Friday, March 20, 2009

If you haven't picked a side, then you're part of the battlefield (Part 1)

There's a certain intellectual glamour to the idea of a Culture War, and, me being me, I led myself to wonder if wasn't simply a figment of the imagination; a fiction, created by those who would claim to take responsibility for popular culture into their own hands, for any number of reasons, whether it be out of altruism, hubris or plain old lust for power. In this light, one can see how it is in the interests of certain outspoken charlatans to perpetuate the myth of a culture war, to fabricate unseen enemies eroding the morals of the common man so they can set themselves up as the bastions of righteousness against the insidious influence of a "radical Left aided by a cultural elite that detests Christianity and finds Christian moral tenets reactionary and repressive".

It seems to me that there is in fact a Culture War, but it's scope and scale reaches far beyond the petty visions of Buchanan or Bush. It reaches deep into every society, or at least ones with the affluence necessary to support an intellectual elite, and has raged for as long as such societies have existed. Oddly enough, I'm not actually sure if it can really be termed a 'war'. But maybe that's just my being averse to using the word 'war', having seen it wielded far too often as a blunt instrument of cheap propaganda; War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Dengue*... Anyway, the reason I'm not so sure 'Culture War' is an appropriate term is this: Is it still a war if situational forces make it an inevitability?

To me, war suggests an aggressor of some sort. For instance, if I took a bunch of gladiators, split them into two teams, then left them to it, that doesn't strike me as war. War can break out for any number of reasons, but there generally isn't an overarching situational presence pushing two sides into conflict. This so-called "Culture War" seems to me to be an unavoidable friction caused by the intellectual gap between different strata of society. On one side are the intellectual elite, the best and brightest, who see the big picture and try their utmost to warn society of the dangers ahead. On the other are those who seek to keep their fellow men in the dark, whether in the name of profit, power, or simply because they are compelled by a delusion which they happen to subscribe to. And the battlefield is made of the simpler, impressionable minds in between.

Capitalism further exacerbates this, because it's in the best interests of those with a product to sell for as many people as possible to be stupid and gullible, hence the ceaseless efforts of marketing executives to spam our lives with as much useless garbage as possible, to weave the ridiculous illusion that our lives are made that much better by this handbag or that handphone, that the personal lives of celebrities are actually worth knowing about, that your worth as a person is determined by the petty trinkets you gird your bodies with... But, while this accelerates the decay of the majority's intellect, it also pushes enough money around the economy that greater levels of affluence are achieved, thus giving the intellectual elite to that little bit more resources. Demand for flashier technology pushes engineers and scientists to ever greater heights of expertise. Capitalism makes the smart smarter and the dumb dumber.

But, it takes a lot of dumb to produce a little smart, and when you couple this state of affairs with democracy, well... Is that not what how we have come to be where we are? An exasperated intelligentsia, struggling to be heard, doing everything in their power to make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated, pitted against the masses. The credulous masses, played like fools by snake-oil salesmen, faith healers, clergymen, populist and anti-intellectualist movements, sensationalist media, well-meaning but woefully naive hippies...

In every age, the intellectual elite have gazed out upon the masses, pondered and despaired. Yet somehow, despite all this world throws at us and, more amazingly, despite the horrors we inflict upon each other, we bumble through. Some may draw optimism from that, but I'm not so sure. In ages past, thanks to limitations of communication and transportation technology, when a civilization made a catastrophic mistake**, it was fairly localized, and the civilization would vanish, get consumed by neighbours, or some such. And in the age of spear and sword, there were far fewer of us then, so even the most cataclysmic wars then, were merely insignificant squabbles compared to the horrors of 20th century war.

But this is the age of the internet. When one big and powerful nation messes up, everybody suffers. You need only look at the stock indices across the globe to see just how closely we're all connected, whether we like it or not. This is also the age of the nuke. It takes one war, one real war to scour this planet clean of human life, or at least blast us centuries into the past. This is not an age whereby humanity can simply "bumble through". Who knows what the next great mistake will cost us all? Post-apocalyptic futures make for compelling fiction but I wouldn't want to live in one.

I'll continue this later, I think... This is gettting longer than I'd anticipated.

* A uniquely Malaysian thing, I think.

** Think Rome, Easter Island, the Anasazi...

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