Dec 15, 2017
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a white captain, Ahab, rules over the most diverse group of whalers and sailors any human mind could conjure. Out at sea on the ill-fated ship the Pequod are a multitude of races and religions, and Melville celebrates their rich diversity through detailed descriptions and dialogue that reveal a fundamental shared humanity. He observes, through the eyes of his narrator Ishmael, his most delightful creation, Queequeg, the Polynesian harpooner:
Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face—at least to my taste—his countenance yet had something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils.
Propelled by its monomaniacal captain’s obsession to kill the white whale, the Pequod is doomed. Some have posited that the Pequod mirrors the reality of America at the time of Melville’s writing in the mid-nineteenth century: the thirty sailors represent the thirty states of the union then, and the ship is run by white men who oversee the brown and black men doing all the dirty work. The whaling industry was a deeply exploitative one that Melville knew firsthand, and the whaling ship, for him, was an institution of higher learning, his Yale and Harvard, where he spent his days on the ocean reading tomes on everything under the sun.
Despite their diversity, the men on the ship all bend to the will of the captain, who demands utter obedience; they come to believe, through his oratory, that pursuing the white whale is their destiny. The pluralism evident in the ship’s motley crew is molded into one organism directed to fulfill the mad goal of a mad man. Diversity yields to conformity in the service of a mission without meaning.
That, in essence, is the phenomenon that plagues the United States of the twenty-first century. We find ourselves in a pluralistic society of countless creeds, colors, and cultures. In reality, this chromatic character of our society has been subsumed into a monotonous monoculture of ersatz arts, entertainment, and consumerism. The American people now share a common creed of consumption; our material possessions, which are mass-produced and mass-marketed, nevertheless become an expression of our “individuality.”
The clothes people wear, the phones they stare at, the fast foods they eat, the blockbuster movies they watch at multiplexes, the music that blares into their heads through their earbuds—much of it has a sameness that contributes to the monoculture that has swallowed and digested the diversity of the ship of state.
Our towns and cities look the same, and their monotony is bound to stifle the senses of anyone who makes a long-distance trip across the country, with billboards beckoning travelers to banal strip-malls and fast-food restaurants where everyone eats the same metabolically toxic food. Across the world, globalization has sullied many beautiful cultures, imposing homogeneity on most places. Nonetheless, in some spots, one can still see real diversity in the last remnants of traditional societies. Simply traveling a few miles in such lands, one finds an entirely different culture, proof of the complexity and beauty of those societies and their radical and singular divergence from modern mediocrity and cultural conformity. In Palestine, each traditional village has its own unique patterns for women’s garb. In Morocco, one could go from the deep desert to the furthest north and find a striking diversity of food, clothes, and dialects, something people who have never experienced such places would find hard to imagine.
Up till now, we have been speaking of outward culture—what people eat, wear, and consume. But what of the inward states of people? Our inward states are nurtured by the acquisition of knowledge of history, literature, and religion, as well as by our experiential learning. Americans, generally speaking, have little knowledge of the past besides the pseudo-history we acquire from the docudramas in film and on television. Hollywood tends to recreate history in its own image, distorting our understanding of past peoples and places. Meanwhile, literature languishes on the shelves of libraries, and the few remaining brick-and-mortar bookstores carry more and more popular titles instead of stocking classics that challenge the minds of readers. Few young Americans are capable of reading and comprehending great works of literature, so those works no longer inform their understanding of the world. Poetry, which was popular and a source of knowledge and wisdom for the peoples of the past, has few devotees today.
Our material possessions, which are mass-produced and mass-marketed, nevertheless become an expression of our “individuality.”
