JIS XXXIII 2021: 1-18
PHENOMENOLOGY OF COMMUNICATIONS:
TOWARD A CULTURE OF GRACE
Institute for Interdisciplinary Research
This essay explores the intersection of communication and culture. It proposes that a new interdisciplinary field of inquiry–a phenomenology of communications–implicates culture in that all communication helps shape and reflects a society’s cultural assumptions and aspirations. In an era of social media and electronic communication, the impact on culture has accelerated. Both positive and negative aspects of social media reverberate in American popular culture that Christopher Lasch described as a culture of narcissism and David Brooks calls a culture of the “Big Me.” The essay revisits a documentary about Mike Tyson’s life and career that exemplifies what it means to be an American, renewing a culture that aspires to redeem the American dream of a more perfect union beyond preference and prejudice. It shows also why American culture needs to be transformed from a narcissistic, self-referential, tribal perspective of identity politics and false tolerance toward a culture that respects individual autonomy and privacy, reconnects rights and responsibilities, and encourages true diversity, inspired by transcendent norms and ideals worthy of a creature created in the image and likeness of God.
COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE
This 33rd volume of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies explores the promises and pitfalls of “Social Media & the Self,” focusing on the promise of connectedness. As elaborated in the 32nd volume on “The Digital Challenge,” the new social media technologies and platforms are not neutral. Thus, the iPhone, tablets, Internet, and social media platforms are designed commercially for maximum “click-through,” that is, “time on the device.” The new electronic communications media are built around tracking and gathering user information regarding habits and preferences in order to facilitate commercial engagement–the sale of goods and services (Alter 2018). In brief, e-commerce builds on real world commerce with the distinction that it is far more invasive in terms of individual privacy via its feature of ubiquitous harvesting of data and information facilitated by the human yearning for self-affirmation and connectedness.
The present volume endeavors to assess the human impact of the new technologies in connecting people, facilitating and intensifying communication, while cautioning about the downsides such as attention-scatteredness, behavior modification, privacy concerns, and potential addiction. As a framework for inquiry, this essay explores the intersection of communication and culture. It proposes that a new interdisciplinary field of inquiry–a phenomenology of communications–implicates culture in that all communication helps shape and reflects a society’s cultural assumptions and aspirations. In an era of social media and electronic communication, the impact on culture has accelerated. But what is culture?
The serious study of culture, especially that of popular culture, East and West, continues to fascinate (Gruenwald 1978). The literature on the definition of culture is legion. Suffice it to draw attention here to classic studies by Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn (1963). In their research, these two scholars have traced no fewer than 164 definitions of culture in the anthropological and related literature. Yet they conclude that no unified theory of culture has emerged. In its broadest conceptualization, culture might include a society’s institutional structures–political, economic, and legal–as well as its values and beliefs as reflected in art, poetry, music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, design, drama, speech, comedy, criticism, news, and even the more mundane production and consumption of goods and services insofar as they reflect a total way of life, knowledge, and feeling. Kroeber and Kluckhohn did find several common themes among the 164 diverse definitions of culture, which they summarized as follows: “Culture is a product; is historical; includes ideas, patterns, and values; is selective, is learned; is based upon symbols; and is an abstraction from behavior and the products of behavior” (cited in Tucker 1973: 174).
Culture thus emerges as an overwhelming ambience of homo sapiens. It helps to explain both the genesis of socio-political, economic, legal, and other societal institutions, and their inner dynamics. Apart from this, culture is also a unique expression of man’s creative urge, his primordial drive to externalize and grasp himself and the universe. Not to be underestimated is the role of culture as sheer entertainment, enhancing leisure, and allowing for the exercise of homo ludens’ play instinct (Huizinga 1967). This multifaceted cultural diamond led Robert Tucker to conclude that:
If man is the culture-bearing and culture-creating animal, then the idea of culture must play a central role in every one of the disciplines dealing with man–psychology, history, and the several social sciences; and culture becomes, as Kroeber and Kluckhohn put it, “a major concept in a possible unified science of human behavior” (1973: 174).
The serious study of culture in its myriad manifestations is, thus, of signal importance for a more thorough understanding of human beings and their institutions, both within and across different social systems.
THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM
Both the positive and negative aspects of social media now reverberate in American culture that Christopher Lasch (1979) diagnosed already in the 1970s as a “culture of narcissism,” while David Brooks (2015) calls its twenty-first century sequel a culture of the “Big Me.” Hence, it is worth revisiting Lasch’s analysis and social commentary that predicted accurately a peculiar American malaise that now dominates the social media landscape. Sonya Leigh Scotts’ (2007) summary highlights Lasch’s contributions to cultural studies and its critics. Lasch’s foray into American culture centered on self-preoccupation, loss of individualism, and a growing therapeutic milieu that buttressed self-serving tendencies in a culture of “collective narcissism.” Lasch’s approach questioned long-held assumptions on both the Left and the Right. Thus, Lasch bemoaned the decline of the traditional family and parental authority in child-rearing displaced by increasing reliance on outside “experts” and social agencies. He blamed feminism for undermining the traditional role of women for raising children where strong parent-child relationships provided a firm foundation for children to grow and develop.
But Lasch traced back declining family authority to industrialization and the commercial Zeitgeist that uprooted closely-knit communities. The new commercial era would propel men to pursue careers above all else, not just earning a paycheck, but as proof of social approbation and source of personal worth. Divorce became more common, and children suffered in the aftermath of disintegrating families. Feminism tended also to emasculate men, and introduced unreasonable expectations in the relationships between men and women. In brief, as Scott relates Lasch’s concerns: “In a narcissistic society, this furthered self-preoccupation, emotional detachment, dependence on experts, and propagated loss of individualism and the breakdown of family life” (2007: 143).
As might be expected, Lasch’s analysis found plenty of critics, Left and Right, who accused him of a whole range of sins, including pivoting from an erstwhile academic historian to merely a social critic or public intellectual, to defender of a patriarchal family structure and its suppression of women, lack of clarity, cow-towing to the mighty following President Jimmy Carter’s invitation to attend a Camp David colloquium with 150 people, to upholding traditional values, being authoritarian, romanticizing the bourgeois family, patriarchal power, and bourgeois self-control. Robert Erwin remarked that “Lasch shouldered criticism from liberals, conservatives, and radicals,” but “stayed firm in his convictions, refusing to acquiesce to what fame or the influence of fame might bring” (cited in Scott 2007: 148).
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century that, if anything, confirms Lasch’s social critique of America burdened with a “culture of narcissism.” One of the most eloquent analyses of contemporary American culture is David Brooks’ The Road to Character (2015). Its chapter titles, “The Shift,” “The Summoned Self,” “Self-Conquest,” “Struggle,” “Self-Mastery,” “Dignity,” “Love,” “Ordered Love,” “Self-Examination,” indicate already the values and virtues needed to overcome a society’s self-absorption and narcissistic mind-set characteristic of an inflated self-concept of the “Big Me,” forever seeking affirmation and outside approval–the promise and bane of twenty-first century social media.
Brooks’ tour-de-force harkens back to an earlier era that subscribed to the view of human nature as flawed, but redeemable, known as “the crooked timber” school of humanity. In contrast to the postmodern “coddling” of the American mind and heart, and utopian expectations, this older school presupposed, and saw nobility in, human striving for excellence. But it was also more realistic, and accommodated human limitations. Crucially, this school of thought saw human life as a journey, a challenge, that requires love, discipline, self-control, and accepting responsibility for self and others. It assumed a bifurcation of human nature into an extroverted Adam I pursuing “résumé virtues,” fame and fortune, vs. a more introverted Adam II who aspires to “eulogy virtues” of humility, reticence, self-effacement, self-combat, struggling to build character, growing as a human being.
Like Lasch, Brooks observes that a narcissistic culture empowers self-centeredness, while social media are conducive to a “broadcasting personality.” To illustrate the point, Brooks cites an apparent progression toward self-advertising in memoirs of men and women who served in presidential cabinets of various administrations. In Brooks’ view, by the time of the Reagan administration, such memoirs were mostly self-congratulatory. Brooks contrasts this with a more modest self-concept of an earlier era:
When the older George Bush, who was raised in that era, was running for president, he, having inculcated the values of his childhood, resisted speaking about himself. If a speech writer put the word “I” in one of his speeches, he’d instinctively cross it out. The staff would beg him: You’re running for president. You’ve got to talk about yourself. Eventually they’d cow him into doing so. But the next day he’d get a call from his mother. “George, you’re talking about yourself again,” she’d say. And Bush would revert to form. No more I’s in the speeches. No more self-promotion” (2015: 6).
