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Boston Globe: Blown away by the winds of change by James Carroll March 9, 2011

Posted by jaldenh in News & Views.

March 14, 2011

FROM SEVERAL directions come signals that the plates undergirding the broadest of cultural assumptions are shifting. Political earthquakes jolting North Africa and the Mideast are only one such indicator. Even favorable outcomes there will change the world’s self-understanding. Despots resist. Thousands flee. Will a mass of desperate refugees breach borders, overwhelming economies and identities? Xenophobic pronouncements from established authority (including even in the US Congress) are aftershocks of upheaval. Majority suspicions attach to variously defined “outsider’’ threats, especially Muslims, but the real change, of course, is that all groups are minorities now. The nostalgia of once-dominant classes for lost power is dangerous.

And speaking of dangerous, now come further revelations of systemic Catholic betrayal of children, Philadelphia joining Boston and Dublin as ecclesiastical pits of abuse and denial. (A grand jury recently indicted a top Philadelphia church official and held “substantial evidence of abuse’’ against more than three dozen still-serving priests.) This week of St. Patrick’s Day, must Irish Catholics imagine their first bishop-patron prone on the sanctuary floor, too? Where does this end?

In a different order, the essential capacity to believe in American presidential authority is undercut yet again — this time by President Obama’s reinstituting of deplorable Guantanamo procedures he swore to dismantle. (“Authority?’’ one hears Obama asking, “What authority?’’) Meanwhile, a US consensus that investment in public education must be a national priority is reduced to the absurd by savage assaults not only on school budgets, but on teachers. Long protected rights of labor, like collective bargaining, are beginning to be tossed aside. Structures of government at every level show themselves to be inadequate to uphold minimums of common good. Entertainment, from alien invasion films (“Battle: Los Angeles’’) to Armageddon video games (“Apocalypse’’), has moved from being harmlessly distracting to being a harness of social pathology.

Humans are resilient, and none of these developments will quench the urge to discover and create meaning. In their intimate circles, people still rejoice and laugh and bravely face hard choices. Losing jobs, they still find ways to guard self-respect. Falling in love, they make families. Protecting what matters most, they look out for one another. Such pursuit of happiness has always had its private aspect, but now it seems nearly solitary. So-called social networks are a pale shadow of the once vital ideal of commonwealth. How, despite our wires and wireless, did we come to be so alone? The public realm, where strangers are meant to do their discovering and creating of meaning together, has been hollowed out by this multifaceted loss of shared cultural assumptions. Highly publicized events like violence in Libya or protests in Wisconsin draw serious concern, but talk is cheaper than ever on the blogosphere, which promotes illusions of involvement while actually exacerbating bystander impotence.

What large expressions bind the American imagination? What trusted voices? What collective masterworks — whether of art, amusement, or prophecy? Catholic leadership is grossly discredited, to return to that most compelling example, but what about religion more generally? Where is the contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day — or, for that matter, Billy Graham? Religion is only one of the shaken pillars of meaning, but its profanation points to the larger problem.

Marxist theory posited the “alienation’’ of workers in a capitalist system, and through the 20th century, the word took on ever-wider resonance as a referent of the modern condition. Not only workers, but poets, artists, intellectuals, owners, students, teachers — everyone, more today than ever. Cut loose from moorings, individuals fall back on their own resources, which can seem like jetsam in the oceanic drift. Broken myths, rejected ideologies, disproven faiths, untrusted authorities, and communications media that make this demoralized condition crystal clear — alienation has come into its own as the universal, if unstated, note of life.

That, paradoxically, can be a new source of common purpose, as each person accepts responsibility not just to denounce but to reconstruct. One insists: solitude can open into solidarity, with uncertainty itself as the ground on which the future must be built. That project, in fact, is the perennial task, and humans have no choice but to take it up. There’s the given hope.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe. 



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