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July 27, 2023 (originally from May 3, 2021)
This is easier said than done.
A lot of people (especially those who are “center right” and “center left”) are warning a younger, left-leaning America that gaps in perspective can come back to haunt them. This is not only because people are insensitive to the causes of racial justice, equal access to health care, and fair pay for all Americans. It is because America has just survived a period of deep negativity. Or, more specifically, the nation survived the presidency of Donald Trump. Each day it seems like we get more evidence of how thoroughly corrupt that administration was and how people put their lives on the line to inform the public and allow the Constitution to work. This piece of writing is not an excuse for people to act in bad faith or indulge in intellectual laziness. It is an acknowledgment that trauma can have a numbing effect because it protects one from experiencing more pain and disillusionment. A lot of people have reached their maximum bandwidth.
I know by saying this, people will already revert to, “well, think of the people who don’t have the opportunity to turn it off and on.” And “those people” are thought of because honestly, they can be all of us at one point in time.
Minorities in America must find ways to make it through the day and night with the inherent understanding that power structures work against them. That can also mean losing a life because of racist and/or excitable police officers. Working and middle-income Americans understand that they may be in a cycle that perpetuates unfair wages and lost chances for economic and social mobilization. However, they still hope that their kids or younger family members aren’t tormented by that same cycle.
One of the benefits of my college education was that I understood the world as a series of systems working together or against one another. I studied the Cold War, laws that empowered racial segregation and well-planned initiatives to strip Black Americans of their ability to succeed, and how technological revolutions transformed and transported populations to form the world we know today. In a way, I developed a high modernist sensibility.
Before I define high modernism, here is a personal story.
Outside of the classroom and to this day, I play enormous amounts of Sid Meier’s Civilization. If you are not familiar with this title, think of the board game Risk but as a video game with mechanisms and levels of interaction that can make one lost for days in an alternate history. Over the years, this video game has evolved from giving the user the tools to build a nation prepared for inevitable warring to building a nation that can be pacifistic as long as you have created cycles and structures that make your country a powerhouse in, say, science or global cultural output. There are five victory conditions: science, culture, religion, domination (military), and diplomacy.
Ultimately, Civilization has become an intricate simulation of governance and international diplomacy as one plays through each major era of human history. Players combine policies (based on the desired victory condition) and forge international alliances. The system has become so complex that climate change and weather are major factors. The game requires one to invest in scientific research of new technologies for when the coastline disappears, when a river floods (destroying farms, mines, and/or districts), or when raging storms frequently tear through your lands. Keeping track of carbon output is literally one of the many indicators to pay close attention to. A world congress meets, and other nations can vote to cut your economy from creating more emissions.
This is high modernism in a sense. I can control populations and collective structures in my chosen civilization with an invisible hand. My countrymen trust that the ultimate controller of their world (me, a guy playing this video game) makes sound decisions that assure societal prosperity. An exact definition of high modernism would tell you that it was a philosophical movement that had deep-seated confidence in the ability of science and technology to “reorder the social and natural world.”
Arguably, America has always had this gene, for we are one of many progenies to the industrial revolutions. However, the height of the high modernist movement was in the mid-twentieth century. After years of government slowly expanding to create a counterweight to burgeoning international industries (some finding a home right here in North America), a certain elitism formed among those who had spent a lot of time around powerful new mechanisms that influence people’s lives. A gap in exposure formed between those who saw the inner workings of government activity, technological investment, or the effects of international diplomacy and those who merely voted for high achievers to enter the belly of the beast, Washington or Wall Street.
The high modernist understood this deeply, and thus, some advocated for a special governing class that would only include those with the privileged knowledge and/or networks. Of course, this may have been some of the inspiration for Orwell’s most famous novel, but it also is a major reason for the birth of modern nihilism and the school of postmodernism.
High modernism’s worst effects were seen in 20th century governments from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia to Communist China. The attempt to reorder society through science had a traumatic impact on humanity’s collective imagination. In many ways, the Vietnam War is a striking and well-known example of high modernists going too far, and in America it had lasting effects. Officials believed they had all of the tools, data, and expertise to wage war in a nation many did not understand. Many leaders did not consider the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people who deeply wanted national self-determination from the perspective of their own culture and traditions.
They did not think about all of the young and old Americans who would have to live with their traumas in an effort that was less about preserving freedom and more about signaling power to other high modernists in rival national powers, like China or the Soviet Union.
Some didn’t think about any of this because some people thought it didn’t matter.
These individuals believed that ground troops and people under them on the economic and professional pecking order had a role to play, for better or for worse. As if a human life being ended was the same as losing a piece on the chessboard. The elitism was so pervasive and destructive that it ironically drove Americans into a heat of consciousness and eroded Americans’ ability to have faith in their freely elected government’s agenda. In this period, people worldwide became aware of so many systems outside their control, like the continuous growth of the military-industrial complexes (arguably a high modernist invention).
