Nothing I’ve heard from politicians or economists on the world crisis has shivered my spine like an hour spent with the gentle‑mannered historian Antony Beevor, whose mighty new book on the Second World War is making him the pundit of the moment. He does not mean to be alarmist, and that is why the soft warnings in his sunlit garden are chilling. Of course the rise of the Right in Europe is not the same as the rise of the Right in the Thirties, he soothes. But isn’t it terrifying the way the Greeks are portraying the Germans as Nazis in their popular press, with Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform? There are “far too many jibes” about a Fourth Reich. The weedlike eruption of extremist parties makes him “uneasy” – and if Beevor is uneasy, it probably means the rest of us should be scared witless. “The great European dream was to diminish militant nationalism,” he says. “We would all be happy Europeans together. But we are going to see the old monster of militant nationalism being awoken when people realise how little control their politicians have. We are already seeing political disintegration in Europe.”
— Elizabeth Grice, ” Europe is already falling apart,” The Telegraph, May 28, 2012
“How secure is our civilization’s accumulated knowledge?”
That’s the question posed in a recent essay by Richard Heinberg, one of the most consistently brilliant, reasonable, and nuanced writers about the ecological and cultural-civilizational ramifications of peak fossil fuels and economic calamity. In “Our evanescent culture and the awesome duty of librarians,” he offers a detailed discussion of the ins and outs of cultural preservation in the age of digital media, which, as he points out, have become the basket into which we citizens of industrial-technological civilization are collectively putting all of our cultural eggs, and which depend entirely on electricity for their continued viability. If the lights go out, he observes, this all vanishes instantly. And the chances of the lights going out by century’s end, not only in developing countries around the globe, where rolling brownouts and blackouts are already becoming more common, but in the industrialized nations as well, is very real.
“Ultimately,” Heinberg writes,
the entire project of digitized cultural preservation depends on one thing: electricity. As soon as the power goes off, access to the Internet goes down. CDs and DVDs become meaningless plastic disks; e-books become inscrutable and useless; digital archives become as illegible as cuneiform tablets — or more so. Altogether, digitization represents a huge bet on society’s ability to keep the lights on forever . . . . It’s ironic to think that the cave paintings of Lascaux may be far more durable than the photos from the Hubble space telescope. Altogether, if the lights were to go out now, in just a century or two the vast majority of our recently recorded knowledge would be gone or inaccessible.
This would all obviously constitute a disaster of the first order, since we denizens of industrial society have been engaged for roughly a century in the project of forgetting how to live without our electrified technology, and in the event of a blackout we would lose not only this technology but access to the digital media in which we have taken to storing so much of the very knowledge and skills that would enable us to survive. And that’s not to mention the loss in purely artistic and spiritual terms.
But there’s an ambivalence to the issue that Heinberg also notes in his essay, since, to put it bluntly, not all cultural knowledge is worth remembering. “The contemplation of electric civilization’s collapse can’t help but provoke philosophical musings,” he writes. “Perhaps cultural death is a necessary component of evolution — as is the death of individual organisms. In any case, no one can prevent culture from changing, and many aspects of our present culture arguably deserve to disappear (we each probably carry our own list around in our head of what kinds of music, advertising messages, and television shows we think the world could do without).”
And this is what leads me, perhaps not too incongruously — especially in light of the present prevalence of zombies in mass media culture — to flash on horror film auteur George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), the third installment in his celebrated Living Dead series, which at one point grapples provocatively with the very issue that Heinberg raises, albeit in a slightly different context.
An epitaph that nobody’s gonna bother to read
In Day of the Dead, a dozen or so humans, the only apparent survivors of the zombie apocalypse that started in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and continued in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, live in a vast underground military bunker while the zombies rule the outside world. In a key scene, a character with the appropriately apocalyptic name of John chides another character, a scientist, for continuing the obsessive quest to understand the zombie plague, since the bunker is already, effectively, a vast treasure trove of industrial civilization’s accumulated knowledge that nobody will ever know or care about:
Hey, you know what all they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top five hundred companies. They got the defense department budget down here, and they got the negative for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records and census records, and they got official accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods, and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good old U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? Who’s ever gonna give a shit? Who’s even gonna get a chance to see it all? This is a great big, 14-mile tombstone with an epitaph on it that nobody’s gonna bother to read. And now here you come with a whole new set of charts and graphs and records. What you gonna do? Bury them down here with all the other relics of what once was?
When the other character, Sarah, responds, “What I’m doing is all there’s left to do,” John comes back with, “Shame on you. There’s plenty to do, so long as there’s you and me and maybe some other people. We could start over, start fresh, get some babies. And teach them, Sarah. Teach them never to come over here and dig these records out.”
The conversation relates back to an earlier exchange between the two characters in which John similarly criticizes the scientist’s attempts to explain and fix the apocalyptic situation. Upon being told to shut up because he has no alternative solution, he says, “Oh, I’ve got an alternative: Find us an island someplace, get juiced up, and spend what time we got left soaking up some sunshine.” When Sarah says with disdain, “You could do that, couldn’t you? With all that’s going on, you could just do that without a second thought,” he replies, “Shit, I could do that even if all this wasn’t going on.”
And obviously, this all relates back to Heinberg’s observation in his article that we can all name aspects of contemporary information culture whose loss we wouldn’t lament. Then again, as he also notes, the loss of many other things would be truly tragic. He says it so beautifully, and lays out the competing strands of the dilemma so elegantly, that I’ll quote his final paragraphs in toto:
Civilization has come at a price. Since the age of Sumer cities have been terrible for the environment, leading to deforestation, loss of topsoil, and reduced biodiversity. There have been human costs as well, in the forms of economic inequality (which hardly existed in pre-state societies) and loss of personal autonomy. These costs have grown to unprecedented levels with the advent of industrialism — civilization on crack — and have been borne not by civilization’s beneficiaries, but primarily by other species and people in poor nations and cultures. But nearly all of us who are aware of these costs like to think of this bargain-with-the-devil as having some purpose greater than a temporary increase in creature comforts, safety, and security for a minority within society. The full-time division of labor that is the hallmark of civilization has made possible science — with its enlightening revelations about everything from human origins to the composition of the cosmos. The arts and philosophy have developed to degrees of sophistication and sublimity that escape the descriptive capacity of words.
Yet so much of what we have accomplished, especially in the last few decades, currently requires for its survival the perpetuation and growth of energy production and consumption infrastructure—which exact a continued, escalating environmental and human toll. At some point, this all has to stop, or at least wind down to some more sustainable scale of pillage.
But if it does, and in the process we lose the best of what we have achieved, will it all have been for nothing?
Burn it all
Having said all of that, I’ll close by pointing out what I suspect many of my readers may have noticed as well: that even though there are veritable mountains of cultural treasures whose loss to a new dark age would be a tragedy, in light of the galling and garish nature of so much of our contemporary cultural dystopia with its digital media circus, its economic bloat, its ecological devastation, its human injustice, and so on, it’s pretty damned difficult to deny the mythically charged attraction of the “Burn it all!” solution as expressed so enticingly by Romero and others. And that’s even though we rationally recognize the full-on disaster that such a “solution” would inevitably entail in human terms.
