The Price of Hemlock

I was watching The View this morning. Rebbie Jackson, Michael Jackson’s sister was a guest. She talked about her new album and her work for bi-polar awareness, and of course she talked about her brother Michael. After The View went off, the local news at 11 came on. News of Charlie Sheen’s hospital visit. I know that, even before hearing the details about what happened, somewhere in the story, the words “porn star” or “stripper” are sure to play a part in the drama. While I was watching, I wondered, why am I so interested in this man’s life? Why do I care about about the Conrad Murray trial? If I think the man had anything to do with Michael Jackson’s death, it doesn’t matter. And my disgust with Charlie Sheen isn’t going to do a damn thing to change his behavior. It’s really a sad commentary about priorities. I know who these people are; I know about what drugs they take, who they’re fooling around with, and occasionally, via a sex tape, their O-face. Not too lng ago, Time magazine issued its list of the “100 most influential people in the world”. Alongside Brazillian president “Lula”, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama was Taylor Swift, Ashton Kutcher, and Lady Gaga. No doubt that Taylor Swift, Ashton Kutcher, and Lady Gaga are famous. And in their fields they may be influential, but are they truly among the 100 most influential people in the world? When we think influence, are we really talking about popularity or are we saying that these people affect life across the globe in an actual quantitative way? Or, if they are influential, could it be that their influence is heading us in the wrong direction?

Socrates was condemned to death for urging people to question the established orthodoxy. The Socratic tradition, the pursuit of truth, is embodied in the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, was the 17th and 18th century political, scientific, and philosophical movement wherein Europe emerged from the dark age of ignorance and superstition. Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hume, Kant, Adam Smith, Rousseau, and early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, believed that rationality was the key to progress, and re-evaluated the sciences, education, economics, the laws of nature, ethics, and philosophy to fit their new view of humanity and its relationship to the natural world. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the motto of the age should be “dare to know”. When the Enlightenment hit U.S. shores, the concept of natural rights influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. American statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson believed that a properly informed public will make rational decisions. Ok, what am I getting at? It’s this: we make decisions based on the quality of the information that we get. This is especially important in the area of politics, since whoever is chosen to lead affects the lives of the nation. But it’s difficult to get the right kind of information if my local news choses to cover Charlie Sheen’s hernia than cover something important, like explaining exactly why our economy continues to collapse or informing the local voting public as to who their congressional representatives are and how to reach them. The sad thing is, is that this reality, if you will, isn’t new. It’s been like this for years. And this fact has led me to ask, have we reched the end of the Enlightenment? Sure, we’ve got the Internet, I’m using it right now, and the Internet can deliver information at the click of a mouse. But, having lots of information readily available does not necessarily mean that I can say that I have knowledge. And it’s not just me… I live in a culture full of people for whom an abundance of information does not lead to knowledge. In fact, one could make the argument that our culture values knowledge less than we value trivial information.

The stuff that I as hearing on The View and about Charlie Sheen on the news is information. More to the point, it’s trivial. It’s the type of information that Chris Hedges says is a part of our “junk culture”. Junk culture, according to Chris Hedges, puts its emphasis on celebrity. It is shallow and unconcerned about questioning about life’s meaning. Academia, Hedges says, is a target of junk culture as junk culture is an assault on academia. I think that Chris Hedges is right. I remember when Al Gore was running for the presidency against George W. Bush, a frequent criticism of Gore was that he carried himself like a smarty pants. Is being smart and knowing it a bad thing? Is showing other people that you’re smart something to be held against you when you run for the presidency? I’m more than aware of the fact that there are people who are fans of Sarah Palin because she’s not a high-falutin’ Ivy leaguer like Barack Obama. Is this good? I’m certain that if we held Jefferson or Madison to the same standards that we hold now they would have never been elected to the presidency. But here’s the thing: The Enlightenment might have undid itself. It just may very well be the case that Enlightenment thinking is much like Karl Mark said of capitalism. That is, the Enlightenment might have within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Follow this closely: The Enlightenment emphacized reason. Through the use of one’s mind, one can discover truth. Philosophy spawned, among other things, the field of psychology. Psychology asked not what we reason, but how we reason. Freud’s psychoanalysis detailed certain fundamantal laws of human behavior, including the influence of subconscious drives on human behavior. The field of public relations (one of the founders of public relations was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud), using psychoanalysis, demonstrated how behavior can be manipulated by appealing to drives such as fear or sex. Public relations is closely associated with advertising, which is essential to a capitalist economy, which leads to a consumer culture, where product is associated with celebrity, which is by nature, shallow and decidedly un-academic. Altthough there is plenty to lament about the end of the Enlightenment, the end in itself may not be a bad thing. Let us not forget that some of the evils of history were also products of the Enightenment, namely the enslavement of Africans and the birth of eugenics. Let me explain how that works: 1) reason + science –> theory of evolution 2) evolution + reason (theory that some groups of people have better use of than others) –> social Darwinism 3) social Darwinism –> eugenics –> genocide, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, etc. Perhaps what is going on is a paradigm shift, a time when the orthodoxy is challenged and ways of thinking is changed drastically. Maybe what is to come is not so much of a dark period than a dim one. We might be heading towards an era where we start to correct unhealthy thinking, to lose elements of our culture that are destructive or counterproductive. The end of the Enlightenment isn’t necessarily an end to intellectualism, as Europe’s Dark Ages was an age when the works of the ancient philosophers were unknown to all but a small group of people. We might be in the process of shrugging off our relentless fascination with the self and celebrity that has until now passed for deep examination of the self and knowledge. We’re getting rid of the cult of the self that emerged when Enlightenment ideals were distorted. And who wouldn’t like to turn on the news and nothear the name Snooki?

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