Sunday, January 30, 2005

Part 10: How Liberalism has Betrayed Modernity

...excellent comments, thanks...

Now you liberals should be warned. After laying into neoconservatives for quite some time, it is time to show faults on the other side. The Left-Right political axis has been a chief tool that romantic anti-modernists use to distract us from the real struggle.

Between future and past.

Part 10. Modernism gets a bad rap from the Left.

The irony is that everybody wants to accept the fruits of the LAST generation's modernist endeavors, while romantics of both left and right want to prevent anything new. I mean, would even the neocons want to go back to segregation? Would the most anti-tech lefty give up cell phones and recent medical advances? And who could complain about that music? All that incredible music.

Still, it is not the fruits of modernity that upset romantics. It is the conceptual underpinnings. The whole personality that they find offensive.

Counter-reaction had already set in before the can-do Congress of 1964 went cold. There had always been romantics on both the left and right who hated modernism. They found justification in Vietnam and urban riots. In Three Mile Island and the Exxon Valdez, and a long list of costly errors.

On the left, dogma-driven romantics warped the natural American suspicion of authority (SOA) into a never-ending list of political axes to grind. The fight for civil rights was such a heady and successful thing - overcoming ages of stereotypes and reflex discrimination - that soon every rock had to be turned over, seeking the next and then the next intolerance to expose, amid a drug-high of indignant fury.

Make no mistake, it was a good thing to extend this trend to gays, the handicapped and even to Wiccan tree-worshippers. But along the way it became less and less about equalizing basic opportunity and ever-more about creating and stoking a movement. A movement that came equipped with ideologies, litmus tests, enemies lists, and long catalogues of forbidden words. Forbidden topics of conversation.

And forbidden technologies, forbidden projects, forbidden ideas. Former allies found themselves ejected from a liberalism that was fast becoming a dogmatic faith, led by an elite priesthood.

First to go were spaceflight and nuclear power, though both had done wonders for the planet and its people.

Then the military, although its desegregation under Harry Truman and George Marshall had been the event that gave civil rights irresistible momentum.

Then polite dissent became a crime within a thousand academic departments that veered toward doctrinal purity, purging any unacceptable deviation.

Next to be ejected from an ever-narrowing liberalism were the nation’s churches, forgetting how men and women of faith had helped to combat slavery, then to promote civil rights, then to resist the moral error of Vietnam. (Thus, they reject one of the greatest modernists of all, Martin Luther King.) And with the churches banished, so were traditional notions of parental guidance during childhood. Finally, that quintessential hippie, Jesus, got the boot from a movement that he probably would have helped to establish, at Woodstock.

Liberalism began reflexively assuming that everything white, rural or suburban, bourgeois, American, or socially demure was automatically suspect, until people with those traits began responding with hostility of their own. The very word “liberal” became a weapon in the hands of its enemies. And when this happened, the movement’s elites only made things worse by diagnosing that the common citizens had been brainwashed by propaganda. Contempt for the masses, invigorating and satisfying, thereupon displayed its deadly side-effect -- political suicide.

(Contempt is ultimately lethal, once the voting masses find out how you feel. We can hope this will be the comeuppance of the haughty neocons, before they do too much more harm.)

But the biggest break was between liberalism and modernism. Every ill-conceived or ill-executed error of the ambitious modernists came under scrutiny. Not for its pragmatic success-failure ratio, but for whether it met the Left’s growing catalogue of litmus standards. Engineers became reviled enemies. The very nerds and technologists who had been at the core of liberal-modernism’s can-do spirit were progressively alienated, until you can hardly find one who will even talk to a liberal anymore.

...on to part 11...

or return to Part 1: The Radical Notion of Modernism

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

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Modernism Part 8: The Price of Hubris

...for those of you hanging in there, reading this essay in installments. (Please note below the blank that needed filling in!)



