Charleston and “the New Normal”

Obama has come out saying he refuses to accept events like the Charleston massacre as being “the new normal” in America. This phrase “new normal”, as some of you already know, has been of particular interest to me since Dick Cheney first used it in a speech, and I’ve made it part of my studies of contemporary history to collect all references to “the new normal” when it is used in the public discourse.

This term, now very widely employed, nonetheless remains quite indistinct — more like a vague intuition about something-we-know-not-what; or, like seeing something we can’t quite make out. But it’s the convergence of Fukuyama’s “end of history” and this “new normal” that makes for a very toxic brew. For what we are being asked to accept as this “new normal” is, in fact, nihilism, civilisational decadence, and the sickness unto death.

In effect, the “new normal” is just another term for Nietzsche’s anticipation of “two centuries of nihilism”, and in that sense “the new normal” is the equivalent of Rosenstock-Huessy’s state of “post-modern” society as being a “withering from within”. In fact, “new normal” and “post-modern” are fully equivalent, and converge, of course, in the form of neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, and neo-socialism, too. But in almost all usages, “new normal” has become a reference to some social deficiency or another, a falling away from values and standards formerly deemed ideal and worthy of our energies and efforts. “The new normal”, in that sense, corresponds to Nietzsche’s formula for nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”.

To my mind, the beginnings of this “new normal”, long before it was given that name, became apparent to Christopher Lasch in the subtitle to his book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in the Age of Diminishing Expectations. “Diminishing expectations” refers to a society that, generally, no longer has the stamina, the will, the passion or energy to reach for its highest ideals and aspirations, or finds them blocked, even though lip-service is still paid to these ideals and values of “brotherhood of man” or “universality”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “reason”, “enlightenment”, and so on.

And lip-service is, as Rosenstock-Huessy pointed out, the symptom of a society that has become sick, and is in the throes of decadence. “Diminishing expectations” for ourselves then became “normalisation of the double-standard” — in other words, normalisation of hypocrisy, normalisation of duplicity, normalisation of lip-service itself. The normalisation of the double-standard (and therefore, necessarily, of double-talk and double-think) I first became acquainted with in reading Robert Cooper’s book The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in The Twenty-first Century with its blunt advocacy of a “new imperialism”, or what came to be referred to as “illiberal liberalism”, also as promoted by the neo-conservatives (especially the historian Niall Ferguson). In effect, this is what the “neos” of neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, and neo-socialism are — the ideological justification and normalisation of the duplicitous, of lip-service, and necessarily, in consequence, of the self-contradictory.

The normalisation of the self-contradiction is also, in effect, the normalisation of the disintegrate and the dissonant. Word and deed no longer correspond. Rhetoric and action are divorced from one another. Reason decays into mere rationalisation of the duplicitous and the self-contradictory. This is what the “new normal” amounts to — the extreme dissociation of mind and body, spirit and nature, consciousness and reality, or ethics and power, even. That’s what the habit of lip-service leads into, and such “dissociation” is what we call “insanity” — the loss of integrity or integrality; the dis-integration of the whole man or woman.

That is what is, to me, so horrifying about the present situation and the “new normal” — this radical dissociation of consciousness and reality; the incoherence between what we say we do and what we actually do in practice. Not only are they not commensurate, we no longer even seem to care whether what we say we do and what we actually do are commensurate or not. “Whatever” is our response. To lie or to tell the truth are considered equivalently utile, as long as they bring some advantage.

This is “the new normal”. It is carrying the principle of the pursuit of self-interest beyond the bounds of the reasonable into the unreasonable and the unreasoning. This is also being called “post-Enlightenment” as well as “post-democratic” and, of course, “post-modern”. While it is true that “time makes hypocrites of us all”, and especially times of rapid change (or “rapidification” as Pope Francis calls it in his encyclical Laudato Si), what is horrifying is the apparent lack of any energy or will or aspiration to overcome this duplicitous situation, which is necessarily a self-overcoming. Instead of transcending ourselves and our present limitations, we normalise our deficiency and our hypocrisy. We normalise exactly those things that I call our own “four riders of the apocalypse” — Double-talk, Double-think, Double-standard, and Double-bind.