As the nation witnessed during the 2020 U.S. presidential election and its aftermath, America is at a crossroads. Trump’s twitter presidency piggy-backed on the promises, and underestimated the pitfalls, of the new electronic media of communication whose unidirectional, instant transmission features contributed to a national crisis. In one of his more introspective moments, Trump confided that he wished, in retrospect, that he could take some of his tweets back. In the political arena, in particular, twitter could be weaponized to oversimplify issues, shame and insult opponents, as well as energize and mobilize supporters. But banning anyone from twitter raises First Amendment issues of denying one’s right to free speech. As to Trump, he did not invent identity politics, but exploited the deep divisions in American society, and contributed to its Balkanization. And, confirming the narcissism thesis, Trump’s ego was too big to admit defeat at the ballot box.
The nation now faces irreconcilable demands of identity politics that brook no compromise and divide American society, resulting in its re-tribalization along race, ethnic, and gender lines, while social media reinforce group-think (Gonzalez 2020). By now, even liberals like Mark Lilla (2017) admit that identity politics should end, and that the nation needs to define and pursue a common purpose. America badly needs a new narrative beyond preference and prejudice. Can such a new model be discerned in American popular culture?
MIKE TYSON: AN AMERICAN SAGA
The 2-part ABC News Special, “Mike Tyson: The Knockout” (2021), is also a portrait of America. Based on existing news clips, supplemented by interviews, the documentary traces the rise and fall of one of America’s greatest boxing champions as well as his personal life. The original music score, a haunting melody, is symbolic of Tyson’s roots in the New York slums that would leave an indelible mark on his life and career. A pair of red boxing gloves are symbolic of his boxing career, while a stylized pigeon taking flight hints at Tyson’s quest for freedom and the thrall of escaping the constraints of earth-bound circumstances.
According to the prevailing narrative of America as a racist society, a black kid from the ghetto could never escape the slums, let alone rise to prominence. Yet, Mike Tyson became at age 20 the youngest world heavy-weight boxing champion. This is all the more remarkable in that Mike was brought up by the “village,” the “hood,” replete with gangs who taught him the “school of hard knocks,” a life of crime, and doing time. As a youth, Mike was arrested 38 times, but in juvenile detention had the good fortune when his ability was discovered in a boxing program. Eventually, legendary boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato, began training Mike, and became his substitute father and legal guardian. Mike rose fast through the ranks of boxing opponents, knocking some out in as little as 90 seconds. Alas, D’Amato passed away before the celebrated match, which Mike dedicated to his benefactor after defeating Michael Spinks for the world heavyweight title in 1988, exclaiming, “His boy did it!”
Tyson’s boxing career blossomed, he earned millions, and became one of America’s outstanding sports celebrities, but lost focus and partied too much. Tyson became overconfident, and by 1990, in Japan, would lose his heavyweight boxing title to Buster Douglas, a 42-1 underdog. Actually, Tyson knocked Douglas to the floor in the 8th round, but Douglas recovered, and pummeled Tyson in later rounds. The difference was stamina, though Douglas boasted a longer reach. In the days leading up to the match, Douglas trained and rested . . . trained and rested, while Tyson . . . partied. In the ring, Tyson looked exhausted, lethargic, moving slowly, not defending himself properly. While his opponent, Douglas, was determined, aggressive, and motivated by a pledge to his late mother that he would not lose this match. Mike fell against the ropes, and then flat on the floor, struggled to get up after the obligatory count, but the referee took one look, embraced him and, thankfully, ended the match, possibly saving Mike’s life. At that point, Tyson had nothing left to defend himself. It was one of the greatest upsets in sports history. In retrospect, Mike would state that he needed that experience to take stock of his life.