Of course, all that hubris and overweening can-do pride led to trouble, as it had to. Political rebellion in the Old South. Social disorientation and a generation gap. Pent-up frustration in the ghetto, suddenly released by hope, flash-boiled into race riots. Modernist architecture proved devastatingly wrongheaded as high-rise “projects” for the poor exacerbated every social ill, instead of helping to ease them. Few superhighways were built to allow for growth or flexibility. Many best-laid schemes spawned unintended consequences.

Likewise, a well-meaning but ill-designed welfare system systematically destroyed families, undermined work and dissolved personal responsibility -- proving that Barry Goldwater could be right-on when it came to detailed criticism, even if he was dead wrong about the dire need to do something vigorous about poverty.

Alas, by that point modernist meddlers were too far gone down the road of arrogant sureness -- so full of their own certainty of what was right that they were incapable of even tweaking or adjusting their plans under intelligent criticism. Le Corbusier in Brasilia and ___ in New York City showed how far architectural pomposity and insolence had gone. When taken to its ultimate extreme, by arrogant geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright, architectural modernism lost every trace of egalitarian pragmatism and became yet another excuse for bullying by a new class or "wizards". Human occupants were no longer even consulted over their needs, but simply told what those needs were.

(For more on flaws of technological arrogance, see Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Also Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn.)

Then, of course, came the ultimate hubris, brought to us under the aegis of that quintessential modernist, Robert MacNamara. Believing we could do anything and everything... or, as JFK put it - “pay any price, bear any burden”... America embarked upon an insane land war in Asia -- exactly what old Ike warned us never to do. (Never let JFK off the hook for this. He expressed modernism in its fullness and pride, all the good and all the bad.) Vietnam reamed much of the spirit out of American society, deeply wounded its economy, and gravely injured belief in our ability as a nation.

(Ask yourself what some enemy would think, looking at America and wondering how to harm us. Is the answer to topple a couple of high rise buildings? Or would you look acorss 50 years for the one mistake that nearly tore apart this nation? How about an unpopular-quagmire, ill-run land war in Asia?)

There are eerie parallels between the MacNamara-JFK brain trust -- on the one hand -- and today’s leading neoconservatives. In both groups we see the same arrogance, elitism, pride, foreign adventurism, and utter, unquestioning belief in the proficient mastery of a core group. Like Alcibiades, during the era when Periclean Athens went off the deep end, their pride is limitless, while their willingness to endure criticism resembles a cranky four-year old.

And yet, despite these common traits, the sixties modernists were completely different than today’s imperious neocons, who exude all of the same hubris while offering none of the modernists’ vision. All of the conceit, accompanied by none of the kindness. The same level of overweening ambition, but all of it funneled into benefiting a narrow kleptocracy, instead of a vast nation and world whose pain and shackled hopes should always inspire eagerness for change.

...on to part 9

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Modernism Part 7: Post WWII Caution/Confidence

I am grateful to those of you who sent words of encouragement.



In a rich irony, America came out of WWII both chastened by the terrors of technology and filled with can-do spirit. Never before had a nation taken on so many challenges successfully. And never before did a generation find itself rocked by the very image of oblivion - in the terrifying mushroom cloud of an atom bomb.

Now, doomsday was no longer a Sunday sermon. It lay within the grasp of human hands.

And yet, the war’s toll in actual human suffering and loss had been minimal to most Americans. The machine gun had done more to the psyche and confidence of their parents, after WWI, than the abstract terror of Hiroshima and Bikini did to US citizens in the fifties. Despite brushes with McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, the nation seemed willing to take on challenges as never before. And not only challenges of industrial technology - like providing a fully functioning house to every family in the middle class - but also much harder tasks in the social arena. For example, shattering class boundaries with measures like the GI Bill. And then, ambitiously, confronting demons that had benighted countless generations, like racism.

