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January 18, 2004

Secularism Gone Wrong

Incomplete thoughts on a massive subject - originally December 2003

Television and all forms of marketing are going through nichification. The common complaint is that although there are 500 channels, there is nothing on. Add the qualifier 'for me' and you have it right. The promise of the internet marketing phenomenon was one to one marketing, and it still appears to be the fetish of the entire marketing industry.

I can only think of one television show that families with children can all sit down and watch together, not that I've looked desparately. That show is America's Funniest Videos. Other than that, I'd bet that families who are guarding their children's virtue end up only watching television shows about families who are guarding their children's virtue. That or something zany, wacky or silly.

What you find hard to find are a full pipe of cultural productions which are edifying and open, ethical and real. Fundamentalists, although wrong to compete, are right to complain about the corruption of society. Conservatives are wrong to say we've lost something. Liberals are correct to say we've failed to create something. That something is, in the center of our society, a mature and continuous melioration of the ecumenical values of our cultural pluralism.

'The American Evasion of Philosophy' was the first book by Cornel West that I ever read. In it he gives a rapturous accounting of the men whose moral thinking have given shape and definition to what American political philosophy is, evolving as it has from Enlightenment and European Thought. To sum it up ever so briefly, we don't get bogged down in the mincing of words. At least we didn't until we got Post-Modernized. (Thanks a lot, Michel)

The greatness of American thought is not some jingo sentiment. When you read the work of Emerson, it resonates deeply. But it doesn't apply to America so much as it does to the world, and we Americans are in a slump because of our inability to recognize how to apply it to the world.

America is not a new land any longer. So those sentiments and longings are not so much a part of the national culture. We're growing up and getting weary and paranoid. Although we still seek opportunity, we tend to be more opportunistic with each other rather than with the borders of our understanding. Much of America is captive - beyond our reach and locked into the hands of the powerful. There are not huge vast horizons upon which to ply out legendary optimism. We are not recently escaped from captivity, we are not recently arrived. The frontier is crowded.

Instead of a new frontier with long term prospects upon which to build dreams, we are confronted with what is simply new. New films, new products, new versions, new remixes: News. So a good portion of the spirit of growth and triumph in the American sense of destiny is more of the same. We embrace it, but there is a puny payoff.

Posted by mbowen at January 18, 2004 12:18 PM

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Tracked on January 20, 2004 06:46 AM


This would be to mistake whats up front from what is actually there. Our much-derrided pop culture is just more noticeable given the means to propagate it; probably more serious thinking is going on these days than at any other time in human history...simply because there are (a) more people to do the thinking, (b) more educated people than ever before and (c) enough wealth and leisure to give people time to think; add to this the fact that this large number of thinking people with time to think have more past thinking to draw on than any past generation, and what you've got is an Enlightenment on steroids.

The broad mass of humanity does not spend its time thinking about the deeper questions of human life - but the broad mass of humanity never has; its always been a fairly small minority of people doing this thinking. In this modern class of intelligentsia are some of the most profound thinkers in human history, in my view - and I do have something to go on, as I've actually read the deep thinkers of the past. I'll stack Thomas Sowell and Victor Davis Hanson up against, say, Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay any day of the week.

Then there's you - and myself and the tens of thousands of other people who avail themselves of the web to discuss the issues of the day. This is an entirely new thing. The aforementioned Hanson in his "Ripples of Battle" talks about some of the Athenian thinkers and notes a man who apparantly wrote and created quite a stir in Plato's time, but of whom only tiny fragments of his work survives - over ten thousand years of human history, how many great thinkers never had an effect at all because of lack of means to express their thoughts to an audience? These days, anyone who can afford $500 for a computer can have potentially the entire world as his audience - can put forth new ways of looking at things which can ripple outward, changing all sorts of views and impelling all manner of actions which would never have happened in the past.

America is a mature nation; we now have everything every great nation of the past had, only more of it. And we also have our sublime vistas of the future to give impetus to action. We are not a bunch of anti-intellectual dimwits watching Jerry Springer on TV...we are Aristotle, Alexander and Gallahad, with means to think and do which our ancestors could never imagine.

Posted by: Mark Noonan at January 20, 2004 09:54 AM

I'm going to answer with a number of questions because this opens up a number of wormcans. What's interesting is that I agree with you 100%. You state a premise that I begin with in a great deal of my thinking which is that there are a lot more people thinking than ever before.

