“And I Can Take Or Leave It If I Please”

A post that we excerpted for our “Lost” post. Megan McArdle:

I’m told that the finale of “Lost” had the third highest ad rates of this season, behind only the Superbowl and the Oscars.  How many people watched those ads?  According to Bloomberg News, about 13.5 million.

Compare that to the finale of MASH, which was watched by almost 106 million viewers (including me, up late by very special dispensation).

Now, MASH was the most watched finale of all time.  But the stark difference between its numbers and those of the most-heralded finale of the year illustrate why no series is ever going to surpass MASH’s record.  (The superbowl finally did this year, as people tuned in to watch the Saints.)  We live in a different world, one where there’s something for almost everyone–but not the same thing.

Rod Dreher:

That really came home to me when my 17-year-old niece Hannah was here last week. We didn’t talk much about pop culture, but she seemed a lot more open to musical experimentation than my generation was at her age. And we were far more open to it than people 10 years older were, because the rise of MTV, college radio and “alternative” record labels made it possible to expand our listening choices. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a teenager today, to try to make her way through a seemingly infinite number of musical choices. Believe me, I’m not complaining about this. I played some classical French pop for Hannah — Piaf, Brel, Chevalier, et alia — and she loved it. A friend dropped by the new Rolling Stones reissue of “Exile on Main Street” on Sunday afternoon, and I played a couple of cuts for Hannah. She wanted her own copy. I think of a friend, in her early 50s, who played her own music for her kids, and got them interested in it, but who was also eager to keep up with the music her kids listened to as teenagers, and who genuinely shared some artists in common. Again, this is all to the good. When I think about how relatively monotonous the culture of pop music was in the 1970s, when so much was driven by radio play, I think kids today must be living in a kind of paradise.

That goes for TV too. And, thanks to Amazon.com and similar retailers, books as well. A Catholic priest friend gets tired of Catholic laymen bellyaching about how the local parish is not teaching the faith adequately. He keeps pointing out that any Catholic with a credit card and Internet access has open to him the possibility of putting together a library of Catholic theology, philosophy and literature that Aquinas could only have dreamed of in his time. This is a great blessing of our time.

That said, culture is more fundamental to a people’s sense of itself than politics. It’s interesting to think about what the spectacular diversity of choice a cultural consumer has in this society does to forming one’s sense of belonging, and solidarity with others. That many more Americans watched the same TV shows, listened to the same music, got our news from the same sources, in the past did create a sense of blandness and monotony that is not to be missed; but it also created a sense of belonging and shared experience that is to be missed, I think. How do you unify a nation or a people when their cultural experiences and passions diverge so greatly? Is the diminishment of the possibility of unity something to be mourned, or celebrated? Why or why not?

I would say your answer depends on the degree to which you believe in the importance of the individual, and individual choice. Does a culture represent anything more in time than the aggregate of the choices made by individuals who live within it, and identify with it? Or is there something transcendent about a culture? A few years ago, I was talking with an agnostic colleague who is an Islamophile, and who ventured the opinion that it would be fine with him if Europe went Muslim. So what? he opined, if their choice is free? I was shocked by this statement, and frankly, appalled by it — and not because I am a Christian, but because I am a man of the West. The idea that all that accumulated cultural history — architectural, artistic, and so forth — could be said farewell to with a shrug, because it had ceased to matter to people, was to my mind, monstrous. I could far more easily understand a Muslim who expressed a wish that Europe would convert, because at least he would grasp the stakes of such an epochal event. But for this colleague, an easygoing agnostic, to see 2,000 years of Christian European culture — which also entails the Enlightenment, whose values are unthinkable apart from the Christianity to which they were a reaction — as something the loss of which is neither to be mourned nor celebrated? Well, it really was a kind of barbarism, insofar as barbarism implies a lack of historical consciousness or appreciation. Cultivating and inculcating that insouciant, deracinated attitude is, I think, the great danger in the cultural diversity we celebrate today.

Dreher gets an e-mail from Ken Myers:

Ken begins by talking about how important it is to cultivate tradition in the arts — tradition, not as stiff, rote formalism, but a living thing, handed on in a culture from generation to generation, with each one adding something to it. That has been broken in the arts of Western culture. Myers:

[O]ne of the assumptions that I think stands in opposition to sound arts education is the disposition to imagine ourselves as consumers. Not disciples, not heirs, not apprentices, not recipients. Consumers. That class of people who, when labeled customers, are said to be always right.The consumer worldview perceives the world as raw material, not a sacred trust requiring
sacrificial stewardship. The consumer worldview regards culture as a series of autonomously
selected commodities, not a valuable inheritance. The consumer worldview is an orientation
toward Creation and toward culture that promotes the modern ideal of the sovereign self.