I perceive the high point of Fourth Age Modernism in the can-do Congress of 1964 - swept to office in the emotional outpouring that followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Spurred by newly re-elected President Lyndon Johnson, it passed the Civil Rights Act and War on Poverty, put environmental laws into motion, and boosted the NASA budget on trajectory toward landings on the Moon. Nor were Republicans wholly out of the picture. While Barry Goldwater expressed the skepticism of classic conservatives, Nelson Rockefeller led a large wing of the GOP that was just as gung-ho on progressive reform and Big Projects as Johnson.

University-building and scholarships got their biggest boost since the GI Bill. Post Sputnik endeavors in science education were kicked into high gear. Whole swathes of New York and other cities were bulldozed in grand Urban Renewal experiments. Throw in nuclear power plants, bikinis, transistor radios, early internet experiments, the Peace Corps and the happiest days of rock n’ roll. Wowzer.

And yes, this list of ambitious endeavors would seem to overlap with another word that's now in disrepute -- “liberalism.” At the time, there wouldn't have been a razor’s width of difference between liberal and modernist viewpoints. One word stood for an acute sensitivity to injustice and social need. The other denoted a can do willingness to take on any challenge.

...on to part 8...

Thursday, January 20, 2005

6: Modernism Overcomes Setbacks

Here's part 6....

Part 6: Despite setbacks, Modernism thrives

What is significant is that the First World War did not kill modernism. For a while, the rebellion against it seemed limited largely to religion and the arts.

(Ironically, both decadent artists - pushing the limits with prurient content - and the prudish conservatives who rail against them, are allies at a deeper level, united against any notion that the future might be a good and desirable destination, subject to intelligent design. It is an alliance we see today, between anti-science fanatics of both left and right. Between those who rage in order to offend conventional normality and those obsessed with defending it. What they share is a detestation of calm, rational, and inexorable reform.)

Despite rumblings among the intellectual elite and from ten thousand pulpits, even the Great Depression did little to dampen the belief of millions that human sagacity and problem solving could get to the heart of matters and make things better. Only now, in the Third Age of modernism, there was more cynicism. The blithe trust that Astor and others gave to a monied aristocracy - belief in top-down entrepreneurial innovation managed by capitalists - had been rocked first by war profiteering and then Depression mismanagement.

After the Treaty of Versailles, modernist thinking swung away from faith in entrepreneurs, turning instead to ideological prescriptions for how the modernist efforts should be organized. Variations on Marxism were attractive to millions, offering incantations that sounded oh-so scientific. But other schemes also flowed from ten thousand pens, presses and fervid imaginations. To many, it seemed obvious that socialism offered a better, more rationally-planned approach, than tossing greedy capitalists into a market stewpot with seething, angry workers and hoping for the best.

Of course, the nastiest version of this turn toward socialist-modernism was German Nazism. But the Grand Deceit of Stalin’s Soviet Union - masking horrors while pushing newsreels of glorious dams - also fooled millions in the West, for some time.

In America, the extravagant ideologies of Marx and Hitler never took hold, but a less ideological social-modernism did tickle the public’s fancy. In 1932 the Technocracy Movement got attention in magazines and on radio. It was the brainchild of Howard Scott, who suggested that engineers be given a chance to do things right. Replace capital with brains. Give the smartest a chance to do the allocating, for a change. Trust the people best equipped to apportion resources fairly and well. Move goods from where they are glutted to where they will do the most good on a supply-need basis. Give all citizens shares in USA Inc. and then simply do whatever is pragmatically needed. Socialism without ideology or oppression. A similar approach is illustrated by H. G. Wells in his novel Things to Come.

Fortunately, technocracy was never fully implemented, or modernism would not have survived the inevitable miscalculations, disasters and disenchantment. As we learned from the collapse of “Japan Inc.” during the late 1980s, nobody knows how to allocate a society’s bewildering array of talents and resources from a plan. Certainly not in a complex peacetime economy. To even imagine that it’s possible is romantic mythology. In this sense, the believers in market magic proved right, after all. (There are other ways in which they appear to be wrong.)