In the last several years, it has been clear that education and conspiratorial fever swamps drive polarization in America. People on the left side of politics can too often overlook how college education allows one to really dive deep into a subject and understand it from many perspectives because one has paid for really cutting-edge resources. If I did not go to college, I would not have studied history with people earning doctorates. If I wanted to spend a week intellectually living in the 1960s, then I could go to the library and walk out with a pile of books half my height and just read until I couldn’t anymore. Then a few days later, I could dive into the documentaries I uncovered.
Privileged young people must understand this because the free world needs them too.
I am a full believer in the existence of systemic racism. I am an African American who loves and is inspired by the greatest and worst moments in United States history. I know exactly what is being referred to when policing, mortality rates, wealth gaps, and food deserts are connected to larger systems of disenfranchisement. I grew up in Baltimore City and can outline the ways systemic segregation in the past still acts as an invisible hand influencing social and economic patterns in central and larger Maryland.
But that’s me.
I acknowledge that I am someone who has been blessed with an inordinate support system and access to information. The longer I live, the more I understand how rare this is.
We are all products of our environment. We make the best omelet out of the ingredients before us, and some people are just given eggs and cheese (and still make a delicious meal).
A friend of mine interviewed a Trump supporter for a project, and this young man denied the existence of systemic racism but felt that people could be racist. After thinking about it, I began to outline potential reasons why this may be the case. This young man was White and was trying to complete his post-secondary education with all that entails. He was willing to admit racism exists but not systemic racism. I theorized that maybe he didn’t want to feel like he was condemning the country. This could be one reason. But another reason could be that he sees successful minorities throughout American popular culture, the news cycle, television, big business, and vaccine development (like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett).
Maybe even in his own personal and professional sphere.
If the system worked against people who don’t look like him, how do you explain all of those perceptions of success? If systemic racism exists, doesn’t that mean systemic classism exists? What about those many people who have not had a tight enough safety net to make it through college? Or those who have faced significant geographical challenges? I wonder if the guy my friend interviewed feels like he is giving up his own claims to systemic violence and oppression towards people with similar disadvantages to his own.
We must think about this because we have been given the ability to think in larger systems while also utilizing the ability to give ourselves the tools to step into the day-to-day concerns and reactions of people who are not so fortunate or don't have the time and access.
“To whom much is given, much is expected,” my grandparents and Bible-oriented people would always say as I grew up.
This is not an apology or pass for those denying systemic racism. Especially those doing it in bad faith and who know better. Instead, this is a call for understanding why this happens and with a little bit of compassion.
Educated younger people (relatively) have a great opportunity to govern America right now. The basic ideas of their policies are popular and much needed. But they are showing themselves to be susceptible to falling into what I’m calling “The High Modernist Trap.” This trap catches articulate and able leaders because they are people with immense knowledge, exposure, and rigor. But, after so much negativity, they can start believing that “Rube Nation” will exist for better or worse. Therefore, they must urgently reeducate and redefine the aforementioned systems and communities because they are the only ones with the skills and knowledge. It is a growing inability to look at one’s own environment with an understanding that life choices, opportunities, and systems have also worked to their benefit and enabled one to be traveled, well-read, and constantly embedded in discussions of policy, theory, and other high-minded ideas rather than just talking about the ballgame (which is perfectly fine) or other people’s lives.
Yes, America is at a crossroads, and bold action needs to be taken to prepare this national community for the challenges ahead.
However, not everyone is in a mindset where they look at the world like complex systems to be reformed or manipulated. Many people are experiencing the adventure of life with the ingredients and ideas they have been given. Many people do see the world through a good vs. evil perspective. Many people believe the Bible is to be taken literally. Many people believe President Joe Biden is illegitimate because of years obsessing over reports and conspiracies from corrupt third-world democracies America constantly projects upon. Some people think the Earth is flat.
Most normal and grounded people display more intuition at the end of the day than “high modernist” (with all of their data and prestige) because they understand people better.
James Carville isn’t trying to be pejorative when he says that left-leaning young minds need to leave the “faculty lounge.” To me, he is simply telling younger Americans that a lot of people didn’t come from complex education systems, they weren’t given mentors who were open to sharing their vast knowledge and experiences, and because it’s 2021, they didn’t have thousands of dollars to make it to the higher levels of post-secondary education. But that doesn’t make them bad, hateful, or a rube.
It makes them human.
Don’t fall into the high modernist trap.
People are willing to listen even if they haven’t shared your reading list. But the best conversations are bilateral, which means both parties come away with something new. And if they aren’t willing to listen or revert to a hateful reaction, that is a symptom of something larger that one cannot control, unfortunately.
I remain hopeful and constantly remind myself that Georgia sent its first African American and Jewish Senators to the national Congressional body earlier this year. There was a multi-year outcry of grief and concern while Donald Trump ran the Oval Office, and many sacrificed luxury and comfort for the greater good, and so that this liberal energy is kept alive and the rule of law is sustained.
We can do this.
We must be willing to do a little self-reflection from time to time. But that is what makes America great and dynamic.
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