Saturday, April 29, 2006

Apocalypse.. Not!

In keeping with our recent discussion on doom-mongering, this article by Alison Stein Wellner puts paid to the notion that we are increasingly mobilizing ourselves toward the Apocalypse.

It’s one of the most durable perceptions about America: The United States is a nation on the move. From the days of “manifest destiny,” when pioneers forged their way westward, to today, as technology loosens the geographic tether, the American people appear congenitally restless. Unlike other stodgy countries, we’re a young nation, modern cowboys and cowgirls, lonely but rugged, isolated and independent, charting our own course. We’re entrepreneurial, pursuing opportunities wherever they take us. What could be more quintessentially American?

An article in the July 14, 2005, Economist describes “restlessness in the midst of plenty” as one of our nation’s “most remarkable features.” Since people often relocate to find better jobs, the story suggests, geographic mobility fosters economic mobility. Except when it has the opposite effect: “The wider worry is that America’s great sorting-out could damage the country by producing a stratified land of haves and have-nots, and creating more class divisions.”

The ills allegedly caused by rising mobility don’t stop there. In his 2000 book Restless Nation, the independent scholar James Jasper blames increased mobility for everything from environmental degradation to lack of respect for the government to high divorce rates. He suggests broad changes in federal housing policy, among other measures, to encourage people to stay put. The Rutgers sociologist David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project, blames mobility for the unraveling of the American family, the decline of urban neighborhoods, and the destructive influence of the mass media. Without strong social ties, he writes in his 2001 book Private Pleasure, Public Plight, “the dominant force…becomes the mass media, especially television, and whatever meanings and values these media impart. Far from maximizing human choice, this situation [of mobility] represents an apogee of cultural coercion in which [a] citizen is every bit as much a puppet as under a doctrinaire political totalitarianism.”

All this might be very troubling, if not for the fact that increasing geographic mobility is a myth. If anything, Americans are more likely than ever to stay put. You might think that basic fact would give the social critics and policy makers pause. But it hasn’t stopped them from asserting that rampant mobility is destroying the environment, undermining the family, and increasing anomie. More important, it hasn’t stopped them from proposing intrusive, coercive, and expensive measures to curb a problem that doesn’t exist.

You may wonder why so many of us have a penchant for seeing doom in our future, and decline from a Golden Age in our present. You may look at it as a nefarious scheme by the "Nanny" professions, both secular and religious, to justify their intrusive apparati of social control. Yet why are these beliefs so widely held by people? And why today, with all of the benefits of material and social progress that we enjoy over our ancestors?

Wellner offers a few thoughts:

One reason the mobility myth persists, Fischer argues, is that it jibes with the widely held idea that we’re in the midst of “a fall from grace.” (You’d think we’d have landed by now—we’ve been falling for centuries.) If we’re increasingly mobile, we’re a less stable society than we once were, which fits nicely with the fall-from-grace theme. This sort of anxiety is epitomized by Vance Packard’s oft-cited 1972 book A Nation of Strangers, which describes “a society coming apart at the seams” thanks to mobility. Packard connects increasing mobility with the disruption of male-female relationships, the unraveling of traditional religious beliefs, and the crushing speed of technological change. Mobility is an easy scapegoat for complex changes in the American social fabric.

Related to this habit is the common tendency to pine for the good old days. “When people think back,” says Fischer, “they often interpret the past in terms of their own personal biographies, so the past was innocent and fun and stable, like childhood. They remember the past through rose-colored glasses, and an image of stability is part of it.”
Above all, the mobility myth is politically expedient. Conservatives can use the notion that our society is becoming less stable because of increasing mobility to advocate programs that encourage traditional families and to push for taxpayer funding of faith-based social service organizations. Liberals can cite increasing mobility to justify funding for various social programs, including elder care and family care initiatives. Neither the right nor the left has an interest in debunking it, and so the myth endures.

