Different sectors of our culture, usually divided over matters political, are curiously united in their opposition to something called “materialism.”
The secular left decries business and commerce as “crass” and “alienating,” bemoaning the relentless acquisition of gas-guzzling SUVs and cookie-cutter suburban homes. Not to be outdone, the religious right warns how the delights of the eyes may distract us from higher truths. In his first Republican convention speech, our president urged that prosperity “can be a drug in our system–dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty.”
There is something wrong with an exclusive concern for material goods–but not for the reasons typically offered by the left and right. Man does have a spirit, with special spiritual needs–but not in the way our cultural authorities usually explain it. The articles in these pages help show how dominant secular and religious forces are anathema to genuine spiritual needs, when the human spirit is understood for what it really is: the human mind.
The familiar leftist critique of “materialism” insists that material possessions add no meaning to life. This much is true: mere possession of material objects adds nothing to human happiness. But rational individuals don’t seek material goods to hoard possessively for the sake of impressing other people; they seek goods in order to use them. A rational man doesn’t buy an SUV and “McMansion” as a status symbol; he buys them in order to more comfortably travel with and house his busy family. He does not purchase his morning coffee as an act of gluttony; he uses it to focus himself on the tasks at hand. Far from encouraging “crass” consumption, corporations like Starbucks may in fact be helping to foment greater creativity from Pittsburgh to Peoria (“A Tribute” and “Coffee Culture”).
The secular opposition to “materialism” is hollow, anyway. True to their Marxist roots, most on the left are in fact philosophic materialists, denying the existence of the human spirit, maintaining that we are instead mere products of our genes, our environment and/or our socioeconomic class. No wonder the left urges us to indulge indiscriminately in matters of the spirit, whether artistically, romantically, or educationally. To them, the mind is unreal and its use is unimportant, one way or the other. Yet the mind is real, with a definite nature and definite needs. Foremost among these is the use of reason, the source of all human values from productiveness to self-esteem (“Say No to the ‘Self-esteem’ Pushers”).
Religion does not deny the existence of the spirit; instead it elevates the importance of the spirit above the material world (“the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”). Accordingly religion urges asceticism and chastity as a means to “higher” spiritual fulfillment. Yet the real human spirit, human consciousness, is situated in and dependent upon its material setting. Its objects are primarily the material things which bear on our physical survival, or which enable esthetic contemplation and reflection on our own nature as spiritual beings (“Religion vs. Spirituality”).
Of all the needs of the human mind, perhaps the greatest in a social setting is freedom. The secular left purports to advocate freedom for the mind, even as its shackles man’s body through its socialist economic policies. The religious right, by contrast, grants some economic freedom while at the same time seeking ever greater controls over the mind in cultural and scientific realms. Left and right together evade the crucial connection between mind and body. By shackling property rights with fraudulent concepts like “the public interest,” the left aids and abets the censors of the right (“Inquisition of the Airwaves”).
The human mind works in symbols and even needs symbolism that embodies its own efficacy. The fight over the World Trade Center design is a fitting dramatization of this need. The Twin Towers were eloquent symbols of the innovation of the human mind and of American freedom and capitalism. Destroyed by religious dogmatists opposed to these concepts, the towers were to be rebuilt by secular intellectuals using empty (or decadent) symbolism. (“A Tale of Two Symbols”).
But our culture cannot defend the principles of Americanism intellectually as long as it continues to substitute the concept of the human spirit with the idea of an otherworldly essence–the same essence upheld by our terrorist enemies. The pursuit of happiness means pursuit of happiness in this material world, with the aid of man’s spirit–his reasoning mind.