Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Connections, Diagnosing Contemporary Society

Culture today is infected with a virus. And just like many viral diseases, the symptoms can be all over the map, making it difficult to diagnose the underlying problem.

The difficulty is even greater in this case because the disease has no name, even though the symptoms are widely recognized by people with no education or training whatever. The man in the street, on all points of the political compass, is fully familiar with the symptoms. Sometimes he even glimpses the underlying disease. Some may embrace it; others are repelled. But everyone who isn't completely brain dead knows the temperature.

To give an example, take the movie critic who praises an obscure 1941 film noir piece like Moon Tide with Ida Lupino — a film about two highly dysfunctional wharf rats having a drunken love affair in a dilapidated fish bait shack. That quasi-intellectual praised it, not on the basis that it's a dramatic, well-made depiction of how low humans can sink if they're not careful, but because "it's bizarre."

The odds are about 90-10 that the film critic is also an Obama supporter. Yet, what has an interest in old movies about losers got to do with a man and a campaign that is about as far from losing right now as one can have nightmares over?

Consider another example. Those on the far left of the political spectrum absolutely drool over Africa. It's their favorite country, at least the parts that are wholly diseased in every sense of the word. (The few healthy parts, they ignore.) They worry about the genocide in Darfur, yet ignore jihadist incursions in Somalia.

The Lefties are intensely interested in helping the diseased and downtrodden there, but are largely indifferent to similarly distressed people in Basque, so their compassion rings hollow. These same concerned citizens are the most vocal proponents of environmentalism. But what has genocide and health crises to do with clean air and a changing climate?

Or, still one more example, a longish one.

Consider people who think that Oprah Winfrey is a literary critic of unsurpassed acuity. They will happily investigate (and often buy) anything she recommends, such as the — thanks in part to her — best-selling "A New Earth," by Eckhart Tolle.

For those blissfully unfamiliar with this tripe, the book is a standard mish-mash of 70s New Age nonsense, a derivative of that era's Eastern mysticism as it became popular in America during that period. [Blurb from the book jacket: "In A New Earth Eckhart shows how transcending our ego-based state of consciousness is not only essential to personal happiness, but also the key to ending conflict and suffering throughout the world." The book was first published in 2005.]

These same fans — of both Oprah and the book — form a demographic encompassing housewives, university professors, TV actors, and dozens more groups. They eagerly campaign for Barack Obama, endure icy cold mornings to watch 25-mile Breast Cancer Awareness jogging marathons in person, and think a Japanese statue of a teenage boy twirling a lasso made of semen ejected from his tumescent member probably is worth $15 million. Or, at least, they find no objection to the work or the price tag, even if it isn't their particular cup of, er, tea. [Warning: Link not safe for work. I just couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.]

Yet what could that book, Obama's politics, and that statue have in common? What links all these seemingly disparate phenomenon?

At first glance, the average conservative — or anyone of any social or political persuasion who still hasn't completely lost his mind — would just declare: "Well, all you're describing is the now-too-familiar standard liberal, or a caricature of one."

Well, first of all, I'm not making any of these examples up, so there's no caricature involved. There not only are such people, there are a whole lot of them. About 10% of the adult population in America, at least. More than 20 million people is hardly an esoteric splinter group.

More importantly, one still has to ask the central question: "Ok, fine. They're liberals. But what has their social outlook or voting preference got to do with all those other things? Or, stronger still, what has any one of them to do with any of the others?"

In an important sense, the answer is: nothing.

What they have in common doesn't become clear until you ask not what binds them together, but what are they all a reaction against. The answer is: life. Or, more accurately, anything and everything that makes human flourishing possible — reason, egoism, individual rights, and the pursuit of material, intellectual, and emotional well-being.

The group of people I've been describing are the Anti(s).

Of course, they don't accept this evaluation. They argue that reason destroys human relationships, or the ego is the source of brutality and war, or that 'too much' freedom leads to indifference to the downtrodden and the dominance of rich, evil men, etc. But the evidence that all this puke is destructive is overwhelming and obvious, nonetheless. The more honest Anti(s) not only admit this, they celebrate it.

[Note: Many use the term "nihilist" to describe them. I don't, since that word has a somewhat different meaning. Nihilism, in one form, is the doctrine that objective values do not exist. The two are related, but they're not the same thing. Hence, there being no word to describe what I mean as I said above, I had to invent one. More on nihilism another day.]

None of this is new, of course. These characters — such as that shyster pseudo-sculptor who takes in rich bubbleheads willing to pay $15 really big ones for something worse than trash, or the (apparently) sincere yet insane author of that execrable book — are only the latest incarnation of creatures who have been walking the land of the once-free since the early 19th century. It was during that period that the U.S. saw the rise of dozens of irrationalist cults. The '60s didn't invent the thing, it just made it commercially popular with the masses.

But new or not, this philosophy and its adherents are the chief villains responsible for all the different forms of destruction we see today — in the arts, in education, in politics, and in life in general. It and they are poisoning everything not firmly protected by a healthy philosophical shield. It's past time their influence came to an end.

I'm not suggesting there's anything particularly deep or insightful about this analysis. I just think it's a good idea to have a name — even a bad one — for the thing one wants to fight. I admit, being anti-Anti sounds a little silly, but the phrase "pro-life" had already been co-opted.

Anyway, the important thing is to identify instances of Anti, expose their nature, and mock them mercilessly, then present a positive alternative. The hope is that, over time, the result will be fewer of the first and more of the second. Considering how fast and how far things have retrogressed in the past 40 years, the opposite is a little too scary to contemplate.

After the election, I plan to write a lot more on the subject. But, then, come to think of it, writing about the Presidential campaign is already an example of fighting the Anti and proposing something better.


Michael Moeller said...

Hi Jeff,

Great post. I've had a name for this type for a long time now--I call them the "Shadows".

A shadow is not a real entity, it is only the *absence* of light created by a real entity. They remind me of shadows because they are merely an absence (of values) and depend on what is real (creators/producers) to give them meaning--even if only to attack what is real.

Its like the allegory of the cave in reverse--to first see the real entities, and then cast them aside in favor of their shadows and, instead of seeking the sun for an explanation, declare that the darkness of the jail cell is superior.

Jeff Perren said...

That's a pretty good word, too.

(For those not familiar with the reference, Michael is talking about Plato's Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of The Republic. Plato's idea is that we are like men trapped in a cave who can only see shadows cast on the wall, not the 'real' objects 'outside'.)

By comparison to my term, it's apt: you have to first create before someone else can destroy.