Of Happiness and of Despair We Have No Measure by Ernest van den Haag – Summary Essay

The following is a summary of an essay by Ernest van den Haag. He was a mid-20th century sociologist and cultural critic.

Mass media alienates people from personal experience. When someone turns to the mass media out of loneliness and boredom, isolation and addiction result. Mass media are inescapable and therefore an invasion of privacy. No matter where we are, mass media take us “somewhere else” and the outcome is loneliness in the company of others.

Mass media homogenizes because it is aimed at the “average.” The “stream” of mass media lessens capacity for experience and is simultaneously “invasion” and “evasion.” Parents tranquilize their kids with mass media, especially TV. The result is an early cheapening of taste.

While art “deepens perception,” pop culture leaves one vaguely discontented and is a “substitute gratification.” Substitute gratifications prevent real ones. The “din” of pop culture represses individuality. Repression with pop culture creates “insatiable longing.”

Pop culture provokes emotion without involving “the whole individual.” It bypasses reality and makes ultimate satisfaction impossible. The boredom that follows means that even when real life “events” occur they are simply distractions.

Capacity for genuine experience is ruined and people with “no life” are the outcome. These empty characters look for the “inside story of others lives” and other vicarious trifles. In sum, pop culture and mass media distract from “the human predicament,” blocking deep individuation.

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