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Modern Babel


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James Poulos

March 29, 2019

This is the decade America's common culture died. Cultural taste, affinity, and identity is shattered into a thousand distinct shards. This “tribalization” has become an obsession among social elites, whose economic model for maintaining their global dominance has been thrown into doubt. But only now are the fuller consequences of the rise of the multiculture rearing their ugly heads. As manufactured mainstream fare fades, Americans are right to begin to wonder whether any popular culture as we know it, a vibrant social sphere full of entertainers and highly engaged audiences, is going to replace what is lost. The same digital technology that empowered us to consume what we wanted, when we wanted it, is now sharply discouraging us from producing what we want, even at times and places of our choosing.


What’s more, the death of the monoculture has destroyed a common conceptual framework for criticism. The result is that no matter how tiny your identity niche is, there will be another group primed to attack you, simply for being, in essence, yourself.

This is a sea change in Western civilization and in how nations and cultures will respond to globalization as a Western force. In early modernity, the Gutenberg Bible and the Declaration of Independence inaugurated a powerful political theology of free communication produced and consumed en masse. In modernity’s later period, automation and electricity democratized and secularized that social order to an extreme. Now as digital conditions make a common modernity obsolete, the demise of our common culture must be seen as just one part or phase in the erasure of the patterns of consumption and production that globalized secular Western culture. That means the eradication of the moral psychology behind that once-supreme form of economic life.


Both sides, perhaps most important of all, appear ready to welcome a new nationalist politics, organized around safeguarding the general welfare of the people from the perils of a poorly made transition to the digital age. The faint outlines of new coalitions are visible around policy goals such as limiting what technology allows people to do in finance, pornography, surveillance, and artificial intelligence. Catholics on the Right and the Left have moved thinking on digital age governance toward both a greater role for the state and a more widely distributed base of goods, with the birthrate and family formation central to the plan. New generations of college students, weary of cynically regurgitating warmed-over, revolutionary platitudes to secure credentials for disappearing jobs, are poised to rediscover the promise of universities in the Middle Ages, where independent study combined with the culture of the patron and protector, the apprentice and the guild, to situate people coming of age in a dynamic but defensible corner of their world. The list of transformations to come goes on.

However great our fear of losing the common culture, we have good reason to ward off the waves of panic coming from our crumbling cultural hegemons. However scary it feels to step in a new direction, a fresh kind of nationalism and a fresh kind of humility can restore the social fabric that so many of us watched the institutions of the pre-digital age destroy.

James Poulos is the executive editor of the American Mind, an online publication of the Claremont Institute. He is a contributing editor of American Affairs, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life, and the author of The Art of Being Free

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