Saturday 8 June 2013

The Ascendancy of the Ass-Backwards Masses … and How We Can Still Turn It Around

by Alexander Zubatov
When, on a recent occasion, I logged out of the Hotmail account I use for commercial email, I was taken — as I always am — to the homepage, which contained on this occasion — as it always does — an assortment of linked headlines spanning the categories of news, health, sports and a liberal dose of celebrity gossip.  One headline falling squarely into that last category stood out:  ‘Aguilera loves her new booty.’  If you don’t know who Christina Aguilera is, first, please let me know if your bunker has room for one more, but second, for my purposes, all you need to know is that she is a celebrity and, as such, is accustomed to being celebrated and apparently feels that she is also entitled, by virtue of her celebrity status, to celebrate herself — and I don’t mean that in anything like the ‘Song of Myself’ sense of the phrase.  Now, many of us — or at least some of those of us who are not blithely but blindly at work hastening the demise — probably see signs of the end of civilisation all around.  And yet certain hallmarks stand out among others.  Christina Aguilera’s public declaration of love for her larger ass and the fact that this makes for a headline we’d care to click on should, in my view, rank rather high up there on the list.   

As Matthew Arnold lamented in his oft-quoted, seldom-read jeremiad, Culture and Anarchy (1869), our society is increasingly giving way to Philistinism, the valorisation, to the exclusion of any higher values, of wealth and its concomitant comforts and respect for those who have acquired these by whatsoever means.  Arnold deplored the abdication of judgment, discernment, the critical eye.  He argued that high culture provides the antidote for such axiological anarchy, for it offers us the lofty vantage point we need to look down on the Philistine, as we rightly should:  ‘Culture says:  “Consider these people, then, their way of life, their habits, their manners, the very tones of their voice; look at them attentively; observe the literature they read, the things which give them pleasure, the words which come forth out of their mouths, the thoughts which make the furniture of their minds; would any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become just like these people by having it?“‘ Without culture — and here comes the oft-quoted quote — the ‘pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world,’ we are left incapable of making distinctions of quality, and so instead are left to judge our fellow citizens solely by the size of their pocketbooks, portfolios, houses and asses. 

Though there may never have been a time when the Many simply went around thinking and saying ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world,’ there were surely times when many ordinary people at least understood there was something important they were missing, somewhat akin, in a religious context, to a sinner who knows he has sinned, or one only vaguely familiar with scripture who nonetheless believes there is an entire mystical world to which he may one day awaken.  If, in other words, we, en masse, may never have personally scaled the heights of our civilisation’s bounty, we may still, at one point in our collective history, have understood that those heights lay upward and have admired those Hephaestian heroes who forged that manmade mountain range or those intrepid mountaineers who have seen its highest peaks.  By the 1860s, when Arnold was writing, however, this hierarchy of values was beginning to fall apart.

The situation was significantly more dire by 1930, when the Spanish journalist and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset published what is today a sadly neglected manifesto, The Revolt of the Masses.  With the traditional social order collapsing all around and mass movements in the form of Communism and fascism on the rise, Ortega y Gasset sounded a clarion call that should, by all rights, ring out still more plangently today, when our steady march toward the abolition of all non-theological standards of value has taken us far nearer to the nadir.  Ortega y Gasset begins with a simple point:  ‘The most important fact in the public life of the West in modern times, for good or ill, is the appearance of the masses in the seat of highest social power.  Since the masses, by definition, neither can nor should direct their own existence, let alone that of society as a whole, this new development means that we are now undergoing the most profound crisis which can afflict peoples, nations, or cultures.’ 

To our ears, this proclamation may sound stodgy, elitist, reactionary, a rearguard relic of a period when the hereditary aristocracy of Old Europe could still discern the fading taste of political power on its palate.  But Ortega y Gasset does not speak on behalf of any such aristocracy, nor of any established social class.  Rather, he distinguishes two types of individuals:  ‘those who demand much of themselves and assign themselves great tasks and duties, and those who demand nothing in particular of themselves, for whom living is to be at all times what they already are, without any effort at perfection — buoys floating on the waves.’  For him, nobility was not a matter of birth or breeding, but rather, was ‘synonymous with the life of effort ever set on excelling itself, intent always on going beyond what one is, to becoming what one proposes to be, as one’s duty and obligation.’  ‘Thus,’ he goes on, ‘the noble life stands in contrast to common, inert life, which in a static way falls back upon itself, condemned to perpetual immobility, unless compelling circumstances, force majeure, make it come out of itself.  Hence we use the term mass-man for that way of being man:  not so much because this way is myriad, but because he is inert.’ 

