Brother, Can You Paradigm?

What does the unemployed scholar say to passerby on the street?

"Brother, can you paradigm?"

Instead of "Brother, can you spare a dime?" Get it? A song by that name was a big hit during the Great Depression.

Yes, it's a bad joke.

But to create new "paradigms" is the ambition of every young, aspiring professor. It's a matter of creating "systems," or philosophies of ethics, action, and history, that can all be developed by one person – that very same aspiring professor. A paradigm is a system of thought, normally attributed to the one founder of the system (anyone from evolution's Charles Darwin to Christian Science's Mary Baker Eddy). To be a professor at a college means that you are trying to establish a new paradigm, or that you desire to be the leading proponent of somebody else's paradigm.

No matter what we personally think or want, the era we live in seems to have a prevailing paradigm. And it is beyond our grasp, our own knowledge, let alone our own control.

Neville Chamberlain is currently the Whipping Boy of history: the guy who, by "appeasing" Hitler, gets as much if not more flak than Hitler himself. I'm not going to try to justify or excuse Chamberlain, not now at least. That's not the point. But I will say one thing:

Chamberlain didn't know the Anti-Fascist Paradigm that future scholars would put him in. He is condemned for this.

Why do the neo-conservatives love Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan so much? Because they supposedly understood the Cold War Paradigm even as they lived it.

And this, above all, is what is lost on the neo-conservatives: their inability to recognize that we might be living under a different paradigm. The future's historians will determine our moral fate – they will make up their own paradigms. American history is essentially in their hands.

Much of what I've seen about the supposed "War on Terror" is retrograde War on Poverty and War on Drugs b.s. – a bi-partisan effort to keep the problem alive, not a bi-partisan solution. The rest of the "War on Terror" is even worse – it operates not on today's realities about American interventionism, but on yesterday's paradigms against fascism and communism.

But we don't live under the Cold War paradigm, or the anti-fascist paradigm by which we condemn Chamberlain. We live under a different paradigm – a paradigm we don't yet know or understand. A foreign policy that wages the War on Terror based on the paradigms of World War II and the Cold War is dubious at best.

September 8, 2004

James Leroy Wilson Archives