There are no easy answers to life’s questions. Maybe that’s why fewer and fewer people seem to care about searching for any. It’s much easier to follow sports, or invest in reality-based television. Your investment allows you to experience a common bond with thousands of other people and while it leads to groupthink, there is a certain comfort in conformity.
Concern about the dumbing down of the masses isn’t new, at least in America. Writers and thinkers have been conscious of this for decades, if not longer. One of the classic books on the subject, Richard Hofstadter’s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life spoke to these issues 40 years ago. Things haven’t gotten measurably better since Hofstadter. Others more recently, notably Morris Berman, have waxed eloquent about the ramifications of America’s functional illiteracy and our nation’s cultural decline.
As a consequence of letting others do our thinking for us, we’ve seen book reading fall out of favor (with all due respect to Harry Potter), political civility and discourse at all-time lows and the supply of social capital continue to decline. None of this bodes well for democracy and many of the institutions that exist to further it, here in the “homeland” (an Orwellian term if there ever was one) and abroad.
Consumin’ is what we do. When two buildings melted to the ground, our president sent us to the malls. As James Mitchell, cultural critic said, “There is barely an empty space in our culture not already carrying commercial messages." Nowhere is this more evident than the world of sports. While billboards and signage has always graced ballparks and other venues, now every pause and segue is brought to you by some corporate behemoth. George Steiner had it right when he said that we live in a “systematic suppression of silence.”
Back to Hofstadter, this is not new. However, we’ve taken a turn for the worse, in my opinion, as the intellectual is ridiculed and knowledge becomes suspect and something to scoff at. We now need everything spoon fed to us—our news, our entertainment and our politics.
Berman has a new book, a blog and if interested, here’s a review of Dark Ages, America: The Final Phase of Empire. From the review is the following paragraph that helps sum up what I see as pervasive in our culture--the tyranny of the individual.
The ethos of American individualism is Berman’s particular preoccupation. It has frontier roots but is also an effect (as well as a contributing cause) of the victory of automobiles and suburbanization over mass transit and European-style city planning. "The relentless American habit of choosing the individual solution over the collective one," Berman writes, underlies "the design of our cities, including the rise of a car culture, the growth of the suburbs, and the nature of our architecture, [which] has had an overwhelming impact on the life of the nation as a whole, reflecting back on all the issues discussed [in this book]: work, children, media, community, economy, technology, globalization, and, especially, US foreign policy. The physical arrangements of our lives mirror the spiritual ones."
In one of his comments on the blog, Berman mentions that he doubts any more than one percent of Americans know what a metaphor is and the inherent difficultly of living with that, as conversation becomes more and more of a challenge—unless of course you want to talk about sports.
In wrapping up this somewhat disjointed post—there’s some unresolved tension in the thoughts and ideas that Berman has me pondering and I’m trying to process, but I’m not sure what the resolution is at the moment and maybe there is none to be had.
I’m thinking back to some of the prior reading I’ve done from writers like Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul and others; I was struck by the following passage from an essay on Herbert Marcuse that I located at the website of Logos, a quarterly journal with some interesting topics pertaining to modern culture, politics and society at large.
The essay on Marcuse, written by Arnold Farr, is titled, “Democracy, Social Change and One-Dimensionality: Reviving Marcuse.” Farr is citing Marcuse and his essay, “Social Implications of Technology,” where Marcuse has this to say about technology:
Technology, as a mode of production, as the totality of instruments, devices and contrivances which characterize the machine age is thus at the same time a mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination.
Farr adds his commentary on Marcuse, utilizing the dialectic between the liberation that technology always promises and the oppression that often gets delivered, discussing why most Americans get so uptight when technology is criticized.
Also, with respect to technology, many people are given just enough of the benefits of the technological society that they are afraid of rebelling for fear that they may lose what they have. Even the poorest homes have a TV set.
Farr's commentary on Marcuse's critique of technology would be one that I’d be most comfortable with and concur that it is more accurate, citing the negative implications of technology and not granting it the status of savior of mankind that it most often gets credited as being; catalyst for consumption maybe.
Berman’s dismal assertion (while probably anecdotal) concerning awareness of metaphor is troubling.