There’s a certain private prayer I find myself saying a lot these days. It’s a prayer of lament, a one-line joke cribbed from the movie Idiocracy. I utter this prayer under my breath when I hear a song, see a movie trailer, stumble upon TMZ, or overhear conversations in supermarkets, restaurants and public spaces–pretty much anytime I bump up against all manner of unavoidable evidence that our culture is making us dumber. “Welcome to Costco. I love you.” It’s my six word confession that we are wasting our chance to reach for something higher. I’m not saying we are headed for an unavoidable idiocracy. It’s not unavoidable. But neither is it out of the question.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think film, television, radio, online and print media have to be be grad school seminars on philosophy and ethics in order to be valid. Ironic silliness and the stupidly hilarious have a place in any culture. But we have a collective future. We are all responsible for the development of our own intellectual life. We are all responsible (to one another and to God) for the planet, for our common life, and for the ways in which we choose to organize and engage–or not. And the simple fact is: everything we do and see shapes us. So we might want to think about our exposure.
As the amount of time people spend plugged into digital media–tv, internet, mobile devices–trends ever upward, and the amount of time spent reading print and listening to radio continues to decline, you have to wonder how long the human brain will be able to withstand the onslaught of inane and insufferably self-absorbed pseudo-reality that is the contemporary cultural milieu before becomes addled beyond repair. Culture is a liturgical force in our world. Culture is not benign. Mostly propagated via media, film, tv, internet, and so on what we describe as “culture” has an agenda. It’s not monolithic by any stretch, but there are themes. Individualism, consumerism, nationalism–these are sold to us as self-evident virtues.
The creative minds behind the propaganda campaign waged during WWII in order to unify the American public behind the war effort were immediately conscripted by the army of Madison Avenue advertising firms. They rebranded propaganda as public relations and manipulated the collective consciousness for economic gain. This is intentional. Advertising, media, entertainment… it has intention. These things are building a folk anthropology, philosophy, and theology. As long as we uncritically accept the folk theologies of the day, the totals of industry will carefully continue to capitalize on the deep seated belief that our collective future is inevitably trained toward perpetual moral and intellectual progress.
And you can’t hide your head in the sand with this problem. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. Scratch that, the problem is so big that even if you are part of the solution you are inevitably still part of the problem. You cannot simply make disengagement and intellectual laziness and turn it into a kind of zen distantiation, as though you can live your entire life over and above the fray, and still claim to contribute to the overall well being of the world.
What’s my point?
This is my point: Turn off the tv. Logout of Amazon.com. Close your laptop. Put your phone down for a few hours. Unplug from the blatant propaganda of the political left or the political right (they are two sides of the same toxic coin). Get your face out from behind the ubiquitous screens and do something different. Read a book. Take a class. Read the newspaper–read several newspapers. Learn a new craft. Play a sport. Talk with your children. Learn an instrument. Go to a concert. Study the world around you. Go to an art museum. Go for a hike. Learn the names of the birds and trees. Plant a garden…