A Bulgarian friend of mine told me a story recently that bears very much on many of the misanthropies lately being experienced, in different ways, in many societies across the world. He was visiting the homes of several members of his family and friends during a holiday season, when he noticed that many of the older people were intent on watching a series of Turkish soap operas on television. This raised his curiosity, since everyone knows that Bulgarians do not generally have warm feeling for Turks. Centuries of Ottoman occupation and persecution of Christian communities in the Balkans have left a strong impression even more than a century later. So why the fascination with the Turkish soap operas?
It was not, it turned out, because of the superior literary or production values in the television series. It rather had to do with the reflections of Turkish culture in the settings of the stories that resonated with older Bulgarian audiences. As my friend watched the television he saw that the scenes from the soap operas very often focused on a large table at which extended family members were eating sumptuous meals. More important, even when the storyline bade family members to engage in arguments of one kind or another, children always respected their parents and grandparents. They never raised their voices or threw things or stormed out of the room for dramatic effect.
It turned out that the older people watching were not really interested in the plot of the show. Not that many of them understood enough Turkish to follow the script. Rather, they were nostalgic about the manners they observed on the screen. Those old customs of family closeness and mutual respect, still visible in Turkish customs, had been destroyed in Bulgaria first by the anti-traditional orientation of the Communist regime, and then by the ensuing delayed modernization of Bulgaria in the immediate post-Cold War era. Viewing the Turkish soap operas was a way for them to indulge in these are old, cherished ways without being accused of harboring warm feelings for the communist period.
What this story reflects is the apparently universal human longing for the stabilities of community, and in many cases for a particular historically edited version of that community. There is nothing whatsoever new about this. At the time of the industrial revolution the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies wrote about the painful transition from what he called Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, essentially from the rural, mimetic-learning, traditional ways of village life to the more urban, literate, and rationalist ways that tended to break asunder old patterns of extended family tradition. It was not just cultures that changed, but social structures as well. In general, the movement was from patrimonial structures to more modular ones, in which a shift from communal agency in matters of social authority to more individual agency occurred. Indeed, that shift to individual agency is the central hallmark that divides modernity from what came before.
Not surprisingly, 19th century European, and American, literature is full of stories about such encounters, and about the class divisions and conflicts that served as the background to nearly all of them. Good examples include most Charles Dickens novels and nearly all Thomas Hardy ones in Britain; Edith Wharton is a good example of a slightly later American author writing in a similar mode. Honore de Balzac performed a roughly analogous function in France.
By the middle of the 20th century the “creative” social and economic destruction, to paraphrase Schumpeter’s famous term, that so deeply affected Western Europe and America had spread to most of the globe, and today, in the first quarter of the 21st century, there is barely a place left on the planet that has been left unaffected by similar patterns.
One universal result of this development is what the late Peter Berger, one of the preeminent sociologists of the past century, called “pluralization.” All this means is that when once-isolated societies come into contact with other people whose beliefs, behaviors, and manners differ from their own they suddenly become the recipients of a kind of mirror in which they can see objectively their own ways for the first time. This typically leads to a form of questioning and social introspection that was heretofore not possible for lack of any perspective.
Pluralization is typically a double-edged experience: It can be enriching but it can also be disruptive. Change always benefits some people in a society more than others, and when leaders resist the implications of pluralization, they often end up losing some, or in some cases, all of their inherited presumed authority. Generation gaps form, in other words, as heretofore unimaginable arguments deploy terms not previously available to intra-societal discourse. This is just a fancy way of saying that sometimes all hell breaks loose.
In pre-modern times not all parts of the globe were equally isolated, of course. Trade routes and imperial expansions and contractions have shoved different people together from time immemorial. The Levant is a good example of an early-pluralized social zone; so was the Hejaz before Vasco de Gama’s circumnavigation of the globe disrupted long-established caravan routes. But these ancient patterns, important as they were at the time for those involved, were in the main more limited and involved smaller percentages of a given population than more modern ones, and they were rarely if ever driven by technological leaps as dramatic as those of the industrial revolution. They therefore rarely drove comparable changes in social structure.
The shift from patrimonial and pre-pluralized societies to modern modular and more cosmopolitan societies has been going on now for at least a half dozen generations in Western Europe, and the de-tribalization of Western social structures predates that by centuries in most places. It has not been an easy ride. A good argument can be made that the two World Wars of the 20th century had as a core background cause adjustment to these massive changes in human social organization and self-image.
