Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Adolescent Alienation, Modernity, and Revolution

Modern life can seem vulgar and purposeless, and violent radical movements use this to draw disaffected youngsters to their causes.

It can be easy to feel isolated from modern life, unmoved or confused by the race to accumulate wealth and property. There is a sad vulgarity to the supermarkets glowing with pointless plastic products, the constant bombardment of advertising companies selling unhappiness while simultaneously inflating a sense of unearned privilege.

Modern life can appear threatening and meaningless. Old communities dwindle and disappear. Old languages, religions and cultures collapse while the young turn to a global consumerist consensus. Security declines; brutal teenage gangsters fill the newspapers, stabbing and bludgeoning the weakest in society to satisfy their desires for those things the advertisers say they need. Urban society desperately separates itself from nature, from traditional life and the ideas that sustained millenia of human civilisation. The stupidest and weakest seem to dominate, the honourable despised. Life gets worse.

Yet this sense – of imminent collapse and the triumph of evil in modern times – seems to affect every generation. Here Biblical King David talks of the success of wicked men he saw around him, 3,000 years ago:

His ways are always prosperous;
he is haughty and your laws are far from him;
he sneers at all his enemies.
He says to himself, "Nothing will shake me;
I'll always be happy and never have trouble."
His mouth is full of curses and lies and threats;
trouble and evil are under his tongue.
He lies in wait near the villages;
from ambush he murders the innocent,
watching in secret for his victims.
- Psalm 10:5-8

Pope Pius XII thought urbanisation was the corruption of his generation, writing in 1946:

It holds up before the dazzled eyes of the country worker the bait of money and of a life of pleasure, in order to induce him to abandon the land and waste in the city, which mostly brings him merely deception in not only whatever savings he had laboriously accumulated, but also frequently health, strength, joy, honor, and life itself.

And Robert Pirsig thought he saw the rot setting in back in 1974, describing a worthless and shallow culture praying to the empty altar of advertisements.

Along the streets that lead away from the apartment he can never see anything through the concrete and brick and neon but he knows that buried within it are grotesque, twisted souls forever trying the manners that will convince themselves they possess Quality, learning strange poses of style and glamour vended by dream magazines and other mass media, and paid for by the vendors of substance. He thinks of them at night alone with their advertised glamorous shoes and stockings and underclothes off, staring through the sooty windows at the grotesque shells revealed beyond them, when the poses weaken and the truth creeps in, the only truth that exists here, crying to heaven, God, there is nothing here but dead neon and cement and brick.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig

When I was younger I also felt some of this contempt and disconnection with modernity, but over the years I slowly realised that for all its spiritless materialism, modernity is actually a miracle of peace and prosperity. We are a privileged generation, living without fear of smallpox, starvation or foreign oppresson. Technology has liberated us from basic survival concerns, and now we can fly to the far ends of the earth in hours, communicate with them in seconds. Racism, sexism and homophobia have become publicly unacceptable, anti-war marches hint at a growing sense of common humanity. Worth defending, all that.

But for a while I sensed decline and decay, and dealt with it quietly by myself. Since I never became part of any wider reactionary movement I was surprised when I later discovered many political and religious ideologies trying to tap into this youthful arrogance, this naïve dismissal of modernity. Jon Ronson's documentary Them: Adventures with Extremists showed violent Islamist preacher Omar Bakri Muhammad explaining how different Britain will be once the Islamists take over.

So I drove Omar into town by a route that avoided Soho. We passed a poster advertising the Spice Girls' debut album.
"Such a very stupid thing," mumbled Omar. "Spicy Girls."
"What will become of the Spice Girls when Britain is transformed into an Islamic nation?" I asked.
"They will be arrested immediately," he replied. "They will not even be existing in an Islamic state. OK. We can go on. Turn right at the lights."

I watched this and thought: ‘Ah!’ Here was my own adolescent contempt for popular culture in all its shallow catchiness, harnessed by a vicious fundamentalist politics.

It was a revelation, and I wondered how many of the young Islamist bombers, and the nationalist assassins and socialist rioters around the world were just fairly intelligent and alienated young men reacting against the dumbest edge of modernity they saw growing around them.

For this revulsion is voiced by all kinds of extremist movements, be they Pagan neo-Nazis, radical feminists, eco-terrorists, conservative Christians, Communists or Satanists. The radicals all see the rot, and they offer wild solutions, often bloody solutions.

Meanwhile modernity chugs along in all its mundane immorality, still producing wealth and health, still rejecting discrimination of minorities, still, in fact, improving most of the world.

Modernity is unheroic, unromantic, but I see a noble role there, in defending the ignoble absurbity of modern life. Unexciting too, but it may be worthwhile to stand up for normality with all its bullshit plastic ads, shallow sex-obsessed pop videos and Pirsig’s hellish ‘dream magazines’. It’s not worthless, all this – it just sometimes feels it.


  1. Cheers Shane, good article, I agree very much. I'm always baffled by people who think the world is "heading the wrong way". The implication, that the world was better before, is so easily proven wrong in most categories that you'd think it's obvious. I wonder if there's some evolutionary benefit of this attitude, since it has been prevalent for at least as long as we have written records.

  2. Fascinating idea, Vidar, perhaps you're right indeed.

    I would take these pessimistic views more seriously if people hadn't been promising me in my own childhood that WE were the worst generation of all time, ruined by television and Gameboys. Now today's children are being assured of the same thing, and we turned out largely alright!


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