FDR’s more tepid approach to modernist stimulation did help ease the Depression and restored some public confidence. It featured many projects that expressed can do in ways that did incremental good, without plunging into a weird, ideological experiment.

Still, it took war -- a time when technocratic allocation works pretty well, because it is applied toward a simple, ferocious end -- for a version of Scott’s idea to achieve real magic. (That is, a war backed by a unified public, by moral consensus, and an aristocracy willing to help pay for it.) And while a war economy is not a good model for a general economy, it certainly mobilized everyone to defeat fascism.

It was a war both fought and won under principles of modernism, implemented by George Marshall, the greatest pragmatist since Franklin. And, inarguably, the nation that emerged from WWII was vastly stronger than the one that entered.

on to part 7...

Monday, January 17, 2005

Part 5: Modernism Takes a Tumble

First: some people have written to complain that I don't have a proper site feed or RSS set up. I've gone thru the settings and they seem all right for such a service, though I admit I am a klutz at that level. Feel free to check it out and let me know. And now to resume.....


In 1894, philanthropist John Jacob Astor wrote a best-selling novel, A Journey in Other Worlds, about the year 2001 -- a future transformed by science, enterprise and human good will. Keeping with the can-do spirit of his era, when men used rails and canals to subdue continents, Astor foresaw progress vanquishing inequity, reducing poverty to vestiges, conquering ignorance and offering average folk privileges undreamt-of by his millionaire peers. And all of it happening under the leadership of a fluid but responsible entrepreneurial class.

Why not? At the end of the 19th Century, waves of immigrants shared those hopes, eager to feed, educate and advance their children as never before. Projecting this momentum to a time of future plenty seemed credible, not arrogant or silly.

Astor died with a famed flourish of noblesse oblige aboard the sinking Titanic -- the first of many garish calamities that began quenching this naive zeal for progress.

In his book "Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?" (2004), David Fromkin speaks of the decade just before calamity struck. “A panoramic view of Europe in the years 1900 to 1914 would show prominently that the continent was racing ahead in a scientific, technological and industrial revolution — powered by almost limitless energy — that was transforming almost everything.” Alas, it was not to go on. “What Europe was building up toward was not a better world, but a giant smashup, as — in the first 20th century war among modern industrial societies — the accumulated explosive power that advanced science had developed was concentrated on the goal of mass destruction. “

Soon, world war taught millions a brutal lesson -- the first use of new technology is often its horrid mis-use. Suddenly it wasn’t just conservative preachers railing against modernity, but some of society’s very brightest. Survivors of Flanders battlefields returned disenchanted with the Machine Age. Intellectuals, from Tolkien and Lewis to Eliot, veered toward romantic nostalgia while writers of the Lost Generation prescribed a compulsory literary template. Blend stylish cynicism with brooding suspicion of tomorrow. Never show enthusiasm, or admit hope for progress.

Indeed, that attitude seemed accurate. The 20th Century spent its first half wallowing in horror - the second teetering at an abyss. Radio, and later television, brought countless tragedies right into our homes. Vague Sunday sermons about apocalypse were replaced by hourly talk of a civilization, a species, a planet imperiled by our cleverness, doomed by our own skilled hands.

Not only in war, but also perhaps by establishing some permanent tyranny, far worse than brutal kingships of old, because the next wave of ruthless overlords would be empowered by terrifying technologies. While Fritz Lang and George Orwell disagreed over which aristocracy might achieve perpetual despotism - a capitalist elite or a communist party nomenklatura - both Metropolis and Nineteen Eighty-Four showed chilling futures in which a few could look down upon the many, like gods.

Modernism had spokesmen, too. Although he kept swinging from optimism to pessimism and back again, H.G. Wells never ceased fighting back, in the name of progress. His oft-excerpted review of Metropolis held that Lang’s dark warning was based, ultimately, on contempt. People, according to Wells, will not let themselves be made into sheep. Not in the long run.