Tyson continued to box, and regained several titles. But, in his second match against Evander Holyfield in 1996, Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear in response to the latter’s head-butting him, resulting in a forfeited match, a $3 million fine, and a one-year ban from boxing. Tyson issued a letter of apology, asking not to be banned from boxing for life. It was only much later during a joint TV appearance that Tyson apologized to Holyfield. One hopes that eventually Holyfield would also apologize to Tyson for head-butting him. Not surprisingly, Tyson’s biting incident made him one of the most controversial sports figures in America. Tyson’s boxing career was not yet over, but it marked a watershed, from which point forward Tyson would have to draw on all his wits to reinvent himself.
From juvenile detention to sports celebrity, from the ghetto to a stately mansion, the sudden fame and fortune affected Mike. It would take the rest of his life to find a balance. Tyson’s personal life was even more tumultuous than his boxing career. Raised by the hood, an absentee father, and an abusive mother, a drug addict, Tyson had difficulty relating to people, especially women. His new-found wealth and fame attracted people, but he often wondered, “Are you still my friend?” He married three times, and had seven children. His first marriage lasted but a year. In the 1980s, the older media could be just as invasive of privacy as the current social media. Thus, the infamous 1988 interview with Barbara Walters resulted in Tyson’s wife publicly shaming him. In response to a question whether Tyson abused her, the aspiring actress replied that he restrained her, and that Mike was “manic-depressive.” The low blow came when she opined that no woman could possibly live with Mike. Tyson just sat there, next to his wife, stone-faced, stunned, hurt. The intimacies his wife revealed could be shared in private with a marriage counselor, but not publicly on national TV.
Tyson protested that he was not a violent man. But he could be provoked, and then furniture would fly out the windows of their elegantly-appointed mansion. It also explains his childhood struggles when another youth bullied him, and snapped the head from one of Mike’s pigeons, although he asked not to hurt the pigeon. The bully did it anyway, and this so enraged Mike that he “beat the daylights” out of the much bigger kid. Animation conveys this episode. Later in life, he recalled that in that encounter, “Tyson, the fighter,” was born.
Tyson became a controversial figure after biting Holyfield. But his reputation would sink even lower after conviction for raping a Miss Black America Beauty Pageant contestant in 1991. The documentary shows Tyson behind the scenes at the Pageant, strolling and eyeing the contestants. Tyson was not gay; he was genuinely attracted to women, and he let them know in no uncertain terms. As a celebrity, women were also attracted to him. The alleged victim went to Tyson’s hotel room, and then accused him of rape. Tyson’s attorneys deployed the classic “blame the victim” argument, pointing out that Tyson had a reputation as “the Baddest Man on the Planet,” so why would a woman go to his hotel room? The jury did not buy it; Tyson was convicted and sentenced to 6 years in prison in 1992.
A black man outside the courtroom following the verdict shed a tear, mumbling, “he was railroaded.” It was obvious to him that a black man accused of rape would be convicted by an all-white jury. It recalls Gregory Peck’s unforgettable movie role as Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). But this foregone conclusion was wrong. Tyson admitted having sex, but claimed it was consensual. A black woman commentator complained that “still, no one believes black women.” But, did the woman bear some responsibility? In an earlier era, young women went to dances and parties with a chaperone, or teamed up with a girlfriend for mutual security. The beauty contestant was only 18 years old; where were her parents or guardians?
Tyson did not complain, but went quietly to prison, perchance thinking that he was just paying his debts to society for all those youthful capers in the hood he got away with, including bringing home new clothes he did not pay for. While in prison, Tyson had time to read and reflect. He found God (Allah) in prison. Upon his early release after 3 years, Tyson emerged a Muslim. But it would take a long time for Tyson to grow up. His boxing career declined in part because, as he admitted, “it is just not in my heart anymore.” Some thought that Tyson aged in the ring, and stayed too long. He needed the money. While earning millions, he had to declare bankruptcy. He turned to drugs, was arrested for DUI, suffered from self-loathing. He started therapy, wanted to be respected, and to be able to respect others.
A turning point in Tyson’s life was arguably the accidental death of his young daughter, Exodus, who got entangled in a treadmill exercise cord in her Phoenix home in 2009, was rushed to a local hospital, but did not survive. It changed Tyson who would never get over it. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Tyson realized that he was not the center of the universe, and that other people whom he loved depended on him. The documentary ends showing Tyson walking with his kids in nature, with a bird taking flight overhead, and Tyson commenting, “Waking up in God’s environment is the best,” and sharing that he learned gratitude from his kids.
