Back to top

The Small Mysteries of Transformation for Mind and Politics (Part One of Two)

A meditation on pasts, personal and historical:  Part I

By Charles Jeanes

This is the longest column (8,500 words!) I have ever offered. The topic warrants it, I believe. I like to think my preoccupations are not peculiar to me and there is something in this piece that provokes their own reflections in my readers.

Change and Influence

If you had a choice of two biographies, one about Pierre Trudeau and one about The Beatles, which would you choose to read? Abraham Lincoln or Charles Dickens? Nelson Mandela or Bob Dylan? Queen Elizabeth I or William Shakespeare? Augustus Caesar or Saint Paul?

Political leadership compared with cultural influence is the contrast I mean to highlight, between phenomena that change because of governors and rulers acting upon society to make change happen according to their plans, and things that change because habits and opinions, values and attitudes, tastes and thoughts, slowly evolve in the minds of millions of individuals within society, and the society then is altered.

My question does not propose a simple revolution vs. evolution distinction, although that is part of it. I mean to ask about what is the effect of deliberate policy and law enacted by government as compared to the effect of unconscious and unplanned changes that culture seems to undergo in some mysterious fashion. A king can command obedience, but a writer can transform thinking.

Time is a major factor here. Government can act quickly; cultural change is less dramatic but arguably more profound and permanent in effect.

I mean culture in the widest possible sense, the common denominators of patterned behaviour and thinking that cement a society, not in the tiny sense it is sometimes applied. This is not about “the culture of your workplace” or “the schoolyard culture.” Those may not be trivial to the people involved, but I mean to extend the meaning of culture to the same population as the reach of our government extends: to all of us living in one society.

What did 1960’s culture do to us?

We can start with an-often discussed question: people commonly say the decade of the Sixties created enormous change in our culture. Why?

A question less pressing for Canadians is the: when people refer to “The Culture Wars” in American public affairs, why is the influence of ‘60’s events and attitudes often at the core of their conflicts?

These are questions anyone who lived in that time and was old enough to observe the changes, can relate to.

I was born in 1951, so I felt the energies of the ‘60’s as a welcome challenge to the decade that went before. The fifties seem to me in retrospect all about conformity and material security, and the decade in which I came to adulthood was in rebellion against the drab world of The Company Man and The Suburban Housewife. I watched Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, but was attracted by edgy comedies like Get Smart and My Favourite Martian. Man from UNCLE and Star Trek naturally enthralled me. The Beatles and Doors were clearly better than Elvis, for my taste, and The Sexual Revolution came at just the right time to liberate me from the strictures of ‘50’s prudery and “wait-till-you’re-married” morality. The clothes and hairstyles I favoured irritated my elders immensely.

Did the 1960’s and more specifically the youth of that time change the world? Well, culturally, yes – we did, but it was not only our age cohort that did this; many people older than ourselves led the transformation of culture.

Young people do not make the entire culture for all the generations of their time; the changes that happened in that era were also the making of our parents’ generation. Writers like Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler, were making the minds of millions of readers move into new patterns, easily as much as the words and deeds of the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan were. Dr. Spock wrought a revolution in child-rearing with his 1947 book on baby and child care. Music, books, film, and art of the mainstream culture all underwent profound alterations in the ‘60’s.

Simultaneously people of my age cohort were political activists at universities, were experimenting with new drugs and liberated sex, sporting personal styles that outraged “normal, decent” standards, and celebrating new musical and literary icons that alienated our parents. There was a generational disconnect.

Baby Boom youth had to be taken seriously by society because there were just so many of us; therefore we were a fantastic market for the capitalist system to tap into. Culture is material product as well as intangible mental furnishing. You can sell a lot of product to people with cash trying to establish their unique identities with what possessions they display: clothes, make-up, hair, cars etc.

Politics or Culture: where do the profound transformations happen?

How did one decade – I would argue the key ten years was 1963 to 1973, from  the Kennedy assassination to the end of the war – change so much in the West? Did the political and cultural effects of the era work in harmony?

Politics and culture move in quite different orbits. The pendulum of politics swings; culture does not follow that to-and-fro motion since cultural entropy is not reversed by a change of governing parties and policies.

What gains were made by liberalism in Sixties politics could be set back. I simply cannot see that Canada, America, France, or any Western democracy had any sort of ‘60’s leftist political revolution that retained its power. But, though youth in the ‘60’s did not carry a permanent political revolution, it did remain the demographic soil where a new culture flourished permanently. Politicians regularly decry cultural change they do not approve; Stephen Harper is a conservative Canadian at odds with many of the effects of the ‘60’s on the culture of his country, and was, and is still, explicit about it.