Ah, the Good Old Days! Stephanie Coontz did an excellent job of debunking them in her book "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap". Yet this isn't a recent obsession. All civilizations had a myth of a Golden Age of the past, whether it was the Greeks, the Hebrews, or the Hindus. Why is such pessimism about the future so widely held across times and cultures?

My own explanation, for what it is worth, is that civilization, or large scale settled life, put mankind in social groups vastly larger and more complex than the small clans in which he had evolved. Man's social "software" allowed him to keep track of every relationship that he held with the members of his band, and his social rank with respect to them. So he could always precisely identify his rightful place in the group. Large groups, which spanned familial clans or even ethnic groups, blew away his ability to understand his place in the society. Thus was born the age of free-floating, unfocused anxiety. Man's social calculator continually returned a red , flashing "register overflow" message. He needed a reason to explain this anxiety, this sense of things not being quite right. And thus mythology was born, and it's handmaiden, religion. And we all became pessimists.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

First, I suppose it's because I'm out of touch with advanced thinking, but although I've often read about American mobility, I've never seen it presented as a BAD THING.

Second, I don't agree that we are not mobile. This is the first piece I've ever seen that cites annual rates. Mobility is usually reported in five-year blocks.

Even at annual rates of 2%, that's 10% turnover per 5 years. And triple that for your sense of mobility, because even if you haven't moved in the past five years, there's a one in 5 chance one of your next-door neighbors has.

Third, as for current feelings, if it's correct that younger people move more (probably correct), then over time, you get a society where older people have been in the same place longer than younger people. They will seem more stable (to the yet unsettled young), and the young will project that back two or more generations, whereas in fact, today's old are no more stable, over a whole lifetime, than today's young.

Fourth, more educated people are more mobile, and it's the educated who write articles.

I'll buy your conclusion about effects of aggregating in larger groups, up to the point where that triggers myth and religion. I think religion arises from that frisson of immanence that all of us experience from time to time. But where that comes from, no idea.

April 29, 2006 11:24 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Your explanation implies another theme that seems to be as universal as the apocalyptic impulse--the idea that once long ago there was a golden age when everybody was happy, certain and unalienated.

April 30, 2006 2:41 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yes, Peter. The two go hand in hand. If our ancestors were happy and we are not, the extrapolation points to disaster in the future. But why do we assume that our ancestors were so happy? Do you have any theories?

April 30, 2006 6:30 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

No, Although I do think the whole issue was nicely reflected in the New Yorker cartoon where the whiny employee was sitting in fromt of his boss' desk and the boss was saying:

"Yes, Smithers. I understand you are not having fun. That's why it's called work."

I have to confess I've never understood why materialists aren't far more troubled by this whole issue of human alienation than they seem to be.

April 30, 2006 3:56 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Alienation from what? The Big Spook?

Not a problem.

Of the worker from his tools?

I hardly think my ancestor in 1250 was so enamoured of his billhook and flail.

I don't see why materialists should feel alienation more than immaterialists. Perhaps not even as much. We do not feel we were evicted from anyplace, like the Jews and Christians. We have always been right here.

April 30, 2006 9:24 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

What? Surely you haven't forgotten "the Great Trek", when man "burst out" (c.f. Mayr) of environmentally-rich and bountiful East Africa, condemned to wander across mountains and seas to remote parts frigid and arid while evolving pale skin and blue eyes and other assorted thises and thats to stave off extinction? Funny thing about that story. No one seems ever to have said: "To heck with this nonsense, I'm going back."

May 01, 2006 2:05 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, I've never heard the "Out of Africa" theory portrayed as an analogy for the eviction from Eden. Where do you hear this stuff?

Alienation is just this free floating anxiety that I mentioned above, this sense of things not being right. Again, I chalk it up to this outmoded warning system in our head evolved for our use when we lived in tight little familial bands. It's just outmoded software, like some idiot light on a car that's been totally customized with new parts, but noone thought to disconnect the light. It's easier just to ignore the flashing light than to try to figure out why it's flashing.

