Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sleaze, Dreck, Distraction and Yellow Journalism

These are the ills the teeming Press supplies,
The pois'nous springs from learning's fountain rise;
Not there the wise alone their entrance find,
Imparting useful light to mortals blind;
But, blind themselves, these erring guides hold out
Alluring lights to lead us far about;
Screen'd by such means, here Scandal whets her quill,
Here Slander shoots unseen, whene'er she will;
Here Fraud and Falsehood labour to deceive,
And Folly aids them both, impatient to believe ...
To these a thousand idle themes succeed,
Deeds of all kinds, and comments to each deed ...

- George Crabbe, 1785

Picture magazines and tabloid newspapers place before the millions scenes and facts which violate every definition of humanity ... The rise of sensational journalism everywhere testified to man's loss of points of reference, to his determination to enjoy the forbidden in the name of freedom.  All reserve is being sacrified to titillation.  The extremes of passion and suffering are served to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home.
- Richard Weaver, 1948

I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry; schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.
 - Neil Postman, 1985

Whoever it was who said that “a news story should be like a mini skirt on a pretty woman; long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting” was adept at humor but unaccomplished in the art of the analogy.  The presumption that the length of a story can, in and of itself, make the story uninteresting simply isn’t true.  Unlike the mini skirt, whose charm lies directly in proportion to what it does and does not reveal, the good news story can very often reveal far more by not reducing itself to mere bite-sized banality.

Unfortunately, the reason this analogy with women’s clothing came to mind is because, early yesterday morning, I was attempting to read news coverage of the possibility that the United States may take military action in Syria.  It appears that the government of Syria just used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of its own people (hurting thousands of others).  Now, when you are leading the world’s greatest military superpower, whether you like it or not, you have certain de facto responsibilities.  If you hold this responsibility, then you ought to draw a few lines about what is and what is not tolerated.  And this is precisely what the United States has done.  As a matter of Foreign Policy and International Law, we have drawn lines - and one such line is against the use of chemical weapons.  If there are no consequences when a line like this is crossed, then we lose our ability to effect a principled leadership around the world.  Such international influence derives, partly, from the absence of empty talk and transparent bluffing.

So now our government is considering military action in Syria.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with whether we ought to act, all of us can agree that doing so is an inherently risky proposition.  Given the instability of the region, given that there are countries like Iran who are always seeking an excuse to fight back against perceived Western encroachment by, oh say,  attacking Israel, given that Israel has repeatedly warned that they will use nuclear weapons to defend themselves, given Russia’s friendly relations with Iran, given that Assad’s regime does actually hold back more fanatical Muslim military elements as well as Al-Qaeda, given that Assad’s military possesses chemical weapons, given that weakening Assad’s military could potentially subject said chemical weapons to the changing of hands, given that Al-Qaeda would use all chemical weapons they could get their hands on, given that bombing chemical weapon stores could kill more civilians than Assad has already killed, given that any American military intervention in the Middle East always risks war on a global scale ... this is a deadly and serious matter.

So as I was browsing through news headlines about Syria on Google’s news feed, I chose one from The Huffington Post entitled, “Obama’s War of Choice in Syria Isn’t Defensive or Humanitarian,” by a Mr. John Glaser.  I did this early yesterday morning (which, for future reference, was on August 27th, 2013) at the time during which our government was preparing and considering whether to act.  The Huffington Post is a liberally slanted news source.  Indeed, Mr. Glaser’s anti-war article on the possibility of military action in Syria is from a liberal point of view.  But it is generally helpful to read news from both conservative and liberal points of view and, besides, over the years I have found the writers at The Huffington Post to be somewhat more educated and less hysterical than the reporters that you’d find over at CNN or MSNBC.