This, Myers argues, is the natural (if ersatz) progression of the Enlightenment’s ideal of the sovereign self. He goes on to discuss sociologist Christian Smith’s recent book about the spirituality of adults in their 20s (“emerging adults”), and how it is shaped by the bedrock principle that the only authority worth following is the autonomous choosing self. Smith, says Myers, writes that in his team’s research, they found that their subjects had no objection at all to any aspect of consumerist materialism. Myers, quoting Smith:

As far as they were concerned–almost every single emerging adult interviewed–shopping falls on a spectrum of enjoyment between being simply uninteresting to being a major source of happiness, and there is little to no problem with the amount of material stuff everybody owns. . . . The idea of having any questions or doubts about the cycle of shopping, buying, consuming, accumulating discarding, and shopping appeared to be unthinkable to them.

This attitude toward the shopping mall has moral and metaphysical implications. Here’s Smith again, below the jump — and let me say that what follows is pretty jaw-dropping:

The majority of emerging adults . . . have great difficulty grasping the idea that a reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction of it may exist that could have a significant bearing on their lives. In philosophical terms, most emerging adults functionally (meaning how they actually think and act, regardless of the theories they hold) are soft ontological antirealists and epistemological skeptics and perspectivalists– although few have any conscious idea what those terms mean. They seem to presuppose that they are simply imprisoned in their own subjective selves, limited to their biased interpretations of their own sense perceptions, unable to know the real truth of anything beyond themselves. They are de facto doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around people that can serve as a reliable reference point for rational deliberation and argument. So, for example, when we interviewers tried to get respondents to talk about whether what they take to be substantive moral beliefs reflect some objective or universal quality or standard are simply relative human inventions, many–if not most–could not understand what we interviewers were trying to get at. They had difficulty seeing the possible distinction between, in this case, objective moral truth and relative human invention. This is not because they are dumb. It seems to be because they cannot, for whatever reason, believe in–or sometimes even conceive of–a given, objective truth, fact, reality, or nature of the world that is independent of their subjective self-experience and that in relation to which they and others might learn or be persuaded to change. Although none would put it in exactly this way, what emerging adults take to be reality ultimately seems to consist of a multitude of subjective but ultimately autonomous experiences. People are thus trying to communicate with each other in order to simply be able to get along and enjoy life as they see fit. Beyond that, anything truly objectively shared or common or real seems impossible to access.

That’s sociologist Christian Smith, on the spirituality of “emerging adults” in America. Myers goes on to conclude in this section of his lecture:

The myth of the sovereign individual–who engages the world as an unimpeachable consumer–unites the spheres of morality, metaphysics, politics, and aesthetics. My hunch is that children who grow up in unconventional subcultures–children who know that their imaginations need to be trained, that there is an order of beauty in the cosmos that they need to learn to perceive and according to which their affections might be properly aligned–might be less repulsed by ideas of duty or obligation and less perplexed by the concept of an objective moral order. Awareness that there is a tradition, a canon (however open and revisable), a body of honored artifacts that orient our imaginations well is the way that people first become aware of larger cosmic order. Marion Montgomery has said that “Education is the preparing of the mind for the presence of our common inheritance, the accumulated and accumulating knowledge of the truth of things.” A good education isn’t just the acquisition of sound abstractions; it is the inauguration into a community that has been wrestling with reality, and the assumption of the obligation to acquire its inheritance with the obligation of preserving and improving it.

Andrew Sullivan:

Welcome to the modern world, Rod. The kind of unthinking cohesion of the past, sustained by elite control of the media and by ancient accommodation to a world before contraception, advances in longevity, and the technological revolution, is indeed gone. We are all subcultures now. This is hard, bewildering for many, too much for some. The reason why Rod is worth reading is that he is not in denial about this – just a mild form of despair. But that the only intelligent response for a traditionalist is retreat into a faux traditionalism tells you something about the problem. It is insoluble. It is our reality. And conservatives adjust to reality; they do not assault it.

Dreher responds:

I think there are a few things wrong with this response. It’s long, so I’ve moved it past the jump.

1. I don’t think Andrew really got my point in these posts. I was despairing over the shattering of the Western cultural tradition, but also proposing a way to find cohesive meaning in the ruins by pointing out a paradox: that technology, among other factors, has not only exacerbated the effects of the shattering, but has also made it more possible for we postmodernists who live among the shards to reclaim what the modernists cast aside. Ken Myers argues (see post two) that the down side of the shattering is far, far more weighty than any benefits. My response is that even if that’s true — and I think it is — we who lament the dissolution of the Western tradition are not without resources to resist and to reclaim — resources that weren’t available to most of us during the decisive decade of the Sixties, and the decades that immediately followed.