People who try too hard to deal with alienation end up joining cults. All those lawyers and proffesional types who chucked their normal lives and possessions to grovel at the feet of the Bhagwan were trying to escape that flashing light. That's like driving your car into a tree to make the flashing stop.

People who try a little less hard end up moving to Vermont, wearing Birkenstocks, raising organic herbs and vegetables and growing a beard. Its not as bad as joining a cult, but it's no more authentic a life than selling stocks on Wall Street.

Harry got it right. I don't think that our peasant ancestors sat around thinking "gee, we are so blessed to live free of alienation". As apocalyptic religion has been around a long time, so has alienation. It's a constant feature of life, you can't turn it off. Ignore it.

May 01, 2006 3:31 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Gotta love you. You post on alienation (presumably looking for a debate) and seven comments later you tell us just to ignore it as if it were just like a mysterious occasional itch of no moment whatsoever.

Sure, don't wallow in it, but ignore it? You've defined it as a timeless element of human nature, so where does it come from?

As to Africa, that theory is necessary to avoid postulating that man evolved in more than one place, which it appears used to be a respectable one among darwinists (pre-war) but which I assume has been rejected on probability grounds. But if you read Mayr, you will find it is just presented as a story without back-up--unlike his discussion of the lower orders, which is full of evidence, charts, big words, etc. I am not challenging it, because I don't have the expertise, but it is clear to me that paleontologists just make whatever evidence they find fit that theory--hence all the just-so stories. It sort of works as long as you objectify man and see him as simply responding to outside forces like hunger and weather (which are often just assumed), but the minute you read in the subjective, like consciousness, alienation, etc., you run into plausibility issues. That's why Evolution works so much better with critters than with man.

And, yes, the story does resemble Genecis and other creation myths. As do other parts of the evolutionary tale.

May 01, 2006 4:05 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


It might be an itch, or it might be something more important. That's the problem with unfocused anxiety, you don't know what causes it. Some people live dysfunctional lives that require some restructuring of priorities and values, so their flashing lights are telling them something valuable. But for many of us, we feel anxiety for unexplained reasons, and make bad decisions that screw up good lives, like the men or women who leave good marriages to find some authentic sense of themselves.

It's more complicated than I made it out to be above, but not a lot more. My theory as to why we have this unfocused anxiety is simplistic, but I think it has some merit. I read an article or book somewhere (Harry, help me out) that anthropologists who study aboriginal cultures, those that live in small bands and practice hunting & gathering, have found that they don't show the kind of free-floating anxiety common among modern urbanized people.

And yes, ignoring the flashing light is easier said than done. But that is the conclusion I've come to from a lifetime of paying too much attention to anxiety. The world that the software in your head was designed for no longer exists. It is good to take the warnings as suggestions, not as authoritative predictions of doom.

May 01, 2006 6:03 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

That book wouldn't have been by Margaret Mead, by any chance?

Ok, ok, I'll try and stifle my inner troll, but surely stories about harmony and wholesomeness in the state of nature are a little passe? ...anthropologists who study aboriginal cultures, those that live in small bands and practice hunting & gathering, have found that they don't show the kind of free-floating anxiety common among modern urbanized people.

Is that why they crawled off and died when the shaman imposed a spell on them and why they had such complex, terrifying myths and fables?

I don't think you can treat alienation as an appendix-like irritant we could dispense with without consequence. Kind of hard to imagine war, art, progress, love, etc. without it.

May 01, 2006 6:35 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I've never experienced free-floating anxiety. Maybe that's why I'm an instinctive optimist.

I think that I must have naturally high levels of dopamine.
It takes a lot to make me unhappy.
I've even been happy waiting for the bus in the cold and rain.

Much like Forrest Gump.

