December 30, 2009

Cultural Trends and Commentary

Another year is coming to a close. I would like to write something more personal now. Some ideas that are on my mind now are, New Year's resolutions, plans for 2010, a retrospective of how 2009 was for me. But I won't do any of that. The previous entry here was more personal than was my intention for this "blog". Instead of writing narrowly about personal hopes, dreams, aspirations or disappoints, I will broaden my topic somewhat and not confine myself to 2009 or 2010 tonight. Maybe I can break the rules tomorrow.

Human progress is the other topic on my mind. Progress and, thought of more broadly, how we have changed or are changing over the past two thousand or so years. First, class structure has changed but is far from gone. The noble classes of the past were joined by a wealthy merchant class and in the present day there are capitalists, celebrities, and politicians to add to that list (among others). The urban poor now stand in contrast to the rural poor and the timeless poverty trap that impedes social mobility is still in effect. The rich can afford the best schools, have the connections and money to provide for an upper class lifestyle for their progeny. The poor, when not lacking basic necessities are often surrounded by a culture that prevents them from advancing. I have seen it too many times already.

Second, the media is a common whipping boy but I don't think that most of the criticisms strike deeply enough. The media, both mainstream and otherwise, is a major factor is the dumbing down of culture, our skewed value system, our ignorance of world events, and why democracy is failing to govern effectively in the United States. Let me explain what I mean now, with a focus to news-giving(ignoring entertainment media for now). First, the major television news programs prefer hype over fact and sensationalism over journalism. We were forced to endure countless thousands of hours of Michael Jackson coverage while hundreds of real news stories went untold. A tear jerking "human interest" story about a young boy's battle with cancer will garner national media attention while true, useful, pertinent news stories, major political and/or historic events will be ignored. Celebrities are the focus now and they are celebrities most often for inane and meaningless reasons dreamed up by marketing specialists. Television viewers, magazine readers, and newspaper readers are fed a constant diet of "celebrity gossip" in place of "news".

For verification of this, pick up an issue of The Economist. It comes out weekly, so it will be up to date. Read it. Each issue contains hundreds of well written articles about important global trends, history making events, key players on the world stage, and thoughtful commentary. And curiously, almost none of it will ever appear on television. FOX News has its "60 seconds around the world" (or 85 seconds? I don't recall) segment that illustrates this point perfectly. They spend 23 hours and 59 minutes each day yammering about celebrities, bickering about domestic politics, and sensationalizing inconsequential rubbish, but they devote 1 minute to letting us see a quick montage of the outside world. Why is this? The media outlets (doesn't that term tell you something?) are doing what sells in a market economy and this mindless blather is what sells. But at the same time, the choice is removed, value is removed, and expectations are permanently lowered.

Yes, we do have the internet now (some of us) but it too is dominated by the same trends and the same power-players. At a time when it is so easy to disseminate information our culture is being deprived of it and is growing accustomed to this deprivation. Ignorance is a tool of control for those in power, and it always has been. Propaganda can be used to mobilize a country for war or to placate a people into an easy, stupefying slumber. I don't know that we need to speculate on a super secret cabal of elites that covertly want to keep us ignorant and craving more Britney Spears/Michael Jackson, but it serves the interest of those in power to not understand what is happening, to slurp up whatever nonsense they want us to consume, and to value celebrities more than our safety, security, financial stability or humanity.

Third, the shift to referring to people as "consumers" is disturbing to me every time I hear it. Though it may be honest now, it is vulgar nonetheless. To view our role as one of simply consumption and not creators, as persons, as individuals with complex ideas, hopes, and dreams, is to me demeaning. We have become consumers: pigs at the trough. Where does this notion come from? How did this enter our lexicon? The language betrays the common attitude and it isn't just crass materialism but even deeper, it is the idea that our function in this world is to suck up resources and thereby feed a capitalist system with our consumption. Shaping this wave of desire to consume has become both an art and a science and the herd mentality has never been stronger. Is it ironic that "consumption" used to refer to a disease and now it refers to man? Have we become the disease? Perhaps so.

Fourth, because I cannot continue in such a depressing way, I must mention that the notion of scientific progress is alive as ever and that people are more connected than ever (and at the same time, alienated from one another in new and frightening ways). I am confident that by the time I am old man, medical science will have made many more great advances and my quality of life will be improved (if I have the money to pay for it). I am confident that computers will continue to speed up, that games will be more realistic, that technology will be cheaper and more accessible to all segments of the population, and that each year our understanding of the universe will be enlarged. This leaves me with a general feeling of human progress that likely has not always been felt and which stands in contrast to the social critiques I expressed earlier. The sum total of human knowledge will continue to increase despite our tendencies toward nationalism, religious superstition, racism, and other social ills. This is good.

Fifth, the mounting problem of debt troubles me. Though the problem is epidemic in the United States, the US is far from alone. Most European nations and Japan are deeply in debt as nations and debt is way of life for both individual people and corporations. Our modern world system, built on a debt generated fiat money system, is a precarious house of cards waiting to topple. The attitudes that govern this confidence game are both short term and destructive and I cannot imagine still what will happen when it all comes crashing down. We may have come close in 2008 and 2009, but even that cliff is less scary than the destruction of the entire debt based system upon which all modern financial systems, nation states, corporations and most households are based. The film "Money as Debt" will explain the problem in greater detail and demonstrate how this system is ultimately unsustainable. Does this gnaw at the back of your psyche as well?

Now for a short, personal note. I will sleep now because I have a lot of work tomorrow. Papers to check, lessons to plan, workouts to do, birthday parties to attend. I need to get an early start and some caffeine may be needed. As a closing note, in the face of all the uncertainty, fear and inadequacy, I want to feel that I have improved the world we live in, even if by only a little. Do you feel the same? Have you succeeded?

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