Transcendent values for radicals

I just finished reading Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges. He’s an interesting writer, who has previously gone after both the Religious Right in American Fascists and the New Atheists in I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

My immediate interest in the book was due to a chapter criticizing the state of higher education in the US today. I was looking for something to start a discussion with beginning college students. And after reading the chapter, I think it might serve very well for that. Otherwise, Hedges has produced a rather interesting rant about the corruptions of American culture today. Examples of where vast swathes of our popular culture and public life are turned over to varieties of mindlessness is not hard to find. I wonder, however, whether the book suffers from selective attention.

There’s a short excerpt available online, with a few paragraphs expressing worries about the Christian Right, such as

These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the ruling elites, and the spectre of left-wing dissent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy. And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross.

That’s certainly not an impossible development.

What struck me, however, is an aspect of Hedges’s views that more usually surfaces in much more conservative writers. He worries about pop culture, spectacle, market-worship, and consumerism getting in the way of attention to “transcendent values.” Politically, Hedges identifies with a leftish view, broadly speaking. But it’s a very religious left, in many ways.

Now, I certainly have no objection to complaints about the mindlessness and superficiality that characterizes so much about American life today. I don’t even object to “transcendent values” too much if you read the transcendence lightly. Plenty of human experience supports interests beyond the narrowly commercial, and there is good reason to think that human flourishing requires us to attend to these. But on the other hand, it doesn’t do to exaggerate the level of consensus thoughtful people can reach on values beyond the commercial. Religious traditions, in particular, have a way of endorsing transcendent values in a much more reified sense of transcendence. Their values often go beyond concerns for human flourishing. Furthermore, criticizing secular corruptions of culture (and yes, the current corruptions of American culture are largely secular) in the name of transcendent values is more usually a religiously conservative preoccupation.

But then, if you’re religious, I expect you will be drawn to that sort of approach. Hedges tops it off by trying to finish his book on a positive note, producing some incoherent prose about “love” and so forth. I like it better when pessimist writers sustain their pessimism.