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Idealism Without Illusions




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Issue No. 30 (December 2001) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Are we "cultural creatives," "new
monastic individuals," or what?

For three years now, this newsletter has been featuring creative new ideas that fit uneasily (if at all) on the old left-right political spectrum. But so far we’ve said little about who’s producing those ideas or living by them.

Who are these people, exactly? Which is to say, Who are we? Do we have much in common? Are there enough of us to turn the world around?

Three books have recently come out that appear to give radically different answers to those questions.

One of them says we number 50 million; another says we’re few and far between! The third says we’re too protean to measure. . . .

Goal: Self-awareness

I’d sure like to believe that 50 million Americans have something like my politics and values! So I turned eagerly to Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson’s recent book, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World (Harmony Books/Random House, 370 pp., $25).

Anderson is a psychologist and former anti-Vietnam war activist; Ray is the pollster whose pioneering article on what he dubbed the Cultural Creatives, first published in the Institute for Noetic Science’s glossy magazine in 1996, is often cited by political visionaries.

The book’s thesis is that the decisive cultural-political “moment” that many of us have longed for has, finally, arrived.

Slowly but surely, the size of the “Cultural Creative population” has been increasing -- to the point that it’s now “affecting the way Americans do business and politics.”

If the Cultural Creatives’ own distinct voice is still muted, that’s in large part because they’re “not yet aware of themselves as a collective body.”

Traditionals are self-aware, Moderns are self-aware, but Cultural Creatives often feel isolated, powerless.

So the purpose of this book (“mission” is not too strong a word) is to finally make Cultural Creatives AWARE of each other . . . and to make the rest of the world aware of the Cultural Creatives.

Who ARE these people?

Anderson and Ray claim that the Cultural Creatives are a “coherent subculture,” and the first third of their book is an ambitious attempt to buttress that claim.

We’re given a list of 18 assertions and told that a true Cultural Creative supports 10 or more. Among them:

“1. love nature and are deeply concerned about its destruction;

“7. care intensely about both psychological and spiritual development;

“12. are unhappy with both the left and the right in politics and want to find a new way that is not in the mushy middle;

“18. . . . like experiencing and learning about other ways of life.”

And that’s only the beginning. We’re given a long, loving description of the “values” of the Cultural Creatives (“authenticity,” “whole process learning,” “idealism,” “globalism,” etc.).

We’re told what they reject -- status display, “glaring social inequalities,” the “narrowness of social conservatives.”

We’re given their demographics (60% women -- “not enough men to go around,” the authors lament). We’re given their politics (“no more liberal or conservative than most Americans”).

We’re even given a slightly goofy, but totally engrossing, list of “leaders and celebrities” from the Cultural Creative, Modern, and Traditional subcultures (e.g., The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Tutu, and Mother Teresa, respectively; Abraham Maslow, B.F. Skinner, and M. Scott Peck, respectively).

Then comes the most politically salient chapter, “The Three Americas.”

From 1870-1970, they claim, U.S. politics was importantly shaped by the struggle between Moderns (science- and economic-growth-worshipping Americans) and Traditionals (moral and religious conservatives who broke away from Modernism and became our “first counterculture”).

By 1970, small groups of Cultural Creatives also began breaking away from Modernism. And now we have Three Americas: Moderns, consisting of 48% of the population (less than half!); CCs, at 26%; and Traditionals, bringing up the rear at 24.5%.

According to the authors, Moderns “have a hole where wisdom ought to be.” Traditionals “remember a vanished America and long for its restoration.”

Cultural Creatives “head off in a third direction. . . . [T]hey want to work with the whole system, with all the players. They regard themselves as synthesizers and healers. . . .”

And they come in two flavors: “Core” CCs (24 million) have “strong values of personal growth and spirituality,” while “Green” CCs (26 million) tend to be more “secular and extroverted” though not necessarily more liberal or ecological.

Fifty million?

The authors’ most startling claim is that 50 million Americans have become CCs. Unfortunately, it’s not well documented.

We’re told that the figure derives from three sources: Ray’s work for American LIVES, Inc. (a market research and opinion polling firm), his 1995 survey of 1,036 souls co-sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and his 1999 study of 2,181 people co-sponsored by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.