For more about cultural preservation in the face of a new dark age, consider the following:
- John Michael Greer, “The End of the Information Age” (May 19, 2009) and “Cultural Conservers” (May 21, 2008), both published at The Archdruid Report. “I’d like to suggest,” says Greer, “that one crucial need of our present predicament is the rise of a movement of cultural conservers — individuals who choose, for one reason or another, to take personal responsibility for the preservation of some part of the modern world’s cultural heritage. That’s a tall order, not least because the crises inseparable from the decline and fall of a civilization will leave many of us scrambling for bare survival in the face of soaring death rates and increasingly harsh conditions.”
- Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (2000). Berman talks movingly, in a tone that’s part businesslike and part elegiac, about the need for a class of “new monks” who will preserve and perpetuate treasured cultural knowledge not only in the midst of a future dark age brought on by industrial collapse (a theme he touches on only tangentially when he touches on it at all), but in the midst of our present cultural dark age of economic, political, educational, societal, and media-based madness, where hype and life have merged, and where the ever-expanding border of technocratic consumer culture and American imperialism encompasses a darkly dystopian reality. Importantly, he stresses that a) a new dark age is inevitable, so we’re not talking about “saving” what presently exists but preserving and planting the seeds of a future renaissance that none of us will personally see, and b) these new monastic efforts may need to take a different form than simply the writing of books and so on, since, unlike the original Dark Ages, when Western monks conducted their scribal work in an information-starved cultural environment, “This time around, we are drowning in information; hence, what is required is that it be embodied, preserved through ways of living . . . . I am not talking about putting the Great Books on CD-ROM, eventually to be buried in a time capsule, I suppose), or on the Net; these things have already been done, and they don’t amount to much, because the Great Books program is really a way of life, not a database.”
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Obviously, this novel has become a kind of Ur-text that defines the very lines along which we think and talk about the question of a new dark age. We shouldn’t forget the novel’s passionate endorsement of something like Berman’s “new monasticism” in its description of the tramps and hobos who traverse the fringes of a future totalitarian-dystopian society and preserve books whole in their memories, in the hope of one being able to recite them and write them down again when books are no longer outlawed. We also shouldn’t forget one character’s important and insightful declaration about the relative value of books themselves: “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical about them at all. The magic is only with what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.”
If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you might want to go back and catch up before reading this one.
A few weeks ago I posted a link to the article that forms the backbone of part one of this series — which, again, is “A Straight-Talk Survival Guide for Colleges” by Peter A. Facione — at a very popular online doomer forum. (For the uninitiated, that’s a forum devoted to discussing economic collapse, peak oil, global warming, the nexus of famine and water shortage and disease due to ecological overshoot in the human population, and other cheery topics clustered around a central theme of possible civilizational doom.) It sparked a lively discussion in which many participants expressed their disdain for the corporatization of America’s higher education system.
This is a criticism with which I heartily concur, but then it became apparent that a number of participants in the conversation were expressing their disdain not just for college in its current American form but for the idea of a college education at all. One person even mentioned that, as a professional accountant, he/she had never been obliged to “use” the knowledge of Shakespeare that he/she had gained in college literature courses, and therefore those classes “were a waste of time and money.” Some other people vigorously responded in protest, but the ideological meme was still out of the bag, and the idea that the imminent partial implosion of many of America’s colleges and universities is something to rejoice over because college is just a useless diversion from “real life” — and is inherently nothing more than this — was an in-my-face claim that demanded a response.
I don’t claim any special revelatory knowledge that qualifies me to offer such a response, but here goes:
As somebody who taught high school English for six years, currently teaches reading and writing at a community college, and has been building a career as a writer of fiction, reviews, essays, blogs, and scholarly work for the past 10 years or so, I’m painfully aware that the “Shakespeare is a waste of time” comment opens a proverbial can of worms that can’t easily be dealt with. I don’t know that anybody really has an answer to where the divide should lie or the divisions be made between education as job training and education as the informing and shaping of a person’s soul. But this difficult division is definitely the issue to which the claim in question points.
What’s not controversial, or at least it shouldn’t be at this late date, is the recognition that education in America at both the high school and college levels has been definitively conquered and shaped by two reigning ideologies: first, the attitude that equates education with job training, and second, the market-driven consumerist model, which mainly reigns at the college level.
Both are a form of brainwashing when applied universally and uncritically the way they are now. They have resulted in (so-called) educational institutions that are not only administered according to business-and-market principles but are administered for and by these principles. To run a college or university according to sound economic principles is necessary. To run it as a business and let its fundamental mission and outlook become market-driven is the death knell for real education.
The school of economic indoctrination
As a minority of the population already knows, the education-as-job-training meme was established at the public school level in the early 20th century. The model of today’s American public school system — with its strict age and grade divisions and its warehousing of kids into institutional settings where they’re isolated in separate rooms and moved around at the ringing of a bell — comes to us via a joint effort between the federal government and big business in the early 1900s that invented a system to assimilate immigrants, domesticate rustic farm kids, and prepare all of them for the drudgery and rigors of urban living and factory work. The idea that public schools are properly about job training has dominated our collective thinking ever since, and was given a huge boost by the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act under LBJ in the 1965, which really was the defining moment in solidifying the policy-based idea that everybody ought to graduate from high school (even though in actual practice this had already taken root in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, when economic recovery and advancement became linked for many people to the idea of a high school education). Before that, the stigma of not having a high school diploma was much less intense, and the relative economic value of such a diploma was much higher, owing to the simple workings of supply and demand. More high school diplomas means less value attaching to each one of them.
Then the idea arose from the 1970s up to the present day that, just as everybody ought to graduate from high school, everybody also ought to go to college or at least “some form of post-secondary training” (to quote the formulation that politicians repeat ad nauseam these days) in order to advance his or her economic status and help “keep America competitive in a global economy.” (Note that the “global economy” was only born circa 1970 anyway, largely due to policy decisions in the Nixon administration. But that’s another — but closely related — story.) Naturally, this devalued the high school diploma even further by transforming and demoting high school to the status of preparation for the real job training that was to come later.
Education vs. training
Just as significantly, the idea that what comes after high school — even four-year college degrees — is primarily about job training represents the most serious revisioning of collective attitudes toward education that has ever happened in this country. It’s emblematic of the total subjugation of our sense of self and our national identity to the market-driven, money-and-economy-centric model of life on earth. And since our brand of economics is pure consumerism, higher education has become the embodiment of that.
