With the approach of the New Year, the pundits are once again pondering the state of American culture and politics. Much of the discussion, which is usually driven by events in the news, has focused on the major developments of 2012. There have been ongoing discussions of how the re-election of Barack Obama reflects major demographic shifts in our society, how the unimaginable tragedy of the Newtown Connecticut school massacre extinguished what's left of our national innocence, and how the utter devastation of Superstorm Sandy demonstrated the present and future consequences of human-induced climate change. It is clear that lists of events are sometimes indicative of social and political change, but do they tell us anything about the state of contemporary American culture and politics?
Here is my anthropological take.
Most anthropologists distinguish between social change, which usually fosters new configurations of families, communities, or institutions, and cultural change, which reflects fundamental shifts in beliefs and attitudes, which, in turn, prompt changes in every day behavior. Social change tends to be immediate. People need to respond immediately and directly to changing social circumstances. If your daughter loses her job or a loved one becomes incapacitated, they might have to move in with you, which would alter the social make-up of your household. Cultural change proceeds at a much slower pace. Despite the many social and technological changes that have occurred during the past 100 years, many of our ideal attitudes about family life, gender, religion, race and individual liberty, all of which have an impact on how we behave, have remained unchanged.
Consider President Obama's significant re-election. You would think that the re-election would have finally granted him a measure of legitimacy. He was elected twice with more than 50 percent of the popular vote. But millions of Americans still cannot seem to live with the idea of an African American President. Longstanding attitudes about race, state's rights, limited government, individual liberty, which are interconnected in various ways, are difficult to change. Despite the economic and social consequences of the "fiscal cliff" and the upcoming debt ceiling debate, this set of attitudes has been and probably will be a prescription for political dysfunction.
Consider the reaction to the slaughter of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. Here again the immediate reaction is a call for stricter gun control legislation, which has already resulted in a debate about guns in American culture. The advocates of gun control are seeking social and legal solutions to the significant problem of violence on our streets and in out schools. The NRA and other gun rights supporters advocate more guns -- armed police in every schools, armed teachers in university classrooms and so on. Their advocacy for more guns comes from the deep-seated American frontier belief, rooted in particular interpretations of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, that guns are a symbol of individual liberty. If President Obama takes away my guns, to underscore the illogical fear of many American gun owners, then he'll take way the remainder of my individual liberties. Even though the Newtown killings profoundly disturbed all of us, many people don't see why it should create a scenario in which the Federal Government can continue its quest to undermine individual liberty. Because of the tragic cultural symbolism of the Newtown school shootings, Congress may pass some form of gun control legislation. But given the recalcitrance of cultural conflict, which usually gives rise to ongoing political gridlock, it is likely that such legislation will be watered down. No matter the extent of the legislation or the passion of the debate, the extensive and culturally contoured fear of gun loss will compel millions of American to buy more guns -- including assault rifles.
Finally, consider the reaction to Superstorm Sandy. The immediate response to the devastating storm, the most destructive weather event in American history, was overwhelming. Millions of people donated millions of dollars to disaster relief. Americans take cultural pride in volunteering their services or donating their hard-earned money to help the victims of various kinds of natural disasters. But such heart-felt spirit has not yet translated into significant action to slow down and ultimately reverse the devastating consequences of climate change. Climatologists tell us that given the human-induced rise of global temperatures, we can expect many more events like Superstorm Sandy. Even so, millions of Americans do not trust the findings of these non-partisan scientists. They say that climate science is a sham that will enable the government to increase its regulation of business and, by extension, American social and cultural life.
In 2013 will ongoing social change prompt significant cultural change? Probably not. In the short-term, we are probably in store for more political gridlock and economic stagnation.In the not so distant future, however, the sweep of social and technological change will eventually result in a cultural and political landscape that will be a more accurate reflection of the cultural evolution of our multilingual and multicultural society.