America's Cult of Simplification

By Barry Frye

    The essence of American political philosophy found its roots in the 18th century within the dusty volumes of John Locke and further articulated by Publius in the Federalist Papers. The heavyweight thinkers of that era trudged through the tomes of Hobbes and Rousseau to find answers for the pressing debates of their times. However, today’s American desires something different, something more connected to the challenges of a complex world moving at a pace unimagined by our Founding Fathers.

    G.K. Chesterton wrote that the simplification of almost anything is sensational. His observation may have been slightly tongue in cheek, but to today’s millennium man, they sound prophetic. In a world encumbered by its own technological advances and overwhelmed in a world dizzy from its own techno-speed, such sentiments have become more than a witty proverb.

    Simplicity has become our mantra.

    The appeal is easy to understand. We long for an escape from anxiety born in an environment of information overload interlaced with exhaustion from feeble attempts at time management.

Sanctuary from this dizzying information overload and frantic pace is what we crave, and shelter from its anxieties is what we seek. Promises of such a haven entice us like children offered candy by a stranger at the curb side.

We may know the dangers in reaching for simple solutions subconsciously, but we place that first morsel in our mouths anyway. When we do, we find ourselves ensconced in a cult-like association connected by the internet’s web pages, pop psychology, and trendy management techniques. The appeal for more and more of its sweet taste causes us to lose control, and we devour their reassurances like children addicted by the numb poison.

    There are no regular meetings scheduled for this new faith, and no one will find a chapter listed under local interest groups. However, the cult of simplification proliferates all around us.

    In corporate America and cutting edge management, we are asked to swear allegiance to today’s gurus who provide visions that numb our minds with their painless formulae, promising little sacrifice and restoration of better times. They assure us of breakthroughs in quality if we follow them in a crusade to simplify. Simplify our processes; simplify our designs. Reap the rewards.

We are drawn to politicians who offer simple answers to complex problems. Election campaigns have become contests of reducing intricate complexities to an easy-to-swallow pill.

We are reminded of Alexander the Great’s perspective and his simple but effective resolution of the Gordian knot. Unfortunately, we find few capable of lifting such a sword that can strike the blow to unleash the formidable knots.

    Our allegiance to leaders – any leader -- is available with one condition. All we ask from them is to break it down for us. Make it simple and easy to grasp.

    A puzzling riddle remains our inability to label our current decade now nearly half complete.

    Americans in particular have always enjoyed the neat symmetry of using decades to describe waves of social change and upheaval, to celebrate the hard won victories of a popular leader or to denigrate an opposition party’s values. Labeling decades provides a ready shorthand references that we all understand easily and use recklessly. We have always embraced the gross oversimplification that decades somehow attain and shed values like out of fashion clothes at the beginning of each ten-year period only to don new ones with the inception of a new one.

    Even our children question us about our experiences living in the 60s or dating in the 70s as if each has its own set of unique mystical values. We speak fondly of being a product of a particular decade as much as we refer to a region of the country. It becomes a core ingredient to our identity.

    Naming decades has become the Cliff Notes for our country’s history.

    However, what is our label? For those of us toiling and building a history that will be explained by our children and studied by our grandchildren, how is our decade to be remembered? Where are our marketing geniuses who provide so much clever insight to our political and business leaders? Notwithstanding the adjectives and slick phrases, our leaders have yet to figure out what numerical reference to use – a rather stunning shortcoming considering the public appetite for simplification. The double naught, the oh-oh’s, or even the technological sounding 2K0’s have not caught on. The inspired Dark Ages, Version 2 is cute but avoids the dilemma entirely.

    There is no easy answer for our riddle. Research shows the first decade of the last century (1900 – 1909) never resolved the issue either. There are few if any references to this decade by a name. There are no memorable labels such as the Gay Nineties or the Roaring Twenties. From the distance of a hundred years, it appears historians and social commentators never succumbed to the temptation of shorthanding that particular era, yet picked it back up in earnest shortly afterwards.

    The first decade of the twentieth century proved to be an era dominated by the leadership and personality of a single man who dominated both the political, corporate and social landscape like few others. Agreement or disagreement with his politics notwithstanding, few would question his energy and sincerity with which he held his principles.

    With such purposeful leadership, naming a decade must have seemed rather trivial. One can only wonder how simple he kept it.


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