Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Ten

“Modern Homogeneity,” pages 141-148

Europeans in the States notice how the people in every region (excepting the one-time rebel states) hold similar viewpoints, even as each region strives to assert its individuality. The fact of uniformity only enhances the desire to trumpet minor points of distinctiveness. But the old South is almost a different country: “It is agricultural, aristocratic, and retrospective, whereas the rest of America is industrial, democratic and prospective [p. 141].” Even the non-southern rural parts of the US take an industrial approach to agriculture [a point Russell made in Chapter 8, too]; captains of agriculture could just as well be captains of other industries.

Peasantry of the European or Asian style is nearly non-existent in the US. As peasantry fosters some harmful anti-social attitudes, its absence in the US is a benefit. The systematization and industrialization in the orange groves of California are thousands of years ahead of what is found in the orange groves of Sicily. [Russell has some unduly sharp words for the qualities of the Sicilian workers, claiming (among other insults) that “what they lack in intelligence towards trees they make up for by cruelty to animals [p. 142].” He grants them “an instinctive sense of beauty,” however.] California grove workers can see themselves, like industrialists, as controllers of nature, not passive recipients of what the earth doles out.

Control over nature is what renders Minnesotans and Californians nearly indistinguishable, while Norwegians and Sicilians are poles apart. The ancient European religions concerned human interactions with the climate, and Christianity picked up some of the threads. The fact that Hell is described as very hot indicates its southern origins, because the Norwegians would have feared extreme cold instead. But Hell is not about climate in either (industrialized, so to speak) California or North Dakota: “in both it is a stringency on the money market [p. 143].”

Both the environment and the thoughts in America are mechanized. Radio transmits the same news everywhere, even to the remotest areas, so the whole country holds similar household conversations. I [Russell] was subject to broadcast ads while trying to read Virginia Woolf in a train traveling through the country’s midsection.

The same economies of scale that lead to efficiency in the production of pins lead (of necessity) to uniformity in the production of opinions. The role of the radio and of cinema in school education will continue to grow; lessons will be produced in one location and sent everywhere, so that every student will receive the same lessons. [Russell occasionally extolls the virtues of film for educational purposes.] Churches already (it is reported) produce centrally a weekly sermon, and send it out to be delivered by clergy who thereby are freed of the necessity of generating their own material. Syndicated news services ensure that local newspapers, nationwide, print nearly identical stories. “Reviews of my books, I find, are, except in the best newspapers, verbally the same from New York to San Francisco, and from Maine to Texas, except that they become shorter as one travels from the north-east to the south-west [p. 144].” Even the books that people read are the same across America: unlike in Europe, book purchases in the States are dominated by a handful of blockbusters.

Hollywood’s market preeminence ensures that cinemas worldwide – except in the Soviet Union – disseminate midwestern American views on family life and much else. (The Soviets impose their own, separate, uniformity.) The introduction of sound to film makes it likely that Hollywood will soon be the source of a global language.

There are advantages and disadvantages to such uniformity. The similarity of ideas and culture probably adds to peaceful co-existence – but at the price of intolerance of minorities. (Perhaps the dominant culture’s strength will mean that soon there will be no minorities to suppress.) The ways in which uniformity is established influence the mix of costs and benefits. [Warning: More Russellian Invective Follows!] “Southern Italians have been distinguished throughout history for murder, graft, and aesthetic sensibility [pages 145-146].” American public schools squelch the sensibility, but seem to be less adept at bringing the other features into closer compatibility with US norms. This point is more general: it is easier to assimilate desirable traits than undesirable ones, so that any general push for uniformity is likely to produce a levelling down.

A nation of immigrants such as America must needs engage in a project to assimilate the children of immigrants. The path chosen, which involves over-the-top nationalism, is unfortunate. This nationalism, emanating from the most powerful country, inspires fear in European nations.

Americans seem to equate a refusal to follow the herd with elitism, and hence as an undemocratic impulse. French democracy has avoided this interpretation. Occupations differ in France, they each have their own standards, without institutionalizing a stuffy hierarchy. All professional occupations in the US resemble business, somewhat akin to an orchestra consisting only of violin players. Americans are envious of any superiority that cannot be made general – except for superiority in athletic pursuits. “It seems that the average American is more capable of humility in regard to his muscles than in regard to his brains; perhaps this is because his admiration for muscle is more profound and genuine than his admiration of brains [p. 147].” Americans distrust the notion of intellectual expertise; popular science books abound because they appeal to the belief that special training is not necessary to understand science, even if it is necessary for athletic prowess.

Americans appreciate excellent achievements, but they place barriers in the way of such achievements through intolerance of eccentricity. Young artists face particularly steep obstacles, as the requisite “business”-style template is particularly unsuitable for artists. So America imports from Europe many of its most-admired achievers.

The imposed uniformity harms the exceptional individual, but smooths life for average people. A speaker can be well assured that his listeners will agree with him. Political differences are narrowed, so politics is a less contentious field. American-style uniformity is likely to spread to Europe as industrialization progresses: Europeans cannot glibly attack the homogeneity in the US and think themselves immune. [Somehow this reminds me of Karl Marx’s quotation from Horace in the preface to Das Kapital: “If, however, the German reader shrugs his shoulders at the condition of the English industrial and agricultural labourers, or in optimist fashion comforts himself with the thought that in Germany things are not nearly so bad; I must plainly tell him, “De te fabula narratur!”]

As uniformity spreads, international cooperation should become easier, just as political cohesion within the US is eased by homogeneity. The uniformity need not mean stasis, thanks to the changes wrought by ongoing scientific and technical progress. “I see therefore no reason for undue pessimism, however standardisation may offend the tastes of those who are unaccustomed to it [p. 148].”

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