--> on to part 6

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Part 4: The Second Phase Of Modernism

Before going on with part 4, let me answer one commentor. I was reluctant to start using the term "modernism" as an antithesis to romantic-nostalgism and fanatical idealism. Elsewhere I call it Romanticism vs the traditions of the Enlightenment. If you want to see this antithesis laid out pretty clearly, as it applies to literature and the arts, see my article: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age.

In literature the contrast is not only huge, it is remarkably consistent and pure. If an author posits a past golden age, he or she nearly always ALSO follows the rest of an exact recipe of romantic tropes. I use Tolkien and Star Wars to illustrate this, but the best example is the stark and diametrically opposite moral values portrayed by two movies in the same universe, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan vs Star Trek III: Search for Spock.

In any event, I decided that modernism seemed a more useful term than "the enlightenment". Let's now turn to continuing with my draft article about modernism.

The Second Phase Of Modernism

The second phase of modernism was its era of golden ambitions. During the long stretch from the American Civil War until the First World War, an alliance of tinkerers and capitalists became ever-more convinced that nothing lay beyond reach.

True, the robber barons cheated like mad, stole everything they could grab, and flaunted wealth to such a garish degree that it became known as a Gilded Age. But there was also a cheerfully egalitarian-meritocratic feel to it all. Fortunes were won and lost in a spirit of easy-come, easy-go and few resented the poor boy who - encouraged by all those Horatio Alger tales - turned pluck, inventiveness and good fortune into a mighty bonanza.

Driven by can-do individualism, by free-wheeling markets, by a roughshod, stoic willingness to endure periods of bad luck - and spiced with Wild West machismo - they took their social Darwinism with several shots of whiskey and several thousand grains of salt. Even those immigrants who slaved in sweatshops for low wages mostly believed, and mostly succeeded in their one-generation programs to uplift happier and better-educated kids. You and I might envision people of that era lacking compassion. But you and I are a whole lot richer and have much higher standards for one reason. We stand on their broad shoulders.

Oh, and one more point about the Second Age of Modernism. We like to think that WE are experiencing rapid and disrupting change. But imagine that you live in 1910 and have just witnessed the arrival, in rapid succession, of wireless telegraphy, commercial radio, refrigerators, women politicians, telephones, washing machines, automobiles, airplanes, community colleges, zeppelins, electric lighting, gas cooking, elevators, science fiction stories, skyscrapers, reliable indoor plumbing... and all of these newfangled things moving down the social ladder, transforming rapidly from extravagances for the rich to normal accoutrements of a burgeoning middle class.

Could anybody, witnessing all this, NOT believe in modernism?

Well, in fact, many people were deeply disturbed by it. They waxed eloquent about how much better things had been in former times, when children respected their elders, when women weren’t uppity, when citified interdependence had not usurped self-reliance and yeoman farmers stood by their old-time religion. But while uneasiness and nostalgia won many social and political battles, the rejectors seemed helpless to prevail in any long term war against modernism and change, which had captured the imagination of their children.

Then came the first great setback.

on to part 5 

Or return to the beginning: The Radical Notion of Modernism

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Modernism Part 3: the Era of Can-Do


I perceive several phases to this movement that might be called modernism, starting with the classic Enlightenment of the 18th Century, a time before romantics turned their backs on tomorrow, when you even saw a few characters like Thomas Jefferson, in whom romanticism and enlightenment seem quite joyfully mixed.

Of course, Benjamin Franklin was the archetypal modernist of that era, setting tone for the American wing of the Enlightenment. A tone of pragmatism combined with a deep suspicion of generalities and ideologies. A view that human beings are all self-deceivers and potential tyrants -- but that a system of living might be designed in order to maximize opportunities for our better natures to thrive, while minimizing opportunities for people to oppress each other. A notion that competition between human beings may be both moral and beneficial, so long as it is fair.

