Opinion

Netflix, YouTube, Spotify won't save us from our sins

Posted June 28

The new adolescent ritual of binge-watching an endless stream of shows from Netflix or YouTube exacerbates America’s emerging culture of escapism. Even in small doses, the implications of this phenomenon of logging in to log out should provoke people of sound conscience to safeguard against the worst elements of Tinseltown’s anti-social allure.

Shakespeare’s King Hamlet had but one court jester to “set the table on a roar,” but today there are thousands of Yoricks standing ready to jest at the mere click of a mouse. Feudal farmers once waited weeks for traveling troubadours to sing them ballads, but now Spotify will stream some 30 million songs to your smartphone.

A group of economists released a paper last year analyzing how the rise of these and other “leisure luxuries” — including video games — help explain the well-documented decline in male workforce participation, especially among young non-college-educated men.

By choosing Mario over markets or marriage, modern adolescents submit to an extended fantasy they find more appealing than reality. Meanwhile, last year, the video game industry had sales of some $100 billion.

The researchers found, however, that these men self-report surprisingly high levels of “happiness.”

This should spark the query: Can such “happiness” last?

After all, the aesthetic euphoria of entertainment is fleeting. Momentary highs eventually give way to long-term lows that send ripples across our culture.

The romantic poet John Keats captured art’s evanescence in his famous “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Keats felt how the “viewless wings of Poesy” could cause “such an ecstasy!”

But eventually, like all entertainment, it bids “Adieu! adieu!” Like a “deceiving elf,” the aesthetic experience “fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep/In the next valley-glades.”

It leaves us wondering: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?”

There is certainly a role for aesthetic experience. But society cannot survive on self-indulgent leisure alone.

Aristotle, of course, called leisure an essential ingredient to happiness. And as a recent piece in the Atlantic points out, it was John Maynard Keynes in 1930 who anticipated the 15-hour workweek.

But even he warned that “for the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem, how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Leisure, as mentioned, is not wholly negative. But if the preponderance of one’s existence is consumed by consuming asinine art, it will not only corrupt the most vulnerable of society but also justify an aristocracy’s worst excesses.

In his seminal “What is Art?” the philosopher-novelist Leo Tolstoy distinguishes between decadent music or literature, which appeals aesthetically to cultural elites with a kind of “Christian art” that is at once accessible but also uplifting and uniting for all mankind.

He points to Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” Charles Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The House of the Dead” as examples of what he sees as great “Christian art.”

He criticizes Shakespeare, Wagner, Beethoven and other masters whose art evinces a powerful aesthetic but fails to lift the soul of the commoner toward a saner place. Ultimately, he concludes, such art — no matter how striking — contributes to society’s “demoralization.”

Tolstoy may have painted with too broad a brush, but his sentiments are hardly spurious. Much of what is praised by critics or attracts the attention of the masses today falls far short of “the feeling flowing from a consciousness of sonship to God and the brotherhood of mankind.”

This feeling, Tolstoy writes, gives way to “feelings of firmness in the truth, fidelity towards the will of God, self-denial, respect for man and love towards him, which flow from the Christian religious consciousness, and the simplest feelings, a tender or joyful state of mind from a song, or from an amusing jest intelligible to everybody, or a touching story, or picture, or image, produce one and the same effect — the loving union of people.”

Surely there’s material on Netflix that might reach toward such feeling — but even when one finds it amidst the graveyard of cinematic morass, the nightingale will eventually flee, reminding us that soon it is back to reality where the true Christian burdens of creating a better world reside.

David Foster Wallace, whose textbook-length fiction, “Infinite Jest,” confronts the growing reality of ceaseless entertainment, reminds us that true freedom is not the leisure to stream music and movies on demand, but that the “really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty … ways every day.”

Hal Boyd is a student at Yale Law School and co-editor of the forthcoming, Psalms of Nauvoo: Early Mormon Poetry.

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