Saturday, October 5, 2013

Dogmas of the Intellectual Elite - OR - Be a Locavore of Ideas

It is fashionable these days to shop locally, or at least, to profess the desire to shop locally more often.  That's a good thing.  It's important to help small businesses thrive, and it's important to keep jobs in the U.S., and to save on the ridiculous cost in oil of shipping tomatoes from Mexico.

The large corporations make goods cheaply, either by employing wage-slaves in poor countries, sacrificing quality, or using cheap (often unhealthy) chemicals to produce them.  Then they spend ungodly amounts of money advertising them, programming us to think their simple mixture of corn syrup and carbonation is something magical and refreshing. 

And it works.  They relentlessly drive their local competitors out of business and commit us to their shoddy, flashy product.

The same thing has been going on with ideas.

In the United States, selling an idea to the public has generally required a book, a movie, or a TV show.  To make money, publishing houses and production studios do all the same things that other companies do:  they mass-produce, aiming for sugary, flashy products with irresistible jingles.  These swarms of poor quality ideas go on to destroy local competitors. 

This has given rise to an epidemic of millions of would-be writers, trying desperately to be heard, when only a handful are needed by the corporations to make their money.  I'll admit:  I am one of them.  It's frustrating, because after years of trying to make your voice heard, our mass-culture begins to make you feel like what you have to say isn't new, or doesn't matter, or isn't good enough.

Over the last several decades, mass-media has all but destroyed everything deep and truly philosophical in American culture.  It's given rise to an intellectual elite that believes, without question, its own propaganda (because propaganda and advertisement are actually synonymous, and they are the heart of mass-production). 

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The most influential philosopher in ancient Greece was a man of Athens by the name of Socrates.  The favorite pastime of Athens was debate.  For fun they would go to the city square and argue over anything, from politics, to religion, to science.

Socrates became famous not because he had a bunch of flashy arguments and cunning tricks, and not because he knew more than anyone else, but because he was fearless.  He would seek out the most famous lawyer in the city and ask him what made him so good, ask him how he knew so much, about the deepest things he knew, and so on.  His questioning was so thorough and brutal that he made enemies out of most of the powerful men of the city. 

What Socrates had was courage, the courage to doubt.  It was needed at that time because these flashy arguments of power-hungry priests and politicians had come to dominate the city, and it was in decline.  When they killed him for it, they made a martyr out of him, and Western philosophy was born.

Today, America is dominated by an intellectual elite armed with flashy arguments that defend and uphold the wealthy and powerful.  Unfortunately, the same spirit of debate that created Socrates and philosophy is missing in this country.  It was destroyed by the rise of mass media in the 50's and 60's.  For three generations we've been raised on televised propaganda that has washed away our ability to doubt, and -- more importantly -- our courage to act on that doubt.

What's been put in the place of genuine doubt is drama.  For example, you've got the binky of a debate: "Religion vs. Science." As with any sham debate, one side (religion) is wholly "irrational" and the other (science) is wholly "rational."  It never really matters what religion says in this debate, because it is based on a belief in a giant dude with a white beard who performs miracles and sends people who don't believe him to a fiery pit.  Anyone who believes this is obviously crazy, so the audience of the debate forgets everything he says and instead realizes the truth of the dogmas pronounced by the unbiased scientist.  And these are the dogmas that have come to dominate the intellectual elite of this country, because they're simple, catchy, thrilling, and have a happy ending.  These are the preservatives, plastics, petroleum, and pesticides of the American idea factory:

1) Evolution is a selfish, bloody struggle.
2) Now that humans have evolved intelligence, we can use REASON to stop this struggle and overcome evolution.
3) Religion is a scam from the dark and irrational eras of human history, and perpetuates misunderstanding and war.
4) All of human learning but science has been tainted with irrationality and is largely unimportant.
5) Centralized government is essential for putting reason into action.
6) Mass media is useful for spreading a love of reason, and this is a good thing.
7) Physics (especially quantum mechanics and relativity) is profound and exemplifies the power of reason.
8) Religion and tradition can be expelled forever.
9) Cynicism allows us to focus on what's important (unlike religion which obsesses over sex and violence in the media).
10) These dogmas are the unbiased truth.

Once you've accepted these principles, you are primed to absorb whatever mass media chooses to throw your way.   If it's extremely violent and sexual, all the better because it challenges tradition.  If it contradicts your most sacred beliefs that's okay because it is teaching you to reason.  If it is a story without heroes then it is more realistic because evolution is bloody. 

If, on the other hand, it paints a rosy picture of life in America with a happy ending and no real struggles, that's okay too because America has used reason to progress to a sort of utopia.  If the exploitation of the poor in other countries or the use of fossil fuels is brought up at all, it is to develop a protagonist that is a scientist struggling against the irrationality of tradition to save the world.  If the evils of centralized government are brought out it is show how we can fix the system and move on with our mass-consuming lives.