But we’re not given enough specifics about the population samples, questions, or results to be able to make an independent assessment of the findings.

In a brief appendix, the authors explain that much of the relevant material is “proprietary.” And we’re promised “more detail” on the authors’ website, www.culturalcreatives.org. But it’s not there as I go to press. And even if it is eventually posted there, it should have been in the book -- the 50 million figure is at the heart of the book, for goodness sakes.


The middle third of the book asks, “How did we get here?” It examines how the civil rights, women’s, ecology, and consciousness movements impacted American culture . . . and shaped the long-term hopes of the CCs.

Many passages in these chapters are quite moving, though the whole thing is too upbeat and uncritical for my taste. Surely we were as profoundly affected by our movements’ infighting and hypocrisies and betrayals as we were by their successes. A little Modernism might have gone a long way here.

The authors conclude that the social movements of the last 40 years are now, finally, converging to create something new -- a distinct “positive agenda and . . . vision for the future.”

They claim that many movements have become deeper and more mature. They opine that Seattle was a kind of turning point.

This is awfully rosy stuff. Most social movements I’m aware of have never been more divided. Consider, e.g., the positions different black activists take on busing, affirmative action, vouchers, reparations. Consider how Mr. Nader was received by most of the political left.

In the end, the authors are really only talking about their hopes and dreams. And they know it: “At the present time, all these perspectives have not come together as a unified force. But the potential for new social action is impressive.”

That’s pretty much what Marilyn Ferguson said at the end of The Aquarian Conspiracy, published 20 years ago.

The real thing

The final third of Ray and Anderson’s book asks, “How do we go forward?” I didn’t think I’d like it, since it’s full of stories about people going through various “rites of passage” and coming to grips with their human limitations and that sort of thing. But I found it to be the most appealing part of the book, and the most sincere.

However shaky the “new culture” may seem as an abstraction, it takes on a completely different coloration when it’s presented to you in the form of Steve and Iris worrying about how to save their 12-year-old daughter, Laure, from the local mall, and coming up with the idea of giving her a menu of 20 “challenges” -- she had to choose 12 -- that could far better initiate her into caring, responsible adulthood.

I guarantee: You’ll declare your allegiance to the Cultural Creatives when you read about little Laure taking a class in self-defense, learning how to cook her traditional ethnic foods, spending a day in total silence (along with her parents), etc.

And I further guarantee that, at such moments, you won’t care whether there are 50 million CCs or 50,000.

Do we stand alone?

Morris Berman is a well-known cultural historian, and his recent book, The Twilight of American Culture (Norton, 205 pp., $24), is an almost perfect counterpoint to The Cultural Creatives.

Like Ray and Anderson’s book, it’s an attempt to help principled readers find a place to stand in the culture wars.

But instead of assuring his readers that they’re part of a life-giving new culture, 50 million strong, Berman’s message is that -- if we really have brains and guts and integrity -- we’re pretty much alone now, and we’ll be that way for quite some time.

Ray and Anderson are hard on Modern and Traditional culture, but wait till you read Berman on Global Corporate, Populist, and New Age culture!

According to Berman, Global Corporate culture (aka “McWorld”) is all-pervasive now, and it’s poisoned our society and even our souls.

Because of it, inequalities are tolerated, genuine solutions to political problems are unimaginable, literacy levels are dropping, “critical understanding” is rare, and “spiritual death” is everywhere. Even CNN is mere “infotainment,” “nuzak.”

The dominant McWorld culture has “evoked a series of disturbed responses,” says Berman, of which the Populist and New Age may be the most important.

Populists don’t realize how much there is to change. A mere political program would barely scratch the surface. And populist anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism encourages herd thinking rather than real thinking

New Agers are even more hopeless, says Berman. “[T]rendy formulas for change, ranging from ‘paradigm shifts’ to recycling your newspapers, are simply not going to cut it. [W]e must . . . reject books such as Marianne Williamson’s The Healing of America, which promise the reader a short-term panacea based on ‘spiritual awakening.’ . . .”