Yet this engrossing 4-hour-long documentary still fails to do justice to Mike Tyson as one may conclude that he was just a “boxer,” evidently a great boxer, who later in life was expressing regrets and trying to make amends. But public records show Tyson as an extraordinary, versatile, multi-talented individual who keeps reinventing himself. Clearly, Tyson is leaving his mark on the worlds of sports and entertainment, and has published two autobiographies. Apart from his acclaimed one-man show, Tyson took acting roles in movies and television, including The Hangover (2009). Tyson’s Undisputed Truth (2013), a New York Times best-seller, won the SPORTEL Special Prize for the best autobiography. He has served as enforcer in wrestling. Further, Tyson launched his YouTube channel with Shots Studios in 2017, and hosts the podcast Hotboxin with Mike Tyson. By 2021, plans were underway for Jamie Foxx to star and produce the official scripted series, “Tyson.”
Tyson’s entrepreneurial skills were evident in his comeback re-inventions, launching his Iron Mike Productions, a boxing promotions company, with Acquinity Sports, in 2013, and Mike Tyson’s Legends Only League, by 2020, offering retired professional athletes opportunities to compete in their respective sport. But his crowning achievement in philanthropy was sponsoring the Mike Tyson Cares Foundation in 2012 to give kids from broken homes “a fighting chance.” Most remarkable of all is the continuing saga of Mike Tyson, boxer, entertainer, philanthropist, family man, a “kid from the hood who made good,” a black man pursuing the American dream, slowly chiseling his self to become a better man. Also notable is that racism is poignantly absent from the many dragons and challenges that populate Tyson’s personal and professional life. America’s youth deserve a more complete accounting of “The Mike Tyson Story: An American Original,” yet to be told.
MUSIC AS A CONDUIT FOR CULTURE
American popular culture, reflected in sports, music, and entertainment, offers unique glimpses into the American character, and provides insights into the strengths and weaknesses of America’s great experiment in popular self-government. The 2021 Grammy Awards, featured on CBS television (14 March 2021), illustrate this premise. The Awards were, indeed, a spectacular rendition of sound, movement, costumes, colors, and lights. One would expect a celebration of America in music and dance. To some, it may have appeared that way. Yet, music and video numbers at the 2021 Grammys were dominated by rap and hip-hop, lending the whole show a coarseness, while extolling diversity, blackness, and protest. Instead of celebrating America’s music, it was basically a critical social commentary in sound, movement, and dance. Alas, it lacked a redeeming quality, inspiration, enchantment, wonder, awe, love, romance, or true compassion. The show seemed to celebrate an “in-your-face” culture of an offended “Big Me,” as Brooks characterizes the prevailing trait of narcissism in a postmodern era, expressed in a self-congratulatory, “I like to be the center of attention” (2015: 6).
The 2021 Grammy performances appeared light-years away from the more gentle renditions of musical legends like Nat King Cole (“the man with a golden voice”), Ray Charles (“inimitable blues”), Frank Sinatra (“crooner to the stars”), Dolly Parton (“queen of country”), Johnny Cash (“lyrics of redemption”), or Tony Bennett (“forever young”)–all romancers who romance the human imagination. Their “easy-listening” music–from jazz, blues and gospel to pop and country–celebrates life, love, romance, human creativity, discovery, friendship, joy, and laughter. It lacks the hard edge of protest and self-absorption of postmodern rap (tarnished by “cop-killer” lyrics) and hip-hop that may deepen the socio-cultural divide in an America rent apart by identity politics. Such protest forms of music and art lack the polished dance steps of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, known for their elegance and style. Rap and hip-hop appear to mimic a nondescript street culture from which Tyson sought to escape. Why would such sounds and movements be considered music or art rather than merely background noise and distraction?