The New Left faded in the ‘70’s, the New Right arose from Thatcher through Ralph Klein -- and eventually also faded. The revolution that has mattered most over the long term is in technology, not in politics. Computers, the Internet, and cellphones have made more impact than anything done by a political party or agenda ever could.

This material change, this electronic product, alters consciousness, minds, habits, values, ethics, and opinions more than any political manifesto can. Most importantly, cultural change matters more to us than political. As I write this column, news reports about a condition the American Medical Association calls “internet addiction” and a subset of that, social-media-addiction. The effects of screen use on dopamine levels in the brain are similar to the effects of cocaine and alcohol, researchers assert. The content of media is no more important than the form of the media itself, as we were taught so lucidly by Marshall McLuhan: “media is massage.” Note that: massage. Electronic screens and our interaction with them change the very neural pathways nd chemicals in our brains. What more fundamental physical change is there?

Humans take to technologies readily if they seem satisfy an appetite, and the marketing genius of capitalism can help the culture-change process move faster. Without a clue how we are being changed by our technologies, and I include fire and agriculture as technologies, humans embrace them and let (sometimes unintended) resultant changes come to dominate our lives and minds. Not all of us are addicts, but all of us are changed, in significant ways.

Pop and rock music, clothing styled for a new mass market, and higher education: these could be a huge influence in the ‘60’s because the material affluence of the West meant young people and their parents had disposable income for consumer goods like records and hi-fi, cheap mass-produced clothing, and second family cars and vacations. That was the material base. And the tangible basis for the sexual revolution was cheap, available, and effective birth control and the expanding economy empowering women with good jobs to be financially independent of men and assert their right to sexual freedom as men were accustomed to do.

But there is also an intangible in those times, that decade, -- what social philosophers call zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age.” People felt capable of changing things by organizing; democracy was working its magic for young people and their elders too, who took to protesting many causes: the war, civil rights for people of colour, women’s liberation, native rights, the environment – it was a long list.  The culture of protest certainly pre-dated the ‘60’s, right back to pacifism, suffragist feminism, and trade unionism before WWI. The American New Deal of the 1930’s was a very liberal program.

The ‘60’s accelerated liberal and liberationist political activism thanks to the wonderful novel effects of mass media and mass consumerism. In the ‘60’s we knew what others – not just celebrities, but people like us -- were doing. And we knew it in a very short time thanks to radio and TV, the recording industry, Hollywood, and a vast array of popular, inexpensive print media. This material basis was absolutely necessary. I have made the point already about the internet and cellphones.

“Movement” is the apt word for the way people organize around causes. One felt that one was in motion with others. No one could be a “hermit with a cause” even if one might be a rebel and have no goal; a cause will necessarily bring one into a vast network of like-minded people who want what you want, and then you have a “Movement,” a flowing in one direction.

There is power in such a feeling – the Nazis and Fascists had shown that to be true in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. The political movements of the 1960’s, however, were not as significant over time as the cultural ones, in altering our societies.

Culture alters minds, politics only alters legislation. Political parties, causes, and movements are never totally accepted by all people, and the push-back from those who rejected, say, socialism, created new political landscapes that neither “side” in political struggles intended. The “Law of Unintended Consequences” is notably in effect where political agendas clash.

When cultural change becomes visible, the transformation is a challenge to politicians. Because leaders or parties in politics did not make the change happen, they can claim no credit for it. A cultural transformation imposed by government fiat is almost an oxymoron. Politics is not in control. Politicians react – the war on drugs is a superb example – but they do not direct.

It is true that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did attempt to use force to carry through cultural revolutions imposed on their peoples, and it is true that social engineering is possible with political power to make people obey outwardly. But the result in all those historical cases was not permanent cultural/ mental transformation; the social engineers failed, and the resultant cultural forms, manifested after the leaders died, were not the forms desired by the leaders and their parties. The Allies’ program of “de-Nazification” for Germany was another attempt to engineer culture and society by government activism; its result was not totally controlled by the Allies.

Germans and their culture certainly underwent deep change from 1945 to 1965, creating a society where green politics and pacifism are notable.

[visit    http://www.mastersportal.eu/articles/1042/tuition-free-universities-in-finland-norway-and-germany-in-2016.html    for good news about the amazingly liberal education policies of some European nations.]

