Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The End of Good Writing

If Nazi SS troops give shovels to the Jewish intellectuals and order them to dig their own graves, it will help if they can discuss Kierkegaard and Nietzsche while they’re doing it.

From the thousands of dreamers who had no hearers, or who have not seen their hopes for a better world realized, comes this inquiry.

Good writing used to have a purpose, which was to arouse the citizenry – or at least to cause them to think self-critically in a way that would lead to action. Our American experiment posed a great example at the time of the Revolution, when Ben Franklin, Tom Paine, and other activists stirred their fellow countrymen into action.

Today good writing is sinking in the sea of opposing views, relative truths, and the persuasive power of advertising and manipulation. The government and “opinion leaders” know how to control the public, and our democracy would be barely recognizable to the founding fathers. Political positions are pre-digested and presented as boundaries to thinking, as Noam Chomsky observes in his “manufacturing consent.” Polls cited by Chomsky show that the American public wants almost a complete reversal of governmental priorities: a drastic reduction in war spending and a corresponding rise in spending on human services. Yet these priorities are nowhere near being realized, despite the promises of the plutocratic politicians. We are still the world’s arms merchant, and our chemical industry continues to poison the planet.

My impression is that the good writing in journals of opinion read by intellectuals, such as The New Yorker and Harpers is not making much of a dent in the public debate. The gulf between ideas and actions is tremendous. In spite of the ideas, the money culture still rules, the culture of convenience, the culture of disregard of the value of life.

When Pope John Paul II spoke of a “culture of death,” in his encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (March 25, 1995), he made a similar point:

“This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic, and political currents which encourage the idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: A life which would require greater acceptance, love, and care is considered useless of held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap, or, more simply, just by existing, compromised the well-being or lifestyle of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of “conspiracy against life” is unleashed.”

The Pope’s talk is unequivocally against abortion and euthanasia, but it is also about materialism:

“The values of being are replaced by those of having. The only goal which counts is the pursuit of one’s material well being. The so-called “quality of life” is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions – interpersonal, spiritual, and religious – of existence. In such a context suffering, an inescapable burden of human existence but also a factor of possible human growth, is “censored,” rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil always and in every way to be avoided.”

Good writing offers the promise of a better insight into reality, but today it exists in isolation, without a spiritual framework that would give it meaning and urgency. I have given up meat, not as a fashion statement but as a declaration of my conviction that the earth is in environmental peril – and that this is a basic action which helps. It is also informed by my spiritual beliefs. From a spiritual framework, and the relationships between myself and others, come the actions which illuminate and confirm a spiritual direction. The next time you read a well-written essay in your armchair, think about the Nazi guards allowing the prisoners to converse as they dug their own graves.