The 2021 Grammys purported to celebrate diversity, social justice, and blackness, but offered no Spirituals or music as food for the soul. Absent were also the great harmonies found in classical music described by Michael Kurek in his The Sound of Beauty (2019) as initiating a listener into the spiritual life. A nation cannot heal by art, music or speech filled with anger, protest, crudity, or lust, that fail to elevate or inspire the heart, mind, and soul. What is needed is a better way. To transform a society’s culture, transform its music, reach for the stars, engage the totality of human emotions, aspire to true greatness found in the quest for wholeness, redemption, and salvation–a Quest for the Holy Grail (Gruenwald 1997). One can only commend Brooks’ counsel to the self-absorbed: “You are not the center of the universe” (2015: 6). God Is! Crucially, ours is a quest, not just a destination. It is, quintessentially, the human story, whatever the medium of expression.
The 63rd Annual Grammy Awards were described gushingly by Yahoo Music. But disordered sound may reflect a disordered self. This is not to say that the 2021 Grammys lacked artistry. In fact, there was considerable artistry–from the unique sets and costumes to talented voices and creative dance moves. However, even the more melodious renditions were submerged in the cacophony of discordant sounds and choreography that appealed to our baser natures, lowering, rather than elevating, the muses’ ability to inspire. The low point in the 2021 Grammys was a sketch where two women prostrate on the stage interlock legs suggestively. It was not lost on a commentator who expressed only mild doubts.
THE PETER PAN COMPLEX
By now, both the old (television) and the new (online) media trumpet LGBT as the latest achievement in “diversity,” “inclusion,” “tolerance,” and “free choice.” Regrettably, same-sex liaisons only deepen the divide between men and women by introducing an element of suspicion, casting doubt on heterosexual relationships. Curiously, same-sex attractions confirm also the narcissism paradigm. Like Narcissus, those enamored by their own image are attracted to a like mirror image for intimacy and misplaced emotions, while forfeiting the Biblical promise of the essential complementarity of men and women (Thomas 2014).
The same-sex conundrum may harbor a Peter Pan complex, an inability or unwillingness to grow up. Postmodern culture abets and even encourages such arrested emotional underdevelopment. This is not to impugn the character or achievements of those who suffer from psychological/emotional trauma regarding a self-concept or are prone to fashionable sexual fantasies. The ranks of the “Peter Pan” club include notable artists, poets, and writers. Thus, upon his visit to America in 1882, when asked by New York Customs Control about a customs declaration, Oscar Wilde allegedly replied, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” Not self-effacing, but funny.
In the rarified ambience of entertainment and show business, there are more telling anecdotes. One reflects a strength of character, when in an earlier era it was detrimental to one’s career to come out as “gay.” Yet, a good-looking young actor, wooed by Elizabeth Taylor (who had a reputation of “marrying all her lovers”), came out to her, while she kept his secret. Later, Liz would defend also Rock Hudson, who in the end succumbed to AIDS. Hudson was not only one of the most handsome leading men, a “heartthrob” in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but also an accomplished actor, nominated for Academy Award Best Actor for his role in “Giant” (1956). Sadly, in real life, a man’s faulty compass would lead to problematic relationships, divorce, and a lost love for women desiring an attractive husband. But the greatest damage of showcasing same-sex attractions is its impact on youth who are already overloaded with stress (Williams 2014). Short of conversion and emotional healing, a caring approach in a free society would be the former U.S. Armed Forces motto, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” relying on the age-old wisdom of discretion as “the better part of valor.”
FROM CANCEL CULTURE TO TRUE DIVERSITY
It is our thesis that America in the twenty-first century is in search of its soul. The promises and pitfalls of social media only accentuate the impact of new electronic communications on culture and its underlying assumptions and aspirations. Social media did not create the challenges and dragons confronting an America now more deeply divided than ever before. But, according to Mike Gonzalez (2020), social media can intensify social divisions by empowering groupism, self-isolation, ideological and political extremes, the “us vs. them” syndrome. Already James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers (1788) regarding factions as a major threat to the Republic. A democracy relies on compromise for the peaceful brokering of diverse interests. The problem with identity politics, however, is that diverse interests reduced to basic identities of race, ethnicity, and gender are inherently non-negotiable. In other times and places, non-negotiable demands of identity politics have led to tribalism, irreconcilable conflict, violence, civil war, and the dissolution of a state along ethnic lines as in post-Tito Yugoslavia, now known as Balkanization (Gruenwald 1983: 292-97).
