Cultural Critics: Who Are They And Why Do We Need Them?

Those of you who know me realize I love to dissect issues and challenge existing norms. I suppose the motivation for such behavior rests in the fact I believe culture to be a socially constructed phenomena built on many faulty assumptions while richly embedded in various mythology.

As I think about it, this is somewhat the common thread throughout all my blogs at their core.

Therefore, be it politics, religion, education, materialism, capitalism, etc…we design symbols (think the American flag, star of David, cross, academic degrees, fashion labels, etc…) to inspire and lend meaning to an otherwise existential existence. We need cultural critics to come along and challenge these meanings, ask questions and be what Neal Postman refers to as, “culture watchers and worriers” -I love to surround myself with such folk.

It is for this reason that I love to read/listen from cultural critics whom I believe to be thoughtful and honest in their approach to examining underlying assumptions about life and culture. Today I offer you five cultural critics I believe to be intellectually honest, who question nearly everything and, again, who I believe, most importantly, to be genuine and without an agenda (insofar as human beings can be without an agenda)…meaning they will not necessarily tow a political line even if it means not conforming to the group who holds many of their own ethical/political beliefs. In other words, intellectual honesty drives their conclusions rather than political expedience.

Some on this list are liberal and some, two in particular, are quite conservative. Liberal or conservative does not concern me as I hold intellectual honesty up as the highest ethical standard to which a cultural critic must hold. I love to read and listen to those I fundamentally disagree with first and foremost. As the famous utilitarian John Stuart Mill once said, “He who knows only his side of the argument, knows very little of that.” And besides, simply because one’s intellect drives them to one side or the other on any given issue, perhaps I can be persuaded toward that side as well.

So, as I present five culture critics that I appreciate, please know that though these five hold a huge diversity of beliefs and are all on both ends of the political spectrum, I still fully realize all these people are quite male, quite white and even quite around my age. If you are reading this blog and follow other culture critics that do not fall into this demographic, please share! I do follow others who do not fit this demo, namely Neal deGrasse Tyson and Glenn C. Loury, yet I find these men to be more science and economics, respectively.

Sam Harris. Love me some Sam Harris and his devout atheism. Yes, there are other atheists who I greatly admire, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, yet I believe Harris, a Phd in Brain Neuroscience, is more forthright in his approach -even if it means being very unpopular among many of his own ilk. Many years ago -when I did subscribe to a particular rigid form of faith- I read his book, “The End of Faith,” and I recall one of my fellow believers asking me why I would read such a book. tumblr_m8wxjvFNtq1rb8qy1o1_500I knew at that moment he did not get me nor my approach to life. Even as a person of faith I would much rather read a book from one who honestly challenges my belief system rather than a book cheerleading my existing belief structure from someone on the same team. Please note that to this day I am NOT an atheist yet concurrently still very much admire this guy’s brain and brilliant reasoning. Please check out his podcast, “Waking Up With Sam Harris.” Do not expect a lot of bells, whistles and sound effects. He is smart man with a mic who not only challenges prevailing norms, but your vocabulary as well.

Dennis Prager. Ok. Full disclosure. I do not want to include Dennis Prager, from an emotional perspective, as he rubs off on me as a very arrogant, pretentious and abrasive religious intellectual snob slash asshole. But, damn, this guy is extremely bright, very articulate and one of the best debaters I have ever heard…perhaps some people deserve to be arrogant? Do I agree with him on the majority of issues? No. Not even close. Yet, I need to give the man a lot of credit for well reasoned and brilliant arguments while taking callers who disagree with him as priority on his radio show. I may completely disagree with him on a conclusion -for example he is supporting Donald Trump (actually he would argue he is not supporting Donald Trump as much as not supporting Hillary Clinton) yet, he will offer a very reasoned and insightful argument as to why….which, again, I do not agree with  yet, when one gives thoughtful and reasonable explanation-in a democracy continuing to be plagued by unwarranted emotional idiocy over reason- I must say, well done. As brilliantly as Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have argued for atheism, Prager has argued equally as powerfully for the existence of God. You can get a feel for his views here.

Leonard Shlain. God rest his soul. Shlain, an amateur historical anthropologist and a world class brain surgeon, is, in my view, a one-of-a-kind cultural critic as he examines contemporary culture through the lens of history, the function of the human brain and technology. His book, “Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light,” creatively connects great advances in science as coinciding with great advances in art; relating the different regions of the brain working in a type of yin/yang harmony.  My favorite book of his, “The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image,” is a one-of-a-kind examination of the role human evolution plays with the role of emerging technologies and the resulting cultural unintended consequences. Sadly, Shlain is no longer with us, though I do look forward to reading his final book, “Leonardo’s Brain,” an examination of the brain of arguably one of the most intelligent human beings to ever live, Leonardo Da Vinci, soon. I also currently follow his daughter Tiffany, who I find to be a provocative feminist documentary filmmaker, among other talents.

Cal Thomas.One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s objective. Election and power are.” Thomas is an unabashed conservative who is not afraid to take some pretty serious potshots at his evangelical brethren. I was first drawn to Thomas with his 1999 book, “Blinded By Might: Why The Religious Right Can’t Save America,” where he criticizes the church for caring more about political power than personal pious living. I love the way comedian Jay Leno summarizes Thomas, “You know that old curmudgeonly uncle everyone ignores at holiday time and then someone asks him a question and you realize he knows what he’s talking about? That’s Cal Thomas.” It is difficult for me to endorse any cultural thinker who has Sean Hannity write his forward or be endorsed by Rush Limbaugh, yet I sense Thomas is very genuine and forthright in his ideas and is not afraid to go strongly against the flow of his own political affiliation at times. Anyone who can be critical of their own political ideology is a respectable cultural critic in my economy.

Eric Schlosser. Schlosser is certainly not as well decorated as any of the above cultural critics, yet this reasonable liberal voice has provided a couple of somewhat recent cultural cornerstone books with his well-known, “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side Of The American Meal,” and the book that really inspired me to put him on this list, “Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, And Cheap Labor In The American Black Market.” In this work, Schlosser discusses three of the strongest black markets in the country that, if collapsed, would undermine the entire American economy: The sex industry, illegal immigration and cannabis. This 2003 book has had a tremendous effect on my feelings toward immigration as he literally goes out into the strawberry fields of central California (known to migrants as “la fruta del diablo) to see first hand the plight of the immigrant workers. Schlosser is not afraid to get his hands dirty and presents some compelling arguments concerning the dark side of America’s economics.

There are a few others that came close to this list of five. Those who know me well might wonder why Neal Postman is not on this list -this is due to my opinion that Postman, though legendary in his critique of mediums, namely television, is not always intellectually honest and does have an unabashed agenda in many of his works, most specifically, “The Disappearance of Childhood” and “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”  I really respect an “oldie but goodie” like Marshall Mcluhan and even more recent stuff from Malcom Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers), yet I find the former somewhat dated and the latter not a true critic of culture rather one who observes and opines on human psychology.

So everyone, let us never stop questioning cultural norms, conventions and assumptions -and this will never happen if we always surround ourselves with the like-minded. To my religious friends, go out and hang with an atheist for a while, and for my atheist friends, get your ass to a church, mosque or synagogue and see what it is all about. You might just be surprised…

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