A long time ago, I was watching TV (or reading) and I came upon a historian who remarked one of those things that are completely obvious, but until you hear it, it’s never been stark or clear or obvious at all.
He said: the key problems we have today are the same as we’ve always had 2000 years ago, 4000 years ago, i.e., people do not get along, there’s violence and greed, a lot of it, selfishness, irresponsibility, war, mental illness, hunger, disease, etc., etc.
Now, it was only when he said this that it hit me that I had been largely sold a lie up until then. I had been taught the world (and civilization) were progressing in linear fashion and that the effective progress was ongoing, like a nice little line graph that curves continuously upward, slowly, but steadily; that we are supposed to be much better off than in the past. Well, the fact is, the extent and the number of problems we have in the world clearly belie that narrative. It’s a sham of a narrative, and yet it’s what I had been sold all through school: We are progressing, society is progressing, the world is progressing. Clearly, many of very, very old problems have not be solved – at all. They continue. They may vary in shape or form or place; the problem merely mutates and is transfigured, but it continues, generation after generation.
Now, without delving into this topic of the false narrative of a linear and continuing world progress much further, I just wanted to use it as a preamble to what I have been reflecting on. Presently, I keep thinking about issues with the way society is organized into groups, especially gigantic and hugely complex ones, like large nation-states, where you have a variety of layers of control and super-structures. And whether a lot of the problems that we have today stem from so much heterogeneity within the huge State.
Think about the Amish; they live in their own community, with their culture, their laws (albeit with another super-structure), etc. Now, if they weren’t allowed to do this and they were forced to live in larger society, all of this unique micro-society would be largely destroyed and they would be obliged to then live by rules and submit to a culture that goes clearly against how they want to live – therefore, a most fundamental question of self-determination is at play. There would be endless frustration, complaining, strife, and most fundamentally, a profound lack of freedom.
Now, wouldn’t it better to extrapolate the Amish experience to other groups? Something like the Amish dynamic happens to a certain degree regarding redder or bluer states. But it’s very bland when compared to the Amish. I just wonder if people wouldn’t all be happier if we could have politically and culturally defined cities or communities. Obviously a lot of energy and warfare is exerted in trying to get a larger structure to be what you want it to be (for example, regarding state or national politics). And I just wonder if it wouldn’t be a better solution for many people if there was less of a super-structure and more locally homogeneous towns. I would love to live in a city where most people sincerely shared and upheld my most fundamental values and culture. Why should this never be possible? Maybe anything more than a very small group of people will always entail serious and ugly problems within a society – I don’t know. Maybe we just think so because our world is so messed up and so clobbered with a high number of problems that it mires our ability to think about alternatives.
I was thinking about this issue again today when I came upon this announcement: Thursday, September 12, 2013
Catholic and Evangelical Law Professors Publish Joint Statement On Theological Foundations of Civil Law
A group of 15 Evangelical and 14 Catholic law professors have just published a paper that has been 8 years in the making titled Evangelicals and Catholics Together On the Law: The Lord of Heaven and Earth. (Full text in Summer 2013 Journal of Christian Legal Thought). Heavy on theology, the 9-page joint statement begins with this explanation of purpose:
… we wish to speak from and to our respective communities about law, politics, and government. We speak from the conviction that law’s place and role in society are shaped by enduring truths – truths that transcend the differences among cultures and traditions – about God, about the world, about the human person, and about what the entire human family is called by its divine creator and redeemer to be.
This is a perfect example of the dilemma between heterogeneity and homogeneity. This announcement took me back to remarks from anti-religion people who are adamant about stomping their feet and saying that nothing even remotely related to any religion should be part of the legal system or the government – a completely rabid and prejudiced position. Regardless, these are totally antagonistic positions. These people want one society, the other group (to keep the example simple) wants something profoundly differently. Instead of the two warring each other for generations on end, given that each one has their own very distinct vision of the laws, culture, social interactions, etc., and a good number of people will always be unhappy with how things are, why not have two societies? Perhaps that is an unrealistic question given that there is little that many people can agree on today, so the number of conflicts would always be high and endlessly divide people. But it seems to me that heterogeneity can create as many unsatisfying problems as homogeneity.
There seems to be no simple solution, but I refuse to believe that things couldn’t be better resolved. Experiences such as the “Ave Maria” city project or some Orhtodox Jewish communities are examples of how difficult it is for such projects to work out in practice, even today. And yet the Amish seem to be better off having their community than if they didn’t and were forced like many people today to live in very large and heterogeneous cities/states/nations, where people are always fighting about the control, the laws, the culture, the resources, and can only have as an option to form a community within the larger system/city, given that the latter is not modeled after their values and views. This is not merely a question of group/city size, since small towns can be suffocating too. And maybe life within an Amish community has more of such conflictory and power-related problems than the homogeneous façade lets on. In any case, I keep thinking about this question.
Another day I will write my thoughts on how awful it is to have a very homogeneous country/society, since so often that means issues are decided by a more absolutist dynamic of power which does not permit dissent or questioning. Herd kind of thinking, like many liberals love to engage in, even though highly homogeneous, is an awful thing. What could be more pathetic than what Dave, the liberal cad over at Ordinary-Gentlemen.com, said: the market place of ideas is a horrible thing, because too obnoxious.
As we can see then, the heterogeneity/homogeneity plot is always apt to thicken, independently of what aspect of the conundrum you decide to tackle.