Monday, March 14, 2011

Flatliners

Kathryn Lofton:

Assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale, Lofton sees religious preaching methods in the way Oprah hosts her show, as well as a formulaic, sermon-like approach to every topic -- whether it's healing the wounds of sexual abuse or what new exfoliating cream you should buy. Oh Oprah, who art on television, tell us how to live a good life.

...There's a great book about Oprah by Eva Illouz, "Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery," and Illouz points out something that I dig into, and that is the strange way in which the extremity of human despair -- not merely estranged spouses, we're talking stories of people coming home and seeing that their spouse has murdered all their kids and then themselves -- are being dealt with in the same way as these topics that are seemingly shallow. Good glasses for a spring party, best new strategies for boyfriend wear. This exposure of human need at 4 p.m. on a weekday afternoon made me think, "What is this thing?"


When social conservatives talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy and marriage, they often have these kinds of realities in mind. The point isn’t that we should aspire to some Arcadia of perfect chastity. Rather, it’s that a high sexual ideal can shape how quickly and casually people pair off, even when they aren’t living up to its exacting demands. The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.

If people know anything at all of Nietzsche, they probably know that he's the guy who said God is dead. Often, they read that statement as sounding a jubilant tone, but he was actually expressing trepidation. Are you fully aware of what you've lost? Do you recognize what a vacuum you've created, and do you have any idea how you're going to fill it?

Reading the above articles, the theme that caught my attention was something along those lines. What does it mean that our most wrenching grief and most personal problems have become public entertainment, presented on the same level as advertisements for deodorant and cell phone plans? What does it mean that sexuality is largely seen as just another lifestyle accoutrement of no great significance, as opposed to an exclusive symbol of deeper commitment and intimacy? How do we distinguish between the sublime and the mundane now?

I'm not interested in the particulars of either argument, especially in Douthat's case, disingenuous sumbitch that he often is. No, the takeaway for me is: What does it mean when things that used to be shared only with those closest to you, things that used to define a hierarchy of importance and meaning, are now in the public domain and ubiquitous? What changed? Have we lost anything, and if so, what did we replace it with?