You don’t have to fancy yourself a bookish intellectual to recognize that the takeover of higher education by market models and values really is at odds with the idea of the traditional “liberal education.” This is a huge loss. In fact, as Albert Jay Nock argued so powerfully in the early 20th century, it really isn’t even correct to call such an approach “education,” since “education” properly means the inculcation of a certain sensitive, critical, and able cast of mind, informed by important and profound ideas, and this is an entirely different animal from education-as-job-preparation, which ought to be called what it is: training, not education.
Moreover, Nock offended militant democratic sensibilities everywhere by arguing that not all people are educable in that higher sense. The thing is, he was right, and that’s no slam to the uneducable, nor is it some special praise to the educable. It’s just a fact. Some people, it seems, are suited and even intended, via their natural abilities and inclinations, for education in the proper and high sense. Others aren’t. And our collective, robotized “send everybody to high school and college” attitude is absolutely toxic to the ideal of true education, and effectively kills the chance of its happening at either level, except as an exception. Real education in the current system happens not because of the system but in spite of it, among individuals whose need and desire and capability to be truly educated can’t be wiped out by a system that earnestly seeks to do so while refusing to see or acknowledge this unfortunate truth about itself.
(Note that I say this in full awareness of the damnable dangers and difficulties involved in trying to distinguish between people along these lines, and also in full awareness of such things as Earl Shorris’s brilliant work that led to the establishment of the still-astonishing Clemente Course in the Humanities, which exposes the cultural and institutional mechanisms that serve to maintain a permanent impoverished underclass in America by denying some people access to a liberal education and shunting them instead toward job training with fatuous “good intentions.” See Shorris’s classic 1997 essay for Harper’s, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.”)
Not incidentally, there’s a wide field of worthy writings about this very subject that ought to be ingested by anybody who wants to think about it with breadth and accuracy. Some of the ones that have informed my personal thoughts and feelings about this issue in a big way, and to which I direct interested all-comers, are:
- Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture. Berman has a good blog post from early last year that delves into some of what he talked about regarding education in that book: The Purpose of a Humanities Education.
- Albert Jay Nock, “The Value of Useless Knowledge” (1934), “American Education” (1931), and more.
- Mark Edmundson, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students” (1997).
- John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education (2001).
- J. Peder Zane, “Lack of Curiosity Is Curious” (2005), about the rise of intellectually incurious students in American colleges due to the job-and-economy-related insecurities of consumer culture and economic globalization.
- Paul Trout, “Student Anti-Intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of the University” (1997), about the inevitable dumbing down of university standards in the face of the impossible-to-deal-with flood of unprepared and disinclined high school graduates who really aren’t college material.
Note that Berman’s book contains the single passage that stands as the most compact and quintessential statement of the problem with current American educational ideology and praxis. It’s one that longtime readers of The Teeming Brain will remember from my previous references to it. And it’s one that confronts the “Shakespeare is useless” claim head-on.
Berman describes a job interview that he had for the position of publications editor with a large national education organization (almost certainly the NEA, as he only barely avoids stating outright) that proudly states its overall mission in terms of preparing students for social action and whatnot — a move for which it receives heavy corporate funding. The interview was conducted by the organization’s president. Berman says at one point in the interview he brought up the idea of knowledge for its own sake, “of knowing what makes oneself, and society, tick.” The president opined that such knowledge could only be useful as preparation for a contemplative and withdrawn life, which would of course conflict with the organization’s goal of encouraging an education that produces engaged citizens. In response, Berman proceeded to explain — “Much as I might have to explain it to a college freshman,” he says — that he didn’t think this type of knowledge and the type of education designed to inculcate it is useless at all, since its goal is to expand and deepen a person’s sensibility, so that he or she can then participate vigorously in life but with a much better and broader understanding of the big picture and how he or she fits into it. He describes how the interviewer became almost angry at this and obviously couldn’t comprehend it. And he concludes:
This woman is a leader in the field of higher education, and she has literally no idea of the deeper meaning of a liberal education. Whereas my influence on higher education is nonexistent, hers is enormous. It’s not that through her influence students learn to scoff at a nonutilitarian notion of liberal education; rather, they never get to learn that such a notion even exists.
Coda: The upside of destruction
As for me, I can personally verify from my aforementioned six years in public high school teaching that nearly all teachers and administrators — but with a wonderful minority of dissidents — are caught up in the mindset Berman describes. (I can also verify that the students are as well, and this applies to my current college students, too.) When asked if they really think money and material comfort and making a living are the be-all, end-all of life, they vigorously say no. But their guiding attitude toward education, and toward the goals they articulate for their students or themselves as a result of this so-called education, belies that denial. And who can blame them? Economic times truly are difficult for so many people, and students really do want and need something to lift them out of their troubles. And the merciless assault of the propaganda about “improving education” (defined as raising test scores) in order to “increase/maintain/preserve America’s economic competitiveness in a global economy” is practically impossible to resist.
Still, I’m hoping that some of this attitude may be knocked out of the education scene by the convulsive economic troubles that have descended upon it. That’s the positive result we can hope, root, and work for, as distinct from the attitude that says, “Shakespeare is useless, college is stupid, let’s blow ’em all up and get back to what’s really important: Getting a ‘good job’ in the ‘real world.'”
But more realistically, I expect colleges, universities, and public schools to respond initially by continuing to play their market-oriented game, and to make all of their decisions amid the economic turmoil based on their tightly held self-image as big businesses instead of educational institutions properly conceived.
See the other installments in this series:
Greetings, Teeming Brainers. I’m back from attending the 29th annual Armadillocon in Austin, Texas, where I spoke on several panels (and served as moderator for one of them, which was a new experience) and enjoyed hobnobbing with various writers, editors, and fans of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative literature. It was a nice time overall.
I’m just hopping online right now — an increasingly rare occurrence over the past several weeks — to unload a few choice headlines and news stories that have entered my field of awareness recently. If you’re not paying attention, then you may have missed the fact that everybody, including, finally, the U.S. Federal Reserve, is now admitting that we’re in the midst of a major and mounting financial crisis. Stock markets and banking systems around the world have been wetting all over themselves with worry in recent weeks. Last week the Fed poured billions — that’s right, billions — of dollars into the U.S. banking system to slow down the hemorrhage from the subprime mortgage blowout, whose effects have now spread to the commercial market (in contradiction to earlier statements by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and others who had claimed the subprime threat was contained and would not hurt the wider economy in general). Other central banking systems around the globe, including the European Central Bank and the central banks of Japan and Australia, performed similar injections of emergency liquidity. Companies directly associated with the mortgage business, like Countrywide Financial, have announced profit problems or pullbacks, as have others that are only indirectly associated with it, such as The Home Depot, which announced an actual drop in its net income, and Wal-Mart, which reduced its profits forecast based on slowing consumer spending. Meanwhile, in the (only) seemingly distant realm of actual life on the ground, many prices continue to rise, including energy and food costs, with the price of milk recently rising to an all-time high.
In the midst of it all, there’s some amazingly frank and brutal rhetoric about the severity of the situation flying around in the air. And methinks it’s not just rhetoric.
