by Sam Buntz
One of the most difficult things for an intellectual to accept is the fact that most people are inevitably going to have primarily, or even entirely material interests. Yet the intellectual who has trouble accepting this fact would, if he or she were subjected to scrutiny, probably turn out to have a preponderance of material concerns as well. Since we live in a world that is, apparently, physical, it is the physical that ends up dominating our consciousness. I have friends who object, in the most strenuous terms, to certain commercials, which try to convince the average viewer that, say, owning the new Volvo will turn out to be a spiritual experience whilst offering transcendent images of fields of wheat or of a white horse galloping across a beach to help solidify the religious expectation in the viewer’s mind. This doesn’t really bother me—except perhaps, during a few moments in the past, when I affected phony outrage for the benefit of an audience or out of boredom.
It’s the kind of thing Arthur Miller tried to say in Death of a Salesman. While admittedly a very good play, Willy Loman’s tragedy isn’t that he bought into a false, materialistic idea of the American Dream, and that there was no wisdom available that might’ve saved him. He did buy into a totally skewed vision of reality, but although Miller intends us to believe otherwise, Willy’s tragedy is really the tragedy of someone who never really wanted anything other than to be popular, well-liked, and affluent—to be Top Man. We can sympathize with his predicament, but it seems absurd to state that America, despite the vast proliferation of crazy nihilistic nonsense (whether on the news, the internet, or anywhere), is a wasteland utterly bereft of any saving wisdom. If you have even minimal access to a library or the Internet—and basically everybody does now—your curiosity will be rewarded. A simple Google or Wikipedia search for “philosophy” or “psychology” or “religion”, will immediately yield dividends.
Yet a great many well-intentioned and very smart people have a problem with the exuberant materialism of American society—and I too have a problem with it on the level of personal principle. But many critics want to go a step farther, attacking mass culture for brainwashing people into accepting a false set of values. The values presented by mass culture are, from my perspective, probably pretty false overall, but I don’t believe anyone’s actually getting brainwashed, especially at a time like the present, where access to information regarding a wide variety of value systems is so widely available in America and in the Western World. The critics usually go a step-further, proposing some sort of plan to de-program and re-educate the unwashed mob, under the guise of freeing them, which is what happens in every society where Communism has ever taken hold. Islamists and the Medieval Catholic Church also exemplify the coercive attempt to wean the supple-minded fool from his or her distractions, and even figures like Noam Chomsky make the same argument from a contemporary left-wing standpoint, attempting to argue that we’re all so hypnotized by corporate culture (which has its own conspiratorial elite running it from the shadows in some sort of supposedly unified way), that we can only be jarred out of our stupor by an anarcho-syndicalist revolt.
But all of these programs only succeed—since the self-appointed elite seeks to re-orient the attention of society towards that elite’s own interests—in creating a state of stasis, where the elite presents a new form of materialism (a mandated set of physical rituals or limited clothing-options, or forcing the collective-ownership of property or the banning of private employers) that substitutes for the numerous, conflicting material interests of the people. Thus, we would end up living in a world where we are ordered around by stewards every bit as fallen and broken as we are, who have the arrogance to assume that their supposedly more refined version of materialism is better than the diverse versions of materialism adopted by the masses and the occasionally spiritual or truly intellectual worldview that also crops up from time to time.
It seems to me that, if someone wants to convince people to become interested in difficult pleasures—pleasures of the mind and the spirit—one needs to actually present those pleasures attractively, rather than finding a way to manage people towards them from above. Most people are simply not going to be interested—which is legitimate—but a few people might start to pay attention. And maybe they’ll get a few more people to pay attention.
I remember that, in college, a member of the opinion staff (of which I was another member) wrote an editorial entitled “Frats are Fun.” At my college, a debate about the very popular frat system continually renews itself, and the opponents of the frat system often attacked it for encouraging shallow hedonism (I indulged in such attacks a couple of times—though somewhat reasonably, I think). But the great point of “Frats are Fun”, because it was so obvious, is that people join a fraternity or a sorority because they find those things fun—not because they’re being brainwashed or coerced by campus culture, by some sort of mass delusion like in The Matrix or They Live. The frat system there still really does have major problems, but I thought the author of “Frats are Fun” (I wish I could remember who it was) made a strong argument against the more zealous members of the anti-frat crowd. They hadn’t provided something that could draw people’s attention the same way the Greek organizations could, and consequently they were resentful. Of course, the article’s argument could also be used to attack people who weren’t resentful for bad reasons, and who actually had an honest beef with the rush process (I remember a overly huge amount of girls were always rejected from the Pan-Hellenic rush, for instance, and hazing was a large and persistent problem, not to mention the nationwide campus problem with sexual assault.) But, ultimately, learning that some people find frats (or football or NASCAR or shopping for expensive purses) fun, while other people don’t, and accepting that, is one of the hallmarks of maturity. Co-existing with that sort of materialism, while gently refusing to be seduced by it, provides a necessary challenge for the budding Sage.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s teacher, Mr. Antolini, tells him that he doesn’t want Holden to become someone who sits around in a bar, hating everyone who walks through the door and looks like they used to play football in college. I think that intellectuals—especially, very high-class, cutting-edge social “theorists” and cultural critics—fall into this trap all too easily. The best way to get the world to listen to your idea is to learn the basics of expressing it in an insinuatingly pleasing way, like tricking a baby into eating vegetables with ample doses of butter, or doing the “airplane” trick (where you pretend the spoon’s an airplane). But the attempt to manage from above—whether by Marxists or by Neo-Cons—seems to be a self-defeating game. A life led in the mind and spirit is, in my view, the ultimate end of humanity—but such a life evolves organically, pushing its stem through the dark richness of the material world, the matrix in which it grows and develops its being.