But five generations is more than three, and in the case of the modern Middle East just one or two. Looking at the bedu cultures of the Arabian Peninsula, the transformation from nomadic ways of life built on tribal orders to the skyscrapers of today has been breathtakingly rapid by almost any standard. Changes in culture and social structure always resist bring pulled by forces that originate in technological and political economy domains, so there is a lag, and the lag causes tensions of many kinds. Every place is at least a little different, certainly, but a unity in the manifold, to use Kant’s term, eventually comes clear. When we contemplate the social and political convulsions of the Arab world over the past six or seven decades, from the many episodes of civil violence and political coups all the way to the so-called Arab Spring, what we are seeing in the main are the growing pains of these deep, tectonic changes.
It has been convenient for many to blame these convulsions on forces external to the region or on Israel, and certainly one cannot exclude some effects. But these strains and pains have been overwhelmingly home-grown, and are natural to the wages of social change in the Middle East no less than they are everywhere else. Denying these organic origins is no help to self-understanding, and without some degree of self-understanding, dealing with the strains is rendered even more difficult than it otherwise would be.
In Western societies we have witnessed a running cultural disagreement now for at least two centuries about the wisdom of industrialization and “progress.” On balance, the “Whig” idea of history—that material and moral progress walk hand-in-hand into the future—has been ascendant. And one of the reasons for that is the very widespread belief that science and the technological progress it enabled and encouraged has improved living standards dramatically and for nearly everyone. Mankind escaped the Malthusian Trap. We have conquered many a disease. We live longer and healthier lives than was the case three or four centuries ago. It seemed self-evident to West European explorers and later colonialists that all peoples would welcome such progress, and indeed that motivation for colonialism was as a sincere in most people as the opportunities to exploit less-advanced societies and their resources was for others.
But back home there were always some who rued both the pace and nature of change. There was, famously, Ned Ludd, who smashed the steam-powered looms of the industrial revolution with axe handles. But there were back-to-nature pro-Gemeinschaft movements, often romantic and sometimes even cultish, in virtually every Western society. Just to mention a few, the Romantic movement centered in 19th century Germany bespoke of such sentiments. So did the Arts and Crafts movement of late 19th century Victorian England—the kind of pro-innocence sentiment that gave us the modern Western idea of childhood, and stories like Peter Pan. In America, the transcendentalists, associated with Emerson and Thoreau, expressed similar sentiments. On some occasions these back-to-the-land movements were revolutionary and violent, as with the 19th-century narodniki in Russia.
And of course there were strong reactions against these romantic impulses. Karl Marx famously disparaged “the idiocy of rural life,” and, a century later, Leo Marx in his classic analysis The Machine in the Garden took American “pastoralists” to task for their nostalgic naïveté.
These arguments are by no means settled and done with. The process of industrialization and the advent of post-industrial forms of political economy add new fuel continuously to the fires of debate and dispute. By the late 1950s the “uninvited guests” of environmental despoliation marked the descent of doubts about the assumed benefits of “progress.” From those doubts has sprung the environmental movement in the West, which is at least in part, in some of its manifestations, a back-to-nature form of romanticism. Many people are trying to figure out a golden mean whereby scientific-technological process can continue but without the harmful externalities, as economists like to call them, of the past.
n the meantime , however, it is clear that the surge of populism in the West, a force that comes in the main from less urban areas, also gathers energies from the waves of nostalgia that have arisen due to the ambient anxieties associated with the globalized spread of the post-industrial revolution. Is there anyone left who cannot see Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan for what it really is—a nostalgic appeal to those less well-educated and nimble-minded Americans especially set on escaping the complexities, uncertainties, and frenetic pace of 21st century life?
Make no mistake: These forces will in due course affect every country, every culture. Those that are beginning this journey a bit later than others have an opportunity to learn much from what has gone before. These are lessons ignored at some peril.
It is no accident that the famous American film “The Wizard of Oz” took the form it did when it was released in 1939. In 1939 American society was still reeling from the protraction of the Great Depression. Most adults had lived through not only hard economic times but a world war and, before that, an avalanche of technological changes that made people confess to dizziness. Is it any wonder then that Dorothy wants more than anything else to go home? “There’s no place like home,” she repeats over and over as she wakes from her dream at the movie’s end to find herself in her own bed surrounded by family and old friends. Americans then may not have realized why this movie affected them so deeply, but it clearly struck a chord in a population that also wanted to go home, to awake from all their troubles and anxieties and get back to a calmer, softer, more predictable life.
I would be willing to bet that Bulgarian elders who enjoy Turkish soap operas would love “The Wizard of Oz”—and for many of the same reasons. And to the extent that contemporary Arab viewers are unusually moved by this old film upon first viewing, I would venture to say that the reasons, too, are entirely understandable.