It seems a simple enough concept. Alas, as Pericles discovered much earlier, it is devilishly hard to implement in practice.

Ironically, the one who best appraised this era was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. While the Enlightenment in France veered off-course, beguiled into a quasi-mystical belief in abstractions - in Platonist essences, logic and philosophical “reason” - de Tocqueville seemed thrilled by the no nonsense practicality of the Anglo-American Enlightenment, manifested in the US Constitution, and through town meetings that took place in vibrant little villages across the land.

(F.A. Hayek and Karl Popper both zeroed in on this rift within the Enlightenment. One wing - the “constructivist rationalism” of Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and postmodernism - hewed closely to Plato’s prescribed methodology, gathering pure but untestable declarations formulated by a self-chosen intellectual elite. In contrast, the “critical rationalist” tradition of Aristotle, Locke, Burke, Franklin, Kant, and de Tocqueville, emphasized falsifiable propositions and the accumulation of gritty practical knowledge in an environment of experimentation and reciprocal accountability.)

In this pragmatic approach lay the core belief of modernism, that humans are improvable. And if humans can improve, it means that even the finest ideologies, no matter how persuasive, are at best only approximations crafted by imperfect and confused ancestors. They should only be used as general suggestions, not as quasi religious tracts. Because the next generation of smarter, more knowing people will surely be better judges of what’s right and wrong than we are. (Indeed, why should they not also be more ethical and spiritually worthy?) And their children will be wiser still.

This is why the underlying pretext of modernism so deeply offends ideologues - of every stripe and persuasion. If our descendants do become vastly better people, then of what value is any particular static preaching? We have no business prescribing beliefs for such people, other than those core values that are most general, moral and useful.

If human beings are improvable, then our towering concern must be to improve them, by any means that is both decent and practical. Our children will then be far better equipped than we are to make their own decisions about (for example) balancing market and social forces, competition and cooperation, personal property and specifics of ethical behavior. Whenever a platonist (from Hegel to Marx to St. Paul to Leo Strauss) calls for purity of doctrine and faithfulness to essential Truth, the real claim is “I know better than our descendants ever will.”

The modernist call for incremental human improvement has taken many forms - some of them deeply spiritual (as in the case of anti-slavery abolitionism). Still, in America the core belief in human improvability stayed generally on course through the early days of the republic, while the promise seemed fulfilled as levels of health and education improved among average americans.

on to Part 4....

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Modernism Part 2.

Before resuming, let me announce a few new items at

First a major review (published in the Union's Book Review Section) of Jared Diamond's new tome about how societies past and present collapse or fail. I praise the book while pondering that Diamond doesn't step back enoughfor the big picture. And we need perspective if we're to avoid a collapse of our own.

ALSO there are other items like some audio file speeches to download. Enjoy.

Now back to the serialization of my draft about modernism....

Modernism: Part 2.

Despite cynical diagnoses that modernism is all-but dead, it clearly remains a vital force in the world. Even taking into account the inevitable mistakes, tragic blunders and unanticipated outcomes that accompany any bold endeavor, it would seem obvious that scientists, engineers, teachers, entrepreneurs, economists,civil rights activists, environmentalists and social reformers have a better track record at confronting age-old human problems and injustices than all of the kings, wizards and priests from past eras, combined.

Moreover, modernism suggests that bold measures - moderated by the accountability of open criticism - may even improve upon humanity itself. Perhaps not through garish means, like genetic engineering, that deserve healthy skepticism. But certainly in the incremental sense that we see as one generation after another achieves higher levels of educationand, yes, higher IQ scores.

The core belief - and one that most-rilesthe opponents of modernism - is that children can - at times - learn somewhatfrom the mistakes of their parents, and thus not repeat them. Change is not only seen as inevitable, but potentially beneficial. Moreover, the crucial difference between harm and benefit may be determined by ingenuity,hard work and good will among human beings who actively grip the tiller of change.

