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US/ Where has the Elusive Big Idea gone?

August Wed 17, 2011

"No one cares much about insights that offer new ways of seeing and making sense of the world"  "No one cares much about insights that offer new ways of seeing and making sense of the world"

Except for the tragic wind gust that destroyed a stage structure in the Indiana State Fair, killing at least 5 young men preparing for the beginning of a rock concert, the top news this past week in the United States was the economic crisis and the campaign for the presidential elections of the coming year.


Concerning the presidential campaign, the most interesting events were occurring in the Republican camp, where a new candidate entered the scene: Texas Governor Rick Perry, who now is believed to threaten the candidacy of the ultra-conservative Michele Bachmann (loved by the Tea Party) and the more moderate Mitt Romney (favored by the Party establishment). Perry appears to have the experience and the charisma to please both sides.

On the Democratic side, the question is whether President Obama (a “wounded President” as a prominent observer called him) has the time, or stamina to overcome the continuing unemployment crisis.


Still, for all the commentaries, opinions, polling, etc. no one seems to be proposing any new ideas as to how to respond to the voters’ concerns.


In this context, it was interesting to read a column by Neal Gabler in last Sunday’s New York Times titled “The Elusive Big Idea” making exactly this point. The contemporary lack of ideas, argues Gabler, is not because we are less intelligent these days, but because we care much less than in the past at discovering, promoting, and defending the ultimate sense or meaning of reality. We are living, he maintains, in a “post-idea world”. No one cares much (at least among the cultural leaders) about insights that offer new ways of seeing and making sense of the world around us.
 
This post-Enlightenment world has given up on rationality, observer Gabler. Each one values his or her opinion, but has no confidence that they can convince others of its truth. The same occurs in the area of morality. Each one has his or her own value system, but without a desire that it be universally embraced – nor the confidence to be able to defend our personal ethical system.


Gabler discusses the role of technology in bringing this about, as well as the rewards offered by universities and corporations for success in a world of specialization rather than universality. At the root of all of this, he says, is the information explosion made possible by the Internet and the social communications media. Information, he summarizes his argument, has replaced thought. In the past, information gathering was the first step in the quest for meaning; today the quest stops at gathering more and more information. Today we prefer knowing to thinking.

I find this a fascinating proposal, indeed an old-fashioned idea itself. I am moved to seek to understand and judge it.

I would make some changes to it. Above all, I would argue that what is lacking today is not thinking as such, especially not ideological thinking. What is needed is judgment. Many no longer know how to adequately and rationally judge ideas, so they give up on it and settle for opinions.

 

And it is not true that most have given up on judgment. To be a Christian is to recognize Christ as the norm of reality and thus the measure of a truth that is really universal. He is thus the Redeemer of the post-Idea world.



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