest fad emerging from the Zeitgeist.
How, then, can the wave of sensualism be reversed? I see the distinct possibility for a revolution like that spearheaded by William Wilberforce in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century, that is, a moral turning based on the capture of popular culture. Wilberforce and his colleagues did transform British social norms in the 19th century, and eventually succeeded in getting slavery abolished in the British Empire.
Let us suppose, in our day, that movies and TV shows subtly began to adopt the stance of honor, courage, sacrifice, and civic virtue. Suppose our cultural heroes were not those who flouted the law, but those who defended freedom. Suppose the dark and sinister lyrics of misogynistic rap music were replaced by songs of romance and courtship. Could not our degraded culture be transmogrified into a vehicle for renewal and serve as the vanguard of an ideational era?
If the United States is to survive as a democratic republic, we must address the internal threats—the cultural decay all around us—as well as the exogenous challenges. It isn't easy even to envision the transformation I believe is necessary when the models for youthful emulation sell debauchery and sensual pleasure at any price (e.g., the TV show Skins). But there are Wilberforcians in our midst who understand what's at stake and who are willing to tease out of the American past the romance and excitement that led directly to the establishment of this exceptional nation.
If there is a cycle to history, catching the next ideational wave sooner rather than later will not only promote a desirable social outcome, but may also have positive commercial ramifications. It isn't coincidental that PG-rated films invariably do better at the box office than R-rated ones. America is poised for change—if we could only open the channels of popular culture to that which is uplifting. One can never be entirely sure of what the future holds, but reclaiming true liberty, recovering faith, defending the republic, and appreciating the noteworthy in our history are all goals worth realizing through the influence of cultural expression. •
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