Paradigm Shift

Back in 2010, in a post about changes in urban life, I quoted Neil Pierce, who had written that “for humans, displacement from their known settings may be exceedingly painful…the psychological impact of forced removal from a familiar neighborhood is like a plant being jerked from its native soil.”

For “neighborhood,” substitute “reality.”

The world is in a state of flux, what scientists might call a “paradigm shift,” and the pain and discomfort that undeniable fact is causing is manifest in our communications, our economy, and especially our politics. (How else do we understand the angry and frightened voices insisting that they want “their country” back and the belligerent demands to “Make America Great Again”?)

In 2015,  a site called “The Big Blue Gumball” discussed paradigms and paradigm shift:

Among the biggest paradigm shifts of the last 10 years have been the transitions from analog to digital, and from wired to wireless. These revolutionary technological changes have led to major sociological and behavioral modifications that impact our everyday lives – from the way we live and work, to the ways we entertain ourselves and engage with others.

True enough–but only a small part of the changes we’re experiencing.

All of us develop worldviews– paradigms–as we are “socialized,” into seeing and accepting the “way things are” as understood by the cultures into which we are born.

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s seminal book about the roots of bigotry, published in 1954, Allport pointed out that most  prejudices come from relatively unthinking acceptance of what “everyone knows”–Jews are “sharp” businessmen, blacks are lazy, women are emotional and illogical. The dangerous haters had twisted psyches, but most people weren’t emotionally invested in these negative social stereotypes–they didn’t really think about them, any more than they thought about the fact that we call the color of the sky “blue”– and Allport thought the misconceptions would erode with greater familiarity and more contact.

We’re still working on that. Social change is painful and very slow. (Granted, a global pandemic may speed things up…)

I’ve been particularly interested in a change that has been less noted, although several of its consequences have been subject to expressions of concern. I think we are beginning to see the demise of consumerism. Not consumption, necessarily, but consumerism.

Most pundits attribute the recent struggles of retailing to the Internet, the assumption being that we are simply taking our consumerism online. I think there is more to it.

When I was young, people viewed a trip to the mall or shopping district as entertainment; there was intense interest in what one’s friends were wearing, what “this year’s look” was, what upscale car the neighbors had purchased…and all these things were markers of status. There is obviously still an enormous market for personal purchases, especially for electronic gadgetry, but we are also undergoing a very real change in public attitudes about stuff. 

What that shift means for our economy, which is driven by consumption, remains to be seen, butthere are signs that those attitudinal changes are accelerating,

For example, I found this article from the Guardian significant.It was a report about a new downtown development in the Dutch city of Groningen–an example of the movement to reinvent urban hubs for the post-consumer age.

The €101m, trapezoid Forum building is part library, part meeting space, part science museum and part recreational hangout – a 10-storey “multi-space” designed to resonate with citizens who know that shopping is not necessarily the answer. It’s a new-look department store that doesn’t actually sell very much.

But with high streets feeling the pinch across the developed world, with shops shuttered and town centres wondering what they are for any more, the Groningen experiment is being closely watched.

The lengthy article is fascinating; it describes the Forum as an effort to build community, not commerce.

The Forum seeks to orient all its cultural activities around a common thread. Whether it’s the current exhibition on artificial intelligence (recently on show at the Barbican in London) or Spike Jonze’s futuristic film Her at the cinema, everyone is collectively inching towards the same page (“optimism about the future”, in the Forum’s case).

Social change is inevitable. Unfortunately, thanks to the current pandemic and the economic disaster likely to come in its wake, our paradigms are likely to change far more rapidly–and challenge us far more dramatically–than many of us can handle. What will come next is a question for social scientists–or perhaps science fiction writers.

At a minimum, it will be interesting….


Saving Remnant? Or Leading Edge?

I was recently in a meeting where courteous, educated and concerned citizens shared different perspectives on promoting the common good. I couldn’t help wondering whether  gatherings of this sort might be evidence of incremental positive change, or whether, instead, part of what biblical folks might call “the saving remnant”–the relatively small segment of society that keeps the lamp of reason burning through dark ages.

