Postmodernism 5 – Society

How does a postmodern mindset affect the way we live? Its effects upon art, literature, and architecture are, to a great extent, merely “interesting.”  We can ignore the postmodernism in these areas without it affecting how we live. When postmodernism begins to change the society in which we live, however, we will take notice.

There is a great interest in multiculturalism in the postmodern mindset. An American family drives their Japanese car to a Mexican restaurant, returns to their English Tudor house, watches a western on TV and listens to African music on their Chinese stereo system. By doing so, they believe that they are experiencing a variety of “cultures.” We believe that we live in a global smorgasbord. However, is eating a burrito at Taco Bell really a Mexican experience? Does driving a Japanese car give me any cultural understanding of Japan? Are we truly multicultural, or do we simply skim the surface of other cultures like a tourist on a ten-day tour of Africa?

Modernism emphasized unity. Society was homogenized. Immigrants to America became Americans, without an attached prefix. National chains replaced home-grown business (the McWorlding of society). Malls and office buildings took on the same look. For most of the 20th century, there were three television stations and they were pretty much the same.

Postmodern, on the other hand, seeks to segment society. Cable TV has hundreds of channels and the technology exists for thousands more, and today even cable today has lost its appeal with the potential for unlimited options via other venues. “Broad”casting had turned into “narrow”casting. There is one sense in which this is positive. At least now, with the rebroadcasting of old TV classics on some channels and numerous specialized program types on others, there is something a believer can watch. The modernist deplores this, for the three similar TV channels turned everyone into the Cleavers or the Waltonis. Now people can watch TV for hours without stepping outside their narrow slice of culture.

Modernism placed plastic facades on downtown buildings to make them all look modern and up-to-date. Postmoderns are removing the facades and restoring the buildings to their former splendor. Sameness is giving way to uniqueness, and many of us probably applaud this new look. The concept of uniqueness, however, has its downside. “Civil Rights” now extend to unique groups instead of the society as a whole:  Indians, Hispanics, Asians, women, children, the handicapped, Vietnam veterans, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, AIDS victims, LBGTs, and the list goes on. When the Greatest Generation (with their modern mindset) came home from World War II, the vast majority of them just went back to their lives, their jobs, their families and friends. Certainly there were the wounded, but few of them were interested in becoming a unique group – they were just Americans doing what every other American would do when called on to serve America. In the postmodern mindset, however, every group demands special treatment from everyone else – and it’s usually the taxpayer (who seems to somehow not have made it to a privileged group) that pays the redress.

Multiculturalism furthers this segmentation of society. America has always been multicultural, but there has also been a metaculture, an overarching American society that took precedence. Under the modern mindset, people in America were Americans. They may have spoken of their ethnic heritage, but they were first and foremost American. Ethnic festivals and restaurants abounded, but the immigrants cultivated a new identity as “Americans,” chose to speak English, and developed the American way of life. E pluribus unum was believed and practiced.

Today American public schools celebrate Cinco de Mayo (Mexico’s independence day!). American history books have been “purged” of their “mythology” and the “truth” of slavery, Indian massacres, robber baron capitalists, unjust wars, and the subjugation of women has been emphasized. Several years ago Clarence Thomas was criticized for not “thinking black.” When a hispanic killed a black and was acquitted, the culture roared in opposition. When a black kills a black, no one says anything. While part of America remembered 9/11 and the slaughter of innocent civilians, school children in some American public schools were required to write an essay from the perspective of a Muslim on why it was good that American was attacked. You are treated differently depending on what group you happen to belong to.

If we are wholly determined by our culture, as emphasized in postmodernism, and if we are locked in our “prison house of language” (which is culturally determined), then we have no choice but to withdraw into our group “cultures.” The rejection of absolutes calls for the rejection of a meta-society. In other words, there is no longer, for the postmodernist, an American ideal or the American dream.

There is an upside to all this. Christianity has the best basis for a true multiculturalism, an appreciation for cultural distinctiveness united by the knowledge of a universal commonality in Christ. The church has expanded to untold cultures with a common result – the salvation of the lost, the sanctification of the saved, and the development of a Christian subculture in the midst of numerous other cultures.