Pitirim Sorokin, the brilliant social thinker, argued that history is cyclical, going through periods that are ideational, ideological, and sensate. Affluent societies, which can afford to indulge themselves, revert to pleasures that appeal to the senses as their overarching concern. While sensate societies are dissolute, Sorokin contends that subordinate ideational ideas in sensate cultures will become superordinate thereby replacing the sensual in and inexorable cycle.
But what if the society amuses itself to extinction? What if complacency militates against arousal? Suppose the sensate condition is so dominant re-creation cannot take place?
That these questions are asked is due, in no small part, to the willingness of the public to accept many changes foisted on the nation by the Obama administration. It strikes me as remarkable that a government takeover of so many aspects of the private economy has elicited so modulated a response. Yes, there have been tea parties, largely unreported, and there are town hall meetings over healthcare reform that have alarmed the administration with their ardor and anger.
Nonetheless, the shift in the economy is nothing short of revolutionary. Who could have guessed a scant two years ago that the automobile, insurance, financial, energy, and banking industries would be controlled or affectively influenced by the federal government? Who would have had the foresight to predict that the Obama administration would attempt to assume domination over national healthcare?
Has this overreaching, this blatant attempt at government usurpation, occurred in another period Americans would have been out on the streets with pitchforks ready for combat. But most Americans scarcely know what is going on. They don’t get angry because they don’t know what to be angry about. The primary issue that has seemingly captured attention is the proposed healthcare bill and its built-in constraints on personal freedom.
But I am still perplexed about the relatively modest protest. Perhaps the public doesn’t know what is in the 1,100 page bill – for that matter neither does the president or the Congress. Perhaps the press has been complicit in the cover-up since it appears to be willing to take a vow of silence rather than embarrass Obama. Perhaps restricting freedom doesn’t mean what it once did. Or perhaps Americans are so preoccupied with entertainment they haven’t taken the time or made the effort to educate themselves.
It is certainly the case that young people are more likely to know the names of the four finalists on “American Idol” than four Cabinet members in present administration. As I see it, there is a correlation between the preoccupation with amusement and the dumbing down of the population. If bread and circuses, or the contemporary equivalent, fill one’s day, there simply isn’t time for serious pursuits. If this seems exaggerated, ask how many serious words are exchanged in texting or how many ideas are explored on Facebook. Which magazine sells more copies, The Star or Commentary? The obvious answers reveal some aspect of the truth.
Of course, this is not to suggest that entertainment is wrong. It surely has a role in the culture. But at a time when critical, alas monumental, issues face the nation one might assume that amusement would be relegated to a backseat, however temporary that condition might be. Yet it seems as though the public is addicted to fun and games. Jay Leno of late-night talk show fame, has created a regular segment of his program making fun of undisguised ignorance. So penetrating is that ignorance that when I’ve seen it on display, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I should also note, before someone gets the wrong idea, that I am not supporting either revolution or a counterrevolution. I am simply eager to know why there hasn’t been a public outcry loud enough to shake Congress out of its perpetual stupor. I am also asking if the conditions that perpetuate a historical cycle of the kind identified by Sorokin are stifled by new, arguably historical, conditions, namely the ubiquity of amusement.
If my hypothesis is correct, it bodes poorly for the future. It is conceivable that the trade-off for continual entertainment is the incremental loss of personal liberty. So subtle will that loss be at first, that it will hardly be recognized. And when recognition does take place, it will be too late to undo the structural damage.
This contest between amusement and government intrusiveness and power accretion may be the most telling aspect of the Obama era. Will Americans wake up from the intoxication of sensate pleasure before liberty is lost? What a demonic question, and what a potentially fearful and provocative response.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and “America's Secular Challenge” (Encounter Books).
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