Some of the comments focus on the specifics of the situation at hand in the financial markets. From an August 15th article at Bloomberg: “‘U.S. subprime losses have detonated a global financial markets disaster,” said Vickie Hsieh, who helps oversees $1.4 billion at President Investment Trust Corp. in Taipei.” From an August 15th column by David Pauly highlighting the fact that supposedly “safe” mortgages have turned out to be the ones most at risk: “The reality is an entire market in default. And the mess threatens to do for the credit markets what the collapse of dot-com shares did for the stock market in the three years beginning in 2000.” And then of course there’s Jim Cramer, the “Mad Money” guy himself, going into his absolutely astonishing rant on CNBC on Friday, August 3rd, wherein he prophesied financial armageddon and screamed that Bernanke and his compatriots at the Fed have “NO idea what it’s like out there! None! They know nothing! The Fed is asleep!”
Others look at the wider view and see reason to brace for major upheavals. Probably the most sweeping of these dire forecasts is the one coming from David Walker, head of America’s Government Accountability Office. He’s been traveling around the country for several months now on a “fiscal wake up tour” in an effort to bypass federal bureaucratic bullcrap and put out a direct warning of America’s looming financial disaster based on its profligate reliance on credit and its unfulfillable entitlement programs. He’s not talking about an impending crash but a mounting crisis — namely, national insolvency — with a foreseeable eruption date. “I would argue,” he told 60 Minutes, “that the most serious threat to the United States is not someone hiding in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan but our own fiscal irresponsibility . . . . If nothing changes, the federal government’s not gonna be able to do much more than pay interest on the mounting debt and some entitlement benefits. It won’t have money left for anything else — national defense, homeland security, education, you name it.”
More recently, as in, just yesterday, the Financial Times quoted Walker as drawing a direct comparison between modern-day America and the late Roman Empire: “Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were ‘striking similarities’ between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including ‘declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.'” Comparisons to Rome may seem like they’re a dime a dozen, but when the comptroller general of the U.S. makes them, they take on added weight. And need I remind you that Walker is saying exactly what Morris Berman and others have been saying for quite some time now? The parallels with peak oil and its ongoing transition from being viewed as a fringe position to a mainstream concern are obvious.
Equally obviously, the current panic in the financial markets is distinct from the message of national danger and decline being presented by Berman, Walker, et al. But distinct doesn’t mean separate. America’s financial greed, along with that of all the other modern nations who have imitated us Yanks by selling their souls to the gods of financialization and consumer capitalism, stands as the bass note underlying these distinct melodies.
And what does it all mean in the end? As indicated by my reference to soul-selling above, I’m preoccupied lately with the issue of spiritual and psychological investment, as in, where do you invest your sense of self? What do you depend on for your sense of happiness and stability? In what basket are you putting all of your spiritual/psychological eggs? In this regard, I’ll give the final word to a couple of my favorite authorities.
From James Howard Kunstler, from his recent blog post “Margin Call,” the material view: “The upshot is that we are going to find ourselves a poorer nation. There will be far fewer people with money. There will be far fewer buyers of repossessed McHouses, bass boats, etc. Even the houses in Sagaponak and the Manhattan apartments will go cheap. The effort to pretend our way out of a financial crisis will fail. Sooner or later the recognition will set in that all that ‘boo-yah’ was dreamed up. The United States swindled itself. We became a nation of such greed-crazed clowns that we committed financial suicide in an orgy of self-deception.”
And from Jesus of Nazareth, the spiritual view: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also . . . . No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth . . . . Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
The only daily newspaper that originates from my part of the world is The News-Leader, which is located in Springfield, Missouri. It blankets southwest Missouri and part of Arkansas.
Last Tuesday, February 13th, editorial page editor Tony Messenger posted a brief observation at his blog, “Ozarks Messenger,” titled “A sign of the apocalypse…” It read as follows:
“I know that just by posting this I have become part of the problem, but I’m amazed at the coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith death and impending fight over her estate and paternity of her child. According to this study, the story has consumed more than 50 percent of cable news time. Between that and astronaut/diapergate, it’s amazing there’s any time for important coverage, such as, oh, I don’t know, a little war, health care, presidential politics. How low we as an industry, and a community, have sunk.”
I’ve really enjoyed Mr. Messenger’s handling of the paper’s editorial page ever since he took over from longtime editorial page editor Robert Leger last year, and this recent post is an example of why. I couldn’t help leaving a comment about it at his blog. Naturally, given my penchant for going on — or perhaps going off — about various indicators of cultural decline, my comment quickly bloomed to the length of an essay.
Here’s what I said:
As another commenter has already averred: Amen, brother Tony! I especially like the way you’ve framed this media insanity as an apocalyptic phenomenon. I know it’s become common to refer to things jokingly as “signs of the apocalypse,” but at present the type of idiocy you’ve decried here is hardly a joke, since the takeover of American and Western public life by trash and trivia over the past 30 to 40 years is truly a harbinger of cultural decline.
One of my favorite websites that talks about the “dumbing down” phenomenon (http://nomuzak.co.uk/dumbing_down.html) offers a vivid and accurate description of the way our collective consciousness has been hijacked by meaningless junk that obscures and edges out more serious fare: “In fact, the evidence for ‘dumbing down’ is everywhere: newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip, pictures of scantily dressed young ladies, and football; television has replaced high-quality drama with gardening, cookery, and other ‘lifestyle’ programmes; bonkbusters have taken over the publishing world and pop cd’s and internet connections have taken over the libraries. In the dumbed-down world of reality TV and asinine soaps, the masses live in a perpetual present occupied by celebrity culture, fashion, a TV culture of diminished quality and range, an idealisation of mediocrity, and pop videos and brands. Speed and immediacy are the great imperatives, meaning that complex ideas are reduced to sound bites, high culture is represented by The Three Tenors and J K Rowling, people spend their spare time reading text messages instead of Dostoevsky, and listening to rap bands rather than Bartok and Stravinsky.”
Although the writer is speaking about Britain — note the British spellings — his words describe the contemporary culture of the U.S. as well. And indeed, he talks about America elsewhere in the same essay.
To speak more from my own personal experience, I can tell you that I teach English at a rural southwest Missouri high school, and whenever I speak to my students, if I want to make reference to any sort of common object of knowledge in order to illustrate a point about the dramatic structure of stories, or about irony or other literary techniques, or about anything else having to do with books and literature – and it’s a daily necessity to refer to a common fund of knowledge in order to illuminate something we’re studying – I find lately that the only thing I can mention with any reasonable expectation of group familiarity is the Harry Potter phenomenon. Almost all of the teens have seen the movies. Several have read one or more of the novels. I can also refer to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but that’s because of the popular movies; only a tiny minority of students so far (as in, two or three of them) has actually read Tolkien’s books. I do have a student who has read a couple of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” books, so he has a minor grounding in literary fantasy.
