Intellectuals complaining about not getting enough public recognition compared to what they see as vapid celebrities is hardly a new phenomenon. In the 4th century BCE, for example, the Greek orator Isocrates was already bemoaning the fact that meatheaded athletes were celebrated as heroes for simply being able to run very fast, at the expense of serious attention and recognition for intellectuals (I will assume that he meant himself here).
It is also a favourite pastime of intellectuals to complain about society somehow getting dumber or how the world will soon be ending because young people apparently like music that they don't. Even if that would all be true, it's unfair to blame kids solely for their own shortcomings.
But wait, there's more
Still, there are a couple of things that got me thinking lately. Perhaps my memory doesn't stretch far enough, or maybe phenomena like this indeed have been around forever in some form, but consider the following:
- Several American commentators have made a steady career out of being always wrong, and they still have a job
- Chris Brown still has a career, despite being an unrepentant ass
- Pippa Middleton wrote an embarassingly bad book on party tips, and gets a gig for the NBC
- 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is 'Twilight' fan fiction (it's true)
See, the fact here is not so much that what these people do is bad, it's that they take something bad, make it somehow worse, keep being shitty, and get rewarded for it. Frankly, I do find that incredibly depressing.
It's one thing to complain about this, but another to examine why this happens. I don't believe that the public, at large, actually demands to be insulted by talentless hacks or seeing people with questionable attitudes rewarded. What I do believe is that this "eh, I suppose it will do fine" attitude is symptomatic of a much larger problem: we're stuck.
Moving towards not moving
Research has, in fact, pointed out that pop music is less diverse than it was 30 years ago, and keeps getting less diverse. The famed Overton window has, in most developed countries, either not moved or has moved strongly towards the right, hardly an indication of progression. This correlates with the fact that since the 1970s, there have been no new political movements of note (stuff like the Tea Party isn't ideologically new). Technological innovation has become seriously hampered by patent wars. Oil companies and media companies have become bloated empires, but in much fewer numbers. The list goes on and on.
I think there are two key reasons for this:
- The disproportionate influence that the disproportionally wealthy wield to protect their interests and/or increase their stake at all costs
- The people who are in that group remain healthy and in control of the levers of pwoer for much longer than they would have a century ago
So what does that have to do with our political and cultural standstill, which has engendered a climate of hyper-parasitism? It's that true creation, true innovation and actual deep thought not just take effort (and thus more financial risk to do and support), but that they also present a challenge to the famed 1%'s interest.
'50 Shades of Grey', for all its purported S&M-angles, is still role-confirming crap that riffs of of what is essentially one long wet Mormon dream. Keeping Chris Brown around is apparently also easier than questioning an industry's twisted attitude towards women, not to mention the attitude of the owners of said industry.
An economy of parasites
There is an interesting analogy with the economy at large. Western economies have long moved largely from an agricultural to an industrial model, and after World War II, increasingly towards a service-based economy. Opaque stock markets don't just trade shares, but also include things like futures, derivatives, and allow anonymous institutions to nefariously speculate on the prices of foodstuff. This is parasitic to the max: this kind of money that makes money in a bubble of abstracts is harmful. There's a case to be made that in this way, speculants not just caused the ongoing debt crisis, but also the Arab Spring revolution.
What to do?
Unlike Noam Chomsky, I don't believe that the stagnant, parasitic attitude of the elites - and the proliferation of white-noise hacks that results from it - that hurts us all is completely deliberate. A lot of these people were born into privilege and wealth and have likely never critically examined their positions. In most cases, we won't change their minds, and unless we start getting hungry and deprived of our basic needs, a revolution's not going to happen.
What we can do, however, is the following:
- Remain critical and observant, even of critical observation
- Keep in mind the larger context: the world is a vastly more complex system than your immediate area and sphere of thought
- Refuse to buy into a system that pushes inferior, unnecessary shit
- Be active in making things better with the talents and skills you have, don't waste that
- Remain social - too many self-styled activists are content to complain on the internet but don't actually do anything
- Don't vote for politicians who are corporate stooges, although often you'll have to choose the lesser of two evils
- Don't regard moral compromise as a cardinal sin, sometimes it's more important to get something done than to remain ideologically pure and watch things go to shit
- Stand up, get up
It doesn't have to be much that you do, and it doesn't have to be immediate. Just don't expect things to change for the better if you never raise your voice.