Saturday, April 30, 2016

More Signs of Civilizational Collapse: Increasing Ignorance and Spiritual Death

In his book, The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman speaks about much more than that. In the first chapter (pp. 14-70), he lists four signs indicating the collapse of any civilization: (1) accelerating inequalities of income and wealth, (2) diminishing returns on solutions to problems, (3) increasing ignorance, and (4) growing spiritual death. He finds all four signs occurring, to an alarming degree, in Western Civilization as represented by America.
In our previous essay of April 29, we summarized the accelerating inequalities of income and wealth noted by Morris. Today we will look at what Morris regards as indications of increasing ignorance and spiritual death.

Increasing ignorance (pp. 33-52). Lack of important knowledge. Americans lack even basic knowledge of literature, geography, history, politics, government, math, and science. “[T]he Motorola Corporation reported that 80 percent of all applicants screened nationally failed a test of seventh-grade English and fifth-grade math” (38). Mistakes in vocabulary and grammar occur with increasing regularity on TV programs and in advertisements.
Irrational beliefs. Americans remain ignorant of very basic realities—such as the degree to which our lives are controlled by corporate leaders. At the same time, they believe in UFOs and governmental cover-ups of UFOs.
Lack of intellectual skill and practice. Percentage of adults who have never read a book: 60; Percentage who read at least one book a year: 6 (36). “We cannot expect…to make a mythological allusion anymore, or use a foreign phrase, or refer to a famous historical event or literary character, and still be understood by more than a tiny handful of people” (41). A majority (58%) of high school seniors cannot understand editorials in newspapers (34).
Loss of conceptual complexity. Reality is full of ambiguities and complexities; our thinking, however, grows increasingly simplistic. An increasing number of adults cannot construct or follow a logical argument. The cultural narratives we share to explain events and justify behavior grow simpler too.
Anti-intellectualism. “The celebration of ignorance that characterizes America today can be seen…in the immensely popular TV sitcom Cheers, in which intellectual interest of any sort is portrayed as phony and pretentious, whereas outright stupidity is equated with that which is warmhearted and authentic” (41).
We see this also in the popular denial of intrinsic meaning even to especially creative persons and creations. The US Constitution, for example, has been drained of significance. The meaning of extraordinarily beautiful and insightful books, poems, paintings, sculptures, symphonies, and buildings is denied by labeling their creators “dead, white, ‘colonialist’ males” (43).
Reasons for decline. There is the problem of TV. Its programs lack meaningful content. Worse, they are primarily visual in nature—rather than verbal—and this trains us to lose attention after about five seconds.
Then there’s the internet. Morris notes its hastening of ignorance by summarizing arguments made by Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies. Sitting and reading a book allows one to enter its world more deeply as well as to engage it with greater personal depth. In contrast, surfing the internet means skimming more content, without context, and with little personal involvement. The result is an increasing superficiality of both culture and personality.
At universities, meaning has been replaced by usefulness, learning by schooling. Students now pay to receive a diploma so that they may find a good job. While taking classes, they expect to be entertained and given A’s (or at worst B’s) for as little work as possible. Our corporate culture has taught us to regard each university course as a commodity. Students purchase courses solely as means to other ends. Aside from the cost of the purchase, they expect the course to be as pleasant as possible because neither the content of the course nor of their personality matters.
This lack of challenge has completely corrupted the publication of books. To maximize profits, publishers simply publish to meet consumer demand. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, this means books about “miracles and magic,” the “‘reinvention’” of one’s personality, and “self-actualization” (47). It means not “confronting readers with uncomfortable truths” (47). It means “the replacement of intelligent citizens by mindless consumers, and a corresponding flattening of public discourse” (47). No more room for the always surprising, ever-questioning, word of God.
Postmodernism is the philosophical expression of the cultural flattening caused by the universalization of the corporate worldview. A pity that this philosophy now dominates universities and even seminaries. It makes relativism an absolute. It asserts the absence of any objective truth, goodness, or beauty. It denies the presence of any intrinsic meaning in the world or in ourselves. It reduces everything to a meaningless and endless struggle for power.
Spiritual death (pp. 52-70). People no longer regard relationships as having any intrinsic meaning. “[C]ommunity life has been reduced to shopping malls” (20). Old people see no alternative to constant TV watching.
Today’s spiritual death: “corporate consumerism” (52). Most “news” is about corporate personnel, events, products, and services. We routinely receive unexpected telephone calls, texts, or apps from complete strangers asking us to buy something. The norm for leaders—including the President of the United States as well as our local pastor—is to conduct themselves like corporate bosses. Shopping at the local mall is our most meaningful leisure activity. More and more spaces are used for advertising. “[A]s George Steiner once put it, we live in a ‘systematic suppression of silence’” (53).
Ours is a culture of kitsch. Paul Fussell defines kitsch as “something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating” (53). We see this in the endless enthusiasm in the corporate media for the latest something which is instantly affirmed by everyone everywhere. Millions flock to see the same mediocre movie. Some self-help book identifies some problem as the problem, and some simple solution to it as obviously the only one, and suddenly millions of people interpret their lives in just this way. One erroneous and superficial fad follows another: men attend workshops to develop sensitivity, people get in touch with their inner child, we follow our bliss or change our consciousness. “‘Thinking’ now means nothing more than wandering through the latest mental theme park” (54).
Our corporate culture has taught us to “identify garbage as quality” (54). The whole New Age industry, for example, was “based on the premise that your rational mind was your worst enemy” (54). Only books that offered “simple answers to complex problems” (55) could and did become bestsellers. The fact that large corporate publishers only publish books likely to be highly profitable means that we now suffer from “a new form of censorship” (56).
Another aspect of spiritual collapse: the loss of courtesy. People simply don’t respond to emails if they are disinclined to do so for any reason. “We have stopped holding doors for one another” (57). We abandon, deny, and betray relationships with callous indifference. Ironically, as personal rudeness becomes the norm, hypocritical corporate courtesy (“Thank you for calling”) becomes its substitute.
Ultimately, we experience a grievous loss of friendship. Friendship involves taking chances, experiencing failures, embracing the forgiveness and apologies needed for enduring relationships, and mustering the vitality needed to do so. “Bottled rage and resentment are the norm, as millions live in isolation, without any form of community, and are content to have soap-opera characters for ‘friends’” (58).
We live in an age that mightily strengthens the obliviously self-centered Olympian personality in us all. What does this mean? “All that counts are my feelings, my (fragile) self-esteem, and I expect my teachers to cater to my sensitivity. Real education—apprenticing oneself to a craftsman (intellectual or otherwise)—is now regarded as elitist and authoritarian. God forbid that a student might be told that his work is of poor quality!” (59). Measured against this cultural definition, Jesus would definitely be elitist.
Elitist: “It amazes me that Americans are quick to call intellectuals—who have no power at all—“elitist,” yet remain oblivious to the real oligarchic elites, which are corporate” (61). Sadly, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny number of corporate elites has meant the end of meaningful democracy. Ironically, democratization has come to mean the “reduction of everything to the lowest common denominator and the regarding of that as some kind of political triumph” (61). Even more ironically, this same reduction has come to be seen in churches as some kind of spiritual triumph.
If we define elitism as a commitment to quality, then you and I want to be elitists. We want to be responsible citizens in a democratic society. More importantly, we want to be the clearest possible witnesses to Jesus. Both goals require persistent strenuous work. Neither society nor the Church can “function if nearly everyone in [them] is stupid, or trained to be” (62).

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.