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?