The conclusion is quite unmistakable: Government does not command culture. Politics is struggle and legislation, but culture is entropy and flow. One can analyse politics with a certain degree of theory, but to subject culture to analysis, finding cause and effect, is in no way like analysing political acts.

When cultures collide in War and Politics

An exploration of politics and culture in transformation must address what happens when one “civilization” presumes to judge another, and the political powers of one culture presume to pronounce judgment upon another in conducting political struggle or military aggression. I refer here to the impact empires impose on the peoples they attack, conquer, and attempt to rule. Had Germans crushed the USSR in 1941 and followed their design to annihilate the Russian Slav “under-men” (untermenschen) as Hitler intended, all Russian civilization and culture would have been erased by Aryan German colonization and imperialism. This was a race war; for Hitler, war is the engine of history.

Can an imperial government absorb, assimilate, or eradicate, foreign culture by a political campaign or war? What happens when one culture is convinced it is better than another and can justify forcing the inferior to change? Can the West (Europe and America) solve its supposed “clash of civilizations” with the world of Islam by making Muslims more closely resemble modern Western citizens? This is a clear question of how politics and culture might relate.

History is a useful guide to these issues, and I will cite three examples of how empires and imperial rulers dealt with subjects whose culture was alien to the imperialists, and deemed lesser in value. Roman imperialism in Europe and Asia, English imperialism in Ireland, and British imperialism in India, are my examples.

Romans were not racists, having no articulated doctrine about races and their relative value. But the patrician class of Rome who built the empire and commanded the soldiers and the administrators who sustained the empire, were cultural chauvinists. Senatorial families were not numerous, and yet the aristocracy of Rome remained in charge of the empire as it was built, until the rise of Augustus. They sent out their family members to govern the lands and peoples who the empire conquered in war; the governors and their staffs of administrators lived in Britain or Judea or Egypt while they held office, but went home to Italy when their term was over. This indicates that Romans who ruled the empire wanted never to become absorbed by the cultures of the peoples they ruled, whether Celts or Africans or Jews or Arabs.

Roman culture among the patrician elite was literate, heavily Greek-influenced, and remained rooted in Italy. A Roman patrician learned qualities of character such as gravitas, potentias, and nobilitas. Rome was the centre of the cultural universe for these aristocrats. But they did not pursue a policy of suppressing native cultures where they ruled, they allowed all sorts of religion, and they did not force Latin upon the people. However, few people beyond Italy had the rights of a full Roman citizen, and the Roman citizen was privileged above the alien subject. Rome brought peace by conquest, then expected obedience, but Romans were not on a mission to make the world Roman.

Non-elite Romans also lived and worked beyond Italy to serve the empire or do business, and they might stay, wherever they were in service to the empire, even after their office was passed to others. Soldiers from Italy stayed where they had served even after retirement, married local women, and settled. These Romans were more assimilated. No single culture was being promoted over all. The subject peoples were also able to achieve upward social mobility by service to the empire, and senators from Gaul and other provinces were accepted at Rome, where they would try to be Roman: “when in Rome, do as Romans do.”

Latin language and Roman law remained as monuments to the places the empire ruled, but after the empire passed, there was no cosmopolitan culture shared by all peoples once ruled by the empire. Native traditions had remained strong and could be reasserted after Romans no longer ruled. One lasting cultural form Romans left behind, as they pulled out their legions and stopped sending governors to the lost lands, was a new universal religion, Christianity.

The English in Ireland were an example of people who believed strongly that the natives were inferior; medieval English settlers enforced a policy, passed by  an all-English parliament of the English king at Dublin, outlawing Irish Gaelic culture. The failure of the king to make a real concerted effort to bring Ireland under his rule, in the way Edward I did make for Wales and Scotland, showed that in political terms Ireland had no priority for Kings of England. They did not go there, and they did not order invasion forces to conquer and organize it in the way Roman government would systematically take new land into the empire.

English nobles built castles on land seized from the Gaelic nobles and brought colonists to be tenants on conquered land, but over time English colonists stopped coming or returned to England. After the Black Death decimated the English in Ireland, the Irish natives reasserted their power over lost lands, and in the early modern centuries King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, Protector Cromwell, and King William III, pursued a policy of dispossessing Gaelic Irish landowners, then stripping Catholics of political and civil rights, and actively trying to make English the only language of the land, eradicating Gaelic.

