TCS Daily

'Uniformity and Regimentation'

By Paul J. Cella - May 2, 2003 12:00 AM

"Everybody senses," wrote Richard Weaver in 1961, "that in the modern world there exists a massive trend toward uniformity and regimentation. Individualism had never before been under such pressure, not even from the most repressive forms of government." Now that's an eye-opener. The complacency of its delivery is an affront to complacent sensibilities: how can individualism be threatened in this age of the tongue-ring? But perhaps our age's incessant rodomontade about individualism masks, precisely by way of its swaggering clamor, a deeper, profounder shriveling of real individuality; perhaps it is precisely the cacophony of our boastfulness that obstructs a clear vision of our cultural poverty. Richard Weaver regarded that poverty as almost self-evident: that the advent of modern technology - he singles out radio and television - has razed entire cultures.

The products of modern technology have created an order which makes expression or even retention of individuality increasingly difficult . . . The result, unless some way is found to check or elude this pressure, threatens to be fatal to cultural pluralism. By cultural pluralism I mean simply the appearance, growth, and co-existence of a number of different cultures often within one political division. A plurality of cultures affords the same kind of richness in space that the cultures of the past . . . provide in time.

Here Weaver's observations come into sharper focus, for here we edge closer to an appreciation that the steady diminution of our own ideas about individuality may indeed be a real event, though it is by now so comprehensive that we lack the depth and richness of imagination to perceive it. For the modern mind, the idea of individuality is tied inextricably with the idea of liberation; the Individual, in the modern story or myth, is he or she who rebels against inherited structures of thought and social organization - structures reckoned to be repressive and irrelevant. Thus in popular imagination the Individual inheres in "countercultual" climes only: the province of hip-hop, with its romanticized gangster mystique; the province of rock and roll, with its romanticized decadence, and its heroes of suicidal narcissism. These are the liberators; their vocation is to disparage and ridicule what came before them, to subvert and obliterate the organic structures of tradition that bind not only man to man but generation to generation. To cite Dr. Johnson, they feel "not so much the love of liberty as a repugnance to authority." And therefore, by the lights of our impoverished ideas, they are christened the Individuals, consecrated into the Church of Individuality.

But where other cultural agents, other individuals, turn away, horrified, from these listless things, that is, where they turn back in some groping but real fashion to a celebration of the traditions and patrimony of the past, they are aggressively or subtly anathematized; their claims to the title of Individual are annulled. To maintain the musical analogy, it should come as no surprise, then, that country music and Christian rock - undeniably profitable enterprises in their own right - are treated with exquisite, though occasionally veiled disdain by the guardians of popular culture. For in the eyes of the world to submit to Christian orthodoxy is, perforce, to renounce all claims to the title of Individual.

The decline of individualism as a real idea of course reduces the prospect of truly great figures emerging from the multitude. Jacques Barzun, after surveying the geniuses of the West with supreme erudition and élan in his From Dawn to Decadence, remarks rather plaintively that no singular genius has risen from the "demotic" late twentieth century. The distinctive irrepressible individualism that gave the West its vitality and its consequent deluge of creative force has proven evanescent, or has exhausted itself; gone are those singular figures like Erasmus, Montaigne, Pascal, Burke (who in addition to his justly famous organon of literary statesmanship and polemic published an intricate catalogue of aesthetic qualities), Bagehot, Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, etc, etc: men whose intellect spanned a range of ideas so broad as to astound and chasten our pinched and limited ranges today. Perhaps it is, as I say, precisely for want of individuality, and the genius that feeds it, that the idea of the Individual is so dominant, even exclusive today. A dull desiccated idea has thrust aside a richer one; the ubiquitous word has replaced the factual reality.

Our democracy, to quote Dr. Johnson again, has become freighted with "an envious hatred of greatness . . . and pride disdainful of superiority." Is it any wonder that greatness eludes our age? I recall recently remarking casually to several colleagues, upon hearing of one's vacation trip to St. Augustine, Florida, that St. Augustine may well have been the greatest man who ever lived. A debatable proposition, unquestionably (one would have to exclude Jesus of Nazareth as possessing the unfair advantage of divinity, and then the immediate competitors, it seems to me, would be St. Paul and the Prophet Mohammed), but I was struck by the looks of utter bewilderment that greeted my comment. The idea of there being greatness on that level seemed never to have occurred to them; and it produced a certain vexation to suggest such a thing. Think what you will of St. Augustine; think of him as the "theorist of the Inquisition"; as a ferocious obscurantist, a towering egotist, or a hopeless puritan; but think of him a dull and uninteresting creature and you merely reveal yourself as a fool. Whatever else he was, Augustine was an individual. Our age will not likely produce an individual such as he.

To my mind, a culture which disdains greatness and superiority in men cannot rightly be said to value individuality; and therefore Weaver's pronouncement was accurate, indeed, it was prescient: the trends he described in 1961 have surely not been arrested since. Quite the contrary.

The author is a writer living in Atlanta.

Politics of Progress: Technology is nothing more than an amplifier of human nature.

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