Cultural Pessimism Remains Flip

In the July 8/9 weekend edition of the Financial Times (which is an outstanding newspaper, by the way, and I think I’ll have to start subscribing to it even though I’m already overloaded on intake) there’s a very typical “culture” column by a guy named Peter Aspden. In recalling a raunchy interview of no intellectual relevance on the BBC a few weeks ago, Aspden asks, “There’s nothing wrong with trivia, but why does it have to be invested with significance? …It’s no surprise that the cheeky bluster of the chat show host has come to dominate public discourse in a way that was inconceivable even 20 years ago.”

I like to categorize these moans — which usually appear every couple weeks in some reputable news outlet — as “now go suck the gas pipe.” In short, it’s a smart guy who’s fed up with the ridiculousness of pop culture. Hey — I don’t find many redeeming qualities in today’s pop culture exports, either, which could be generalized as largely hedonistic and self-destructive. But we have choices. I see the low quality of some types of pop culture as merely a symptom of the riches we can now enjoy. I believe it’s easier than it has ever been to lead a meaningful intellectual life. With the internet anyone can read scholarly articles, participate on intellectual blogs, and sample, for example, MIT courses online. The web makes it easier to find in-person intellectual gatherings, too, like the Silicon Valley Junto.

I choose not to watch TV. I don’t claim this as some moralistic triumph. I don’t even care if you watch TV or not, so long as you don’t restrict my choices.

Like Aspden I wish our culture and politics had more “respect,” yet the way I express this attitude is not by bashing the other side, but by sampling the parts of culture I enjoy.

Aspden doesn’t bring up the negative externalities of large parts of our population indulging in meaningless trivia, I suspect to avoid too elitist a voice. Even these, though, are arguable. Steven Johnson has demonstrated that video games and TV give the brain a good workout. And I’m still torn on whether easy access to pornography helps people sublimate their sex drive and thus make them less sexually aggressive in real life, or whether it’s a negative stimulant. In any event, these are difficult questions which require serious discussion, not personal gripes.

Alas, cultural pessimism is flip, and columnists need to fill word counts.

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