One of my sons recently characterized my reactions to contemporary politics as “bipolar” noting that I alternate between despair over destructive stupidity to hopefulness sparked by emerging signs of rebellion against our “Gilded Age” status quo.

I’ve shared a good deal of the despair on this blog: the evidence of persistent, widespread racism; the efforts to roll back women’s rights; the descent of a once-responsible political party into fantasy, bigotry and anti-intellectualism; the systemic, legal and structural barriers to change; the growing gap between the rich and everyone else; the outsized influence of money in politics….and the list goes on.

When I focus on these aspects of our poltical/social landscape, it’s hard to be cheery and upbeat about the future.

But there are also emerging signs of change–signs that a challenge to the status quo may be in the offing. And there’s the fact that American history is filled with examples of such change.

Survey research provides evidence that younger Americans are less bigoted, more inclusive and far less in thrall to religious fundamentalism than their elders. The  movement to raise the minimum wage is gaining traction. The dramatic change in public opinion on same-sex marriage should be a wake-up call to the proponents of all sorts of “traditional” stereotypes, not just of LGBT folks, but of women and African-Americans.

Rush Limbaugh continues to lose market share. Despite the anti-science posture of so many lawmakers, recent surveys show that 80% of Americans accept the reality of climate change and want government to do something about it.

And all around the country, people are taking to the streets to demand change. It isn’t just Ferguson and Baltimore protesting police excesses; it’s fast-food and hotel workers and Walmart employees demanding fair treatment and pay, and Moral Monday activists reproaching state-level lawmakers’ disregard for the common good (shades of the Social Gospel!). In Washington, it’s bipartisan recognition of the need to reform America’s criminal justice system. Here in Indiana, it was the overwhelming pushback to passage of RFRA (followed by the “Pence Must Go” signs still popping up all over the state).

While social media and the Internet can be used to create a bubble that reinforces our pre-existing world-views, they can also inform us of injustices we wouldn’t otherwise  know about. They can connect us with others committed to change. The ubiquity of cellphone cameras allows documentation of events that were previously “he said/she said.” The same technologies that disorient and threaten my generation are allowing those who’ve grown up with them to create new kinds of communities.

The structural barriers to change are formidable, but entrenched privilege has been toppled before. I’d say it’s 50/50….and my mood at any given time depends upon which 50% I’m looking at.

Saving remnant? or Signs of emerging social change?



I’ve been reading a book by several well-known scholars of civic engagement, “A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing America Citizen.” It has been interesting for a number of reasons: the authors compare and contrast four cohorts—the generation prior to the Baby Boomers, which they call “the Dutifuls,” the Boomers, GenX and the youngest cohort—the one we tend to refer to as Millennials, but they dubbed the DotComs.

There is a lot of interesting material about the differences in civic and political attitudes and skills among the four cohorts. The researchers note one in particular that I have noticed in my own students—unlike the Dutifuls and Boomers, the DotComs are far more likely to participate in civic life than in political activities. They haven’t opted out, as so many of the GenX generation has, but they have directed their energies to volunteerism and nonprofit activities rather than politics and government.

The authors attribute this political “opting out” in part to the fact that the DotCom generation was socialized at a time when anti-government rhetoric was ubiquitous—when Reagan’s “government is not the solution, government is the problem” had become an accepted axiom. Other attributes of the DotCom generation, however, fly in the face of this tidy conclusion. DotComs are far more supportive of government activities and programs than the generations that preceded them, for example. They are more likely to label themselves “liberal,” and not just on social issues. They are more likely to support affirmative action and other government efforts to ameliorate inequality, and more likely to support government-provided healthcare and other social safety-net programs.

The researchers cautioned that it is difficult to know what portion of the differences they saw are generational attributes that are likely to persist, and what portion are “life cycle;” that is, attitudes that will change as they grow older, establish households, have children, etc.

We have an advantage over the authors. The book was written in 2003, and the research was conducted in the two or three year period prior to that. In 2013, some of the open questions can be answered, at least tentatively. The authors worried, for example, that youth voting turnout would continue to decline; as we saw in 2008 and 20012, it has increased. The inclusive attitudes of the DotCom cohort are largely responsible for the profound changes in the politics of same-sex marriage, and the increasing pressure for immigration reform.