May 01, 2006 8:17 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Well, Peter, lets define our terms. What do you mean by alienation? Are you alienated? Or is it just one of those problems, like immorality, that everyone feels that everyone else suffers from but themselves?

As for me, I don't feel alienated. What should I be alienated from? What is the authentic life that I should be leading? It is easy to fantasize about living in some kind of rustic rural setting where all the food is home-cooked, every neighbor is your friend and no locks on the doors because there is no crime. But I know that is a fantasy. Plus, I know that I'd be bored stiff there.

So what is alienation, how did we get it, and how do we get rid of it?

May 01, 2006 8:19 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Of course I'm alienated. I'm a conscious being uncertain as to why I'm here with hopes and desires that contingent necessities I can only partially control (starting with an inexorable march to death) force me to circumscribe constantly. How could I not be? It goes with a wide and expanding consciousness in a limited physical world and time-constrained body.

But alienation in this sense should not be confused with dissatisfaction or pessimism or gloominess. It's not a mental health issue, although I suppose it can spawn them. Don Quixote was highly conscious of his alienation and he was unbearably cheery. So are many reforming politicians and sacrificing Olympians. So was Michaelangelo (conscious, not cheery). So, come to think of it, is Oroborous' brother. Do you think guys who set world records on treadmills are anxiety-free and perfectly integrated with their surrounding environment. See a lot of comparable behaviour in the animal world?

Why are you so anxious to get rid of it? It would make for a pretty dull world if we just ate, slept and copulated. No blogging?

May 01, 2006 9:27 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think we've been talking past each other. What you call alienation, I call existential angst. When I hear the word alienation, I think of the way it has been used by Marxists to refer to the state of workers under capitalism, and the false consciousness that they have been forced to accept. So basically I look at it as a form of discontent-mongering.

It has also been used as an explain-all answer for any delinquency displayed by young people. Why, they are alienated, no wonder they act out, join gangs, take drugs and engage in promiscuous sex. It is this unquestioned state of social disenfranchisement that we are all supposed to show symptoms of, but I just don't get it.

May 01, 2006 11:18 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Melvin Konner?

He worked with !Kung, who seem (to me) to be aberrantly relaxed and cheerful. Most hunter/gatherer societies I've read about live/lived in terror of spooks, but some more than others.


What Peter calls just-so stories were, in fact, hypotheses that were undecidable based on available evidence.

The most prominent proponent of the many-origins hypothesis, Wolpoff, rejected his own idea about four years ago, based on new kinds of evidence, primarily genetic.

I suspect Peter is being coy. The reason people did not go back to Africa is that even after a few people left, Africa was still full of people. The excess population had to look for empty niches. Easier to grub for roots in a desert than to take on a village of farmers single-handed.

May 01, 2006 11:24 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I'm having fun, but I'm not being coy. Harry, how can you possibly know that?

May 01, 2006 12:27 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Know what? That two people cannot occupy the same niche at the same time?

May 01, 2006 2:01 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Ok, you win. There was no reverse migration because the East African real estate market was saturated.


But it is a continuam, no? If we take the late 18th century as the period when intellectual orthodoxy shifted from traditional religion to secular naturalism, some things just continued under different philosophical parameters. Alienation was previously seen as resulting from the Fall and original sin. There were plenty of decidedly unfun discontent-mongerers about it and you can see the tension between hope and despair throught all of Christian intellectual history. Afterwards it was civilization or capitalism or some damned "scientific" explanation, but with the same ambiguous, divisive result. Is it possible your fight is that between the hope and despair that are both intrinsic to the human condition rather than with this or that philosophical world view?

Today, we are all supposed to feel both "whole in our skin" and determined to build a better world, hope with a smile 24/7 whatever life throws our way, and abjure any sense of alienation (discontent) as a dysfunctional mental disorder demanding solutions somewhere between drugs and self-esteem workshops, but it is a resilient little germ, isn't it?