Hence, the clash of civilizations in Ireland led to the Irish rebelling constantly against rule from England, until a republic was created for them in the last century, a republic where English is spoken by all and English parliamentary politics and legal forms now prevail. The UK and Ireland are now allies in geopolitics, integrated in economy via the EC and OECD, and in no way rendered permanently hostile as a result of the long history of English aggression. It is clear that nearly 800 years of English rule in Ireland managed to nearly eradicate the “aboriginal culture” of the Celtic Gaels. The Roman empire did much less to change the Celtic culture of Britannia.

My final example of an empire waging cultural aggression is again from British history, the British Raj in India. Before about 1850, English and Scots in India were not race-conscious, and did not assume heights of superiority over the people of India. Intermarriage with Indian women, eating their food, wearing the clothes, appreciating the art and music, of India, were the norms of British men living in India and doing business, often in lands not directly ruled by the parliament of the UK but under native rulers who were clients of the British Crown. Then racialist attitudes came to be the norm in Europe as the Western Enlightenment established a new consciousness among white men that their sciences, their industries, their weaponry, their religion, was better than that of people beyond Europe. A war of some Indian rulers against English rule in 1857 failed to raise the Indian people in numbers that could force the occupying empire to vacate its power; the British turned the memory of this war into a fetish of hatred for “Indian barbarism,” justifying cruel atrocities by their imperial armies and fixing a yoke of oppression upon India in the name of civilizing it. From 1857 to 1947, the Raj would embody racialist assumptions. It was the war against Aryan racism that truly tipped the British away from it.

British people living in India during the later nineteenth century assumed the racial superiority of the White Man, and expected Indians to recognize it. Segregation from the Indians became mandatory for British men and women living in the Raj in imperial service; the Raj was ruled by fewer than one thousand white administrators, and the large Army had many more soldiers of colour than white, though all ranks above lieutenant were white.

Racism was not new in Indian culture, of course, as the caste system amply attests. The highest castes, Brahmins and Kshatriyas (warriors) were not averse to serving the Raj, and sent their sons to British universities to learn to become more like the imperial master race; university education for men at that time self-consciously aimed to inculcate classical Greco-Roman qualities of character in the elite of the UK, preparing them for their social dominance.

Thus, the British contributed to creating a class of Indian men who staffed their imperial administration, who well understood British politics, and were capable of taking over the government of India with a parliamentary system. India’s leadership today boasts that they rule the largest democracy in the world, operating with rule of law and modern economics. Today, India does not have a hostile relationship with the UK, no more than Ireland does, despite the history of English imperialism and racism.

No one would say the British diminished native Indian culture during the Raj. No political agenda to do that was ever pursued, and the spread of English language, law, education, and commercial and industrial forms of European capitalism was as much the choice of Indian elites as the goal of the imperialists. Enormous stretches of India never knew the direct hand of British rule over them, and traditional village economies coexisted with the world of global capitalism. The vast size of India in territory and population meant it could not be treated as Ireland was, and India was very far from the UK.

In my three historical examples, the effect of political overlordship by an imperial people on a subjugated foreign culture depended somewhat on what the subject people wanted. Politics did not always command the culture of the people to change, but it did change. Rome did not actively seek to erase native cultures among its subjects, English settlers in Ireland did seek to root out the Gaelic culture and then even to root out the Gaels themselves, but the native elite resisted effectively. While the British in India denigrated the race and civilization of Indians, they largely left Indians to their own cultural devices so long as the Indians were not working inside the ruling political administration. Evangelism of Christian missionaries in India was not a government-mandated program. British Christians sometimes complained they had no state funding.

My conclusion for good relationships between capitalist nations of the West or (Euro-American) civilization and the nations where Islam is dominant is the simple one of non-interference: do not go to Afghanistan or Iraq and proclaim a political agenda of making those peoples more like us, more capitalist, more liberal for women, more democratic in our understanding of democratic.

For people who are Muslim and Western simultaneously, living in the West, the Western cultural value of non-interference in private life, enshrined in our democratic ethos and human-rights codes, ought to guide politics. Leave citizens alone to pursue private cultural practices that do not transgress public fundamentals of law. Distinguish public and private spheres, and allow them.

I turn now to look at when politics and culture seem fused, in the sense of “political culture.” This is the puzzle of people on the political spectrum, of left, centre, right, living with cultural flavour. “Culture” differs with political hue, when people segregate their social circles from others with politics not in harmony with their own. In the US, this has become notable, according to sociologists and political scientist; whole counties are populated by people of only one political colour, red Republicans or blue Democrats.

 

(Here ends Part I.  Part II will follow, and will begin by returning to the effects of the 1960s on our cultural evolution.)