The monastic option

In a world where the dominant culture is poisonous and the “opposition” cultures are part of the problem, what’s a good person to do?

According to Berman, we need to take a page from the monks who -- beginning in the fourth century a.d. -- took it upon themselves to preserve human decency and culture from the barbarians.

“Today’s ‘monk,’” he explains, “seeks guidance about the human condition from Flaubert or Virginia Woolf, rather than from the latest guru tossed up by the media and the counterculture. Computers and the Internet are, for such a person, useful tools, not a way of life. . . .

“The new monk is a sacred/secular humanist, dedicated not to slogans or the fashionable patois of postmodernism, but to Enlightenment values that lie at the heart of our civilization: the disinterested pursuit of the truth, the cultivation of art, the commitment to critical thinking. . . .”

There’s plenty of good, politically relevant work available for “monks” today, says Berman. He gives examples from three areas: Exposing the emptiness of modern life, offering “alternative education,” and redesigning the “visual landscape that we all move in.”

There’s no question Berman is a riveting and inspiring read. But he’s off base in one of the same ways Ray and Anderson are off base: He’s stuck in a time warp.

Ray and Anderson’s critique of Modern ideas is a reprise of old beatnik and hippie critiques. It has nothing to do with contemporary Modern spokespeople like Martha Nussbaum, Stephen Carter, or John Rawls.

Just so, Berman’s critique of Cultural Creative ideas is a reprise of musty academic-left prejudices. He literally won’t know what he’s talking about until he stops kicking Marianne Williamson around and starts paying attention to sophisticated Cultural Creative spokespeople like Connie Zweig, Ken Wilber, and Walter Truett Anderson.

At one point I was tempted to send Berman an e-mail: Morrie, enough already! Stop dumping on everything you can’t or won’t relate to.

Unlike Berman, I enjoy sharing the planet with people who are wildly different from me, who can open (and have opened) me to such varied and peculiar pleasures as Las Vegas and The Simpsons and biofeedback machines.

In the name of personal sensitivity and social justice, Berman is as unappreciative of the breadth of our world as Jerry Falwell.

And if you don’t really like the world, you’re never gonna make it better.

"Post-cultural America"

The most satisfying recent book on the culture wars may be Christopher Clausen’s Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America (Ivan R. Dee, 209 pp., $25).

It combines Ray and Anderson’s sense that millions of us are socio-culturally creative now, with Berman’s sense that genuine creativity is an individual thing that has little to do with meeting the norms of an alternative culture.

Clausen is the Penn State professor of English whose 1996 essay in the American Scholar, “Welcome to Post-Culturalism,” caused as much of a stir in academic circles as Ray’s 1996 essay (above) did in New Age circles.

There’s no longer a “single, dominant” culture in the U.S., Clausen announces dramatically.

Radicals may be proclaiming that ethnic cultures are coming back “after centuries of oppression”; conservatives may be proclaiming that immigrants are assimilating “more rapidly than ever.” Both are wrong, though.

What the U.S. has is the first “post-cultural society.”

Twigs, mud, and foil

Everybody’s borrowing from everybody else now, Clausen says -- ethnic traits, perspectives, values. It’s patently obvious when you look at the assimilation of immigrants.

“Assimilation today need not mean giving up everything that came from somewhere else,” Clausen says. “In its post-cultural form it means having access to all the world’s intangibles.”

He gives many examples -- most memorably, perhaps, that of a Chinese-Jewish married couple in Hawaii: “They have woven Jewish, Chinese and Hawaiian cultures into their home like a bird building a nest from twigs, mud, and foil.”

That sort of ethnic/values mix -- dazzling, disconcerting, stimulating, and always uniquely individual -- is what Clausen means by post-culturalism. And he suspects it’s becoming standard operating procedure for most of us. He quotes approvingly from Eric Liu’s autobiography, The Accidental Asian:

“Something new is emerging. . . . Whatever it is that I am becoming, is it any less authentic for being an amalgam? . . . What it means to be American -- in spirit, in blood -- is something far more borrowed and commingled than anything previous generations ever knew.”

I find that borrowing and commingling a truly exciting endeavor. I’d even say it’s the Radical Middle endeavor.


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