Thursday, January 27, 2005

Part 9: Modernism at its Nadir

Thanks for the excellent comments. Very insightful.  Onward...

Modernism Part 9: 

Oh, there are plenty of reasons for modernism to have lost its gloss. Just one piece of visual art -- the image of the atom bomb -- seared away much of the can-do aplomb from men and women on the street, warning that ambitious plans might lead us all off a precipice.

The other great 20th century work of visual art -- that Apollo 8 photo of Earth floating as a fragile oasis in the desert of space -- preached a similar message about the importance of caution and remembering what’s at risk.

Still, isn't that the point? We didn't go off the precipice of nuclear war. In many ways, the bomb -- or at least its searing image -- may have been the very thing that saved a generation from the next world war. And that picture of our oasis planet stirred environmentalism as no verbal argument ever could. Both works of visual art were sermons about maturity and responsibility.

And both sermons - deeply moral visual lessons - were created by engineers, by scientists. By modernism itself.

Above all, those sixties modernists can say this. Their mistakes were - in the long run - dwarfed by towering accomplishments. Take civil rights, womens’ rights, and the beginnings of environmentalism.

Take the quadrupling of attendance at those new universities, or the blatant success of anti-poverty programs in places like Appalachia and the New South. Or weather and communication satellites.

Both "right-handed" and "left-handed" modernists have plenty to crow about. Business innovations brought us the internet and cell phones. State endeavors spread immunization and prenatal care. Or look at examples of give-take like Los Angeles, where ten times as many cars make one tenth as much pollution -- a mixed and congested blessing but one that still attracts millions.

Take any of these things and you have proof, positive, that modernism could work, if supplemented with common sense. And proof that we're best off when BOTH "hands" are used instead of obsessing on Left vs Right, either-or dichotomies.

Now, at the very time when we are finding out what the left hand of social action and the right hand of competitive enterprise do well... NOW we should continue listening to fanatics who rail that we should amputate one hand or the other? That is exactly what romantic ideologues - socialists and market mystics - prescribe that we should do.

But that's not the way of pragmatists who still hold out hope for modernism.

... on to Part 10...

or return to Part 1: The Radical Notion of Modernism


Anonymous said...

Interesting; but how do you co-opt or change something like the Neocons divine right of kings Dominionism? They believe that history has ended politically, I wonder if they would even listen to reason. Is not that the polar opposite of everything modernists of right and left stripes have stood for? I hope you have a better solution than me because every conservative I talk to seems unwilling to listen. Ralph Nader tried for a convergence of Libertarians and Progressives, Tax cuts and universal health care, but was shut out by both sides. What is the spark that will make them listen?

Brother Doug

Willey Nelson said...

Sweet, after the last segment (8) I had doubts about the direction you were headed. But this last piece brought it back together again nicely. Well done. As to an earlier comment that asked "what to do?", I say that its a good question. From my point of view, your entering the world of competitive politics. By which I mean that your dealing with two power bases that have spent the last 200 years accumulating power. They aren't going to give it up lightly. It's not just a matter of changing public opinion, and even if it were change is slow. Ultimately for me it's a question of what I will do to keep the faith.

Mark said...


In and of itself competition isn't the problem, in fact it is probably the solution. The Clinton/Grinwich years featured some of the best problem-solving and economic growth we've seen, but the two parties were as fiercely competitive as they have ever been. Obviously, the politics of character assassination does no one any good, but the point still remains. While it is a bit hard to imagine, my opinion of Bush would probably be much higher if Democrats controlled congress.

But if you want to restore your faith in Modernism and were this world is going I have an easy solution. Go to the top of this blog and click "NEXT BLOG >>". Then do it again and again and again. The journey across the world is amazing. I found a blog by a 14 year old girl from Indonesia that reminded my of my own daughter with almost exactly the same interests. In another an American women was chronicling her family's move to Africa. In another a Malaysian boy analyzed the lyrics of a cool, deep song he just discovered: Hotel California.

[Edited to get Willey's name correct.]