How could identity politics arise in America? In his epic, Democracy in America (1835-40), Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to the notion of equality as the Achilles’ heel of democracy. He predicted that the dogged pursuit of absolute equality would require an ever increasing centralization of political power which would eventually destroy constitutional guarantees of rights and liberties, and democracy itself. The question arises: Is the ideal of equality to blame, or its pursuit by the wrong means? As a land of promise, America launched in the mid-1960s a great experiment to lift minorities and disadvantaged via special preferences known as “affirmative action.” Its purpose was, and remains, a desirable societal goal. But it was pursued by the wrong means, while the means tend to replace the ends. Instead of a neutral criterion of need or socio-economic status, it chose race, ethnicity, and gender, all non-negotiable attributes that lead with an iron logic to a society’s re-tribalization, deep, irreconcilable social divisions that now endanger the democratic form of government due to identity politics. The results are all around us: from the contested 2020 presidential election and storming of the U.S. Capitol, to “cancel culture,” exacerbated by social media that have perfected the art of rumor-mongering by making them instantaneous and world-wide. Alan Dershowitz, a famous defense counsel and free speech advocate, defines cancel culture as follows:
Cancel culture is the new McCarthyism of the “woke” generation. As with the old McCarthyism, it ends careers, destroys legacies, breaks up families, and even causes suicides–with no semblance of due process or opportunity to disprove the often false or exaggerated accusations. As with McCarthyism, even when the accusations are true, or partially true, they are generally about acts done, statements made, or positions taken many years earlier when different values and attitudes prevailed. And, as with McCarthyism, the impact goes beyond the cancelled individual and affects other members of society, from audiences denied the right to hear cancelled performances, to students denied the right to learn from cancelled teachers, to citizens denied the right to vote for cancelled politicians (2020: 1).
The worst aspects of cancel culture are undoubtedly the denial of free speech and due process. Dershowitz’s Appendix I, ”Partial List of Individuals Who Have Recently Been Cancelled or Have Had Speeches or Appearances Cancelled,” is 22 pages long (2020: 124-46). The List reminds one of the Index or the Medieval Inquisition, surpassed only by similar lists in fascist and communist dictatorships. It does not include latest incidents, such as Mario Cuomo’s gregariousness (embraced in other cultures) that elicited accusations of “sexual harassment,” which he denied, but was still forced to resign as New York’s Governor. Lasch would not be surprised that radical feminism, that undermined the family, could also drive the wedge deeper between men and women. In a social media era, #MeToo could weaponize feminism, which became a defender of women’s honor, and a destroyer of men’s reputations, discarding the American ideal of “presumed innocent, until proven guilty.”
Dershowitz’s suggestive comparison of McCarthyism with Stalinism needs clarification, since the two are not equivalent. McCarthyism could destroy careers, but Stalin not only erased would-be “enemies” from photographs, but sent them for imprisonment, execution, or the slower death in the Soviet Gulag where an estimated 65 million perished (Solzhenitsyn 1974-78). This in addition to more millions of victims in other one-party states that continue similarly without an accounting of their misdeeds: P.R. China, N. Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba (Gruenwald 2000). Cancel culture flourished also in Tito’s Yugoslavia where Mihajlo Mihajlov was imprisoned for seven years for a “crime of thought” (délit d’opinion), questioning the Party’s ideological-political monopoly (Gruenwald 2012).
Dershowitz, himself falsely accused, argues that in some ways cancel culture is more insidious than McCarthyism or Stalinism since at least one knew who was doing the cancelling. This impression underestimates that in communist dictatorships many are sent to prison or camps due to secret accusers currying favor with the authorities, for ill-gained rewards, or simply settling scores. Dershowitz points out that in the current cancel culture, “the cancellers are often invisible, anonymous, not accountable. The social media is judge and jury” (2020: 6). This is so, Dershowitz continues, because:
Accusations over the internet take on a life of their own through Twitter, Facebook, and other largely unregulated platforms on which false accusers have the freedom to defame, destroy, and cancel. Nobody knows their agenda, their biases, their corruptibility. Cancel culture is Kafkaesque in the sense that Joseph K. had no idea who his tormentor was, why he was being tormented, or what he had done to warrant his uncertain fate (2020: 6).