This is what “cognitive dissonance” is; this is what “duplicity” is; this is what “dis-integration” and the loss of integrity is; this is the topsy-turvey world of post-modernity; this is what decadence is. And this is precisely what the “new normal” attempts to justify and rationalise as healthy, whereas it is a sickness unto death.

What is called “healthy” (or “advanced”) is, in fact, diseased through and through, and a lot of contemporary propaganda is designed to befuddle our perception of this fact — to sow confusion and unreason; to persuade us that red is actually white; that a lie is actually the truth; that the image and the mirage (the “brand”) is the reality; that mutual deception is the norm of all social relations and exchange. The convergence of the “end of history” and this “new normal” is a toxic soup.

Obama is right to reject “the new normal”. But does even he understand what this “new normal” actually is?

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9 responses to “Charleston and “the New Normal””

  1. donsalmon says :

    Scott, wonderful column as usual. I have a question, and I hope it doesn’t sound too hopelessly “new age naïve.”

    From your writings, particularly on Gebser, I get the impression that you accept the view that at this “moment” (“moment’ pointing to something outside time and space, not this fleeting so-called “present”) the Origin “is.” That is, all this, now, is the manifestation of an infinite reality, and the only lack is in our (collective “our”) awareness of it.

    So, assuming that, more or less (however badly stated) you share this view, does this have any impact on how you view terrible things like “the new normal”?

    I guess another way of saying this, is I’m asking you what an integrative view (or at least, a view which seems integrative to me) might be of our situation.

    I didn’t disagree with a single thing you wrote today. In fact, my usual “where’s the recognition of the Infinite in all this” barometer only ticked slightly – just enough to ask this question. I guess maybe since I’m reading this in the context of everything else you’ve written, I’m reading it in light of what I am assuming is (more or less) your “view” (don’t like that word, view, but don’t know how to say it better at the moment).

    Sorry if I’m being a bit obscure. I’m trying to evoke something for which words (at least my words) are very limited, at best.

    I guess all I’m saying is it would be interesting to see all this with a more explicit pointing to the Origin.

    Thanks.

    • Scott Preston says :

      From your writings, particularly on Gebser, I get the impression that you accept the view that at this “moment” (“moment’ pointing to something outside time and space, not this fleeting so-called “present”) the Origin “is.” That is, all this, now, is the manifestation of an infinite reality, and the only lack is in our (collective “our”) awareness of it.

      Yes. You could say that, although I’m more inclined to think of the ever-present origin, as Gebser refers to it, as implicit in time-space, rather as Blake sees it too, than “outside” space and time. This is one reason I dwell so much on what I call Khayyam’s Caution: “only a hair separates the false from the true”. In other aspects, the diabolical and the symbolical are closely related, even though contraries in the sense that the diabolical means to “hinder” or “throw obstacles in the way” or “divide”, while the sym-bolical means “to bring together” to “integrate”. Negation and affirmation, in a sense. A No and a Yes.

      The “new normal” is a diabolical situation, in that sense, not only in its character of mind divided against itself in self-contradiction (the Jekyll and Hyde condition), but which expresses that self-contradiction in preserving the division of Being more generally — the dichtomoisation of Being, which we more broadly refer to as “dualism”, although it could be “trialism” also.

      Put in other terms, the “diabolic” maintains the absolute division between the finite and the infinite; the “symbolic”, on the other hand, is the gesture of Steiner’s “Representative of Man” sculpture referred to earlier — the bringing together of the finite and the infinite, or marriage of Hell and Heaven. The Affirmation in which the “Representative of Man” draws down Heaven even as he raises Hell, as it were.

      Don’t know if that speaks to your comment or not.

      • donsalmon says :

        yes, getting closer – i like “implicit” in time and space, or even more directly, manifesting as time and space – or still more directly, Nagarjuana’s “there’s not a hair’s length of difference between nirvana and samara” (or is it a hair’s width?? don’t recall:>))

        So I think I get the diabolic vs symbolic.