2. What is “faux traditionalism”? How does it differ from the real thing? Are the young Brooklyn hipsters who are reviving traditionalist foodways a bunch of poseurs? Is the twentysomething Catholic who finds the Tridentine mass to be a thing of great value, and who begins to attend that traditional liturgy cast aside in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a fake? How would one know such a thing? I suppose one aspect of so-called faux traditionalism would be nostalgia for a past that never existed. But by no means can you dismiss all people who favor reviving dead or dying traditions deluded nostalgists — though doing so is often a powerful rhetorical device. You know, you can’t turn back the clock. Of course you can. I mean, you can’t unlearn what you already know, but it is often possible to restore things according to some past ideal thought to be better than the current state of affairs. If conservatives accomodate themselves to reality, and don’t assault it, how can you explain the careers of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two of the most transformative politicians of the 20th century?

“You can’t turn back the clock” is too often a quasi-metaphysical defense against a proposed cultural, legal or policy change thought to be insufficiently progressive. And it is a modernist truism espoused by people who thing history proceeds in a linear direction, in the direction of secular liberalism and the broader values of Modernism. These days, to be a traditionalist in architecture is to be anti-Modernist — indeed, to reclaim what is most valuable and humane from past eras, when people saw things more clearly than we do today. To believe that the way things are now in every sense represents the pinnacle of human liberty and advancement is a presentist delusion.

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

The . . . choice, then, is set up between a traditional, producerist world, in which what you want to have is not important, only what you must do, and the individual is subordinate to the great project of producing a new generation and passing down traditional understandings to them – and the modern, consumerist world, in which there is precious little you must do and what’s important is what you want to have, and that the economic wheels are greased to facilitate your getting it (consistent with not taking away from somebody else by force what he or she wants to have, my freedom ending where my fist impacts your face and all that).

But there’s an implicitly excluded third alternative that, humbly, is the object of my own preferred utopian yearning, and that is the idea of a modern, producerist world.

There’s nothing in the Enlightenment project that says in the hierarchy of values that what you want to have is more important than what you want to do or to be. If we have come to a point where most people define themselves by what they consume rather than what they produce, I don’t see why blame must be laid at the foot of the autonomous self. Emerson certainly wouldn’t have any use for such an accusation.

But have we even come to that pass? The amazing thing about this moment in history is not merely that everybody can listen to whatever music they want, but that it’s easier than ever before to produce and distribute music. And writing. And so forth.

The tradition of classical music is anything but dead – the country is littered with philharmonics, and still there’s a glut of musicians who can’t get a gig. Ditto for jazz, or just about any other musical tradition you’d like to name.

So what, exactly, is the complaint? That too many people have no taste and no aspirations . . . whereas in the 15th century they did? Or isn’t it that in the 15th century nobody cared whether they did.

Rod Dreher has chosen to make a certain kind of life. He’s chosen a certain relationship to his spouse and his children, a certain relationship to food and his environment, a certain relationship to his God and to his self. I have to say, I find that project of fully realizing a self to be pretty darn interesting, and something that requires a whole lot more work than either simply doing what one must or buying what one wants.

Sullivan responds:

I have some deep reservations. I wonder if modernity, in the grand scope of human history and pre-history, is not, in fact, a Tower of Babel, impossible to sustain, fueled by extravagance and untrammeled greed, addiction, loneliness, bewilderment and disillusion. I wonder if the life we have constructed on this planet in the last two centuries is actually sustainable – ecologically, spiritually. I read Macintyre with enormous sympathy.

I certainly don’t think that sexuality is my prime focus here, though it is surely apposite. Would I prefer to live in a world where sex was a form of ownership of men over women, when it led to constant disease and appalling death-rates in childbirth, where every sexual act could lead to pregnancy, where gay people were hanged or persecuted or forced into lives of untold misery and pain? No fucking way. And do I think that Christianity’s sexual doctrines are a corner-stone of the faith? Not in the slightest. Jesus was uninterested in these matters. True faith is not fixated on sex; it has left sex behind – along with money and wealth and pride – in the pursuit of the divine. The only people fixated on sex are those who wish to use its power to control others.

I think Christian sexual ethics were formed in a different age and made sense when sex often equaled death or family collapse or ubiquitous disease. I think our new circumstances – specifically the pill – requires an adjustment, as did the vast majority of the Catholic hierarchy in 1968. And I think the church’s fixation on sexual ethics is a sign of its corruption and decline. Only when this celibate, fucked up, disproportionately closeted clique running the church grows up will Christianity find a home again in its ancestral heart. Until then, it will have to live and breathe outside of Benedict’s starched lace and pursed lips.

The core of our disagreement is simply our attitude toward modernity. I believe it simply is, will only be undone if the entire bubble collapses, and, meanwhile, is worth living in. One can both celebrate something new and irreversible without disdaining the wisdom and beauty and tradition of the past.

One can embrace Chartres Cathedral and the iPad.


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