Ortega y Gasset is, in effect, invoking the more literal, physical sense of ‘mass’ (never, in actuality, that distant from its figurative meaning), a big, shapeless, static hunk of matter, a word also used to describe pernicious growths characterized by pure, unproductive accretion, like a tumor, or perhaps, a perpetually waxing ass.  The sad fact that Ortega y Gasset describes as ’[t]he characteristic note of our time’ — even more so of our time — ‘is the dire truth that the mediocre soul, the commonplace mind knowing itself to be mediocre, has the gall to assert its right to mediocrity, and goes on to impose itself wherever it can.’  Expressing a truth that resonates with the phenomenon the sociologist Herbert Marcuse later cleverly termed ‘repressive desublimation,’ Ortega y Gasset bewails the coming reality of a world surrounding us that ‘scarcely impels [us] to limit [ourselves] in any fashion; it offers neither argument nor veto; on the contrary, it whets [our] appetites, which, in principle, can grow without measure.’  No surprise, then, that this new ‘mass-man’ ‘is possessed of an inborn and deep-seated belief that life should be easy, plentiful, without tragic limitations’ so that ‘the average individual is animated by a sense of power and success which leads him to affirm himself just as he is, and to consider himself complete in his moral and intellectual being.  This self-satisfaction leads him to deny any exterior authority, to refuse to listen, to evade submitting his opinions to judgment, and to avoid considering the views of others.’

In this description, we should recognise the central social dogma of our time, the mantra of universal tolerance, whereby, as an absolute sine qua non of good citizenship, we are called upon to suspend critique and judgment, to accept people (starting with ourselves) precisely as they are, with the expectation of any form of betterment reflecting a kind of antiquated paternalism or, worse, a cultural insensitivity arbitrarily privileging our own set of cultural values over others that are equally valid.  Lest we fail to recognise ourselves in this description, I adduce a few excerpts from among the immortal words of a kind of present-day manifesto (conveniently doubling as a hit single), the, um, philosopher-poet Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’: 

It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up ‘cause you were born this way, baby

My mama told me when I was young
We are all born superstars

‘There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are,’
She said, ’‘cause he made you perfect, babe’
I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way

Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
Oh there ain’t no other way
Baby I was born this way

Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, Chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to survive

I’m not sure there’s anything more I need to add, though, on the premise that disgust
is an emotion very useful in cultivating the craving for change, I really recommend you subject yourself to the whole song-and-dance, if you’ve never seen it before. 

Whom we admire speaks volumes.  In Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961), his tour de force of literary and cultural criticism, the Stanford University French literature professor René Girard argued that all our desires are, in fact, mimetic.  In contrast to a Romantic notion of unmediated desire per which we want what we want because we just really want it, ie, because it satisfies our deep longings, Girard argued that we borrow our desires by imitating the desires of others whom we, for one reason or another, hold in high account.  Moreover, with time, the distance between the desiring subject and the mediator he imitates decreases, so that if, at one point, we may have aspired to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the ostensible son of God, the models from whom we have borrowed our desires have, with the passing years, become ever more indistinguishable from ourselves.  As Girard puts it, ‘in tomorrow’s world, men will be gods for each other.’  So, first, we came down to earth and adopted a model of chivalric virtue; Don Quixote sought to imitate Amadis of Gaul. 

Later, when ‘both senses of the word ‘noble’ [still] coincided, at least theoretically,’ we sought to model ourselves after those we saw as our social betters, aristocrats or the like.  By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the descent was a fait accompli.  Our models became men and women not all that different from ourselves.  At this point, what Girard calls ‘double mediation’ becomes possible.  We imitate their desires, while they imitate ours in a kind of contagion where we ‘will be tempted to copy the copy of [our] own desire[s],’ with such desire ‘circulat[ing] between the two rivals more and more quickly, and with every cycle … increas[ing] in intensity.’  Unsurprisingly, such ’[d]ouble mediation gradually devours and digests ideas, beliefs, and values.’  Only the outer shell of desire remains. 