        But if “demon est deus inverses” – the diabolical can’t possibly mean the “absence of ‘God” (I’m going to bite the bullet and use that word if it’s ok), then it is simply the inversion, not the utter opposition to the symbolic, otherwise we end up back in dualism.

        So to get specific, let’s take Obama’s statement, “this is the new normal.”

        Diabolical, yes.

        But what is it hiding, what is the “Truth” that it is inverting?

        What is our deepest response to the diabolical? Inwardly, to see the Divine, to see God “implicit” in even the most diabolical.

        But that’s general. What about this specific situation?

        Look at the families yesterday who one by one forgave the shooter. What did they see? They looked in the face of the diabolical and saw God.

        What is implicit, how is the Infinite, or the Origin, implicit, then even in Obama, and dare we say, in Cheney? What is this diabolical phenomenon, “Dick Cheney” in relation to the infinite?

        • Scott Preston says :

          Is narcissism, then, inverted self-transcendence?

          I’m not sure that the kin of the victims who looked into the face of Dylann Roof actually saw the face of God behind the mask of ignorance and hatred or whether they simply realised you can’t fight hatred by hating or racism by racism, or that they simply believed in fulfilling the law of Christ, which is forgiveness.

          To query whether there is a divine impulse, perversely or diabolically expressed or manifested in shooters like Anders Breivik, or Dylann Roof, or Adam Lanza, or James Holmes, or Seung-Hui Cho, etc, etc is probably to ask the wrong question in the current context of man’s spiritual development. We aren’t in the position yet to live “beyond good and evil”, and as Seth puts it, as long as we believe in these categories, it behooves us to do the good, and not fall into the snares of the diabolical or “the dark side” under the delusion that it is actually the good, or that mass violence, whether socially organised or individually impulsive, is cathartic or redemptive, or even that self-destruction or self-loathing is self-overcoming.

          Do the direct or indirect victims of mass violence or domestic abuse look into the eyes of their killers and abusers and see love gone wrong? Or, the tragedy of frustrated desire?

          Goethe has his Mephisto describe himself as “part of that power that would ever evil do, but always does the good”. Inadvertently, that is. The “good” of course, is none of his intent, but he is always overruled, in the end, by a power or law greater than his own will and desire. Mephisto is, of course, the ego nature itself.

          It may be true, as Blake avers, that “all that lives is holy”, and that those who forgive Roof actually and sincerely believe that and know that and actually see that, or they might just be living according to a moral code that obliges them to forgive. I don’t know.

          Nagarjuna’s insight into nirvana and samsaric existence, that they are the same, has a corollary however — they aren’t until they are. They aren’t the same until man’s spiritual development achieves a certain equanimity. Until then, nirvana is nirvana and samsara is samsara and never the twain should meet or become confused in the mind.

          It may well be that ignorance is but a perverted or inverted innocence. The words branch from the same root, too, and only a hair separates the one from the other. But ignorance — the black dwarf upon whose corpse Shiva dances his dance — remains, nonetheless, an evil despite that implicit affinity. Or, to put it in alchemical terms, the seed of the lead is in the gold, and the seed of the gold is in the lead.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Just to touch upon this a little further ie, “the hair” (or veil or fog) that separates the evil from the good or the false from the true.

    Buddhism has its three evils — greed, ill-will (malice) and delusion (ignorance), and Mr. Roof enacted all three of them. The three transforms of greed, malice and ignorance (or delusion) are the refuges and sanctuaries of The Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dharma. The latter are called, of course, the Three Gems and nicely counterbalance the Three Evils because they are, in essence, the transforms of the Three Evils, and the polarity is actually preserved. The Buddha is greed divinised as “enlightenment”; the Sangha is malice divinised as debate; the Dharma is ignorance divinised as innocence. There is, in those terms, a “revaluation of values”, a kind of spiritual alchemy at play.

