Trash Culture and Ultimate Meaning

In a thoughtful piece in the conservative magazine The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen predicted that, in our “image culture,” we “will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, . . . a society which does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.” (She eerily prefigured the rise of lifelogging.) Radical theorist Slavoj Zizek makes a congruent point in the liberal In These Times, claiming that

The typical Web surfer today, sitting alone in front of a PC screen, is becoming more and more of a monad with no direct window onto reality, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet increasingly immersed into the global network, synchronously communicating with the entire planet.

Why are these social critics uniting around a critique of technology’s influence on our culture? Consider this tidbit, from Jake Halpern’s new book “Fame Junkies:” “[Halpern] asked 650 middle-school students whom they’d most like to have dinner with: Jesus Christ, Albert Einstein, Shaquille O’Neal, Jennifer Lopez, 50 Cent, Paris Hilton or President Bush. Lopez came in first place; Jesus took second.” What does such a statistic say about our society?

Here’s a guess: One of the most important tasks of a new politics is to figure out how to make concern about real values and ultimate meaning a part of everyone’s life. This has implications for law as well. Even secular opponents of decisions like Zelman have to start worrying about this issue. Even if they oppose religious instruction, they have to figure out some way of transmitting a stable set of transcendent values that can withstand the onslaught of trash culture. Poll results that show kids more interested in meeting celebrities than religious or intellectual or political leaders are symptoms of a culture going awry… where trivial pursuits can become all-consuming and the American dream becomes little more than irresponsible leisure.

But I can find hope in the convergence of commentators like Rosen and Zizek, who realize there is a lot more to life than being rich, beautiful, young, & distracted. Perhaps various culture warriors can cross the ideological divide as they recognize that market forces and democracy, far from being self-legitimizing processes, can reflect and intensify the worst in us. The MSM is quick to brand such criticisms as marginal, just as they rapidly dismiss political candidates who try to move the national dialogue out of a bien pensant equilibrium. But it’s worth trying.

I think these ruminations have some relevance to constitutional law–namely, to caution us against easy acceptance of “neutrality” as an ideal in various First Amendment contexts. Even if the state is neutral, we can be relatively sure that the market is going to be pushing culture in certain directions. There’s a fine line between accommodating and ultimately promoting those directions. I’ve found these themes best expressed in conservative political thought, ranging from Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry to John Kekes’ The Art of Life. Here’s a taste of Kekes’ work:

If people are committed to lives of self-direction, moral authority, decency, depth, or honor, then it is hard to see how they could be said to feel too strongly their desire for self-mastery, love for the tradition that nourishes them, benevolence towards others in their context, passion for understanding, and sense of obligation (p168).

As an otherwise critical reviewer sums up: Kekes’s work is part of a “positive trend within modern ethics to move away from abstract theorizing towards the particular and concrete.” I eagerly await a similar trend in legal and philosophical reasoning about culture, which recognizes a collective drift to the trivial and supports the values-creating institutions needed to counter it.

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