Everything now is entertainment. And the purpose of this omnipresent commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture has mostly become one vast infomercial.
I have a reccurring nightmare. I am in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo's incomparable fresco of the "Creation of Man." I see God stretching out his arm to touch the reclining Adam's finger. And then I notice in the other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi.
When was the last time you have seen a featured guest on David Letterman or Jay Leno who isn't trying to sell you something? A new movie, a new TV show, a new book, or a new vote?
Don't get me wrong. I love entertainment, and I love the free market. I have a Stanford MBA and spent 15 years in the food industry. I adore my big-screen TV. The productivity and efficiency of the free market is beyond dispute. It has created a society of unprecedented prosperity.
But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it puts a price on everything.
The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us....
Why do these issues matter to you? This is the culture you are about to enter. For the last few years you have had the privilege of being at one of the world's greatest universities—not only studying, but being a part of a community that takes arts and ideas seriously. Even if you spent most of your free time watching Grey's Anatomy, playing Guitar Hero, or Facebooking your friends, those important endeavors were balanced by courses and conversations about literature, politics, technology, and ideas.
Distinguished graduates, your support system is about to end. And you now face the choice of whether you want to be a passive consumer or an active citizen. Do you want to watch the world on a screen or live in it so meaningfully that you change it?
As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, I'm not so sure the students got or were worthy of his message:
David Ollison, graduating with a degree in economics, plans to go on to law school. He said he is decidedly a "left-brain guy." While trying to keep a female blow-up doll named Francesca perched on his shoulders, he said that his primary interest is making money.
Besides, he laughed, "I'm a pop-culture whore."
A group of guys dressed in various animal outfits debated the issue of whether culture is bankrupt.
"You choose your own path in life," mused Zach Henick. "If you want to go into arts, go into arts. I'm pursuing economics."
His friend Jay Rubenstein, wearing camel ears, paused to proclaim, "Society sleeps in a bed of pigs." He added that the quote is his own.
"I think culture has to be what you make of it," he said. "For me, my culture is sports." He plans to work in energy trading and has a job lined up at Morgan Stanley.
Who would have thought that American triumphalism in the Cold War would lead to an insane, illegal war abroad and mindless idiocy at home? Who would have anticipated that we would have a national leadership that hates complexity, speaks neologisms, and simply honestly can't think. These aspects to U.S. society have been there all along, but now they are trumpeted with pride and anti-intellectual hubris. In the end, the pathetic farce of American society has its poets and artists begging the top tier of American academia not to be airheads and dopes. These days, who's smarter than a fifth grader anyway?