    Now, you may also note that David Loy’s writings on “The Suffering System” also describe how our social institutions actually institutionalise the Three Evils of greed, malice, and delusion — in the US context, in terms of Wall Street, the Pentagon (military-industrial complex), and the mass Media as propaganda system, and Mr. Roof was, in some ways, a microcosm of this “suffering system”. The corrective for this suffering system is also a kind of alchemy, and for Mr. Loy, this means shifting them in the direction of the Three Gems — or what he calls his “Buddhist Revolution” — compassion (the Buddha), community (the Sangha), and enlightenment (the Dharma). So, in that sense the Three Evils are the “infrastructure” of sorts needed to effect the transmutation into the Three Gems.

    • donsalmon says :

      well, again, agreed about 99.99% with all you say. you acknowledge “beyond good and evil”, so we agree there, and a VERY very important point for anyone who has even a glimpse of such a thing is to not assume I/we are “there” before we’re really there. That’s pretty much what a whole lot of gurus have done for millennia and we’ve seen it up close the last few decades.

      If i had more time I’d say something in much more detail, but now considering all you’re saying, I might say just a little bit in between those two (recognizing both that to the extent we’re NOT “there”, we have to acknowledge the evil AND at the same time recognizing that here and NOW IS the reality “beyond good and evil”.

      So, here’s my cautious approach – call it for what it is, recognize the evil, the diabolical, don’t pretend to have gone “beyond it”. BUT – while being VERY careful to be honest, sincere and humble about where one’s state of consciousness is situated, AS AN EXERCISE in going “beyond”, doing a bit of what you’ve done in the last few posts, looking at what the deeper reality might signify.

      There’s a really nice set of passages in the opening to SrI Aurobindo’s “Letters on Yoga’ (volume 1, available online) where disciples are asking him about the significance of the materialist/leftbrain/atheist period the world has gone through over the last few centuries. He gives both views:

      1. He says it has been an important counterweight to centuries of negative views toward earthly life, by both Western and Asian religions.

      2. He says even more forcefully that it has been a diabolical, soul-destroying interlude which, if prolonged, could lead to the utter destruction of the human race (this was written about 80 years ago).

      So he’s saying both.

      Of course, he’s Sri Aurobindo, I’m not:>))

      In 1985, I completed 2 years of work on a 45 minute music composition for chorus, orchestra and electronic tape about the Manhattan Project. it was inspired by Robert Oppenheimer’s recollection of verses from the Bhavagad Gita while watching the first test blast in Alamogordo New Mexico in 1945: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

      He later wrote in his journal that he also recalled the earlier line from chapter 11 (verse 11 or 12, I forget which): “If a thousand suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, that would not equal the splendor of the supreme Spirit.” (Oppenheimer, by the way, for “fun” while a student at Berkeley, had taught himself Sanskrit and memorized all 700+ verses of the Gita).

      I was working on a sketch in September 1983, took a break and turned on our local pacifica (Listener sponsored) radio station. Just a few minutes earlier, a program had started which was basically the sound track for a documentary on the making of the atomic bomb. I ran to set up my tape recorder and managed to record the whole thing. The piece consists of music and electronically altered statements from the physicists who worked on the bomb (Freeman Dyson, Oppenheimer himself, his brother and others were all on the tape). Things like, “There was speculation back in the lab that it might be possible to explode the atmosphere, in which case the world disappears” (Imagine, they thought it might be possible that just the test blast could destroy the planet, and they went ahead with it anyway!!). or Dyson’s “I have felt it myself. The what you might call technical arrogance that overcomes men when they see what they can do with their minds.”

      Anyway, one time I played it for a monk from the Ramakrishna order, an American man who was a composer and had himself written an operetta based on the Gita.

      I also sent a copy to the producer of the documentary (“the Day after Trinity”- so named because the test site where the bomb was first exploded was called “Trinity” – the native Americans had called it “Jornada del Muerto” – the journey of death – and because 20 years later, a reporter asked Oppenheimer what he thought of Robert Kennedy’s proposal to ban the bomb. Oppenheimer replied, “It’s 20 years too late. We should have done it the day after trinity).

      The documentary producer loved it, and said it was an even more powerful Anti-nuclear statement that his film.

