My Favorite Luddite – and the nature of cultural suicide

Complaining about new technology is a genre at least as old as the printing press, which doesn’t mean any given complaint is invalid but does suggest there’s a high standard for thinking anyone needs to read your particular screed.  For all the trouble with Twitter, it beats hand writing a copy of the Bible, in ink, on vellum.

Bearing that in mind, what is exactly is your problem with the digital revolution?

Progressives tend to be at a disadvantage in a debate over new technology because – hey, they’re in favor of progress, right?  For a liberal critique of technology to make any sense at all it has to be grounded in first principles, penetrating, and with a sense of irony at the machinations of history.

For the most part, contemporary liberalism isn’t up to the task.  First principles aren’t organic enough, penetration is gender normative, and the machinations of history depended upon oppressed labor.   If you want a critique of technology done right, you have to go to a conservative – if you can find one with anything approaching a sense of irony.

My favorite contemporary Luddite is unquestionably Matt Labash, longtime writer at The Weekly Standard, a magazine whose noxious spewings of Movement Conservatism (which is to real conservatism what “playing doctor” is to either surgery or sex) hides a small stable of brilliant cultural writers.

Labash’s (relatively) recent article on Twitter is surprisingly good to read, given how little there is to say about Twitter that hasn’t already been bitl.ly ‘d;  but it was reading his superb article on a “Meme Conference” that gave me a crystal clear insight into the nature of our cultural decline.

Phillip Rieff wrote (I think it was in “The Crisis of the Officer Class” – and I’m going to have to paraphrase from memory here, because I’ve long since lost my notes on this book) that in the mid-20th century the intellectual class, the guardians of Western culture, engaged in an elegant suicide pact by embracing primitivism and holding its critique of high culture to be as valuable as high culture itself.

This was the beginning of the end:  when the guardians of culture (the “officer class”) promote the idea that the raw and uncultured is a better, more authentic, way to live, then there is no stopping primitivism.  A tidal wave does not turn back because a museum is taking on too much water.  Without the confidence of the officer class that (whatever else their disagreements) Western Culture was an invaluable resource, a vital element in every life, the passed on heritage of the West was bound to be lost as the best young minds were channeled into acts of dismantling and deconstruction.  We have seen the result.

It is a long act of collective intellectual suicide.  If culture (writ large) is to be anything other than “what’s practical right now,” it must be defended.  As Clive James wrote at the beginning of Cultural Amnesia:  “the future of humanity itself … and what it means to be human … will never be practical.  To be impractical is to be human.” And as he wrote at the end of it:  “The rule of decency … began in humanism, and can’t long continue without it.”

If we, as a culture, do not defend that which is best in our culture, we lose it.

Now Labash, at a techie media conference, writes:

The New Dumbness, however, is by no means a slag of its curators’ intelligence. Far from it. These are some of the brightest, most articulate people you’ll ever meet. On balance, their IQ scores will smoke yours, or at least mine. But rarely in history have so many truly smart people applied their intelligence to something as dumb as aggregating and propagating LOLcats (cute online kitty pictures featuring captions of cats speaking in misspelled babytalk—“I can has cheezburger?” being the ur-example).

This is the same phenomenon:  when our smartest minds are channeled to create the next generation of LOLcats, Angry Birds, and viral-marketing campaigns, what can our culture due but gravitate down to those depths?

Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with LOLcats, Angry Birds, and viral-marketing campaigns … although, come on.  But to channel our most energetic young minds in that direction is a failure to tend to our culture as a whole.  It is to invite both amnesia of who we are and how hard we worked to get here, and to arm the worst parts of our nature with more distracting tools.  Do we really need to arm our own bread and circuses?

Never think that decadence is torpid.  Decay is an active process, filled with tremendously efficient and effective little agents, brilliantly tearing the whole apart.  It is life, and living, that requires a level of concentration that is inconvenient.