Wikipedia introduces and describes The Huffington Post as follows:

The Huffington Post is an online news aggregator and blog founded by Arianna Huffington, Kenneth Lerer, Andrew Breitbart, and Jonah Peretti, featuring columnists.  The site offers news, blogs, and original content and covers politics, business, entertainment, environment, technology, popular media, lifestyle, culture, comedy, healthy living, women’s interests, and local news.  The Huffington Post was launched on May 9, 2005, as a liberal/left commentary outlet and alternative to news aggregators such as the Drudge Report ... In July 2012, The Huffington Post was ranked #1 on the 15 Most Popular Political Sites list by eBizMBA Rank, which bases its list on each site’s Alexa Global Traffic Rank and U.S. Traffic Rank from both Compete and Quantcast.

But, upon beginning to read Mr. Glaser's column, I confess that I was distracted.

I did not, in fact, actually read through and finish his respectable, reasoned, and somewhat mistaken column until hours later.  Now granted, I was also distracted by the thoughts that produced this essay, but let’s consider the facts.  First of all, poor Mr. Glaser has been shoved over to the left hand side of the webpage upon which his written text only fills less than two-thirds of the space.  Intruding upon and, specifically designed to contrast with, the written text are twenty good sized full color photographs drawing the eye of the reader with links underneath them virtually shouting the following stories:

“Miley Cyrus Bleeped by MTV,”
“Billy Ray Cyrus Reacts to Miley’s VMAs Performance,”
“Lady Gaga Gets VMA ‘Applause’,”
“NYSNC Reportedly ‘Upset’ with Justin Timberlake,”
“Taylor Swift Tells Harry Styles: ‘STFU’,”
“Lamar Odom Reportedly Missing, Abusing Drugs,”
“Rihanna’s Priceless Reation To Spilling Popcorn,”
“Jessica Biel Shows Lots O’Skin In See-Through Dress,”
“PHOTOS: Check Out VMAs Red Carpet Fashion From The 2013 Show,”
“Study Reveals Terrifying Side-Effect Of Cocaine - After Just One Use,”
“Lady Gaga’s Butt Make Full Appearance [sic] At VMAs”
“Katy Perry Performs ‘Roar’ For The First Time.”

Then, by the time you have scrolled through the right-hand photos, there is, under Mr. Glaser's column with the heading, “You May Like,” six more links, with accompanying color photographs, to the following:

“Dads React To Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance,”
“Rihanna, One Direction Not Impressed With Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance,”
“Mayim Bialik’s Condition After Severe Car Accident,”
“Stunning Pictures of Kate Middleton,”
“The Sneakiest Way to Make a Fortune,”
“5 Questions That Will Not Get You Hired.”

In summary, not counting the photo above Mr. Glaser’s column of what appears to be a rebel armed with an RPG, there were 26 large color photos surrounding the text with accompanying links.  We can also predictably tabulate them as follows:
- number of photos/links concerning pop celebrities (including “Stunning Pictures of Kate Middleton”): 21 of 26
- number of photos/links concerning either the body parts or lack of clothing of women: 12 of 26
- number of photos/links concerning Miley Cyrus taking her clothes off: 7 of 26
- number of photos/links having anything to do Syria: 0 of 26
- number of photos/links having anything, anything at all remotely to do with politics: 0 of 26
- number of photos actually displaying undressed women alongside Mr. Glaser’s column: 6 of 26

The Huffington Post is allegedly a political news website.  They are supposedly serious about their discussion of the news.  Now sure, they also do have an Entertainment section, where one can currently read delightful news stories like “Shailene Woodley’s Adorable On-Set Selfie,” “Jared Leto Blasts MTV,” “The Top 10 Worst Video Music Awards Outfits of All Time” and “Inside Corey Feldman’s Sex Party.”  Whatever the hell “Entertainment News” is, that is apparently ... it.  But I hadn't opened up the Entertainment section.  I was trying to read political and international news, which is what I thought The Huffington Post was for.

Perhaps, I reasoned, this was just a momentary lapse or glitch, and somehow all the popular pop celebrity obsessed links and photos were not usually intruding into the space of a political columnist’s text.  Further investigation revealed the lapse/glitch theory to be too much to be hoped for.  The same popular links and photos were next to every single political article on the website.  Given the importance of the news about Syria, I tried The Huffington Post’s front page.  On the front page was the headline, “France ‘Ready To Punish’ Syria” with other related news links below it.

