Sunday, January 6, 2008

Living in the World of "Tomorrow"

When I participated in a Zogby focus group about a year ago, I learned that people still think of the 21st Century as "the future."

The focus group was political -- probably paid for by either Hillary Clinton or John McCain, based on the questions they asked us -- and asked us to rank statements, which were then presumably to be used or not used in speeches. They asked us whether we felt positively or negatively when we heard "libertarian," or "free trade" -- stuff like that. One of the pairings we were asked to express an opinion about was whether we preferred "Jobs of the Future" or "21st Century Jobs." The debate went on a for a few minutes, everyone acting as though the two were synonymous, until I helpfully pointed out that the 21st Century is not the future -- it's now.

The topic also came up in last semester's class, when a handful of my students decided it would be fun to assign random centuries (14, 16) to the publication of Candide. I came into class one morning and playfully asked them what century we live in, figuring we'd just backtrack to the 18th and call it a learning moment. They all said 20th.

This is especially weird since we've been in the 21st Century for close to a decade now, and it's not like no one mentioned the change of the millennium when it happened.



Which is why I found particularly interesting a story in the NYTimes Week in Review today called, "We Agreed to Agree, and Forgot to Notice," by Kirk Johnson, which is about how many of the debates of yesteryear are receding into the past, though we seem to keep failing to notice.

It begins with this illustrative piece of lore:

AS Martin Bunzl was getting on a plane in 1966, something happened that would stick in his head for the next four decades. A man taking his seat looked around and announced, loudly enough for all to hear: “Oh, geez, not a Negro stewardess.”

The remark stuck because it came at a threshold moment when culture and politics and norms of behavior were all in flux, said Dr. Bunzl, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. A few years earlier, a comment like that might have been unremarkable, and a few years later it would be intolerable. The man on the plane was shouting through an open window between worlds.


He goes on to note that a 97% white state voted resoundingly for a black man, at the tail end of a "national conversation" (media yapping?) about whether or not "America is ready for a black president" (or would vote for one). The debate, he suggests, is over, and "we" (the media?) hadn't noticed. (Finger-pointing at the media strictly mine.)

More examples:

“New ways of looking at the world are emerging, but the language of talking about them and what they mean hasn’t caught up,” said Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of biology and gender studies at Brown University.

In her field, Professor Fausto-Sterling said, a divide that has gripped society for decades over nature vs. nurture — specifically, whether homosexuality is ordained in the womb or developed in puberty — has been thrown into irrelevance by advances in the study of human genetics. Nature and nurture, it seems, are both too simple to explain everything; genes set the pattern, but environmental conditions then decide whether those genes are turned on or off.
But it's been thrown further into irrelevance by the fact that people, individually, may have just gotten over it, and that might have more to do with culture than politics:

Today, pop entertainment, sophisticated marketing and the Internet can shift public thinking and taste as fast as a Britney Spears news cycle. Are the evolving attitudes that poll takers find about homosexuality, for example, a reflection of new science and genetics, or “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” or simply the fact that young people are more comfortable with gay friends who are acknowledging their sexuality earlier and more openly?

In a New York Times-CBS News poll in October 2006, only about one in three respondents, 34 percent, said homosexuality was a choice, down from 44 percent in the mid-1990s, and the number who said homosexuality was “morally wrong,” had fallen faster, from 55 percent to 37 percent.

He also notes that the sweeping changes in attitude towards capital punishment have come not as the result of a campaign (ad, political, military, or otherwise), but as a result of other doubts -- doubts not as to whether it's right or wrong to kill a killer, but whether we're competent enough to do it right:
On the equally tangled landscape of capital punishment, there have been legal challenges to the injected drug cocktail in use since the 1970s, as well as front-page exposés from all over the country about death-row inmates cleared through DNA analysis. Both are forcing a reconsideration of the death penalty in state legislatures and courts at a time when crime is far less a front-burner anxiety than it was a generation ago.

...

As for abortion, the divisions are probably as deep as ever, but the underlying terrain has shifted. If human stem cells, which can be used to grow new organs, can be made from skin cells rather than embryonic cells, as a recent study suggests, then a whole corner of the abortion debate fades away: There’s no prospect of a global industry in destroying embryos for medical harvest.

And while concerns over privacy will persist no matter what happens to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark case legalizing abortion in 1973, the threat of the back-alley abortionist with a coat-hanger that haunted society before Roe perhaps has been muted too by the abortion pill, RU486, which would presumably still be available (if in some cases illegally) no matter what.


I have to object to this laissez-faire attitude towards keeping abortion legal -- RU486 might survive the criminalization of this unpleasant but often necessary medical procedure, but illegal RU486 would be $800 per pill, and would create just another dark unregulated (is that really RU486, or just rat poison?) black market, a coat hanger without the hook, but just as bloody.

The real point, it seems to me, is that even a state as conservative as South Dakota doesn't want the government telling them what they can and can't do with their bodies and medical care. When it gets down to it, you can hate abortion and still never want the option denied you -- politicians have trouble with that one; it doesn't fit neatly into an ad; but individually, people are right on top of that shit in the 21st Century.

Many of the great debates, in short, have become a bit passé, precisely as anticipated by President John F. Kennedy. “Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint — Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative or moderate,” Mr. Kennedy said in a 1962 news conference. But, he said, most problems had become “technical problems, administrative problems; they are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred this country so often in the past.”


That is some prescience there. But change is slow. In a way, we're still working on the changes that started in the 60's. (See Barack Obama, above)

Some researchers say it’s easy to read too much into scientific breakthroughs and opinion polls. Patterns of behavior don’t change on a dime. For example, it took a decade for tobacco use to start falling after the 1964 surgeon general’s report on smoking and cancer. Others say the political system is broken, and that improvisation — unpredictable by definition — is the only way forward.

If euthanasia can’t be made legal through politics, then the medical world, through the winks and nods of mercy killing, will find a way. If people want affordable food on the table, the economic system will get the lettuce and strawberries picked with low labor costs even as the squabbling over illegal immigration goes on.

And so the winds shift. The most recent Gallup poll on crime, in May 2006, found that only 34 percent of people thought the death penalty helped lower the murder rate, down from 62 percent in 1985. In 19 states, from California to Mississippi, executions have been put on hold pending a resolution to a Supreme Court case challenging lethal injection in Kentucky. And New Jersey tossed out the death penalty altogether late last year.


So euthanasia will happen law be damned, as will slavery and wage-slavery, because the law doesn't matter as much as the culture -- or, rather, the culture is ahead of the law. And what we choose culturally will end up us, whether politics keeps up (or just lags behind) or not. That's a comforting thought, because that means we all have a lot more power than we tend to think. If we're lazy slack-asses that don't care, that has a huge effect, yes, but we can reverse the trend, through individual action and cultural influence.

What culture are you influencing today?

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