Reality TV and our current culture wherein ‘celebrities’ are often largely indistinguishable from us, merely ourselves celebrated in all our trashy, vulgar, materialistic and debased glory, is precisely what Girard is talking about.  To the extent any distinction remains between us and those we seek to imitate, the distinction is one purely of wealth and the material comforts that come with it — and even this much is true only of those reality stars that are either already wealthy (and, apparently, interesting to us for that reason) or of the ones who manage to parlay their 15 minutes of fame into filthy lucre.  With the exception of our sports heroes whom we still see as somehow superhuman, however, we do not, as a rule, believe there to be any radical difference in talent or other abilities between ourselves and those who have ‘made it.’  They are certainly not more ‘noble’ than we are in either sense of the word.  They simply got lucky in one way or another, and so might we if a winning lottery ticket — whether literal or in the form of reality TV fame — happens to land in our hands.  We want to be like them and act like them, even as they behave like no more than moneyed-up versions of us.  Or, in Ortega y Gasset’s words (which make a fitting epitaph for our civilisation), ‘There are no longer protagonists as such:  there is only the chorus.’

And so we get to Christina Aguilera professing admiration for her own ass. It is a far cry, certainly, from admiring the best which has been thought and said, isn’t it?  Instead of a model of virtue who looks upward and outward toward some unattainable distant peak, what we’ve come to is something of a ready-made allegory, the celebrity whom we look to and hope to imitate looking downward and backward at her own behind, the increasing magnitude of which she lauds and cherishes because it makes her more desirable to all of us who admire bigger butts simply because this is what we increasingly see all around us, with all the sources that are supposed to be educating and enlightening us (schools and universities, mass media, etc.) having completely abdicated that role in favor of providing no more than a massive echo chamber in which we may find our own ready-made dispositions and predilections infinitely redoubled and amplified — the trash getting trashier, the dumb getting dumber and the ideal ass growing ever bigger — with ‘just love yourself, and you’re set’ offered to us as the chorus in between verses. 

Nor has either of the major American political parties offered us hope of better days to come.  Both pander to their electorates, echoing those electorates’ worst tendencies.  Democrats, to generalise, appear content to degenerate, fully on board as they are with the ‘love yourself, and you’re set’ philosophy of life.  They offer no vantage point whatsoever from which to critique our mass descent into complacent barbarism.  Republicans — despite a greater visceral sensitivity to the fact that unchecked vulgarity and uninhibited sexuality in the public sphere are signs of decline — draw their alternate system of values not from culture but from religion and, moreover, from Evangelical Protestant strains that have a long history of making of every common man a self-assured theologist who feels just as capable as any alleged expert of knowing the true path to salvation, even if such self-made authorities are schooled in no more than a boneheaded Biblical literalism that is the direct consequence of having their experience of reading and interpretation limited to (a collection of quotes and passages from) a single serious book. 

Thus, Republican politicians largely indulge and cultivate the very anti-elitist impulses that are turning us all into self-satisfied idiots.  Supplementing this shaky foundation is the crudest species of capitalist, populist fundamentalism embodied in the creed that all which cannot pay its way does not deserve to survive.  Thus, the irony is that Republicans unwittingly undermine the very kinds of cultural forces that, by inculcating taste and refinement and nourishing a rich spiritual life to serve as a counterweight to our empty materialism, would otherwise operate to curb the rampant vulgarity and unrestrained public sexuality that the conservative sensibility finds so abhorrent.  If we don’t embrace Culture with a capital ‘C’ — not this or that culture but high Culture — we will continue to have more celebrities making public statements in the same vein as Ms. Aguilera’s (‘Actually, the challenge I’ve always had is being too thin, so I love that now I have a booty, and obviously I love showing my cleavage….  Hey, if you can work it and you can own it, that confidence is going to shine through’), and we will continue to have a public that tolerates and even welcomes hearing such trash.  (Again, to generate disgust, I advise you to read the entire interview, taking particular note of the ‘journalist’s’ sycophantic tone of unapologetic adulation in speaking of and to the subject of her piece.

The observation has been made, most recently by the film critic Karina Longworth, writing in Slate, that there is no more counterculture as such, that ‘in 2012 the very notion of countering culture has lost its political potency through omnipresence.’ Longworth writes, ‘Any form of desire imaginable, consumer or carnal or otherwise, has an affinity group online.’  Here is Marcuse’s notion of repressive desublimation again.  By furnishing free and easy indulgence for every conceivable desire, our society robs us of all our will to turn frustration born of privation into a cogent, unifying doctrine, much less actual political action.  If counterculture was once animated by the impulse to counter the perceived inaccessibility or stultification of Culture with something new and vibrant rooted in a populist sensibility, then that populist sensibility has now entirely taken over.  A thousand flowers can bloom, so long as they can make a buck, financial survival being the only arbiter of taste remaining. 

