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Psychological Balkanization

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America has a unique culture. There are many, many aspects that it’s culture shares with others, but there is one very important, very fundamental aspect that is uniquely American. That aspect, in a word, is individualism. Americans – more than any other people – believe in individualism and throughout their history have carried it to it’s farthest reaches. America’s radically unique political and economic systems (constitutional republicanism and laizzes-faire capitalism, respectively), at the time of it’s founding and decreasingly ever since, was reflected in it’s cultural appreciation of individualism. Christianity was the first major philosophical movement which taught individualism – that the individual, by his own deeds, was reponsible for the fate of his soul. But Christianity relegated such matters to the after life, and as such, in practice, on Earth, individualism became irrelevant and Christianity necessarily devolved into the same sort of collectivistic creeds which it had sprung from. It lacked a logical, non-mystical justification for it’s groping attempts to philosophically justify individualism. The European Renaissance and Enlightenment provided that logic. Resurrecting the better parts of the other-wise tribalistic Greek and Roman past, and combining them with the better elements of the contemporary Christian culture, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers created a hybrid system which more or less logically defended individualism. But even they never came as close as the Americans did. Not only did Americans believe in it academically, they practiced it. They staked their lives fighting a war for it, and when they won that war, they implemented a political system devoted specifically to defending it.

Naturally, as time went by, the people living under this system grew and prospered. They attracted others – from every corner of the world – who also more or less agreed with individualism – and who had the courage to see it as a real, logical, and practical benefit to real life and actual happiness. With some sad, but non-essential exceptions in America’s history, it didn’t matter what a person’s ethnicity was, or his back ground was, or who his family was – in America, what mattered was his characteristics. His own, personal, individual characteristics. This was the true defeat of collectivism, tribalism, and even racism – as well as all of the senseless, bloody, and petty conflicts those ideas provoke.

America has been sputtering on ever since, more or less living up to these ideas (but increasingly less). It’s grown, it’s prospered, millions of people have forged better and happier lives than they otherwise would have. All in all, it’s been a success. However, as great as the victory for individualism that America is was, it wasn’t enough. Underneath all of the great approximations of a logical defense of individualism lies a vaccum. Approximations are still just approximations. There have always been cracks, and they have been growing for decades. The cultural phenomenon that this series of commercials lampoons is one of those cracks.

When people lack an intellectual understanding of the basis for the way of life they believe in and live, they are unable to defend it from sophisticated opponents. When they lack even a hodge-podge of “common sense” sayings which, because they’re so numerous, are difficult to defeat, they are unable to defend it from unsophisticated opponents. Today, both the sophisticated and the unsophisticated work tirelessly, every day, to attack exactly that. The first step in the attack is to call these ideals into question. To attack the concept of individualism it isn’t necessary to attack it’s practical consequences. Rather, it’s much easier to simply ask, seemingly innocently, if we really are individuals at all. How is an ordinary person to reply? He cannot. He can bluster and shout, and make a fool of himself, but to those who observe him, that only lends credibility to the “reasonable” skeptic. Once this goes on long enough, in millions of venues and in billions of small subtle ways, what happens to a culture made up of proud individuals is that it becomes weak, self-conscious, unsure of itself and it’s righteousness. What happens to every day decency and respect for one’s neighbors?

Eventually this condition goes from being isolated in how men deal with others, to how men view themselves. When they realize that they can’t defend what they claim to be true, they conclude that they’re not equipped for any intellectual task (beyond, of course, their immediate, every day tasks). The next step, then, is to find a replacement for that intellectual vaccum. When the solidarity of a culture is not formed around a common idea, the next best substitute is solidarity formed around a common attribute. If you can’t quite believe this is what’s happening – and if you have no clear explanation for why – then you will be tempted to temper your acquiescense into this new, perceptual (as opposed to conceptual) mode of existence. You will attempt to find a blend of the two (as if they could blend). If you sense, correctly, that the end of the road is stark, naked, ugly, prehistoric, third-world type racism and tribalism – a shrunken existence made up of boredom and drudgery (interrupted only by neurotic fear of outsiders and blood conflict) – then you’ll be relieved to find out that your tribalism is a bit more “civilized.” Sports, after all, are still celebrations of individaul achievement. They require merit, and logic, and everything else you as an American are accustomed to – but crucially, they also are tribalistic enough to appease the fashionable skeptic who teach that in truth there are no individuals; only groups.

If you engage in regionalism (not to mention completely out of proportion, second-handed pride in the accomplishments of athletes you’ve never actually met), so long as you don’t throw snow at an “outsider’s” door or have your dog pee on his carpet, in your mind, it isn’t quite regionalism. It isn’t, at root, the same sort of thinking that motivates the most primitive tribes. It is true that such behavior – such benign distinctions as liking one team over another not because of their player’s cumulative merit, but because of the accident of the city or region they play in – is not as disgraceful as the behavior of actual tribalists in actual tribes, but that does not change the root. The cause of why so much of your identity is wrapped up in sports allegiances. If you accept the root, the end is just a matter of time – as quickly or as slowly as you allow it to happen.

Directv, in search of a quick buck, is wrecklessly excusing (and thereby encouraging and accelerating) this process.

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Written by commercialanalysis

October 13, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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