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Steve Jobs, says Lord Sacks, epitomised the self-obsession of the modern world: ‘we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i’

We are trapped in an egocentric culture: only faith and family can make us free

By on Friday, 25 November 2011

No amount of iPads will make us happy (Photo: PA)

No amount of iPads will make us happy (Photo: PA)

The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, created something of a stir this week by appearing to assail the shining virtues of one of the great guru figures of the modern world, the late Steve Jobs. Among much else (to which we shall return), he said this:

The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i.

When you’re in an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about “i”, you don’t do terribly well.

Rather less strikingly (though this is of course translated from the Italian, maybe in the original it’s just as memorable as Lord Sacks’s speech) Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State said something very similar:

The economic crisis highlights the unsustainability of a market totally self-referential and, while raising new questions about the responsibility and ethics of financial processes, represents a fundamental question with compelling importance about the meaning of fate, dignity, and the spiritual vocation of the person.

I wish our great prelates would learn to talk to people in language they can relate to. This is how Chief Rabbi Sacks said more or less the same thing: “The consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness.” That’s what Cardinal Bertone is on about, isn’t it? The tablets of stone of modern consumerism teach us to say “i, i, i”, says Dr Sacks; the market is “self-referential” says the cardinal. Either way, it means that we are living in a culture in which individuals are cut off from each other, in a world in which we don’t even listen to music together with other people, we just walk down the street listening to sounds no one else can hear, in a bubble which cuts us off from everyone else walking down the street, who if they are not also listening to their own private music are talking to someone who is not there, or texting them, just as much in a “self-referential” private world.

Cardinal Bertone went on to say that one consequence of this “self-referential” materialism was an intolerant secularism which abuses the principle of non-discrimination to build a dictatorship of relativism that clashes with Christian values, and which is “against the marriage between a man and a woman, against the defence of life from conception to natural death”.

Cardinals, I suppose, representing the great architectonic completeness of Catholic moral teaching, pronounce in a grander way than the chief rabbi, who simply concentrated on what is certainly intimately connected with the central theme of Cardinal Bertone’s oration, the family. And this is certainly a focus we need to return to in this time of near-recession and the misery it has caused so many. It’s much easier to condemn bankers for their greed than to ask ourselves whether we have cut ourselves off from reality by our own materialism. Lord Sacks says, in great simplicity, that if you have faith and family you are very much more likely to be happy:

Therefore the answer to the consumer society is the world of faith, which the Jews call the world of Shabbat, where you can’t shop and you can’t spend and you spend your time with things that matter, with family: unless we get back to these values, we will succeed in making our children and grandchildren ever unhappier.

The family, of course, is precisely one of those institutions which has been undermined by ideology and politics over the last 30 years, ideology and politics of a kind that is also responsible for the crisis of materialism in which we all now find ourselves. How to build up the family (and only the so-called “traditional family” based on marriage between a man and a woman has – we know – the stability that society needs) is a subject for another time (though one I have addressed before this). But that’s where we need to start; thank you, Lord Sacks, for saying so.

  • Anonymous

    My admiration for Lord Sacks increases daily. He appears to be the only religious leader in Britain today who actually stands up for belief and traditional morality. He puts many of our Catholic bishops to shame.

  • Anonymous

    Why is so much [non-Papal] Vaticanese almost as incomprehensible as our home-grown Bishopese [of which our illustrious +Vin is an exemplar]?

    It wasn’t always such – the clarity of Vatican I – the crystal cogency of Rerum Novarum…even if you travel far into the 20th Century the language is lucid, coherent…even after Vatican II throughout the Papacy of Paul VI and then we hit…John Paul II – that’s when everything suddenly goes florid, sesquipedalian and obfuscatingly Rahneresque…the language of the Mgr Humphrey Applebinis. Why? No idea…

  • Honeybadger

    I read the original article in The Daily Telegraph. It was a breath of fresh air. The Chief Rabbi couldn’t have put it better.

    If he can grasp the nettle and tell it like it is in this moral and values famine, what’s up with our hierarchical elders and betters? Didn’t Christ say ‘Be not afraid’? Perhaps if they did, perhaps the bullies will think twice about slagging us off.

  • Avi lehyani

    Religion or it’s minions don’t have a monopoly on morality. In fact religion does nothing but imposing through threats and abusing the need for god that some have, its own deluded and corrupt version of morality.  If you don’t like Jobs’ inventions and genius, don’t buy his IPhone, IPad, IPod or use his flagship music application, ITunes.Don’t tell people how to enjoy their lives and try to push them back into the past. My two cents, 

  • BTylor

    Two cents’ worth of chopped word-salad.

  • Cantabrian

    aggressive words like ‘deluded and corrupt version of morality.’ are threatening and could led to aggersive actions. It is only a matter of time before this type of attitude, which is now prevalent in our society, leads to punitive legislation, For example,  abortion  and so called choice discriminates against those for whom it is sinful. How long before support services for the disabled are further diminished, because it is our choice and based on ‘a deluded and corrupt version of morality’.

  • Anonymous

    ‘i’ was just Apple’s version of ‘e’. Which was referring to technology, not the individual. Like in ‘e’ mail, or ‘e’ learning. I don’t think it was ever meant to refer to the self.

    I do see the Rabbi’s point however, an obsession with consumerism is NOT healthy, however I would argue being able to listen to all of your music with you, and to share and experience music with our friends (which is what the iPod has helped do) is not bad for society either.