Yes, as Longworth writes, every form of desire has an affinity group online.  But most of these affinity groups are invisible and irrelevant to a larger audience and will persist, if they do at all, only on the outermost margins, on the fringes of our civilisation.  They will do enough only to drown out in an undifferentiated tumult of sound the strident, unifying voice that a true counterculture could channel.  What is lost in the process is Culture itself.  Real Culture, high Culture, is dying a slow death.  The masses, finding everywhere no more than reinforcement for their ignorance, can no longer be roused to muster the sustained attention required to meet the demand that the great works of our civilisation require.  They are not even aware they are missing anything, as schools and universities, scared off by the politicization and perceived perfect uselessness of the Great Books and everything and anything else that smacks of greatness, have become no more than institutions the general public sees as investments promising to confer degrees as certificates of future remuneration. 

Culture itself is now our counterculture … or it can be and must be if we still entertain any hope of combating the boorishness and buffoonery eating away at our life, public and private alike.  It is time for a groundswell.  We need a new protest movement centred around the notion that we must demand more of ourselves and each other, that we cannot be satisfied or complacent in the face of the culture of trash besieging us on all fronts.  We can revive, reinvigorate and re-embrace the notion of nobility, a new kind of nobility, not an ossified class or title conferred by birth or a mere matter of superficial affectations, but rather, a democratic ideal open to all who choose to pursue it simply by committing themselves in thought and action to ‘the life of effort ever set on excelling itself, intent always on going beyond what one is, to becoming what one proposes to be, as one’s duty and obligation’ and to do so precisely by the study of ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world.’  No one is born noble, no one ever fully becomes noble, and no one is ever foreclosed from the pursuit.  Instead, there are two kinds of people in the world:  those who are already working toward the ideal of nobility and those who have yet to embark on that journey.   

To set out on your journey, here, then, is what you need to do:
• Turn off your TV … or get rid of it entirely.  The television set is, perhaps, the principal source through which trash culture enters your home, infiltrates your life and the lives of your loved ones, corrupts kids and nurses the elderly into an early dotage.  I’ve been living without a television set for over a year now, and I’m much happier.  I’d essentially stopped watching long before, anyway:  the last thing I saw on TV — other than bits and pieces at the gym or at other people’s homes — is the 2008 presidential debates.  I don’t miss it at all.  I haven’t had so much as a single thought about going back.  Suddenly, there was all this time I was no longer wasting.  That feeling of nausea I had when I’d spent a little bit too long in front of that thing was gone for good.

You may already have noticed at some point that it’s very hard to go from an activity that gives you a lot of passive stimulation to one that requires a lot of active input on your part.  This is why kids have a hard time focusing on anything demanding after they’ve been watching TV for a while.  It’s why you yourself probably don’t feel much like picking up a book after you’ve just spent hours in front of your set.  But when you get rid of (or severely limit your exposure to) your TV, books suddenly feel a whole lot more rewarding.  You crave them.  They’re now your entertainment, your diversion from obligations, your means of relaxation, your reprieve from the mundane.  And you’ll find — if you don’t already realise this — that, unlike TV, which only leads you to stagnate, the Great Books can transform you. 

Now, I understand that not everyone can take the radical step of getting rid of the television entirely, but if you must hold onto it, use it with discipline.  Commit to watching only those programs that are truly worth it for you, your one or two favourite, high-quality HBO series, perhaps, or one football game per week, or some PBS series wherein you actually learn something, or whatever else it may be that does it for you, but please, no soap operas, no daytime talk shows and nothing with a laugh-track or any music channels or anything with trashy people doing trashy things.  I found it helped to force myself to jog in place whenever I had the TV on.  Not only does it counteract the weight gain you’d otherwise experience from doing nothing (be warned:  your ass may lose its appeal to the connoisseurs of mere magnitude) and get your blood flowing to keep your mind active, but it also pretty much forces you to limit your viewing time, which is a good thing.

• Experience the arts and sciences:  start reading, listening, viewing and learning.  Commit to spending time each and every day learning something.  ‘Learning’ does not mean you have to read a ‘how-to’ book or a nonfiction book filled with facts, although there are many great nonfiction books, of course.  You learn when you read great literature, when you experience great visual art or great music.  You grow.  You are changed as a human being. 