Directly below that was a large collection of discordant and jarringly mismatched news links and photos along the lines of “WATCH: Mika Rages Against MTV AGAIN,” “Why Sharon Stone Is Urging Younger Actresses To Get Naked,” “What Robin Thicke’s Wife Thought About Miley,” “Syria Vows To Defend Itself Using ‘All Means Available’,” “Kourtney Kardashian Half-Naked In New Instagram Photo,” “WATCH: Journalist Goes Topless During Interview With Mayor” and quite a few others of similar absurdity.  All these stories were all together.  All of them were on the single front page of The Huffington Post’s website.  This is the political news website of a nationally and widely read American news source.

This sort of thing brings up bad memories.  As a member of the United States Army Reserves, I served a year’s tour of duty in Iraq from 2006 to 2007.  I was there in country when Saddam Hussein was executed.  I was essentially a part of General David Petraeus’s troop surge which led to one of the deadliest months in Iraq since earlier in 2004.  There was much to be concerned about in global and national affairs.  At that time, Israel was fighting with Hezbollah in Lebanon.  North Korea had just detonated its first nuclear bomb.  General John Abizaid was warning the world that the escalating violence in Iraq might cause a civil war.  The Taliban made an assassination attempt on the president of Pakistan.  We had heard rumors through our command that British intelligence had just stopped another terrorist attack designed to use liquid explosives in commercial international airlines.

When I was in Iraq, there was also cause to be concerned about back home.  The housing bubble had burst.  Defaults on subprime mortgages were on the rise (up 93% from just a year before).  New Century Financial had already filed for bankruptcy.  The Virginia Tech shooting happened.  And my childhood baseball hero, Barry Bonds, was being indicted unjustly (I still believe) for perjury about his using steriods.

No Longer News

When you are in the middle of an overseas deployment, one of the things you greatly and deeply desire is news from back home.  We didn’t always have time to sit around watching the news, so any glimpse (in between missions or in the chow hall) of news about life back in America was dearly treasured.  I still remember being able to have precious time to spend watching CNN or FoxNews.  And I still remember the bitter disappointment we all continually felt whenever we saw what the news anchors were spending most of their time reporting.  I still remember because I began to write down a list of the news stories I was given by American popular news media in between my missions.  Thus, while I served my tour of duty in Iraq, I learned that:

(1) there was now this new something called a smartphone or an “iPhone.”
(2) Britney Spears shaved her head
(3) other pop celebrities had opinions about how Britney Spears's shaved head made them feel
(4) Lindsey Lohan was sometimes not sober
(5) Lindsey Lohan was arrested for a DUI and drug possession
(6) Lindsey Lohan went to rehab
(7) other pop celebrities had opinions about how Lindsey Lohan made them feel
(8) Paris Hilton, at approximately the same time, released a new album and went to prison
(9) Madonna adopted a kid from Malawi
(10) Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie had a baby
(11) Tom Cruse & Katie Holmes were married in some kind of Scientology ceremony
(12) there were now photographs on the internet of a naked Vanessa Hudgins
(13) Paul McCartney broke up with his one-legged wife
(14) Dora the Explorer toys made in China were being recalled

Those are the major news stories I remember seeing talked about interminably on major national news networks playing in the chow halls of U.S. Army bases up and down Iraq from 2006-2007.  This was the dreck mass media was giving to our fighting men and women overseas hungry for news of back home.

I suppose that none of us should be surprised by now.  It’s not like pop celebrity news media is anything new.  I haven’t yet really helped you, the reader, to learn anything new.  All the way back in 1888, Matthew Arnold wrote: “If one were searching for the best means to efface and kill in a whole nation the discipline of self-respect, the feeling for what is elevated, he could do no better than take the American newspapers.”  “The sensations purveyed by the press,” wrote Richard M. Weaver in 1948, “are admittedly for the demos, which is careless of understanding but avid of thrills.”  “Notice, too,” wrote Bernard Iddings Bell in 1952, “how brazenly the press violates proper rights to privacy, even in cases of deep sorrow or pitiable weakness; how it encourages its readers to be Peter Prys and Peeping Toms.  See especially how it vulgarizes the nobilities inherent in marriage, in birth, in death.”