May 01, 2006 3:50 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

We can all only pontificate and put forth our pet theories in this sort of after-dinner gentlemanly discussion (very few women are interested in this sort of thing, which is also interesting in itself), but what the heck, it's all fun.

The terms 'alienation' and 'existential angst' cover too wide a range of nuances.

For example, the 'alienated' behaviour of juvenile delinquents and the existential despair of middle-age poets stem from two opposite positions: the poets are too afraid of death, the delinquents too unafraid.

At bottom, our urges are no different to any other mammal: have sex, nurture children, be socially successful, put off death for as long as possible.

It's the self-consciousness about these things that marks us out, an unfortunate by-product of our wonderful brains. And it gives us the best and worst of everything.

If there were no sex and we could androgonously reproduce ourselves by pressing our navels, life would be a lot simpler in many ways - no rape, no heartache, a lot less fighting, but then again man would have acheived a lot less, ie. why be a hero if there are no chicks to impress? The four minute mile would be a distant dream. The Empire State Building would be about two stories high.

Without an awareness of death, there might be less misery, but there would be hardly any poetry.

That's why a vision of an afterlife that lacks both sex and death is so anodyne and insipid. A vicar's tea party that lasts an eternity (which is a long time).

The glorous flipside of existential angst is too often overlooked: the ecstatic awareness of the unlikely truth that you are alive even for a short while, of the existence of any stuff at all. We have moments of existential wonder as well as angst.

Both wonder and angst are too fundamental to put down to social trends. There's no way of knowing, but I'd bet they've been with us as long as sex, death and self-consciousness.

May 02, 2006 3:20 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

A vicar's tea party that lasts an eternity (which is a long time).

Yes, there are days when just disappearing into that secular eternal void is the more attractive option. I think it was Evelyn Waugh who remarked how creative man is when trying to imagine Hell and how clumsy and tedious he is with Heaven.

There's no way of knowing, but I'd bet they've been with us as long as sex, death and self-consciousness.

Which is also a long time. But I'm sure Harry can tell us.

May 02, 2006 6:07 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Sure, we know minimums.

It's hard to know whether the motive was fear, propitiation or reverence, but somebody went to a lot of trouble to arrange cave bear skulls around 40K years ago.

In Iran, 70K years ago, somebody buried a body carefully and may -- or may not, the evidence is ambiguous -- have covered it was flowers.

Earlier than that -- the record is silent.

Jonathan Miller, the comedian/physician, wrote that people have a hard time imagining in a void. They do better when they have something to compare with, even if the comparison is sketchy. The example he used was the pump, common in Holland in the earlier 16th century and followed, in short order, by descriptions of the heart as a pump in England.

Sex and anger and mother love surely predate language, but it may be that ideas of spooks had to await language to be developed. Once a thing is named, the name is applied to slightly different things, and thought radiates off in all directions, uncontrolled.

The Second Big Bang.

May 02, 2006 10:14 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yes, you are correct. Fallenness has given way to false consciousness to sexual repression to being "unclear" as the Scientologists would put it. And yes, it seems to be a permanent condition.

But I'm not talking about all anxiety here, it has more to do with the unocused kind, the kind that yearns for a cosmic explanation. Fear and anxiety are very functional aspects of our minds, they are our early warning systems. When we see a bear, we get anxious, for good reason.

But why do we get anxious when there are no bears? It may have something to do with self-consciousness, as Brit pointed out. We're no longer anxious about real things, we're anxious about being anxious. Evolution has given us another feedback loop. Maybe unfocused anxiety is just "noise", similar to the noise you get in an audio channel when you create a feedback loop between a microphone and a speaker. We just haven't evolved a filter channel in our brains to remove the noise, perhaps.

Or maybe it is a disorder. I'm struck by how many similarities you can draw between religious rituals and obsessive/compulsive disorder. Likewise the similarities between germophobia and religious obsessions with purity.

May 02, 2006 10:33 AM  

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