I’ve been reading Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture. Though loose in places, it’s fascinating reading. Berman traces some important parallels between the decline of the intellectual life in the waning days of the Roman Empire and the all too evident decline that we’re seeing today.
I’ve started to feel, however, that the parallel is less precise than he implies.
Consider: In Rome, the life of the mind never spread beyond a tiny upper-class minority. Most people were illiterate, superstitious, and dirt-poor. When the economic structure that supported an upper-class elite tottered and fell, nobody was left to pick up the torch of intellectual activity.
What structure remained was explicitly wedded to a dogma of revealed truth, a dogma that, significantly, had percolated up from the lower classes. I believe it was one of the early popes who, when asked whether a collection of scholarly books should be kept or burned, replied, “Burn them. If they contradict the Bible they’re heretical, and if they agree with the Bible they’re redundant.”
The dogmatically entrenched are still among us, to be sure. But they’re not the only or even the primary source of intellectual decline in the United States today. The decline is, in any case, relative, not absolute. The population of intellectually aware and intellectually responsible people is a tiny minority, but it surely amounts to hundreds of thousands of people. They’re not confined to the upper class, and the infrastructure that supports their activities is far better developed than it was in 500 A.D. Berman’s concern, and mine, is that these people remain aware and active rather than being sucked down into the whirlpool of ignorance.
Around 1880, due to advances in technology, mass marketing of consumer goods became feasible for the first time. My contention, or at least my suggestion, is that the appeal of consumer goods, which is undeniable, stimulated an older and simpler part of the brain. The incessant stimulation has had the effect of damping down the activities of the neocortex, both individually and culturally.
To put it simply: We gravitate so strongly toward the sparkly stuff that we’ve forgotten how to think. Most of us have, anyway. Thinking is not taught; it’s not encouraged; and in fact it can make you very uncomfortable, because it will put you at odds with your peers. It’s far easier and safer just to amass all the sparkly stuff you possibly can. Ultimately this is an addiction: It never truly satisfies. But you can be an addict all your life, get old, and die without ever understanding or coming to grips with your addiction.
The part of the brain that craves the sparkly stuff is called, informally, the lizard brain. To be sure, mammalian and indeed primate reflexes are also involved, but if you’ve ever read about the bower bird, you’ll understand that you don’t have to be a mammal to notice and collect sparkly stuff, the more the better.
Here’s how evolution works: Our ancestors spent a lot of time and energy demonstrating their fitness to potential mates. Indeed, those who failed to demonstrate it convincingly enough weren’t our ancestors! Their genes died out. That’s what the male bower bird does when he collects sparkly stuff: He’s showing the females that he has a keen eye and enough excess energy to roam around searching for brightly colored pebbles and whatnot.
High status, especially among males, is a good indicator of fitness, because if you’re unfit a younger guy will come along and beat you up. As early humans acquired tools, one of the ways they could show their status was by having more cattle, more beads and feathers, and so forth. Rich guys have preferential access to eligible mates; this is not news.
So we have an instinct to acquire sparkly stuff. And the mass market consumer culture feeds that instinct. It isn’t that you’re buying Nike shoes because you think they’ll help you get laid. (They probably won’t.) It’s that this instinct was built up in our ancestors over the course of 100,000 years or more, because those who had a more powerful drive to show off their stuff had more babies than those who didn’t. It is now a free-floating drive, and still operates even if you’re sterile. The brain just goes there, that’s all.
If you spend most of your time craving sparkly stuff, shopping for sparkly stuff, and showing off your sparkly stuff, you’ll have less energy left over for other activities, such as reading a book. Also, the other ways in which you might demonstrate your high status and fitness, such as getting good grades in school, become much less important. If you’ve got the right fashion accessories, you don’t need good grades.
The result is, we have a culture dominated by people who respond entirely on the basis of feelings (which they’re well and thoroughly trained to do by advertising). Intellectual analysis — of a political position, for instance — threatens the primacy of one’s gut feelings and momentary impulses. For that reason, intellectual analysis is dangerous. Once you start analyzing things, you’re liable to find yourself wondering whether you really need that speedboat, Armani suit, Rolex, or off-road vehicle. Your whole value system starts to tremble, because you’re undermining its foundations. No, it’s safer to remain a happy idiot.
If we’re going to confront the tide of willful ignorance in our culture, I think we need to understand where it’s coming from. You can’t argue with a brick wall, but you can dismantle it brick by brick. The way to dismantle it, I’m thinking, is to help people learn to detach from consumer culture. If they substitute healthier values, their thinking about political subjects will also start to change.
At least, that’s a nice hope. It may not be possible to stem the tide. As the Dark Ages show us, a society can bumble along for hundreds of years without a speck of intellect anywhere to be seen. But the stakes are a lot higher today.
I’m not convinced by the “pendulum swings” argument. It’s comforting, but the fact that a belief is comforting doesn’t make it correct. (That’s the kind of reasoning that lizard-brainers skitter away from.) The rebirth of the intellect in the 12th century was the result of particular forces. We can’t count on it happening again. We may be headed straight down the dark path George Orwell showed us in 1984.
But we’re not there yet. There’s nothing inevitable about the future, except that if we don’t work to shape it, it will take shape without us. As Scoop Nisker said, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”