It's less common to read a book or see a movie that shows people building a stronger family and local community.  It's less common to see a  post-apocalyptic movie where the fall of centralized government turns out to be a good thing.  It's less common to see spirituality and rationality getting along.  It's less common to see evil destroyed not by a politician or scientist, but by its own fruits.  It's extremely rare to see a protagonist who isn't cynical, physically beautiful, and professional, but rather principled, self-sufficient, and devoted to his family.

I want to be a locavore of ideas.  I realize I'm still a long way off.  Most of what I watch and read was mass produced by people I hardly know.  That can't be healthy, not when for millions of years our minds have been used to us sitting around the fire, trading stories with people we would die for.

It's hard, because these days families and friends tend to be scattered across the country.  I have a brother in New York, a sister who spends half the year in India, an aunt in Michigan, and uncles in Toronto and Alaska.  My mother is from Denmark, so I have uncles, aunts, cousins, and a grandmother over there.  Part of the reason I moved to Utah was to be closer to family, but I'm several hours from my parents in Cove, aunt in Huntsville, and cousin in Ogden.

Telephones have helped families stay in touch for decades now, but they only allow for clipped conversations, and not for sharing music, writing, or pictures.

But we do have the Internet now, and like most technologies it's a mixed blessing.  I've noticed that 95% of what I receive by email or Facebook are links to something created by someone else.

It's time for this to change.  The best things I've discovered over Facebook have included things like uncle John's play (please ask him about it if you haven't read it!) and Josh Weed's blog (that's Emily's cousin).  My mom has been promoting her writings on the internet, and so has my brother-in-law Nithya Shanti.  Great job guys!  We need much more of this!

If we plug ourselves in to our close friends and family, we make for a tighter community, no matter how spread out.  We need to reject the mass produced trash that we've been raised on, because it encourages us to be passive consumers and tells us that anything we create on our own will be "unprofessional," "unmarketable," or "unscientific."  We've been programmed to believe that if it doesn't have spectacular special effects it's not worth our time.  But it's time that we start doing the same thing we're trying with locally-grown food and hand-made products.  We need to search out things to read and learn from people close to us, and we need to create our own ideas.  We need to rebuild stronger, smaller networks of knowledge and values, the sort that have been damaged by the rise of mass culture.  The more localized our beliefs become, the healthier and more diverse American culture as a whole will be, and the more fulfilled and satisfied we will feel with our ideas, because we will once again know that each of us has a say, that each of us has an audience.

4 comments:

  1. Love this post. Thanks for sharing, I couldn't agree more.

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  2. Insightful and thought provoking commentary.

    David Bush

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  3. I agree with your conclusion, though I disagree with some of the points you made. Primarily, I disagree with your list of ideas in the American idea factory-- I think a lot of those are unique to (or more concentrated in) Utah, where the science/religion antagonism is much more salient.

    I would actually say that the most dominant and damaging idea in the American psyche is your number 10, or a variation thereof, something along the lines of "Truth is absolute," or "Objectivity is easy to achieve." You're right, questions need to be asked, and they aren't being asked primarily because people think things are proven or True, and therefore unquestionable.

    Second most dominant and damaging to that is an idea that you stand by in this post-- the idea of a Protagonist. "We need Obama to save us." "I can be the hero and fix things all by myself." The idea of a hero only lets one person save the world. It tells every child not only that they can be the President, a rock/movie/sports star, a Nobel Prize winner, or Batman, but that they WILL be that, so those are the only career choices they consider, and competition for rare positions as an elected official, an entertainer, or a physician or scientist becomes CUTTHROAT. The result is that instead of a hero, we have a band of backstabbing bandits occupying the most influential positions in the country.

    So yes, question the status quo, and raise your voice. Be a community that thinks and feels and drives change, but don't forget about the world at large because isolation can create dogma just as damaging as large scale groupthink.

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    Replies
    1. The religion/science antagonism is salient in every conservative state, which is about half the country. About 73% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, and the percentage is much lower among people who identify themselves as intellectuals. This has naturally led to an attitude that religious people are uneducated, and has only made the debate more heated. In the cities (especially New York) people are forced to interact with new ideas on a daily basis, so there is more tolerance of differing opinions.

      You mention that isolation can be as damaging as groupthink. That is certainly true. Amish and Mennonite culture is a good case study in this. However, their preservation of traditional knowledge, skills, and ethics has made them more and more prosperous as their sustainable products have come into demand. They are pacifists and never wage war, and their simple faith has preserved a strong sense of family and community. They are also conformists and largely against books and learning, which is why -- despite my admiration -- I could never join them and remain the intellectual that I am.

      I especially like your point about how our culture teaches us to try to be a hero and save the world, and how this leads to cutthroat competition in politics, science, and art. I think this observation can go a long way in explaining the persistence of the dogma that "Evolution is a bloody struggle." In my daily life with Emily and my children William and Scarlett, helpfulness is the rule and selfish struggle is rare. But if I had given that up to pursue a career as a famous writer, then selfish struggle would be the rule. Almost all of the spokespeople for our culture had to fight to get where they are, so it is no surprise that they think of evolution as bloody.

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