It should be clear, by now, that cancel culture is the logical heir of “political correctness,” which incubated in U.S. higher education under the auspices of “affirmative action,” leading to the increasing left-liberal ideological streamlining of higher education that spread to the larger society, infusing even American popular culture with its pre-loaded, self-righteous assumptions (Mac Donald 2020). To re-invigorate American popular culture, then, requires re-kindling the spirit of free inquiry and restoring excellence to higher education (Kronman 2020). All racial, ethnic, and gender preferences need to be suspended, except for aiming at parity between men and women in college admissions so that youth may have an opportunity to socialize and mature. But “coddling” students, shutting down debate, is a great disservice (Lukianoff & Haidt 2018). Students need to learn from an intellectually diverse professoriate, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or skin color. Crucially, U.S. higher education should welcome those who challenge the PC thought police, and encourage independent voices that may not be shouted down by a minority of radical students, nor reprimanded or fired by overzealous administrators, or bullied into silence, self-censorship or premature retirement.
TOWARD A CULTURE OF GRACE
In a nutshell, what America needs is a new narrative beyond preference and prejudice, a rebirth and rededication to the nation’s founding ideals enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that called Americans to greatness as the first country in the world based on the idea of freedom rather than the “atavisms of blood” (Allen 1994). The famous 1776 Declaration invoked Nature’s God Who created all men equal, and endowed them with “inalienable” rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The new Republic envisioned a government of, by, and for the people. This “New Order of the Ages” (Novus Ordo Seclorum) promised equality of opportunity to all, without regard to race, ethnicity, country of origin, political, philosophical or religious persuasion.
This is why Mike Tyson’s is an archetypal story of striving and succeeding in an America that can fulfill its promise. John F. Kennedy articulated America’s vision well when he held that: “We must always consider . . . that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us” (1962: 4). In his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), Martin Luther King Jr. shared this vision of an America that would make good on its promise of equality and justice for all by ending discrimination. As a Christian, King commended understanding, patience, and tolerance in the difficult journey ahead that would herald, “let freedom ring,” but entreated his countrymen that:
In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force (1963).
In conclusion, King (1963) shared an aspiration: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The promise of America as a land of freedom, opportunity, and refuge from tyranny has universal appeal, attested to by the multitudes drawn to these shores. Lasch entertained hope for an American cultural renaissance:
In a dying culture, narcissism appears to embody–in the guise of personal “growth” and “awareness”–the highest attainment of spiritual enlightenment. The custodians of culture hope, at bottom, merely to survive its collapse. The will to a better society, however, survives. Along with traditions of localism, self-help, and community action that only need the vision of a new society, a decent society, to give them new vigor (1991: 234).
If human beings are, indeed, created in the imago Dei (Gen 2), then their most sublime achievement may be found in a culture of grace (Col 4:6). For Christians, there is an additional call to share the high moral-ethical ideals of the Christian worldview encapsulated in St. Paul’s three cardinal virtues: Faith, hope, and love. But the greatest is–love (caritas). Against these, there is no law. Among virtues needed for a cultural renaissance are compassion, empathy, introspection, humility, and forgiveness, qualities that would also transform and fulfill the promise of social media for true human connectedness. Yet those enthralled by technology and all things digital as portending a Brave New World may heed Sherry Turkle’s reminder that “no robot can ever love us back” (2017: 28).
In the end, America’s destiny is a universal story, a hope-filled, enduring odyssey, ennobled by innumerable acts of kindness, despite all the violence and wretchedness, even lost wars, where erstwhile strangers become friends by discovering common ground–their essential humanity. As Arthur Brooks (2020) argues persuasively, love can surmount even a “culture of contempt.” The good news is that Christianity is a religion of second chances. If someone as conflicted as Mike Tyson could aspire to conquering a multitude of dragons, then there is hope for the rest of us. As this essay suggests, the human odyssey is fundamentally an ethical and spiritual quest, reflecting the “teleological imperative” (Gruenwald 2007). As to the final prospects, Scripture affirms the blessed hope that the Christian God is not only all-merciful and all-forgiving, but also patiently waiting for the pilgrim to discover and follow the upward path to life and redemption.
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Oskar Gruenwald, Ph.D., IIR-ICSA Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.