I want to talk about the world we live in at this moment—the world we see when we open our newspaper or our news reader, when we turn on our TV, when we walk down to the Square or drive to town or to Chicago or fly to Tokyo or Rio. Originally, I used the term “modernity” as a name for what I wanted to talk about, but that won’t do. If you Google “modernity”, you’ll find a lot of academic blather by historians and cultural theorists looking to make the word their own by fixing its meaning, each in his or her proprietary cultural theory or historical dialectic. Nowhere in any of their words will you find anything to indicate that “modernity” has anything to do with “googling”. But the act of “googling” something has everything to do with what I want to talk about.
So instead of talking about modernity, I’m going to talk about the Now.
The Now and the Then
At any given moment, wherever we happen to be, a complex interplay of politics, technologies, ideas, power, commerce, culture, biology, and personal history determines our experience of that moment. Let’s call what determines experience at this moment “the Now”. Let’s not worry, for the time being, about trying to fix its meaning. Just let us note that the Now is defined by its difference from the Then, which we may take, for the time being, to refer to what used to determine experience.
Considering the Then
Considering the Then, we have recourse to memories—memories of our youth, of what we learned from our elders, of what we’ve read in books of history, of stories we’ve heard about life in those times. Considering all that, we are likely, at least in this society and at this time, to construct a Then characterized by certain distinctive marks:
- Then, there were stable hierarchies, in families, in society, in such institutions as schools, scout troops, and churches. People knew their place.
- Then, there were trusted authorities making laws, passing judgment, setting standards, preaching sermons, drafting wills, publishing editorials, issuing prescriptions.
- Then, there was One God, although He might be called by many Names, and there was One Nation, under God.
- Then, there were Principles, by which one must live, and for which one must be prepared to die.
- Then, there were rules, indistinguishable from the aphorisms in which they were encoded—rules about hard work, and honesty, and good manners, and patience, and thrift; one might snicker at the aphorism, but one must admit that the rules held things together.
- Then, there were things that could be known: electrons, protons, and neutrons; valence numbers; scientific laws; the fossil record; the names of the planets; grammar; history; lives of famous persons; how automobile engines worked; how to use common tools to solve common problems; what was possible and what not.
- Things were getting better then. We were making progress. We had enough, or more than enough, of what we needed.
Not always, of course, and never really. But if we surrender to nostalgic review it seems to have been that way, mostly. Then, much of the time, we could simply accept that things were that way; then, we could experience the world conditioned by that acceptance. There were, then, few who would publicly challenge our common experience of the world, and those few could be ignored, dismissed, or punished. That is how it is in our memory and our myth. How it should be. Then.