But anyway, I simply can’t expect these kids to know much of anything, not even — and here’s the rub — about pop cultural stuff! It’s astonishing to find how many of them are oblivious to mass media culture. Not that they don’t know the names and faces of actors and bands and other celebrities, but if I mention the name of any movie director besides Rob Zombie, there’s a general look of blankness. I tried it with Spielberg once and had a couple of students respond, none too confidently, “Isn’t he the guy who made Saving Private Ryan?” I’ve also been shocked and dismayed at how many of them are functionally ignorant of Stephen King. Sure, they know some of his movies, but when it comes to the man himself the overwhelming consensus is an attitude of dull, suspicious disinterest, expressed in questions such as, “Stephen King – he’s really weird, right? Like, he’s that horror guy.” So even on the level of the pop culture crap that many of us decry, these kids’ frame of reference is shockingly narrow.
That said, I did find out recently, simply by asking, that they’re all aware of the Anna Nicole Smith “story.” So hooray. I guess.
“In his introduction to the book, Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, John Simon notes that a whole world of learning is disappearing before our eyes, in merely one generation. We cannot expect, he says, to make a mythological allusion anymore, or use a foreign phrase, or refer to a famous historical event or literary character, and still be understood by more than a tiny handful of people. (Try this in virtually any group setting, and note the reaction. This is an excellent wake-up call as to what this culture is about, and how totally alien to it you are.) Indeed, using Lewis Lapham’s criteria for genuine literacy — having some familiarity with a minimum number of standard texts (Marx, Darwin, Dickens . . .), and being able to spot irony — it may even be the case that the number of genuinely literate adults in the United States amounts to fewer than 5 million people — that is, less than 3 percent of the total population.
“In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as ‘the family’) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data cited above suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of ‘book people’ who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year.”
Okay, so there’s a misanthropic tone there. But, you know, Berman’s point is difficult to argue with, and sometimes the bitter pill is the necessary medicine.
To round out this rambling comment on the aforementioned apocalyptic note of cultural decline, I’ve long been disturbed by the terminal diagnosis of American culture that appeared in Neil Postman’s influential Amusing Ourselves to Death back in 1985: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk: culture-death is a clear possibility.” I truly think that’s where we stand now, even more so than when Postman penned those words two decades ago. And the fact that the national news media can go into a feeding frenzy over something as patently and disgustingly vapid as the Anna Nicole Smith “story” at a time when America’s foreign and domestic circumstances are as they are only drives home the truth of Postman’s (and Bradbury’s, and Berman’s) Dark Age diagnosis.
One of the most nightmarish things about a dark age is the degradation that it entails for life’s overall tone, not least in the dehumanization that occurs when a people’s intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural life in general is reduced to a ghastly level of brutishness and ignorance. As is now plainly evident all around us in the industrialized world of present-day info-technocracy, this coarsening of life can occur even in circumstances of relative material prosperity. It doesn’t always have to be a dark age like the one that gripped Europe in the aftermath of Rome’s fall, when starvation and plague were rampant and most people barely scraped by at a miserable subsistence level. A dark age can unfold and exist right in the middle of outward conditions that may appear enlightened to those who don’t look too closely or deeply.
Sometimes it’s oddly comforting to dwell on the words of people who have seen today’s dark age of dehumanization unfolding. When it feels like the world is full of robots instead of people, or when it begins to feel like we really are living on the planet of the apes, it can be a powerfully affirming experience to be reminded that other people have observed the same thing.
With this in mind, here are three of my own favorite articulations of these things.
1. From Network (1976)
Howard Beale has gone from being a normal network news anchor to being “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” In this iconic scene from the movie, Beale delivers an impassioned rant to an eager television audience in which he — dig the deep, deep irony — implores them to wake up from their television-induced trance. Significantly, what he says reflects the real personal views of the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, who, after achieving legendary status by writing many of the high-quality live dramas that aired during television’s early years, became deeply and utterly appalled at what the medium of television had become. Beale’s words represent Chayefky’s heartfelt indictment of the world that television, by the 1970s, had built.
Edward George Ruddy died today! Edward George Ruddy was chairman of the board of the UBN Broadcasting Systems and he died this morning of a heart condition. And woe is us. We’re in a lot of trouble.
So a rich little man with white hair died. What has that got to do with the price of rice, right? And why is that woe to us? Because you people and million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube.
Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people, and that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America. There’s a new chairman of the board, a man called Frank Hackett, sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the twentieth floor. And when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?
So you listen to me. Listen to me. Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!
So if you want the truth, go to God. Go to your gurus. Go to yourselves. Because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth. But, man, you’re never gonna get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell. We’ll tell you that Kojak always gets the killer, and that nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. However much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, look at your watch, at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We’re all you know! You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here, you’re beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing, we are the illusion!
So — turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking to you now. Turn them off!
Later, in another televised rant, Beale changes his tack and essentially surrenders to his grim view of things. And again, the dialogue reflects screenwriter Chayefsky’s real-life views.
At the bottom of all our terrified souls, we know that democracy is a dying giant, a sick, sick, dying, decayed political concept writhing in its final pain. I don’t mean that the United States is finished as a world power. It is the richest, most powerful, most advanced country in the world. I don’t mean the communists are going to take over. They’re deader than we are.
What is finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being that’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there that’s finished.
Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some two hundred-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods.
Well, the time has come to say: Is dehumanization such a bad word? Because whether it’s good or bad, that’s what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid – creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world. We’re the most advanced country so we’ll get there first. The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered.
2. From My Dinner with Andre (1981)
The playwright and actor Wallace Shawn and the renowned experimental theater director Andre Gregory, playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, share a meal in an expensive French restaurant while discussing a multitude of topics about their own lives and the life of society and culture at large. At many points their conversation turns toward the palpable sense of wrongness that characterizes so much of modern life. This leads Andre, in what has become one of the film’s most remembered moments, to describe a starkly dystopian vision of a dehumanized future. He follows it with some brighter speculations — which appear in this video but not in my transcription below — but it’s the darker stuff that grabs me the most.
Andre: Things don’t affect people the way they used to. I mean, it may very well be that ten years from now people will pay ten thousand dollars in cash to be castrated, just in order to be affected by something!
Wally: [Quieter] Well, why…why do you think that is? I mean, why is that? I mean, is it just because people are lazy today? Or they’re bored? I mean, are we just like bored, spoiled children who’ve just been lying in the bathtub all day just playing with their plastic duck and now they’re just thinking, “Well, what can I do?”
Andre: [After a pause] Okay. Yes. We’re bored. We’re all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brain-washing created by a world totalitarian government based on money? And that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks? And it’s not just a question ofindividual survival, Wally, but that somebody who’s bored is asleep, and somebody who’s asleep will not say “no”?
See, I keep meeting these people, I mean, just a few days ago I met this man whom I greatly admire. He’s a Swedish physicist, Gustav Björnstrand. And he told me that he no longer watches television, he doesn’t read newspapers, and he doesn’t read magazines. He’s completely cut them out of his life, because he really does feel that we’re living in some kind of Orwellian nightmare now, and that everything that you hear now contributes to turning you into a robot.
