John Mark, I’ll take the opposite approach. I’ve been moving in Victor Davis Hanson’s general direction the last few months, having been impeded only by my own shallow convictions, deep habits, and a reticent wife.
But, for conversation’s sake, I’ll offer three tentative responses to the reasons for staying engaged that you gave:
1) There might be some good stuff being produced in our culture, but good relative to what? And whose responsibility is it to find it? So much of what is produced is ephemeral that it’s simply not worth sifting through to find the few gems. And even the good stuff is quickly forgotten. I like the Lord of the Rings movies, for instance. But I am dubious that they had any meaningful impact on anyone. No Country For Old Men, a brilliant film, is now lost–like all brilliant films–to everyone but the most ardent film students and devotees of the Coen brothers (may their numbers increase!).
2) Yes, understanding is important for communication. But cultural contexts haven’t changed that much, and it seems the best method of understanding any individual and his culture is to converse with him (as you do), rather than consume his artifacts. An hour in conversation with someone will tell, I suspect, any teacher more than 100 hours of watching their movies or listening to their music might. All that could be gained through consuming culture can be found elsewhere, only with more depth and greater ease.
3) I suppose people make decisions based on pop-culture, though I suspect that “decisions” is overly generous for how most people act. But I also know that if everyone in my Twitter stream is talking Tina Fey, I can watch the five-minute clip and be up to speed. And few cultural artifacts or shows have that sort of force–except for Amish romance novels. That’s culture that needs consuming. (But seriously, isn’t the attraction to the Amish way of life a sign that such ascetic approaches are, in fact, deeply attractive to our saturated lives?)
Pop culture just isn’t all that interesting, or that durable. The power of art and film seems to rest upon our memory, which most of us have weakened to the point of non-existence through over-consumption. Why not drop out and read old, deep, hard books that people have forgotten? I somehow doubt that doing so would lead to the dreaded state of irrelevance (though it might lead to unpopularity).