We are not a nation of dimwits, but I do have concerns that those who do the thinking are not so inextricably bound to those who do not. It is not clear to me that the ways and means of power are amenable to the that all that the new/right thinking brings. Will those who are thinking right be overwhelmed by the power of those who do not? They may seek disassociation or worse, extraordinary power over the masses. My concern is ultimately for the nation and the very prospects for nationalism as we know it. Can it survive the inevitable crosscurrents of hundreds of millions of thinking minds? Perhaps we are not a nation at all.

Nothing speaks to this quite as clearly as the phenomenon of youth culture. There is a fundamental question I have about whether or not it represents an evolution in humankind. Consider only MTV and child soldiers. We have the power of AK47s and cable networks focused on the attention of children / childish people. If 15 million of them have some sort of solidarity, is that a nation?

If we are Aristotle, Alexander and Gallahad, aided by distributed computer networks, futures markets, lasik surgery, and particle physics, what is the appropriate size of our kingdom? Can it be 500 million? Should it? Does it mean that we should suppress children and restrain them from the instruments of power and civilization? What indeed is a child when people live to be 70 and 'basic' education takes 12 years?

It is certainly true that there is some modicum of effort required to get into the mode of elevate cultural intercourse. Is that rewarded in a way that empowers the public? Must all of the uplifting content be 'alternative'?

While the locus of national power lies in structures like the Congress, the Courts, the Executive.. are these effectively making the best use of all the thinkers out here? Or are our primary systems woefully inefficient?

As for the media, I think that they are transparent to any meme and that the free marketplace of ideas is entirely amenable to many which should not. Is is possible for a lottery to wreck the economy? Can the foolish create such a powerful thing that it destabilizes the economy of the wise? I think that the answer is yes and that we will all suffer for it. Must we rely on Indian Gaming to fund our public economy because smart thinking people know all the tax loopholes?

Much to consider...

Posted by: Cobb at January 20, 2004 11:44 AM

It seems to me that the tendency to seek out and conquer new frontiers smacks of adrenaline addiction: The hallmark of an adolescent. While exploration and discovery are both exciting and rewarding (and much of what has made America such a powerful and successful nation, with its dividend of individual liberty and cultural diversity), the question becomes: Absent external frontiers, can we survive our national adolescence and address internal frontiers? We have all this stuff. To what we should apply it is a question we seem ill-prepared to address.

Posted by: John Kusch at January 20, 2004 02:37 PM

I do, at times, wonder if we'll be able to survive not just as a nation, but as a species as we become completely in control of our physical destiny - when we live to 200 in excellent health and a mere twenty years labor provides enough wealth to not have to work ever again, will we just dry up and blow away? Or will we take our newfound freedom from want and literally thrust for the stars? I don't know.

As for the United States in particular, however, absent dying off from boredom, I think we've got a pretty good thing going. Massive problems to be fixed - and you correctly identify the problem of our modern youth as central - but all in all we're in good shape. Coincidentally enough, a friend of mine studying critical thinking today asked me about a quote - I can't remember it verbatim, but it was something along the lines of our reason being mere ponds at the edge of the continent of irrationality. Clever young girl that she is, she knew it meant something important, and wanted my take on it; it means to me that the veneer of reason is rather thin on society as a whole - but what this veneer has accomlished! We live in a world where, amazingly!, hundreds of millions believe in UFO's and astrology while there are only some millions who know the fact that both things are utter nonsense...but in spite of all, its those who can tell nonsense from reality who actually dictate events.

Our leaders must, of course, pay heed to the popular passions - as Lincoln said, a generally held opinion, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be easily set aside - but we also know that if one of our Presidential candidates came out and said that he believed in astrology, he'd not get elected dog-catcher...even though most of the people who listened to him state his belief agree with him in their irrational heart of hearts. The small minority who thinks clearly wins the day.

Posted by: Mark Noonan at January 20, 2004 11:53 PM

John Kusch,

Once upon a time, Winston Churchill, burdened with the cares of office, sent a young aide to purchase a Christmas present for a child. Returning from his errand, the aide proceeded to assemble the purchased train set and while engaged, suddenly noted the august prescence of Churchill looming over him. Churchill noted that the man had bought two locomotives and asked if he had bought two transformers. The man answered "yes" and Churchill clapped his hands and said "good, lets have a crash!".

Adolescent in the extreme, but the man did manage to hunt Hitler down until he lay dead by his own hand in a cave underneath his burning capitol city. The adolescent streak is, I think, vital to humanity - it can sometimes lead to rather wasteful things (one thinks of Rupert Brooke, looking for a way to throw his brilliant young life away in war because it was just such a thrilling adventure), but it also, in the end, is what gets things done. If everyone acted entirely adult all the time, we'd do nothing but the basics because thats all adults do.

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