The following is a letter that I sent a while ago to a select group of friends and colleagues I thought likely to have some insights to share regarding a project I am tentatively embarking upon. The response I got from those people was sufficiently rewarding that I am bringing that same inquiry I brought to them to the readers here.
I would like to benefit from the knowledge and wisdom that may be embedded in this community. These are big issues, not easily well understood. So I could use the help, and also these are issues that could be important for us to be looking at.
I hope to see responses in the comments section. If anyone has anything to share, but is reticent about posting publicly, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. So here is that letter:
Hi. Might I consult with you about something I’m thinking of writing?
It is my sense that something important has changed in America’s collective cultural consciousness. And I’m thinking of writing is something (of an unknown magnitude—perhaps as short as an essay, perhaps as long as a book) that could be called, “A Time Without Vision.”
It grows out of a sense of having witnessed during my lifetime (1946 – ) a change in a constellation of related pieces of our culture – changes concerning the American way of understanding – that has important implications.
Here are some parts of that constellation of changes I sense have occurred:
- In the 1940s through at least most of the 1960s, Americans had an image of a better society toward which we as a nation were striving and could make progress. Now, I get hardly any sense of that. It seems we’ve lost a sense of an ideal, lost a sense of being called to make progress toward that ideal (or perhaps of having the ability to make such progress).
- Similarly, there used to be a good deal more of a vision of how the world of the future should be, in contrast with the world as we then found it, than we have now.
- In that earlier period, America had a sense that it stood for something. A certain kind of society, a certain set of values. (This was real, I think, even there was also hypocrisy surrounding it.) In the present era, though one hears lip service to things like “freedom,” and though we oppose “terrorism” (virtually all established states do—even Putin’s), it does not seem that – in any strong and clear way — the United States still stands for anything.
- In that earlier era, the ethic regarding the importance of the public good was much stronger than it is now. That was true, I believe, of both political and business leaders: it would have been harder then than it is now for either group to get away with blatantly disregarding whether their actions enhanced or degraded the society at large.
- In the movies of the earlier era – and this is something I’ve been writing about for more than a decade – the action almost always took place within a moral framework, in relation to some implied sense of what’s right and what should That orientation toward some ideal of human behavior and the human world is far less prominent in the movies of recent times.
- In the intellectual world, we had a place for big ideas that substantial numbers of people turned to for important (even if flawed) and thought-out answers to basic questions about the nature of the human condition and the dynamics at work in the human saga. (I’m thinking here especially of Freudian and Marxist thought.) Those ideas now have considerably less prominence in intellectual life, and no other ideas of similar magnitude have taken their place. Moreover, I see good evidence that there is not even an interest in finding big ideas that might provide answers to questions of such scope as Freud and Marx addressed.
Admittedly, these sorts of things – aspects of the Zeitgeist — are hard to quantify, and hard even to define. But even though anyone’s ability to judge such changes on the basis of one’s own experience, and accumulated knowledge, is uncertain, these may be the very kinds of changes that it are most important to be aware of– important because such shifts may be essential in determining the fate of nations. And though I recognize how difficult it is to measure such cultural shifts, I do not dismiss my intuitive impressions of changes that have taken place in the world around me over the past sixty-some years.
But I am turning to you to check, first, if what I’m saying resonates with your experience and perceptions, and second, to ask if you’ve come across anything that might be useful in developing this picture.
So, my first question for you is, do you share my sense that there have been changes of this sort?
Second question: do you have any recommendations of works/authors whose works are relevant – in part or in whole – to the idea of such shifts in our contemporary culture’s capacity for or proclivity toward such “vision”?
I’ve given a bit of thought to what might be some of the reasons for such a shift. These I believe to be factors, although I believe that the heart of the answer lies at a different and deeper level:
- That era was a time of rising prosperity for the great majority of Americans; recent times not so much. And with rising wealth, people feel more sense of possibility, more willingness to think about the whole, etc. (But I would say that the era of “vision” perhaps began during the Depression, with FDR.)
- That earlier era was a time when our society was in conflict – hot wars or cold – against major powers that were totalitarian dictatorships (Hitler’s, then Stalin’s), and that brought the matter of our contrasting values into clearer focus than happens in today’s murkier world.
- The period from the New Deal to into at least LBJ’s Great Society was a time when a great many transformations were made by government in an attempt to achieve that more ideal society, and — when some of the efforts (e.g. welfare, rehabilitation of criminals) proved less than impressive successes — perhaps there was a loss of belief in our capacity to achieve any ideal.
But as I say, I believe that there is also something at a deeper level, having to do with the level at which we look at things, the fragmentation of our knowledge and understanding, and a loss of deep connection with the deep moral and spiritual levels, where we contact Wholeness and are motivated to serve it.
And, it may not surprise you to hear, I believe that this attenuation of this “vision” dimension of our collective consciousness is deeply related to the pathologies that we have been witnessing in our political sphere in these times. Which is part of why I feel it may be important now to talk about “A Time Without Vision.”
I would very much appreciate your thoughts.