Breaking the Cultural Trance

Red Rock Canyon

Photo: Justin Luebke via Unsplash

In “Breaking the Cultural Trance: Insight and Vision in America,” Robert Inchausti offers a convincing perspective that living in America can impair our deepest "seeing" and how education is the sacred medicine to restore a deeper sight, one that is more "universal, transcendent, and real." Written in 2004, his insights are as fresh and relevant today as they were then. Here is an excerpt of his essay.

If the history of the twentieth century has taught us nothing else, it has made clear that human culture is not a stay against moral erosion, a revolution in manners, or a Utopian alternative to the violence of history. Human culture is, as T. S. Eliot suggested, what we make of the mess we have made of things. At its best, it can provide a sustained resistance to the ever-changing face of depersonalization and false authority, challenging the complacencies of the middle class, the entitlements of the rich, and the internalized powerlessness of the poor.

The problem isn’t that our leaders don’t know these things; it’s just that they are not original enough in the conclusions they draw from them or brave enough in their attempts to dispel the confusions. They always seem to opt out of paradox for tactical responses and action-oriented solutions. To collapse the ironies of history within the framework of any programmatic analysis, however nuanced or complex, only serves to place knowledge before revelation again and procedural thinking over creative response.

The good news is that most Americans have never bought into the materialist premises that dominate our commercial culture and guide our imperialistic foreign policy. Something in them resists: a residue of hope in transcendent possibilities, an unused idealism that they take home with them after work and hide in the silent, contemplative reaches of their hearts. The fundamentalist Protestant revival of the 1980s, as well as the current popularity of Buddhism, The Course in Miracles, and other “spiritual things,” are all expressions of this desire to somehow escape from our self-created political house of mirrors into something universal, transcendent, and real.

Perhaps this is why American-born youth are so fascinated with travel and extreme sports. They suspect that maybe China, Mexico, Chile, or Japan has something more solid to offer them. If not, then a death-defying slide down the side of a mountain will certainly free one’s mind, if only momentarily, from the ever-present unreality of commercial hype.

The problem, of course, is that if this desire is going to lead to anything more significant than another conservative retrenchment, we will need a postmythological perspective on human development that goes beyond both consumerism and nationalism to a true solidarity with the poor and with those not at home in our interpreted, quantified, and commercialized world. I am thinking here of some form of cultural expression that will resonate with those perennial carriers of the American dream: the dissidents, the artists, the outcasts, the immigrants, the refugees, the reformers, and the working poor. These “pariahs” remain America’s true avant-garde, for their lives embody an instinctive flinch both away from the part of us that is sustained and identified with the powers that be and toward the part of us experienced in times of loss and psychological disintegration when we must gather up all our courage, resolve, and grit in order to reconstitute our lives at a deeper and more inclusive level of reality—like George Washington did at Valley Forge, Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, and Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham. The inner life of the American soul, its true self, remains hidden in the silences of our unexpressed idealists, our young, our misunderstood outsiders, our struggling immigrants, our martyred firefighters, and our stoic poor. They alone seem to know that we are not who we think we are, that our country remains incomplete without their contribution, and that they themselves, in coming to be who they were meant to become, will fulfill the ideals of our greatest statesmen and most profound poets far better than our privilege class.

The full essay is available to read and download here.