"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, December 11, 2006

Infected or Sick?

Recent exchanges here at The Reform Club have given your Curmudgeon to think, for the first time in a long while, about the gray and misty borderland between a sick culture -- i.e., one that's laboring under an explicit and undeniable cultural malady that could eventuate in disfigurement, disability, or death -- and one that's been infected by a toxic agent but has not yet begun to suffer visibly from it. The distinction is important, for many an infection merely strengthens its host without ever causing him the least inconvenience. The subject hasn't gotten a lot of hard thought, despite the passions cultural pustules can raise.

Your Curmudgeon intends to press hard on the biological analogy. Analogies are indifferently useful in policy analysis, but indispensable to cultural analysis, because a culture is itself an analogical conception. There is no object in the material realm to which one can point and say, "There's my culture. Like it?" Nor is a culture sufficiently abstract to be classed with items of pure logic; it invariably unites a profusion of physical and informational objects, which vary in innumerable ways, with a profusion of private and public attitudes toward them, which vary at least as widely.

Though there will undoubtedly be objections to any definition of something so diffuse, one must at least attempt to define a culture before proposing to assess its health. Here is your Curmudgeon's definition:

A society's culture is the union of its perceptible themes, motifs, and constraints in all aesthetic and semi-aesthetic matters with the attitudes toward them that prevail among its members and its sources of authority.


To this let us add conceptions of cultural infection and sickness:

A culture is infected if it has accepted elements which, under certain conditions, could cause sickness, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional, in members of its supporting society. A culture is sick if its dominant elements conduce to such sickness.


Yes, such a formulation raises important questions with non-obvious answers. For example, "intellectually sick" is a term one might never have encountered before happening upon this screed. Nevertheless, it has a clear meaning. As the intellect is our tool for acquiring useful knowledge about the laws that govern the world, an intellect is justly called sick if it is incapable of reaching correct conclusions about cause and effect. Intellects afflicted by an unshakeable belief in magic are therefore sick. "Cargo cults" are a typical real-world case.

But there are more pressing questions than that one. Is it really possible for a culture, defined in the fashion above, to induce significant maladies in individuals immersed in it? Since Man possesses free will, it should be possible to withstand anything non-material the world throws at one, no?

In theory, yes. In practice, not everyone possesses the strength or the endurance to hold off a culture-borne infection. The power of the culture arises from its ubiquity and its persistence; in many ways it's merely peer pressure writ large.

Consider the situation of a man bathed in a sea of disease bacilli. Perhaps he's entered a hospital whose sanitary standards are indifferent or worse; perhaps his family is currently down with "something that's going around." If his exposure is prolonged and his immune systems are not perfect, something is likely to establish a beachhead within him. Depending on the size of that initial colony and the stresses upon him, the invading bacilli might or might not succeed in multiplying sufficiently to cause him visible symptoms of illness: discomfort, fever, congestion, skin rashes, lesions, hallucinations, disorientation, or death. It's at that point that he would be called sick, but even if he were sufficiently strong to withstand the microbial invasion without ever displaying a symptom, it would still be valid to say he'd been infected.

It is defensible to say that American culture has been infected by several toxic elements:


  • Pointless prurience in art and fashion;
  • Sadomasochism as a motif in sexual depictions;
  • Entertainments that slander freedom, capitalism, and love of country;
  • "Art" that categorically rejects beauty as one of its objects;
  • "Music" that celebrates social ills from discourtesy to violent hatred;
  • Innumerable fictions and dramatic works that foster undeserved guilt and self-hatred, condemn procreation and undermine family feeling, promote hostility between the sexes, portray large categories of persons as intrinsically evil, or present ugly futures as inevitable.


No doubt this list could be extended, but the point has been made. Nor is it disputable that the psychic pressures engendered by such themes and motifs do afflict some Americans, particularly our younger set, to their detriment. The remaining question is one of degree: How many seriously afflicted infectees do we require to deem the culture itself as sick, rather than merely infected?

Questions of degree are endlessly debatable; just assemble a group of any size and try to get unanimity from it on what constitutes poverty. But many would allow that the proliferation of visible self-mutilations is at least disturbing. Many would allow that a youth population that seeks out entertainments specifically for their damaging qualities has some severe problems. And many would allow that a public sector that provides material support to ugly, offensive art, to "documentaries" that slander the nation itself, or to expressive works that condemn the principles upon which the society is based, is a danger sign of no small importance. Such infections are already claiming victims in significant numbers.

Your Curmudgeon would say that our culture is sick for one reason above all others: thanks to cultural infections of the sort tabulated above, nearly half of us have no confidence in our nation's ability to meet our needs, satisfy our desires, or uphold our vision of justice without abandoning its founding principles. A large number of Americans completely reject the philosophical basis of their country, for no better reason than that major cultural trends have imbedded that rejection as a core theme. How American society can continue to function, given so great a number of disaffiliated participants and hangers-on, is a huge question, upon whose answer the future of the nation will depend.

1 comment:

Kathy Hutchins said...

Nor is it disputable that the psychic pressures engendered by such themes and motifs do afflict some Americans, particularly our younger set, to their detriment.

My contacts with actual young folk make me more hopeful for the future of our culture than fraternizing with people my own age (the hopeless tail end of the baby boom). To continue your biological analogy, my daughter and her friends seem capable of mounting an immune response to the spiritual infections of the age that is beyond the will or energy of my cohort. To give a specific example: she went off on an unprompted rant last night about a noxious philosopher, name unremembered, whom she had come across doing some research for an AP class. It took some teasing out before I could identify the lout as Peter Singer.