“Pitiable weakness” might just describe the embarrassment of a 20-year-old girl who, for no other reason than that she has been raised from since the time she was a little girl inside the world of television and public display, just made a display of undressing herself.  But such a thing is not, anymore in our mass media world, properly speaking, a news story.  It is not a news story, that is, until a celebrity and sex obsessed media salivates over her and sensationalizes her performance and all and any hostile reactions to it.  “And so,” wrote Neil Postman in 1985, “we move rapidly into an information environment which may rightly be called trivial pursuit.  As the game of that name uses facts as a source of amusement, so does our sources of news.”  Looking at all the links and headlines trying to attract the attention of the reader’s eye over at The Huffington Post, trivial is just the right word to describe them.  “We do not,” declared Chris Hedges in 2009, “learn more about Barack Obama by knowing what dog he has brought home for his daughters or if he still smokes.  Such personalized trivia, passed off as news, divert us from reality.”

The rise of sensationalist trivial and banal news media was thus predicted by thinkers watching the spirit of the age.  As industrialization grew, conservative romantics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge were able to predict what would happen to journalism as it became increasingly subject only to popular mass consumer demand.  In A Lay Sermon in 1817, Coleridge wrote:

“Every work which can be made use of either to immediate profit or immediate pleasure, every work which falls in with the desire of acquiring wealth suddenly, of which can gratify the senses, or pamper the still more degrading appetite for scandal and personal defamation, is sure of an appropriate circulation.”

Coleridge here describes everything the world of MTV stands for.  We are still in the process of losing our virtues.  One of the old conservative intellects of what is now a former age, Richard M. Weaver, in his book, Ideas Have Consequences, commented upon the growing cultural trends that we are now experiencing in full grown form today.  One of the virtues lost in today’s mass media was called propriety, an idea that many would now laugh at.  Weaver wrote:

“Propriety, like other old-fashioned anchorages, was abandoned because it inhibited something.  Proud of its shamelessness, the new journalism served up in swaggering style matter which heretofore had been veiled in decent taciturnity.” (pg. 28.)

Increased Fragmentation of Thinking (or Mass Schizophrenia)

What does it mean to lose the virtue of propriety?  One of the consequences is that, according to Weaver, “we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest of juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic, follow one another in mechanical sequence without real transition.”  (pg. 102.)  Of course, Weaver was thinking only of radio and newspapers in 1948.  Neil Postman, in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, was able to consider the problem in the age of television.

Postman titled the seventh chapter of the book, “Now ... This,” and explained how news on the television is reported in a massed jumble with no sense for the propriety of what stories are reported upon as a matter of priority or of order.  Postman writes:

“The American humorist H. Allen Smith once suggested that of all the worrisome words in the English language, the scariest is ‘uh oh,’ as when a physician looks at your X-rays, and with knitted brow says, ‘Uh oh.’ I should like to suggest that the words which are the title of this chapter are as ominous as any, all the more so because they are spoken with knitted brow - indeed, with a kind of idiot's delight. The phrase, if that’s what it may be called, adds to our grammar a new part of speech, a conjunction that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything. As such, it serves as a compact metaphor for the discontinuities in so much that passes for public discourse in present-day America. ‘Now ... this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly - for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening - that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now ... this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.” (pgs. 99-100.)

This still describes the reporting over at CNN or at Fox News.  It also describes the placement of story photos and links on online news journals and websites.  This is the reduction of news into entertainment.  The news webpage is glutted with dozens of headlines and photographs all begging for the attention of the reader.  Click on any one of them and one arrives at another page with exactly the same distractions as before.  When the headline “Syria Vows to Defend Itself Using ‘All Means Available’” is placed right alongside the headline “Kourtney Kardashian Half-Naked In New Instagram Photo,” any sense of importance or value to one story over any other story is diminished.  Most of these stories will, at best, fill a quarter of the webpage with actual text.  The rest is full of other links and attractions and, at least in the case of The Huffington Post yesterday, pictures of undressed women.

