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Kvetch the Enabler

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So, it’s a long, lazy, oddly hot Sunday morning, and I’ve gone on to Bruce Thornton’s Plagues of the Mind:  The Epidemic of False Knowledge.

Okay, I’m feeling too lazy today to go back into the living room and recheck the cover to make sure I’ve got the title right, but that’s about it, and it’s a curious experience after Barber.

For one thing, Thornton writes better–a lot better–although I think that may have less to do with talent than it does with the fact that he has a vastly different sensibility.  He also seems to have spent a lot of time reading nineteenth century British novels.   We’ve been through Austen and Dickens and a number of the minor Gothic authors already, and I’m not a third of the way through the thing. 

I do think he misreads the Emma Thompson (she produced it) movie version of Sense and Sensibility, but that’s the kind of thing I could talk about all day, and probably shouldn’t.

What  I wanted to get to was this:  in spite of the fact that Thornton tends to be considered a voice on “the right”–those scare quotes are there for a reason–he ends up blaming the infantilization of the modern American on consumer capitalism just like Barber does.

And that brings me back to something I was thinking about before, but that sort of slipped my mind in a deluge of end-of-term late papers and stdents with attitude.

I don’t think consumer capitalism causes any of this stuff.  I think consumer capitalism takes whatever cultural trend is at the ascendant and magnifies the hell out of it. 

I think it does that for two reasons.

First, because the whole point of consumer capitalism is to give the customer what he wants.  It doesn’t matter a damn if the customer wants something sensible or something stupid, something good for him or something self destructive.  Consumer capitalism is neither moral nor immoral.  It’s amoral.  If the customer wants fruits and vegetables, it will give him that.  If he wants Big Macs, it will give him that.  A big screen television, a walking brace that doesn’t collapse under excess weight, a garden bench, a pet rock, methamphetamine–it doesn’t matter.  Give the customer what he wants.

Second, because in the long run, consumer capitalism will, if unchecked, make itself any society’s only standard of value.  That is, “success” becomes how many units you move, how many customers want your product.  It’s like institutionalizing the ad populam logical fallacy.  And this particular effect is much stronger in democratic societies, precisely because democratic societies believe in the principle of majority rule.

The second thing above magnifies the first.  And it will do that no matter what the product is that’s under consideration.  It will give you more and better science, if that’s what you want.  It will give you more and better pseudoscience, if that’s what you want.

Thornton is a colleague and sometime-collaborator with Victor Davis Hanson, and he’s written some interesting books and articles about the place of classics in the modern world.  This book references everything from Socrates and Cicero to Ann Radcliffe, and like I said, I’m only about a quarter of the way in.

Thornton’s thesis, however, is that the infantilization of Americans can be seen most clearly in the therapeutic culture, and that the therapeutic culture is specifically the hybrid child of Enlightenment rationalism (we can solve everything through reason) and Romantic emotionalism (it’s what you feel tha counts).

And that’s not a bad thesis to be going on with.  I can see how it works–feeling is all that counts, but we feel bad a lot, so we should go about solving that “scientifically,” because science can solve anything. 

I put the scare quotes around “the right,” above, because although Thornton has good things to say about religion, I’d bet just about anything that he is not religious himself, and is specifically not Christian, or at least not Christian in the  American folk Protestant sense.

Of course, there are a lot of conservatives out there who are not religious, but in the present political climate in the US, you have to qualify the the word every time you use it to point this out.  And that’s not because nasty old liberals have been targetting conservatives with false labels.  That’s because a lot of people in the American conservative movement these days make religion a defining attribute of fellow conservatives.

I did think it was interesting, though, to look at the pseudoscientific silliness we live in–the cascading serial hysterias over self esteem and false memory syndrome and all the rest of it–as a sort of Hegelian prototype:  thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

I do not know if it’s possible to do anything about any of it in a time like ours, when give the customer what he wants is the basis for just about everything. 

But I’ll go drink tea and listen to harpsichords, and I’ll get back to that later.

Written by janeh

May 2nd, 2010 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Kvetch the Enabler'

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  1. The description of the antecedants of the Theraputic Culture is reasonable enough.

    As for what consumer capitalism does “unchecked” I refuse to go down that road until I get a good clear notion of what constitutes a “check.” Is telling West Point cadets that their career leads to honor and not fortune a check? How about preaching every Sunday that he who dies with the most toys is NOT the winner? How about Carnegie saying that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced,” and acting on it? Or Victor Davis Hanson calling on professors to put the needs of their subject above their salaries and free time? Plenty of checks of that sort out there, and I approve of most of them.

    Most people who want to check capitalism seem to think a politician, a policeman and a court are an improvement. I find that a harder sell.

    As for the climate of the time, we make it. We can make another.


    2 May 10 at 10:56 am

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