And when I was at Findhorn, I met this extraordinary English tree expert who had devoted his life to saving trees. He just got back from Washington, lobbying to save the redwoods. He’s eighty-four years old and he always travels with a backpack because he never knows where he’s going to be tomorrow. And when I met him at Findhorn he said to me, “Where are you from?” And I said, “New York.” He said, “Ah, New York! Yes, that’s a very interesting place. Do you know a lot of New Yorkers who keep talking about the fact that they want to leave but never do?” And I said, “Oh, yes!” And he said, “Why do you think they don’t leave?” I gave him different banal theories. He said, “Oh, I don’t think it’s that way at all. I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing they’ve built. They’ve built their own prison. And so they exist in a state of schizophrenia, where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made, or to even see it as a prison.” And then he went into his pocket and he took out a seed for a tree, and he said, “This is a pine tree.” He put it in my hand and he said, “Escape, before it’s too late.”
You see, actually, for two or three years now [my wife] Chiquita and I have had this very unpleasant feeling that we really should get out, that we really should feel like Jews in Germany in the late thirties. Get out of here! Of course, the problem is where to go, because it seems quite obvious that the whole world is going in the same direction. You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. And that this is the beginning of the rest of the future now, and that from now on there’ll simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing. And there’ll be nobody left almost to remind them that there once was a species called a human being, with feelings and thoughts. And that history and memory are right now being erased, and soon nobody will really remember that life existed on the planet.
3. From The Twilight of American Culture (2000) by Morris Berman
If the redistribution of wealth . . . reflects a “seismic shift” in American society, a similar kind of shift can be seen in the tenor of American attitudes and intellectual abilities (nor are the two trends unrelated). Thus, for example, in an interview with Peter Coyote on National Public Radio (circa 1995), the actor matter-of-factly alluded to the great “hostility toward intelligence” that was now a part of American culture. Or consider the repeated, and accurate, use of the phrase “dumbing down” in everyday discussions and in the press. The celebration of ignorance that characterizes America today can be seen in the enormous success of a film like Forrest Gump, in which a good-natured idiot is made into a hero; or in the immensely popular TV sitcom Cheers, in which intellectual interest of any sort is portrayed as phony and pretentious, whereas outright stupidity is equated with what is warm-hearted and authentic. If my colleague at Midwest U now has a student who never read a novel, how long before he has a student who asks him, “What’s a novel?” (In fact, millions of Americans already don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction.) If the students don’t recognize Browning now, how long before they have never heard of Shakespeare? How long before the New York Times and the Washington Post fold for lack of subscribers, or until the English language becomes as inaccessible to the majority of Americans as Chaucer’s Middle English is to them now? How long before intellectual excitement is regarded as a historical phenomenon, or a bizarre frame of mind, or just — not regarded?
In his introduction to the book Dumbing Us Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, John Simon notes that a whole world of learning is disappearing before our eyes, in merely one generation. We cannot expect, he says, to make a mythological allusion anymore, or use a foreign phrase, or refer to a famous historical event or literary character, and still be understood by more than a tiny handful of people. (Try this in virtually any group setting, and note the reaction. This is an excellent wake-up call as to what this culture is about, and how totally alien to it you are.) Indeed, using Lewis Lapham’s criteria for genuine literacy — having some familiarity with a minimum number of standard texts (Marx, Darwin, Dickens . . .), and being able to spot irony — it may even be the case that the number of genuinely literate adults in the United States amounts to fewer than 5 million people — that is, less than 3 percent of the total population.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data cited above suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year.
Once again, an online conversation has elicited enough words from me that I’ve realized they would make for a good blog post. A word of warning, though: I’m afraid it reads like a sermon or lecture. And a rambling one at that. Or worse, it may read like a one-sided conversation — which indeed it is. So caveat lector (let the reader beware).
The topic is the U.S. Senate’s passage last Thursday of the detainee interrogation bill that President Bush had been pushing. In the words of an AP wire piece, “The bill would create military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects. It also would prohibit some of the worst abuses of detainees like mutilation and rape, but grant the president leeway to decide which other interrogation techniques are permissible.” On the positive side — at least as I see it — the bill “would prohibit war crimes and define such atrocities as rape and torture,” but on the negative side it “otherwise would allow the president to interpret the Geneva Conventions, the treaty that sets standards for the treatment of war prisoners.” In other words, it allows the President to flout international laws, as the AP piece specifically explains: “The legislation . . . says the president can ‘interpret the meaning and application’ of international standards for prisoner treatment, a provision intended to allow him to authorize aggressive interrogation methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts. ” It also strips away certain standard rights from prisoners who are being held on suspicion of terrorism, including the right to habeas corpus, which allows them to challenge the lawfulness of their imprisonment.
Over at the trusty Shocklines message board, which, if you’re not using it, I can recommend to you as a haven for civilized, intelligent discourse on all sorts of topics beyond the board’s primary association with horror entertainment, someone started a discussion thread about the Senate’s passage of the bill. The thread rapidly grew to gargantuan proportions, with a great many people weighing in with all sorts of views and opinions, some conservative, some liberal, some approving of the content and/or general intent of the bill, others disapproving strongly.
Among many other interesting tangents and angles, one thing that grabbed my attention was the assertion that the U.S. government should simply be allowed to do “whatever it has to do” in order to deal with terrorists and terrorism, including resorting to the “aggressive interrogation methods” — i.e., the use of torture — made possible by the bill in question. This view was stated and supported by more than one participant in the conversation.
It is a view that I simply cannot endorse, for the simple reason that its adoption would ultimately destroy anything of value that America still represents. If we in the U.S. truly give in to the mentality and morality represented by the “whatever we have to do” position, then we may as well go ahead and drop the facade of being a nation founded on principles. The United States was the first nation in history to be founded consciously, rationally, and intentionally upon a set of philosophical, ethical, political, and economic principles, as opposed to just growing up from the soil, as it were, of ethnic loyalties, tribal wars, and the like. Yes, of course, in actual execution the founding of the nation involved all sorts of gritty real-world realities and eventualities that departed from this principled stance. But still, the principles themselves stood front and center for the first time ever, anywhere, on planet earth, and were drawn from the 18th century Enlightenment tradition, which itself emerged out of Renaissance-style humanism, which itself represented a rebirth of classical Roman and, especially, Greek humanism. These principles were central to the whole “American experiment,” as it came to be called, which was nothing more nor less than an attempt to found a nation and a people based not upon inherited membership or identity in a group, but upon rational adherence to an agreed-upon code, a set of rational truths, a philosophy and a worldview. Central to this philosophy were the ideas that all humans are possessed of innate dignity; that government should serve its citizens and not vice versa; that people, both collectively and individually, are and should be treated as ends in themselves instead of means (an idea picked up from Kant); that adherence to reason places all people on an equal footing, regardless of social or ethnic origin; and so on.
