Monday, December 14, 2009

On the Erosion of the Public

Kalev Pehme provided this gem over at the Leo Strauss Yahoo Group. In the midst of a discussion regarding the role of religion in the founding of the U.S. (and regarding the role of religion in American public/political life in general) he gave an arresting account of American political theology--or lack thereof.

Mr. Pehme writes--

The discussion we have had over religion points to the general erosion of the public in this country. When satisfaction is sought simply in making money and in social conformity in the acquisition of goods through shopping, while at the same time people no longer care or understand anything to do with politics, there is a general decay of the public realm, and with it any way for Americans to fulfill themselves though public life.

With the erosion of the public, of necessity, there has to be an erosion of the private as well. The basic problem that I see is that subjectivity is now truth, whether that subjectivity is religious, moral, or in practically every form of social interaction.

List members who disagreed with me on my contention that there is no religion in the US, because religion is a public matter, a public institution, and cannot be simple belief in a god or the precepts of a religion that is privately or subjectively held, were attempting to validate the subjectivity of belief over the public domain.

When there is religion in a country, the religion both as an institution and as a director of institutions gains its validity through the objectivity that is gained by the religion's very publicity. Frequently, that religion is not only tied to the regulation of behavior and thought, but also various cosmic schemes that assume metaphysical truth and inform public institutions. For example, the seemingly naive notion of the Medieval "great chain of being" brings not only a harmony to the cosmos as well as to social institutions, but it provides every person meaning no matter what his station in life. The serf and the king are social obligations and public roles that have a divine standing that provides both the king and the serf fulfillment, provided that these roles are well performed. This kind of meaning is denied to Americans, because religion has been reduced to private belief and subjective truth.

However, that there is no religion in the US is not the only erosion of the public there is today. There is very little essential dignity to public life. Sarah Palin wants to be a celebrity, rather than a politician. The former pays better; the latter requires a public dedication that does not provide her any real fulfillment. The realm of experience that politics could provide Palin or anyone like her has been so degraded that Palin herself would rather be feted in tabloids and on entertainment television. One would have expected that conservatives would be bulwark against this cheapening of the public domain, but we even have Tom DeLay dancing with the stars for celebrity recognition.

Moreover, when we combine subjectivity as truth with television, we get the horrible spectacle of people trying to authenticate their emotional lives on television by acting out their problems and emotions on the tube. People now want to be personalities whose personal characteristics are to be recognized in "reality" television when being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Authenticity and to become authenticated is truly a pursuit of life today. Thank you, Martin Heidegger. People want to reveal who they are and want others to reveal themselves to them. Everybody wants to show that they are a real person. All this authenticity has also eroded the erotic life (a big point made by Allan Bloom, but has been recognized by many others as well). The divorce of any personal or social commitment from sexuality has only reduced eroticism to sexuality, with no fulfillment.

Private life, which was a special realm in and of itself, separate and apart from public life, has also suffered, as private life is made public in the most stupid ways. Cheetah Woods and his faithlessness only shows the kind of beings that are put forth for admiration today and then torn down, because he was not authentically faithful to his wife and his image. It seems to me that the authenticity factor is very Puritanical, where [there are] people who [wish] to show themselves as being good enough, adequate enough, and so on.

In any event, to get back to my original problem: The lack of religion of the United States and the emphasis on private belief, personal salvation through personal subjective truth, has provided public peace, but it comes with a price in the erosion of public life, especially with the growth of capitalism in the US that has people in the US so narcissistic and self-absorbed as well. It was not the intent of the Founders of this nation for that to have happened. But it did. There may be no way out from it either.

Best regards,

Kalev Pehme

I only note that Allan Bloom himself appeared on Oprah after the publication of Closing of the American Mind. To be sure, there were no TV tears for Oprah, but indeed there was laughter twice or thrice (I surmise all this as I've actually never seen the said episode).

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