      The monk/composer sort of liked it but was very concerned that the way I juxtaposed the words made it seem like nuclear weapons were fine – even blowing up the whole planet was fine – because it’s all God anyway.

      Both responses were quite startling to me, because neither were my intention (well, anti nuclear was ok but it wasn’t at all what the piece was intended to be about; the monk’s reaction stunned me as my intention was the exact opposite – to recognize the reality of evil for us as long as we live in duality, but to maintain or at least aspire to a recognition of the all pervading Reality of the Divine/infinite).

      Well, that’s a story. And I thought i didn’t have much time:>) But I have to get back to work……….

      • Scott Preston says :

        That’s interesting. Let me see, though, if I can make my meaning clearer.

        That “nirvana and samsara are the same”, Nagarjuna’s conclusion, and which we might say is the ultimate conclusion of Buddhism, doesn’t belong to what we might call “the facts of the matter”, but more to the “truth that sets free”. By that I mean it is a destiny to be realised, a potential truth rather than an objective fact. To that degree, nirvana and samsara are not the same at all… until they are, that is.

        What I want to try to emphasise is the difference also between a “destiny” and a “fate”. Again, these are terms, like so many others I’ve discussed in past posts, that have become confused in people’s minds. That “nirvana and samsara are the same” is a potential destiny to be realised, rather than a fate. A destiny is something we choose, while a fate is something we endure as an inevitability or necessity and is connected with concepts of cyclicity of time.

        To “enter the stream”, as Buddhists call it, is to choose that destiny and to work towards the realisation of that truth. This is what Christians mean also when they say that human beings have an appointment with “God” who is in the future. That destiny is the “vocation” or call which comes to us from out of that future. Likewise, that “nirvana and samsara are the same” is not true until it is, or, conversely it is true until it’s not.

        Likewise, the Buddha, Jesus or even Rumi and Blake were not merely historical personages — men who lived in the near or remote past. They heralded from a possible future and asked other human beings, mired in the past, to catch up with them. They are a destiny made manifest. Nietzsche also thought of himself as a “destiny” — as being a man of the future born before his time.

        What determines whether something belongs to the future or to the past or to the present? We do. Or rather, our consciousness. The future is latent in the present, and the past is anything that has returned to latency. This is Gebser’s “ever-present”, and although our habits of thought condition us to think of time as being like space (near or remote or far), time isn’t like that at all. Time is various stages of manifestation or “presentiation” in Gebser’s terms, or degrees of latency. So, to actualise the probable future in which “nirvana and samsara are the same” requires a transformation of consciousness before it becomes true.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    This new normal of all “lip service” but little to no substance may have begun in politics, but it has certainly spread to the rest of the society very wide and fast. In the organization I work, the new normal takes the form of “nepotism” and what I would call “compliance.” Oh, yes, we want to be in “compliance” with various oversight agency regulations, but heaven forbid if you ask for those compliances to be substantive – and not just a bureaucratic box checked in a report filed with the oversight agency.

    I could not resist but copy and quote the last two paragraphs of your last comment above:

    “Likewise, the Buddha, Jesus or even Rumi and Blake were not merely historical personages — men who lived in the near or remote past. They heralded from a possible future and asked other human beings, mired in the past, to catch up with them. They are a destiny made manifest. Nietzsche also thought of himself as a “destiny” — as being a man of the future born before his time.

    “What determines whether something belongs to the future or to the past or to the present? We do. Or rather, our consciousness. The future is latent in the present, and the past is anything that has returned to latency. This is Gebser’s “ever-present”, and although our habits of thought condition us to think of time as being like space (near or remote or far), time isn’t like that at all. Time is various stages of manifestation or “presentiation” in Gebser’s terms, or degrees of latency. So, to actualise the probable future in which “nirvana and samsara are the same” requires a transformation of consciousness before it becomes true.”

    Enlightening. Outstanding. Brimming with diamonds!

    • LittleBigMan says :

      Sorry, I should’ve said, “I could not resist but TO copy and quote……..” 🙂

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