If we ever depart definitively from this basis in principles, then we’re finished. And to say that we should just do “whatever is necessary” in a given situation constitutes that very act of abandonment. It’s been repeated so many times that it’s come to sound like a whiny liberal hobby horse, but that doesn’t make it any less true: If we let our enemies goad us into becoming the monstrous entity they say we are, then they’ve definitively won, regardless of any other outcomes.
I think one of the most potent speeches in recent history comes not from a real-world political leader but from Denzel Washington’s character in The Siege, when he argues passionately with Bruce Willis’s character to try and convince him not to torture an Arab prisoner. By that point in the movie’s storyline, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks against the U.S., inspired by the U.S.’ capture of a popular sheikh and terrorist leader, has aroused a general panic. The U.S. government has begun rounding up Middle Eastern people and placing them in detention camps. A certain prisoner is thought to possess information that might help lead to the capture of other terrorist leaders. And Washington, standing right there in the room with the man about to be tortured, says to Willis, “Come on General! You’ve lost men, I’ve lost men, but you can’t do this! What if they don’t even want the sheikh? Have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we’re doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit. Because if we torture him, General, we do that, and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for, is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won!”
Of course, the standard response that can be invoked to counter this type of thinking is obvious: “Okay, then what are we supposed to do if we’re not allowed to use any means necessary to extract vital information from prisoners?” I must admit that I have no specific answers to this. I’m not sure anybody does, and there’s the rub. But I will reiterate my personal opinion, which may seem hopelessly unhelpful and naive, that if we can’t find a better way to go about it than to emulate the very actions we have historically condemned our enemies for — and not just enemies of us, but of liberal humanism and democratic ideals in general — then we really ought to drop all pretense of still being the same nation we set out to be, and just admit that the American experiment has failed.
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Upon reading the argument that I’m advancing here, several participants in the above-described online conversation gave what I consider to be the single most bothersome response that it’s possible to give. One of them in particular stated it with especial blatancy, which I now pass on to you in a paraphrase: “Who cares about principles and standards? Certainly not America’s enemies! They don’t give a flying fuck about our principles and standards, so it’s counterproductive for us to get hung up on them when we’re dealing with such people.”
I can only respond to this with a hearty, “Huh?” I mean, okay, so our enemies don’t share our standards. But what the hell does that matter? The people for whom it’s important that our standards matter is us. If your principles and standards fly out the window as soon as the provocation or opportunity arises — such as, especially, when you find yourself obliged to confont and deal with people who don’t share your standards and may even be hostile to them — then you’re nobody. Or rather, you’re letting the other side define who you are, when in fact it’s those abandoned principles that ought to be doing the defining.
And this is most emphatically not just pie-in-the-sky bullshit. It’s the basic, foundational understanding that underlies and precedes all moral behavior, and all truly civilized behavior in general, in the real world of real people, guns, and wars. You must be the thing you value and the ideal you represent, most especially when you find yourself engaged in a conflict with those who oppose and challenge that ideal. Otherwise you’re just acting as an animal, propagating the jungle law of might-makes-right. And when the conflict is over, if you’ve won, you’ve lost, because what you supposedly stood for has been shredded, and you’ve become your enemy, and you deserve to be destroyed just like they did. In gradeschool terms, if you treat other people the way you don’t like to be treated, then you’re no better than they are.
If you’ll forgive me for pursuing something of a tangent, regarding the U.S. response to 9/11, which legitimately factors into any discussion like the present one, on Friday, September 29th, there was a really pertinent and fascinating interview on NPR with historian Niall Ferguson. The NPR Website summarizes it this way: “Historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book, The War of the World, examines a century of history and finds that the West is well on the way to being eclipsed by Asia. Ferguson tells Steve Inskeep that it’s a destiny that was set a long time ago.” In the course of the interview, Ferguson explained that the current and future failure of the Iraq invasion was predictable based on past experiences in which an outside force tried to spread democracy too quickly to ethnically diverse areas that did not possess a native tradition of civil peace and the rule of law. He worked this into his overall thesis of his book, which presents a rereading of the 20th century’s overall historical arc. In contrast to the traditional view of the 20th century as the “American” century, Ferguson says the decline of America and the West as the major world power began in the first decade of the century with the nascent collapse of the Western empires in Asia and the rise of various eastern nations, most especially Japan, with China close behind, to positions of economic and political importance. He thinks the growing debacle in the Middle East is another front where this trend is making itself known.
Not incidentally, this ties in precisely with Morris Berman’s thesis in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, wherein Berman argues that America is pretty much finished, that our decline on the world stage is not only inevitable but is currently in progress. He reminds us that the British Empire had feet of clay by the turn of the 20th century, which “was really when the rot set in” (cf. an interview posted at his blog). But it took several decades for this reality to become apparent to everybody, including the British themselves. To quote Berman at length:
“The appearance of England in 1902 — after all, Queen Victoria was still alive — was the sun never sets on the British Empire. This was the great power. Down to something like 1950, that was still the image of England. Then an interesting thing happened — the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower was very angry with England, France and Israel, and he threatened to cause the pound to be devalued if England didn’t back off. They knew they had to do it. At that moment, the cultural lag caught up to reality. At that moment there was an international shift. Everybody understood what some people understood in 1910 and 1920 and 1930: that England was no longer a serious player. We are no longer a serious player. It’s just that there are very few people now who recognize it. There has to be something that’s equivalent to Suez. There was some hint of that when Rumsfeld went over to Germany and said to Joschka Fischer, who was then the foreign minister, you’ve got to join us and we’re going to defeat Iraq, and he said, ‘I’m not convinced of any of this.’ That Germany would say to the United States that you’re full of crap, there was already a hint that something had shifted, but it didn’t have the international force of something like Suez. But Suez is in our future. There is no doubt in my mind about that. There will come a time when there will be an incident, and it will be understood that the United States has eaten itself alive and doesn’t have the clout to respond. After that, it will slowly drift in the direction that England has drifted today. People will pay lip service to its grandeur and its history and all that, but a poodle is not a tiger.”
I think this relates directly to what I’ve been talking about here, because all of the dominoes are lining up for America to be exposed badly in our own Suez Crisis, which is probably underway right now in the form of the Iraq disaster and its various political effects and offshoots. And a large part of the recognition that may occur globally — correction, that is occurring and has already occurred to a great many people, and not only abroad but also here at home — is not just that America is politically and economically a paper tiger, but also that we no longer stand for anything like the America of historical myth and Jeffersonian philosophy. That, I think, is and will continue to be at least as important as the more empirical issues of political and economic decline. I think we may have already defeated ourselves, morally speaking — forget about our being overcome by a force from without — and that the current flap over the torture of prisoners is just one example this. That there can even be a debate about it pretty much proves the point. Many influential people want to frame the issue by saying that the U.S. has always tortured prisoners in time of war, and that now we’re just hypersensitive about it because more people are aware of it, probably due to the machinations of a liberal-biased media that hates America. Get over it, this viewpoint counsels us. Sometimes it’s necessary to get tough and commit unpleasant acts. Well, sorry, but I don’t buy it, for reasons outlined above.