Postman continues:

“This perception of a news show as a stylized dramatic performance whose content has been staged largely to entertain is reinforced by several other features, including the fact that the average length of any story is forty-five seconds.  While brevity does not always suggest triviality, in this case it clearly does.  It is simply not possible to convey a sense of seriousness about any event if its implications are exhausted in less than one minute’s time.  In fact, it is quite obvious that TV news has no intention of suggesting that any story has any implications, for that would require viewers to continue to think about it when it is done and therefore obstruct their attending to the next story that waits panting in the wings.” (pg. 103.)

The Huffington Post is not alone in this sort of thing.  Yesterday morning, CNN displayed the headline on the front page of their wepage: “U.S: ‘We are ready to go, like that’” [sic] and “Hagel: U.S. forces are ready to move,” thus announcing the possibility of war.

Almost directly underneath this story block is, explicitly proclaiming both total mindless randomness and electronic devaluation of any story’s worth, the subheading “READ THIS, WATCH THAT” underneath which is a collection of photos and links to stories and videos.  Among these stories and videos on the front page of one of the largest news sources in the United States were “In the shower, photo subjects open up,” “Miley, what exactly were you thinking?,” “Giants punter’s abs ridiculously ripped” and “Baby goat does not like what’s in mirror.”

The banality here is so blatant that it is difficult to explain how this is problem.  How important, really, is the above story about the possibility of war when it is placed on CNN’s webpage right next to the below stories?  What does this do to our sense of reality, to our sense of the importance of one story over another, to our sensitivity to the real potential for evil and death in the world?  Neil Postman was very eloquent upon this phenomena in the case of television commercials:

“The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal.  This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that television news is designed as a serious form of public discourse.  Imagine what you would think of me, and this book, if I were to pause here, tell you that I will return to my discussion in a moment, and then proceed to write a few words in behalf of United Airlines or the Chase Manhattan Bank.  You would rightly think that I had no respect for you and, certainly, no respect for the subject.  And if I did this not once but several times in each chapter, you would think the whole enterprise unworthy of your attention.  Why, then, do we not think a news show similarly unworthy? ... We have become so accustomed to its discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, by a newscaster who having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King ...”  (pgs. 104-105.)

And Postman did not yet know about the placement of random internet ads, links, and videos.  One of Postman's modern intellectual heirs, Nicholas Carr, wrote a provocative book called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.  Carr applies many of the insights of Postman to our use of the internet along with contemporary studies from neuroscience on the different types of thinking engaged in by the human brain.

The argument is that the design of a webpage affects how we read.  Thus the internet has changed the old newspaper forever.

“When the Net absorbs a medium,” argues Carr, “it re-creates that medium in its own image.  It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form; it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed.  All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content.”

Not surprised?  Or does the idea, that the medium of the online webpage changes the content of what used to be considered a news story, sound implausible?  Carr continues:

“A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text.  But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine.  Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch.  It’s tactile as well as visual.  ‘All reading,’ writes Anne Mangen, a Norwegian literary studies professor, is ‘multi-sensory.’  There’s ‘a crucial link’ between ‘the sensory-motor experience of the materiality’ of a written work and ‘the cognitive processing of the text content.’  The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing.  It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.

Hyperlinks also alter our experience of media.  Links are in one sense a variation on the textual allusions, citations, and footnotes that have long been common elements of documents.  But their effect on us as we read is not at all the same.  Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them.  They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them.  Hyperlinks are designed to grab out attention.  Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.”  (pg. 90.)