Modernism expresses fealty to the notion of human-generated progress.

Of course, most societies would have punished even minimal expressions of such confidence as heretical hubris. Today, that same loathing bubbles and froths from countless wellsprings spanning every spectrum, from left to right, from academia to the ill-educated,from religious to secular. The major common theme, shared among scoffers in almost every quarter, appears to be a deep distrust toward the can-do spirit of Enlightenment pragmatism.

Elsewhere ( I talk about how this reaction has manifested in the arts. Using as core examples JRR Tolkien’s popular Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Star Wars series, I discuss how romanticism systematically rejects a complete range of Enlightenment values and beliefs, as if from a checklist. (Even Communism and Capitalism do not glare at each other across such a complete catalogue of opposites.) This systematic rejection includes the promulgation of a cliched truism, so widely accepted that even believers in progress nod, sadly,when hearing it.

Isn’t it a shame that wisdom has not advanced at the same pace as our technology?

Accepted without question or demurral, it is one of the most insidious bits of propaganda currently in circulation, denying all of the evidence that fills our cities,schools and airwaves. Evidence supporting the notion of human improvability where it matters most. In our hearts.

In another article, I comment on this same rejection of progress in political terms. ( Across a broad front, from art to philosophy to politics and social policy,very notion of a confident future is under heavy assault.

Here I’ll take a different perspective, looking not at the enemies of modernism, but at modernism itself.

on to part 3 -->

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Radical Notion Of Modernism

I've been rather suprised by the traffic generated by this blog... and a bit ashamed of neglecting it. But trying to keep my head above water and get back to writing novels.

So, what I think I'll do is use this space to try out - in serialized segments - my next article. It's on a topic very closely related to my articles about Tolkien and the Modern Age and Star Wars: The Dark Side. Only those dealt with romanticism vs enlightenment thinking in the arts and in storytelling.

The new piece is more general. It is about the whole notion called modernism, which is the natural outgrowth of Ben Franklin's wing of the Enlightenment. I'll post it here in small chunks. Comments are welcome. Especially examples or counter examples. (e.g. I cannot recall the name of the urban planner whose misguided "modernist" notions made such a mish mash of urban renewal in NYC in the 60s.)

Anyway, here goes:


The Radical Notion Of Modernism:

Is it relevant for the Twenty-First Century?

by David Brin (First Draft: 12/04 limited circulation for feedback only)

After 40 years in decline, modernism appears to be at a nadir, perhaps even suffering a fatal rout.

Even its supporters seem abjectly apologetic, that is, if you can find anyone who will admit using the word at all. The term is now largely associated with some outmoded and rather ugly architectural styles, far more than with its former meaning -- an over-arching dream of ambitiously making a better world through human creativity and will.

First, let me shrug aside “modernism” in the sense of an artistic or fancy intellectual movement. Grandiose theories serve largely to promote elitist snobbery and to undermine a worldview that is - at-heart - based upon gritty pragmatism.

Indeed, by anchoring the word to specific styles and decades, the opposing postmodernist movement has been able to call itself the rightful successor to something that is archaic, passe, even dead.

Modernism, to me, is about something much more fundamental than some trendy fads and formalisms. At its root, the movement has always been an expression of human confidence.

Confidence that rising knowledge, skill and creativity - propelled by both competition and cooperation - can empower each generation to confront a myriad challenges that their parents found daunting. A confidence that is easily ridiculed as either naive or arrogant, but that - in fact - grows out of the enthusiasm children often express, when they declare eagerness to “be something” when they grow up. To become something important. To do something meaningful.

This eagerness is all-too often punished by sneers on the playground, and later by dour scoffers in the world of adults. Nevertheless, it endures. Modernism is the grownup expression of our childhood dream to significantly change the world.

---&; onward to part 2.

David Brin
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