Posted on | December 5, 2012 | 20 Comments
“Television, naturally enough, is biased toward compelling visual imagery, and in almost all cases the charms of a human face take precedence over the capabilities of a human voice. . . . It is the teller, and not what is told, that matters here.”
— Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (1994)
“The 19th-century cult of success . . . measured achievement not against the achievements of others but against an abstract ideal of discipline and self-denial. At the turn of the century, however, preachments on success began to stress the will to win. The bureaucratization of the corporate career changed the conditions of self-advancement; ambitious young men now had to compete with their peers for the attention and approval of their superiors. . . . Personal magnetism, a quality which supposedly enabled a man to influence and dominate others, became one of the major keys to success.’ . . . The management of interpersonal relations came to be seen as the essence of self-advancement. The captains of industry gave way to the confidence men, the masters of impressions. Young men were told that they had to sell themselves in order to succeed.”
— Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979)
“A twisted mind far gone in the helpless decadence typical of liberals everywhere.”
— “E-Mail to a Troll,” Sept. 27, 2012
Virtue proverbially is its own reward: The honest and industrious live happier and more successful lives than lazy liars. All that should be necessary to encourage virtue is to point out this fact to youth, to assure them that patiently doing the right thing will ultimately bring them greater esteem than trying to cut corners and take the easy way out.
Alas, the knowledge of virtue is obscured in a culture of superficiality, where transient symbols of success — youth, beauty, and status goods — are celebrated without regard for personal character. Television peculiarly encourages such superficiality. TV-viewing is habit-forming, and the habits of mind it fosters are evident in the unthinking ways in which ordinary people have become image-conscious, like Hollywood stars whose success is often more dependent on their appearance and reputation than upon their ability and character.
Attempts by ordinary people to emulate (however superficially) the celebrity lifestyle are usually comical, but occasionally quite tragic:
Authorities investigating the robbery and fatal stabbing of an 18-year-old Olney man at the Woodley Park Metro station are looking for at least three more people, a homicide detective testified in D.C. Superior Court on Monday.
The detective, Robert Arrington Jr., said the three can be seen in footage of the attack from Metro security cameras but have yet to be identified. His testimony came during the second day of a preliminary hearing for four of the nine teenagers charged in the Nov. 17 robbery and slaying of Olijawon Griffin.
The incident began when Griffin was robbed of a $400 Helly Hansen jacket, an iPhone and a baseball cap near an Exxon gas station in Adams Morgan. Griffin was fatally stabbed about 20 minutes later at the Woodley Park Metro station when he and a group of his friends happened upon those who they thought had robbed him.
One of the nine defendants at Monday’s hearing, Chavez Tyrek Meyers, 17, has been charged as an adult with murder. He is accused of approaching Griffin from behind and stabbing him in the chest. Four others have been charged as adults with armed robbery, including three who were in court Monday: Deon Jefferson, Immanuel Swann and Gary Maye. The fourth charged with robbery, Tyvell Smith, is scheduled to have his hearing Dec. 10. The four youngest suspects, two 15-year-olds and two 16-year-olds, have been charged as juveniles and were not present. . . .
Prosecutors played a video from the Metro security cameras. Beau Perrizo, a detective with the Metro Transit Police, identified each of five defendants visible in the video and what they were wearing. One of them, Perrizo said, was wearing a Helly Hansen jacket of his own. According to court papers, Jefferson was wearing Griffin’s Helly Hansen jacket when Griffin arrived at the Metro.
So we have here a case in which teenagers were willing to kill or die for a $400 Helly Hansen jacket and an iPhone.
The readership of this blog includes many adults of substantial wealth and professional success. How many of you own a $400 jacket? How many of you — people with expensive homes, six-figure salaries and money stashed away in 401(k)s and mutual funds — go to work every day dressed in modestly-priced clothes? How many of you are astonished at the very thought of teenagers owning a $400 jacket, and can’t even comprehend the idea that this particular high-status brand could become de rigeur as a fashion statement among teenagers?
Of course, if you want to risk death on your next Metro ride, you can buy a Helly Hansen jacket via our Amazon Associates links, although I don’t see why this particular brand is so coveted by style-conscious teenage murderers. Maybe famous athletes or music stars wear Helly Hansen.
My point has little to do with the fashion choices of teenagers, and much more to do with the culture of superficiality — the obsession with image and status — that this ugly incident symbolizes, a phenomenon now so pervasive that we usually take it for granted. During the 1980s, when the term “Yuppie” was first used to describe the young upwardly-mobile professionals whose consumer choices made them a coveted demographic for advertisers, one sometimes saw a bumper-sticker that expressed the ethos of that set: “He who dies with the most toys, wins.”
This toy-collector mentality, the tendency to define one’s self through the accumulation of material objects symbolizing one’s social status, is childish at best and dehumanizing at worst. If the purpose and meaning of your life consists of the acquisition and possession of consumer goods — getting more toys — then your life is pretty damned meaningless, isn’t it? Genuinely successful, happy people don’t live that way.
Such a lecture may seem strange coming from a Shameless Capitalist Blogger — shop our Amazon Holiday Savings now! — but my enthusiasm for economic liberty does not mean I embrace the shallow “more toys” mentality that leads to kids killing each other over $400 jackets. In fact, much left-wing hostility to capitalism is motivated by a perverse materialistic envy that presumes to redistribute happiness by redistributing wealth.
Liberalism disregards the natural connection between virtue and success, and tends to derogate both. Liberals are enraged, for example, by any suggestion that sexual promiscuity is harmful and immoral, and erupt in indignation at what they call “slut-shaming.” If sluts cannot be shamed, neither can the chaste be praised and, as liberalism becomes ever more ascendant in our culture, “virgin” becomes a dirty word while marital fidelity is mocked as hopelessly obsolete.
“Everybody lies about sex,” liberals told us during the Lewinsky scandal, and one suspects perhaps they even believed it.
The “transvaluation of all values,” which once appeared possible only to the febrile imagination of Nietzsche, is now an established fact in a decadent culture that derides virtue and praises vice. However, Ross Douthat observes that none dare call it “decadent”:
After all, if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a fairly important one, no? Maybe even, dare one say, an essential one, at least in some quantity, if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods is to continue beyond our own life cycle?. . . And if that basic obligation exists in some form, then surely there comes a point when a culture in which it’s crowded out by other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures can be aptly described as … what’s the word I’m looking for … decadent?
Read the whole thing. Even if Douthat went to Harvard, he is still occasionally right and, after all, he is replying to Matthew Yglesias, that latter-day Marat whose neo-Jacobin hatefulness almost makes one wish for a 21st-century Charlotte Corday to answer him.
“Almost,” I said.