If you just pause to think about it, the idea that the materiality and the sensory experience of the thing that possesses the text that you read affects how you are able to read it is incredibly fascinating.  But here is another thing.  This is not an issue that should demand the taking of political sides.  Some day a literary neuroscientist is going to write a brilliant argument for why reading the text in a book is far superior to reading the text of a webpage.  But the distraction and fragmentation of our news media is not the only problem.  This is not just some innocent matter of personal taste or mere entertainment.  There are moral dimensions to reporting on certain stories as well.  To make the decision to report on “a story” is not value-neutral.

Deciding to report on a story is a moral choice and anyone who does the reporting is responsible for that choice.

Deciding to consume a news source is also a moral choice and anyone who patronizes a news source is responsible for that choice.

The Problem of Yellow Journalism

Lauren Moraski for CBS News reports: “This was one performance that won’t be forgotten very quickly.”  Au contraire, Ms. Moraski.  Thankfully, a majority of Americans do not watch MTV’s awards shows.  We have not seen this performance you are so excitedly telling us about, nor do we plan on seeing your videos of it.  “Cyrus, 20, gave Robin Thicke, 36, a lap dance, paraded around with dancing bears, twerked her butt off and grabbed her crotch a few times.  Not to mention the tongue.  We saw a lot of that.  Thicke’s mother, Gloria Loring, told OMG! Insider, ‘I don’t understand what Miley Cyrus is trying to do ...’” It should be obvious, shouldn’t it?  Ms. Cyrus is seeking mass media attention and she apparently understands the news media accurately enough to know exactly how to get them to obsess over her.  They have now proved her right.

Chiderah Monde of the New York Daily News is excited to report, on a webpage replete with a large number of full body photographs of the undressed Ms. Cyrus, that “Twitter erupted with comments after the performance and even set a new bar.  ‘Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke perform’ brought in more than 300,000 tweets per minute, according to date gathered by the social network.”  One is still unsure how this is supposed to be news.  Those of us who have no reason to use Twitter remain unsurprised that MTV awards watchers are precisely the same people who use Twitter.  That those who always tweet are going to be in the habit of setting tweeting records is as uninteresting and as obvious as the information that those who always report on pop celebrity are going to be in the habit of setting pop celebrity reporting records.  The New York Daily News is also happy to inform us that while most “comments suggested Cyrus went too far,” the recipient of the lap dance, “Thicke, her grinding partner, didn’t see anything wrong with it.  ‘That was dope,” he tweeted afterward.”  Yes, that’s right.  We now live in a world where comments about the comments about a non-news story is now a news story.

Ann Oldenburg, of USA Today, will not let this rest.  In the story entitled “Miley Cyrus moves on with new racy photos: She’s showing her backside again,” Ms. Oldenburg is pleased to report that “While talking heads are still busy clucking about Miley Cyrus’ wild MTV Video Music Awards performance of Sunday night, the star is moving on.”  Now USA Today tells us that Ms. Cyrus is “tweeting new photos of herself in provocative poses, all showing her backside.”  But just in case we wanted to know, USA Today begins to describe the aforesaid tweeted photos: “First Miley is seen squatting in a red, white and black Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls shorts and bikini bra top.  She then followed it up with the shot of herself in a locker room, sporting a thong over white bike pants and the red top ...”  Just in case we wanted to see them.  USA Today includes a photo gallery with the news story, displaying all of Ms. Cyrus’s new photos for the perusal of any lascivious eye.

I could continue like this, looking at the coverage that almost every major online news source gave to Ms. Cyrus’s striptease, but those three paragraphs is already too much.  (Although, I also refuse to let Fox News off the hook either.  They self-righteously reported on this too with a play by play of the performance.)  This may now be the point where the angry blogger is supposed to launch into his long-winded rant against the scum currently running the news media and MTV.  But I’m not going to do that.  I don’t need to because I wouldn’t have anything original to say.  This is an old problem, not a new one.  This is merely yet another example of cheap populism, easy sensationalism and lurid entertainment combined into something that was named “Yellow Journalism” by E.L. Godkin in the late 1800s.  Today we just have electronic media to ramp it up.  Add a sex-obsessed culture and the objectification of women and the modern day pop celebrity worship and you’ve got MTV.  The facts are the facts.  Salacious images attract more viewers to any news website more than mere written text will.  This has affected who we are as a people.