It is important to remember, however, that you need to be patient. You’re not going to start reading a book and experience a ‘eureka’ moment on every page.  You may not experience such a moment the whole way through, in fact, though you shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that you’ll still be subtly transformed, or even achieve a more direct revelation sometime later, in retrospect.  Each person finds the most resonance with particular great works, and less with some others that might also be great, though each, properly approached, has something to offer, and the works that you click with most might surprise you and will certainly change as you change over time.  But the key is that you must meet the work at least halfway; don’t expect it to reach out to you all by itself.  This is the mistake made in so many of those misguided all-about-me majors and courses students select (which responsible administrators would not allow them to select) on the superficial premise that they will be spoken to most immediately by whatever is already part of their own background and heritage, so that the African-American student studies African-American literature, the gay student studies gay literature and the not-very-bright student studies … well, he doesn’t is the point, but if he did, maybe he’d find himself getting a whole lot brighter.  Art created by dead white males isn’t just for dead white males, you see, just as art created by great female writers or great writers of any non-Caucasian race is not meant exclusively for that gender or other subgroup; if it were so limited, it wouldn’t be worth studying in the first place, as it would lack the kind of universality great art necessarily attains. 

But to ‘get it,’ you really must experience and re-experience and learn to interpret, which will come with practice.  This also means that if you’re just getting into serious literature, for instance, don’t start with Gravity’s Rainbow or Finnegans Wake (those are two of the harder ones).  Unless you’re a very unusual type of person, you could easily get discouraged and give up, leaving a bitter taste in your mouth.  Read The Great Gatsby, The Sun also Rises, Catcher in the Rye.  Read Crime and Punishment.  Find a good high school or college freshman syllabus for a literature class at the right level of difficulty.  Then create a syllabus and a realistic schedule for yourself, adjusting it periodically as you get a better sense of your time or when unforeseen contingencies interfere with your plans; but don’t stop just because you keep missing your own deadlines.  Instead, figure out why you keep falling behind and see what you can do about it.  ‘Better late than never,’ in any event, is part of the whole point I’m making here.  And if you start reading, viewing, listening and thinking and still find you’re feeling too often that you’re just missing something fundamental, by all means read some secondary literature.  See the movie version after you’ve read the book, if that helps.  Do an online course.  Or, better yet, turn this into a group project you undertake with your friends so that you can meet to discuss; this approach has the added benefit of encouraging all of you together to stay on schedule and away from the trash.  Keep at it, in any event.  It will pay off in time in all kinds of unexpected ways.

• Take a stand against trash culture.  This one is hard because it requires a kind of fortitude that not all of us are willing to exhibit.  It is also hard because it often runs directly counter to that mantra of universal tolerance that I noted above.  For instance, we —  especially those of us who came of age in the 1980s, 90s or later — have been brainwashed to regard so many of the pernicious speech patterns, mores, behaviours and lifestyle choices all-too-prevalent within African-American culture at the present time as no more than vibrant exemplars of cultural diversity, with a negative comment thereupon being indicative of cultural insensitivity or plain, old racism.  The impulse is commendable, an understandable overreaction to centuries of bigotry and worse, but an overreaction is precisely what it is — and it has outlived any usefulness it might have had.  It is not racist to believe that a given culture of any particular racially marked group — though I’m primarily speaking of African-American culture here, not of the culture of all people we’d describe as ‘black’ — is, at a given historical moment, possessed of certain unfortunate tendencies.  What is racist is to believe (and I don’t, and you shouldn’t) that such tendencies are somehow inevitable or unchangeable.  And what is also racist is not to expect better.  There may not be a whole lot George W Bush got right, but his notion of ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ is one worth keeping in mind. 