Religious devotion devolves into feel-good books such as The Secret—a New Age message of prosperity that sold 20 million copies—that have little to do with the austere asceticism practiced by Christians for centuries, and that are very inaccurate reflections of their presumed source, the Bible. We also find a multitude of “mindfulness” religions that seem more devoted to the body than the soul. The practice of yoga, divorced from its Hindu roots, becomes a religion of “live forever” in a healthy body, as one exercise enthusiast put it. The Christian moorings of the platform of the Right in politics have been severed and are now anchored in capitalism and economic prosperity. The Left has mutated into a pseudo-mystical religious movement, with hordes of young people “feeling the Bern” of a revived sixties idealism, all chasing a progressive utopia where everything will be paid for; where injustice, war, racism, sexism, and poverty will be eradicated; and where each person will be free from the torment of hearing or watching anything they find unpleasant or offensive.
In the midst of this civilizational decline, the question of pluralism keeps rearing its head, asking to be asked: can we live in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society in peace? This, however, begs a deeper question: are we really multi-anything? Setting aside the realities of physically different skin colors and of new immigrants who bring their authentic culture to America only to watch it disappear quickly, ethnic diversity is now more myth than reality. Most Americans have little or no knowledge of their ethnic lineage. No doubt there are still some variations that set us apart—you like jazz, I like hip-hop—but the goals of the culture have been reduced largely to one: consume and pursue “goods” and “services” that excite us and keep us “happy.”
Conspicuous consumption, once seen as an aberration, is now the new normal, as people take pride in consuming money; goods; services; ersatz art and entertainment; and most of all, prepackaged culture brought to us by marketing mavens armed with studies on how to appeal to our (baser) desires and entice us to spend money to sate our appetites. Corporate scouts roam nightclubs and “hotspots” in search of “merchants of cool” who embody the latest fads, which their corporate overlords can then turn into marketable products.
In a nation where the notion of individualism has reigned supreme, most people have not noticed that their “individualism” is now a product sold for profit: that the tattooed bodies look more and more the same; the designer rags and bags are increasingly common; and the body piercings and vulgarity in appearance and language, which once shocked people who were bred in more genteel milieus, now seem contrived. While our society may have an outward appearance of diversity of tastes and attitudes, it also has a striking inward banality, manifested in the bovine pursuits that capture the hearts of so many people.
Traditional cultures, on the other hand, often display an outward conformity but produce an inward diversity that reveals itself constantly in the extraordinary individuality of its members; one need only look to Melville’s Queequeg for an example. Conformity, sadly, rules our culture; one can be anything but a real heretic: luddites and anti-consumers remain taboo, unless they are willing, like the Amish, to live in seclusion.
The most dangerous men and women have been, are, and will always be those who take seriously the prophetic injunction of not conforming to the world for the sake of conformity itself. The political correctness that suffocates our schools and colleges, the war against female and male virtues, the demand for androgyny, the acceptance of moral deviancy, and the abandonment of any moral absolutes that might inform one’s worldview are now epidemic. The dominant culture’s obsessive pursuit of “equality” and “egalitarianism” demands that all distinctions be erased: class, gender, race. The irony, of course, reveals itself in the motivation for such erasure: it is to be done in the name of diversity. True diversity, the many from the one, remains the great mystery.
The essence of all religion resides in mystery: the mystery of God, of human nature, of iniquity, of difference, of obedience, of hierarchy, of talent, of discipline, of devotion, of family, of love, of hate, of goodness, and of sin and evil. But we find ourselves in a culture that is not just uncomfortable with mystery; it disdains it. The mysterious, the unknowable, the unfathomable must be removed from our world; all must be revealed, every mystery slain: this materialistic, empiricist axiom is most embodied by modern science’s mad pursuit of the “singularity point” where artificial intelligence (AI) will reveal all to us. That which is unseen and unknowable must be condemned as nonsense. Metaphysica delenda est. The one who dives deeply and penetrates the depths of the ocean, drowning in an acceptance of mystery, of the utterly ineffable reality of Being, is considered evil.
The idea of a pluralist society of creeds and cultures has been morphed into a monoculture of conformity. Captain Ahab still lives among us, and he may well take the Pequod of humanity down with him.