It is still the case that DotComs disproportionately invest their energies in civic rather than political causes, however. If that changes—if this generation ever devotes as much energy to the political system as it does to organizations working to save the environment, address community problems, and help the less fortunate—look out! Things will change, and in my opinion, those changes will be for the better.


Bartlett’s Oddyssey

Bruce Bartlett has written a rather sad article in the American Conservative , detailing his estrangement from the conservative movement–or at least, the folks who have current ownership of that title. He begins by listing his past service to the Republican party and conservative causes, service that should have earned him the right to dissent from orthodoxy without being shunned.

Of course, it didn’t. When your economic and political beliefs take on the character of religious dogma–when they become matters of faith rather than opinions grounded in experience and evidence–dissent becomes blasphemy.

As Bartlett describes his journey into the “reality-based world” (his own description), he makes some discoveries that startle him.

For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades.

The final line for me to cross in complete alienation from the right was my recognition that Obama is not a leftist. In fact, he’s barely a liberal—and only because the political spectrum has moved so far to the right that moderate Republicans from the past are now considered hardcore leftists by right-wing standards today. Viewed in historical context, I see Obama as actually being on the center-right.

Of course, Bartlett is correct about Obama’s centrism. It drives the left wing of the Democratic party nuts.

When I read “The Audacity of Hope,” I remarked that Obama’s philosophy as described in that volume was virtually identical to that of a moderate Republican–at least, as moderate Republicans defined ourselves in the 1980s. His positions were pretty much the positions I’d espoused in my run for Congress back then, when I was actually considered part of the conservative wing of the party.

When I left the GOP in 2000, the party had already left me. It had shifted dramatically to the Right, and it has continued its radical transformation. That so many thoughtful people fail to recognize how different today’s GOP is from the party of Goldwater and even Reagan is something of a statement on our very human tendency to resist recognition of change.

It’s like looking in the mirror every morning for years without noticing that your formerly black hair has been slowly turning  grey, that your once-rosy complexion is becoming a bit more wrinkled each day…and then somehow, suddenly and without warning, actually seeing that you’ve aged thirty years. When did that happen?

Bartlett looked in the mirror. It’s a sad article, but well worth the read.


Pluribus, Working Toward Unum

There have always been dueling American “myths” about who we are as a nation, and those national self-images clashed mightily during this year’s election. On the one hand, we had the “Christian Nation” folks and their enablers, the pundits and politicians whose appeal for our votes could be summed up by the often-intoned promise to “take back” the country.

From whom? They never said, but the implication was clear: from those Others. The non-white, non-native-born, non-Jesus-loving, non “real” Americans.

On the other hand, there were the growing percentages of the electorate who fell into those categories. As Eugene Robinson described in his column this morning:

Nationwide, roughly three of every 10 voters Tuesday were minorities. African-Americans chose Obama by 93 percent, Latinos by 71 percent, and Asian-Americans, the nation’s fastest-growing minority, by 73 percent.

These are astounding margins, and I think they have less to do with specific policies than with broader issues of identity and privilege. I think that when black Americans saw Republicans treat President Obama with open disrespect and try their best to undermine his legitimacy, they were offended. When Latinos heard Republicans insist there should be no compassion for undocumented immigrants, I believe they were angered. When Asian-Americans heard Republicans speak of China in almost “Yellow Peril” terms, I imagine they were insulted.

On Tuesday, the America of today asserted itself. Four years ago, the presidential election was about Barack Obama and history. This time, it was about us — who we are as a nation — and a multihued, multicultural future.

Power doesn’t pass easily. Very few people yield privilege willingly. Change of any sort is disruptive and unsettling. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at the ugliness that has emerged during this period of social and political evolution, but it’s hard not to wish for a more graceful, even enthusiastic, acceptance of change. After all, our diversity–and our professed willingness to forge the “many” into “one”–has been a constant point of American pride.

However reluctantly, the nation is in the process of living up to that motto. We’ve chosen our myth.

There are plenty of Americans who aren’t happy with our multi-cultural reality.  They’ll need to get over it.