    Also if the Church is serious at promoting lower consumption of goods, then the Pope should get off his damn iPad!

  • Apostolic

    I think that a good number of Catholics may agree that Rabbi Sacks represents basic moral values so much better than many Catholic and reformed prelates. Someone should tell him as much to cheer him on.

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, for heaven’s sake…

  • W Oddie

    I think lots of people already do, just as they told his predecessor, Lord Jacobowitz, the same thing.

  • karlf

    I find this all very odd. Religious faith is clearly successful in many ways to suppress aspects of human nature, which can be detrimental to one’s life. However, the way forward is surely, not to suppress, but to understand – what is it about human nature that leads us to act against our own interests? Different religions have different explanations for this, but you seem to have a general camaraderie of the faithful. For instance, you believe Muslims are deluded in believing that the Koran is the word of God, but you respect their faith, and appreciate how it guides them morally.
    How can you feel an allegiance with the deluded, who feel the same about your beliefs?

  • Jacob Ford

    I’ll give you an easy answer: we think they’re wrong.

    And we think you and your secular “modern” friends are backward, ignorant fools. You think if you don’t acknowledge that Christians made possible your precious modern luxuries, such as science and medical technology, while the other religions were still mutilating their women or stoning them to death, that means it never really happened??
    You secularists are a cancer on Christendom, not some independent group of people as you claim to be (you would be dead by the Muslims, who are real men, if not for one army made up of 90% Christians).

    You sit back and snipe religion, but never ever ever do you defend anything. That’s the strength of secular bloodsuckers: they take credit for every good in history and have some weasel excuse for every real negative effect of their actions…

    “Sexual uptightness? Christians’ fault. Child abuse? Christians’ fault. Now here watch my Hollywood movie about how sexy it is when a young girl lusts after an old man!!!” …Huh??
    You cant go around drawing all these wild lunatic conclusions about how your conspiracy theory evidence for Christianity being evil is all believable and then deny all the real connections between secularism and unhealthy behavior. It must be an accident that people who go to church at least once a week are healthier in every measurable way!!

  • Jacob Ford

    You’re right, some crackpot Holocaust denier from France is the real pope!

  • Jacob Ford

    A lot of Catholics prelates say things that are at least that morally cogent, you just don’t listen to them!

  • Jacob Ford

    Sorry bud, Steve Jobs shouldn’t have used all the science Christians devised if things are all that simple.

    Here is an exact illustration of what I commented on above.

    Two thousand years of Christian work and then Steve Jobs shows up the last day with a pretty design and we’ve got a bunch of fanboys treating him like Jesus Christ.

    I mean I know history will expose these fanboys for the unoriginal drones they are (and ironically accuse us of being), but I’m still not going to keep my mouth shut anymore when they start running off at the mouth about how the fact that a few bitter nerds capitalized on the fruits of Christendom means they now know anything whatsoever about philosophy and theology.

    This is why I don’t ever listen to biologists or tech dweebs about religion!

  • Jacob Ford

    Um, perhaps you should read something about the marketing behind the IProducts. Have you ever heard of a double entendre? You’re right that it was Apple’s version of “e”, but it was also meant to emphasize that with these new products we would be given complete control of our own lives. Of course there are virtues to this, but when it’s taken too far, the obsession with self becomes a cancer.
    Do you have a better modern symbol in mind for the promise of technology devolving into self obsession? (How many people do you think are using IPhones or IPads as “bicycles for the mind”? “Bicycle for the libido” is a more fitting motto if we’re being honest!)

    As for your pathetic attempt at snark, the Church doesn’t have a problem with using technology for good things. If you want the Pope’s words on the issue are widely available and he actually deplores this exact side effect of the IProduct revolution. 

  • karlf

    Well, you don’t sound very healthy in the mind – how can you assume to know so much about what I believe?? How did I accuse Christianity of being evil? Crazy!

  • Anonymous

    Apple never revealed the meaning behind their ‘i’ prefix. People can speculate all day but we will never know. It has been said that it comes the second name of Apple designer Jonathan Ive, or that indeed it might have refered to the user like Lord Sacks suggests.

    I think that predominately it probably came from the ‘i’ in internet, as the first product under the ‘i’ prefix was the imac G3 in 1998 – which was just when people wanted to start getting connected to the internet, and a major selling point of the model was that it had internet out of the box. I think it is likely the name just stuck.

    As for the Pope using the iPad, I was poking fun – I am not angry – but I still think the point stands. An iPad is a symbol of consumerism, and although it certianly can do good, in terms of being an effective Pope he would be much more productive with a regular laptop. It is showy and extravagant, when the Pope would suit something much more humble.

     It just smacks of a re-branding exercise, trying to get ‘down with the kids’ or whatever.

  • Anonymous

    “It is showy and extravagant, when the Pope would suit something much more humble.”
    How so? – the Pope lives in a palace full of priceless treasures, eats the finest foods, wears the finest clothes and is waited on hand and foot.

  • Brian A. Cook

    A cancer on Christendom….that sounds awfully eliminationist. 

  • Brian A. Cook

    Word salad?  Are you saying that there are no serious questions to be asked about Christians in history, warts and all?

  • johnny sprite

    I hadn’t realised that but both Lord Sacks and Cardinal Bertone are right. High marks to them for speaking out even if JObs is much admired

  • Sszorin

    No, it is a diagnosis.