The fact is that, for a complex array of reasons far beyond the scope of this piece, African-American culture in its current manifestation partakes way too much of vulgarity, crassness, bumptious behavior, unrepentant materialism and unrefined sexuality.  This is present in spades in cultural productions such as hip-hop (its frequent catchiness and cleverness aside) and the styles of dancing associated with it.  It is present in the kind of over-the-top showboating typical among too many African-American athletes.  It appears in foul language — even if we bought the notion that lack of standard English subject-verb agreement is simply a different dialect rather than a speech pattern characteristic of poorly educated people of all races, we would not be compelled to believe that phenomena such as the use of the word ‘shit’ as a stand-in for virtually any and every common noun (eg, ‘Where you get that shit at?’) is no more than an alternate dialect as well.  And it is there as well in the crass flaunting of wealth in whatever form.  Moreover, because of our tendency — particularly common among younger people — to gravitate toward the outré and to see such behaviours as liberating in their defiance of restrictive social norms, what was once largely limited to the African-American community has become far more mainstream.  Culture and education are the antibiotics we need, but we are afraid to prescribe these because we have allowed ourselves to be shamed and bullied into silence.  It’s high time to resist the intimidation and stand on principle. 

Please note:  I am giving but one example (useful precisely because it represents something of a political hot potato) and in no way suggesting that all or even most trash culture emanates from this source.  Not African-American culture but opportunistic and amoral Corporate America, catering to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of profit, is responsible for the mass propagation of filth in the form of awful reality TV, vapid sitcoms, dumbed-down top-40 hits and much more.  And if many African-Americans who partake of the deleterious cultural predilections I’ve described at least have the excuse of a history of slavery, poverty, bigotry and lack of education, there is no excuse for those members of our professional classes and other financial elites who spend all their free time wining, dining, clubbing, golfing, skiing and shopping, without so much as a thought that there might be something far more fundamental lacking in their lives and their Philistine milieu.  If this is how our ‘elite’ classes conduct themselves, why should anyone be appalled when the housewives of the ghetto aspire to become no more than the housewives of Orange County, even as the housewives of Orange County become less and less distinguishable from the housewives of the ghetto in anything other than the amount of trash they can afford to consume?

My point is that regardless of the form in which such trash culture impinges upon us, we need not tolerate it, even if taking a stand against it would require us to violate unquestioned social taboos.  Be vigilant of such culture, refuse to partake of it or imitate it, and do not be afraid to express and patiently explain your views to others.  When one person says something, it emboldens another and then another, and before long, we’ve succeeded in exposing the problem to public scrutiny, the first step in bringing it to an end.

• And stop wasting time!  A lot of opportunities to learn and grow are missed simply because we waste our time on nonsense.  It boggles my mind to see people in public transportation routinely either doing absolutely nothing or fiddling with their smartphones, playing video games or futzing around with Facebook or other social media.  If you commute to work by public transportation, this is a daily learning opportunity, a few moments when you’re blissfully free from all the demands others might make upon your time; take advantage of those moments.  If you drive, you can listen to great music or audiobooks (nonfiction is best consumed this way because with great fiction, you really want to be able to focus on the individual words, which it’s hard to do while you’re driving).  Turn off your phone … or, if you can, ignore all the notifications advising you of the mindless miscellany you’re constantly receiving.  You can set aside a window of time to check this stuff and respond to it, if need be.  Uninstall those video games.  You don’t need them.  (The withdrawal symptoms will subside after a few days.)  Don’t buy those glossy tabloid magazines of the sort that interview Christina Aguilera about her ass, and don’t even page through them in waiting rooms.  Ask yourself whether you really care about the cheap-thrill infotainment they offer.  What difference will it make in your life?  How will it make you happier, wiser?  Don’t let those pablum peddlers who put these things out succeed in commandeering your attention, in distracting you from the pursuit of worthier goals.  I’m sure there are many ways in which each of us fails to maximise free time.  Give some thought to where you go wrong and why.  Then take action.  Seize these moments.  Take them back from all those people and forces that would, if you let them, anaesthetise you into complacency and silence.

The global message I’m trying to convey, if it isn’t obvious by now, is never to be satisfied with being what you already are … because you can always be more.  Don’t think of yourself as static, as this kind of person or that kind of person (eg, ‘I’m just not a reader’), because all of these things can change if you put in the initial effort to develop new habits and new cravings to replace the maladaptive and unproductive old ones afflicting us all; it’s really like anything else you have to have to work at (getting into the habit of exercising routinely being a good example):  it’s hardest at the beginning, but once you get going, you’ll be surprised how essential and rewarding it will start to feel. 

I’m not ultimately suggesting that Culture will improve you in some conventional goody-two-shoes-type way, though widening your horizons and broadening your mind certainly can’t hurt even in this respect.  Still, I won’t promise Culture will make you better.  But it will do something far more important:  it will make you — and, one by one, all of us — greater.

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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

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