For the sake of clarity, I probably should add that I don’t oppose the use of force. There are indeed just wars. In the present case, I agree wholeheartedly that if we’re dealing with enemies who can’t be reasoned with, then we should forego the reasoning and simply convince them by more physically direct means that they’re fucking with the wrong people. On the other hand, we really need to avoid falling prey to the common delusion that history began on 9/11/01. We’ve manipulated and exploited the Middle East and its people quite egregiously in the name of oil and open markets. So it’s a muddled distribution of blame all around.
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Astute followers of my argument may have noted that I seem to be contradicting myself, since I’m saying in one breath that I don’t buy the claim that sometimes it’s “necessary to get tough and commit unpleasant acts,” but then in the next breath I aver that some wars are just, and that force is sometimes needed. A participant in the Shocklines conversation picked up on this and asked me not only what I think about the present issue of torture, but also about such massively violent acts as America’s use of atomic weapons against Japan in World War II. Did this, he asked, have the effect I’ve been describing here? Did it degrade us to the level of our enemies? My answer is that I’m afraid it is indeed a hairsplitting distinction I’m making, with which I’m not entirely comfortable.
The dicey moral dividing line I’m talking about (or attempting to, with much clumsiness probably built in) is found in, for example, the fact that the Geneva Conventions don’t condemn war per se but they do prohibit torture of prisoners, and they define and condemn war crimes. Similarly, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights says in article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” but the document itself doesn’t go so far as to condemn war outright.
In my view, war is justified in self defense, and all violence of any kind is justified solely in response to aggression. I’ve never been able to avoid feeling ambiguous about some of the huger real-life events and issues, such as the use of atomic weapons against Japan in WWII. Doubtlessly, Truman’s decision saved many thousands of lives in the long run — or more accurately, tens or hundreds of thousands — but then it also led to the by-now almost proverbial observation that while quite a few nations have gone on to acquire nuclear weapons, the U.S. has heretofore been the only one crazy enough to actually use them. In the end, yes, I do have to condone Truman’s decision, based simply on the utilitarian, John Stuart Mill-influenced doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number.
But there are some acts that I think cannot be justified under any circumstances, and torture falls among them. Some acts are so very personal, and so very intimate and immediate in their violation of the individual human subject, that they are dehumanizing in the most powerful and literal sense of the word. And this dehumanization applies not only the victim but to the perpetrator as well. It is precisely the sanctity of the individual that lies at the heart of classical American idealism. If America departs from this, it has truly lost its soul.
Having said all that, I return to the recognition of the difficulties inherent in what I’m saying. I do recognize that yes, obviously, there’s a bizarrity of proportion in my position, since I can sit here and type, “I approve of the use of atomic weapons that killed hundreds of thousands,” and then type two seconds later that I disapprove of the torture of one person who possesses information that might help to save a great number of people. I’m not completely comfortable with it, either, but I also can’t deny my own reasoning process with regard to principled action as laid out above. I do take comfort in knowing that I’m pretty much aligned with both the U.N. and the Geneva Conventions, which also harbor this type of contradiction implicitly within their respective ideological worlds.
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There’s surely more to say, and indeed, more was said in the original conversation that elicited all these thoughts from me. But the gist of it all is apparent above. I certainly don’t claim to possess the final word on the matter. I just happen to run this particular blog, and so I’ll use it to present my own thoughts on things. One thing’s for certain, though: It’s a disconcerting and difficult time to be alive and awake as a citizen of the U.S. and a passenger of spaceship earth.
This post is in response to a query somebody made at the Shocklines forum. In various conversations at that board, people have recently been mentioning a supposed surge of anti-intellectualism in America today. One person responded with the following:
I’ve been hearing a lot about this ‘wave of anti-intellectualism’. I’m curious about it.
All artistic ventures aren’t immediately dismissed by the general public. Memento springs to mind; it was certainly a different sort of film, but it also had reasonable legs as a movie which didn’t even break 600 screens, and its DVD sales seemed pretty strong. While it’s undeniably true that the most innovative movies do not have corresponding box office receipts (hey, Shallow Hal beat out Memento by a long shot) it’s also true that this is not a new thing. I don’t recall a time when the most innovative films racked up the best box office.
What is the root of the anti-intellectualism argument?
I could go on and on about this topic all day, and would end up thanking you for the provocation to vent. But I’ll restrain myself, relatively speaking. Apologies in advance if I sound smotheringly didactic at points. I’ve recognized that fact about my writing for years but have thus far been unable to overcome it.
I think the basic idea behind the anti-intellectualist argument presents at least two aspects. One of these is the simple recognition that “dumb is in.” I remember seeing Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey mention this in an interview a couple of years ago. When the interviewer brought up the subject of Ms. Fey’s reputation for intelligence and wit, she jumped on the opportunity to express serious concerns about the fact that in American pop culture, which for several decades has been synonymous with (prepackaged) youth culture, it’s become hip to be stupid. She talked about kids, and especially girls, feeling pressured to suppress their intelligence and appear stupid and vapid in order to fit in. And she contrasted this with her parents’ generation, when the counterculture was in full swing and it was hip to be über-intelligent and well-read so that you could effectively criticize the American government or the radical commie sympathizers or whomever, depending on your stance.
So this is the first and easiest-to-get-at arm of the argument, this pointing-out of what might be called the Bill & Ted syndrome, or the Harry & Lloyd syndrome, or the Jesse & Chester syndrome. Especially among the under-thirty crowd, there’s a cultural pressure to act stupid even if you’re not, and this is hostile to intelligence.
The deeper and more extended aspect of the argument represents a kind of medical diagnosis of a peculiarly American pathology that has now infected the rest of the world by means of cultural imperialism — that is, via the aggressive exporting of a lifestyle centered around consumerism and mass media entertainment. The idea is that America is in the throes of a systemic crisis that is largely economic in nature, the effects and implications of which have inevitably spun off into a detrimental effect on the American intellectual character. Then there’s also the related recognition of America’s longstanding bias in favor of what might be called “down home-ism” and against anything perceived as highfalutin, a tendency that has been alternately muted and dominant at various periods in the nation’s history. People who point to current anti-intellectual trends like to say the tendency has now moved dramatically and perhaps definitively to the fore, with youth culture’s “dumb is in” phenomenon representing just the tip of the iceberg.
Please pardon me while I let other people do much of my thinking and speaking. When I first started writing this reply to your query, I was just out of bed and my brain was quite foggy. (I’ve never been able to fathom how or why so many writers find this time of day to be the best for doing their work, since I myself can barely put two words together until mid-morning.) So I’m just going to offer some quotations from, summaries of, and links to a number of books and articles whose ideas have amplified, shaped, and/or coincided with my own. Read the rest of this entry