By Valerie Elverton Dixon
Walter Cronkite was a modernist voice of faith in reason, science, progress and a metanarrative. His passing reminds us that the modernist moment is gone, or at the very least no longer exists unchallenged.
We often think of the various modernisms as epochs of historical time – premodernism before the European Enlightenment, modernism of the Enlightenment until the later part of the 20th century, postmodernism to the end of the 20th Century continuing until the present day. Another way to think about the modernisms is to consider them as paradigms of interpretation that all exist to varying degrees in every historical time.
Premodernism is faith in faith, in what our religious traditions and communities teach us. Modernism is faith in reason and what science and technology is able to demonstrate for us. It is faith in the metanarrative of science, including the human sciences. Postmodernism is faith in doubt, a skepticism even a suspicion of authoritative voices telling us “that’s the way it is.” The center does not hold and the metanarrative is challenged.
For years, Walter Cronkite was that voice of authority telling us the facts of the world. We trusted him. It was a time when we still had faith in our societal institutions – church, state, business and media. There was a basic unity of identity, of values and aspirations. Cronkite was a foundational figure in television news that brought moving pictures of world historical events into our homes at dinner time. Ironically, it was this gaze, this authoritative voice that showed us the radical changes taking place and revealed the cracks beneath the surface of our national oneness.
We saw the African-American struggle for civil rights when nonviolent protesters faced police assaulting them with dogs and fire hoses. This struggle inspired other groups to state their own uniqueness and begin to claim their rights as the kind of Americans that they were–Woman, Chicano, Native, Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgendered.
We saw the pictures from space that showed the earth as a beautiful blue planet within a vast dark universe, and at the same time we saw the horrors of the Vietnam War and the chaos in our own streets. We saw urban rebellion, peace marches and sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The authoritative voice and the panoptic gaze of the cameras exposed the credibility gap between what the Johnson administration was telling us about the Vietnam War and the reality of the casualties. Cronkite explained Watergate and we no longer trusted the state. We still trusted him, and when he said “that’s the way it is.” We knew he was telling the truth. We were a troubled fractured nation where there was still too much injustice, too much poverty and pain. We were a nation struggling for meaning either through a morning in America conservatism or in a transcendental new age mysticism or in various beliefs and ideologies in between.
The modernist authority made postmodern suspicion possible and necessary. Cronkite retired as new communication technologies allowed many more voices speaking to be heard by many more people. The gaze of television cameras is now joined by the ubiquitous eyes of security cameras and cell phone cameras that can send pictures worldwide in an instant. There are blogs and streaming videos of all types coming from all over the world. There are independent filmmakers challenging authoritative and official stories from a myriad of ideological angles. The notion of factual objectivity has been left in theoretical dust as we know that the very selection of which facts to present has already slanted the story of an event toward a certain perspective.
So when we hear “that’s the way it is”, we ask: according to whom? Who pays and who benefits? Knowledge is no longer power, but we understand that power produces knowledge.
However, while modernism — faith in reason, science, progress and a metanarrative — is no longer the dominant paradigm of understanding, it still exists, awaiting the moment when we need to turn to it for comfort. Walter Cronkite gave us comfort, an assurance that despite assassinations and war and new beginnings we can still walk boldly into a new century, to face the challenges of multiple meanings and a cacophony of voices telling us their version of the way the world is. I hope we can do this with the humanity and grace with which he inhabited his moment.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder JustPeaceTheory.com. She taught Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.