I Have No Idea What’s Going On

washington-post“I have no idea what’s going on”—that’s the way Henry Allen begins a brilliant, if discouraging, article recently in the WSJ (8/1/2013).

I think he’s on to something, and his point is not generational. “I like to think,” he says, “I was especially good on the feeling-tone of the world around me.” In other words he has been a culture-watcher. I am one of those too. In some ways we all thought we had a “certain clairvoyance” to see “changes in what it feels like to be alive at any given time.” But that time has passed: “Now I have no idea what’s going on,” he repeats.

Is this troubling to him? Well, yes, “now I am disquieted.”

The issue is not just that things are changing. No, “the most important thing in our culture-sphere isn’t change but the fact that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper, turning into a silence of the dinner-party sort that leads to a default discussion of movies.” I’d go so far as to say we don’t even watch the same movies anymore. What do we talk about at dinner parties? What do we have in common that we all care about?

We think we stay connected with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the likes. But Allen is skeptical: “Facebook enshrines banality. ‘Am I the only one who hates her kids’ birthday parties?’ ‘Go outside RIGHT NOW and look at the moon.’” Those kinds of things will not bring us together for substantive conversation about things that matter.

It seems “the media have lost authority and audience—people want to know less about the world around them.” Can this really be true?

In the midst of all this worry, Allen asks: “Will organized religion die? I got talking to a girl from an Episcopal youth group in Missouri. ‘Episcopalianism is great,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to believe in anything.’” Oh my!

“I don’t know what’s going on. I doubt that anyone does”—well, that’s not a good thing to feel about our world, is it? I have been marveling lately at the rich resources available to each one of us at the touch of our fingertips. There is so much information out there. There is so much to learn. It is rich and varied and extensive. Much of it is exceedingly well written. It is always instantaneously accessible.

But perhaps Allen’s point is that we seem, even with the great power of the internet, to dig further into our silos of interest. Maybe the silo factor of the information we access is precisely what separates us. There is no common culture. Perhaps that what he means by shrinking reality. As a former writer and editor at the Washington Post, maybe Allen laments the death of common reading in our great newspapers. That is happening, to be sure. And while we all must lament this loss, the loss is here for good. We must turn to the great tools at hand on the internet.

But, still, what will hold us together? Not to feel there is a cultural reality we share in common, well, that’s a problem, a big problem. Allen ends his article with this question: “What a strange time it is to be alive in America. It can’t stay this way, can it? Or can it?”

I guess it’s up to us.

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