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Patrick S. O'Donnell


It seems what you describe as "the commercial, hedonistic, materialistic, voyeuristic, sexualized and violence-celebrating aspects of our culture," are in most respects not new but symptomatic of what Werner Sombart termed America's "cultural adolescence" and illustrative of the kinds of values found in mature capitalism, in other words, values and a cultural ethos that "in America...may be studied better than anywhere else because there it has reached its greatest perfection, people come to the point at once, and prefix to every commodity its monetary values." As summarized here by the late Raghavan Iyer (father of Pico Iyer and author of an unsurpassed study of Gandhi's moral and political philosophy), in America Sombart diagnosed an almost pathological tendency

"to mistake bigness for greatness; the influence on the inner workings of the mind of the quantitative valuation of things, the connection between success, competition, and sheer size; the tendency to regard the speediest achievements as the most valuable ones; the connection between megalomania, mad hurry, and record-breaking; the attraction of novelty; the habit of hyperbole; the love of sensationalism and its efffect on journalism; the concern with fashions in ideas as well as clothes; and the consciousness of superiority through a sense of power that is merely an expression of weakness."*

This brings to mind Erich Fromm's contention that a society in toto can be sick or "insane" insofar as it fails to sufficiently address the fundamental existential and other needs essential to the psychological, moral and spiritual growth of the individual:

"[T]he fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane. [....] Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on mental health. The fact that millions of people share the same vice does not make those vices virtues, and the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths."

Of course the "pathology of normaly" has its rewards, as Daniel Burston explained in his study of Fromm's oeuvre:

"for example, people subject to a socially patterned defect experience less inner conflict and neurotic misery or are merely less conscious of their conflicts and cognitive distortions than their overtly neurotic counterparts. For whereas the neurotic's rationalizations reflect personal conflicts and desires and may be transparent to an outsider, an indifference or hostility to truth characteristic of conformist psychology has lower social visibility, because it is socially shared and reinforced. Here resistance to insight and to change on the individual level is less the product of individual censorship and repression [a la Freud] than of shared perspectives anchored securely in one's sense of corporate identity and in consensual models of definitions of reality. This situation is effectively summed up in Fromm's oft-repeated aphorism that, for the majority of people in society, 'most of what is real is not conscious, and most of what we are conscious of is not real."

*Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)

Steve Shiffrin

Patrick, thanks so much for your wonderful comment. I, of course, agree that that my irritation about modern capitalistic culture is not new. It has roots in the Burkeian conservatives, in Catholic social theory, and most powerfully in the Marxist/post-Marxist tradition. There was a time in which I had read tons of material on the culture industry and cultural theory on both sides. I have forgotten most of it, but my marked up books are still on the shelves. I know which side I am on. Horkheimer and those themes of Habermas resisting the colonization of the life sphere have always been persuasive to me (I resist his foundationalism). What I want to figure out for my next book are the implications of the critique for theories of free speech and free press. Ed Baker in his brilliant three books on the press may already preempted the press field regarding the structure of the media (he was profoundly influenced by the principles of Habermas), but there is a lot of work to be done in resisting the current dominant ideology regarding what the concept of freedom of speech is taken to mean. I know I will emerge with a weird mix of radicalism and liberalism .
But some things are easy. No one with a Civic Republican, Catholic, Marxist, Horkheimer, or Habermasian bone in his body could possibly think that the recent corporate political finance case was rightly decided. An easy case, wrongly decided by the Catholic majority no less. The more interesting cases involve privacy, fair trial (v. free press), obscenity, pornography, and hate speech. European countries do better than we do on some of these issues (in my view they fare much worse in the defamation area, not to mention the advocacy of illegal action area), but it is remarkable how undertheorized free speech issues are in Europe.

Steve Shiffrin

More years ago than I care to admit, my doctor told me I would have
trouble calling up nouns and proper names and that I would wrongly
worry about Alzheimers. He assured that it was a sign of aging, but
that dread disease. So I said life sphere rather than life world. But
it does make me wonder whether Walzer in Spheres of Justice discusses
Habermas, something I always want to look up when the book is not in

Patrick S. O'Donnell


I knew perfectly well what you meant to say. At my age I do stuff like that all the time (and my students have laughed heartily at a few of these Fehlleistungen): such Freudian slips (assuming a connection here between thought, word and deed) do often seem to have some peculiar reason or logic behind them, and it's especially interesting when a speaker's audience spontaneously grasps that logic or reason (although here I knew what you meant to say, not what might have motivated the 'slip'). I suppose I'll have to worry (or others will do it for me) when there's no longer a plausible or possible connection between my slips and any meaningful rhyme or reason.

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