Monday, August 19, 2013

On Being Young and Conservative in the Twenty-First Century

Over the last decade, the primary sensation of being a young conservative can only be described as a sinking feeling combined with a profound sense of loss.

The current conservative leadership has failed utterly. It is failing now.  And, they are currently demonstrating a large amount of very compelling evidence that they will fail even more miserably in the future.  And by “they” I mean “we.”  Those of us younger conservatives still count ourselves as committed members to this grand tradition of political philosophy and culture.

The failure here is a failure to communicate.

It is a failure to articulate clearly.  (This often necessarily follows the failure to think clearly.)

It is a failure to remember old-fashioned things like civility, humility, wit and well-roundedness. 

It is a failure in all three forms of rhetoric: logos, pathos and ethos.

It is a failure to preserve what we hold dear.

It is a failure to represent a point of view that has a richness of depth, history and tradition.

It is a failure of continuity with the past.

It is a failure to act, to compromise, to be effective or to accomplish even minimal and rudimentary goals.

And, above all, it is a failure to persuade.

Not only is the contemporary leadership failing to persuade in the political, economic, cultural and religious spheres, it is failing to persuade even those in its own camp.

It is not even persuading the now grown children of those who were the strong conservatives of former decades.

Progressives, liberals, postmoderns, “postconservatives,” independents .... all are dominating the public square.  Conservative viewpoints are, purportedly, being voiced on the airwaves of Fox News and talk radio.  But, if you have any background in conservative thought, you will not find Fox News to be conservative.

Even the American church, long one of the last citadels of conservative thinking, has been overrun by the theological innovations and progressivism of the likes of Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthony Thiselton and Stanley Grenz.  It does not matter, for purposes of responsibility, that church pastors and teachers do not even know who these thinkers are.  They are still to blame because they parrot the ideas of Grenz et. al., ceaselessly and uncritically.  Only the occasional Brian McLaren knows from where his ideas derive.  At least he is honest enough not to pretend to be traditional or conservative.

The desire to educate oneself - to read theology, philosophy, sociology or psychology - while also attending a modern American church is depressing.

There is nothing quite like the experience of reading how Carl Jung’s rejection of Christianity naturally led to his ideas about human ego and personality, and then to hear the pastor of a Christian church teach Jung’s conclusions without attributing them to their source (let alone without giving any indication of any understanding of from where they derive).

There is nothing quite as discouraging as reading the arguments of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers against the Judeo-Christian foundations of thought, and then to go listen to the ideas of Maslow and Rogers preached from a church pulpit.

The modern American church is powerfully attracted to cultural fads and many have swallowed the conceit that the church is bound to shift and change along with the culture.

Because the postmodernism and deconstructionism of Theodor W. Adorno, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Peter L. Berger and Jacques Derrida are still in fashion in society, a dumbed-down populist version of the same is being taught in the modern American church.  If the ideas of Norman Vincent Peale and Charles A. Reich are reduced and overly-simplified derivatives of Rogers and Maslow, then the teachings of Phil McGraw, Laura Schlessinger and Oprah Winfrey are reduced and overly-simplified derivatives of Peale and Reich.  (This has been demonstrated by what they actually teach, irrespective of their protestations otherwise.)

Popular American evangelical, “emergent” or “missional” teaching don’t just repeat the ideas of Rogers or Maslow.

Instead it copies the copycats.  That’s right.  In other words, much of the teachings of the American church are reduced and simplified derivatives of McGraw, Schlessinger or Winfrey.  There is now far too much church teaching that copies the derivatives of Peale and Reich who are themselves derivatives of Rogers and Maslow.  American church teaching can’t even get its postmodern thought from Lyotard or Foucault.  Instead, it borrows it from Hollywood or other forms of popular culture, after all traces of actual thought have already been put through a rigorous dumbing down process.

It does this to be popular and to draw a crowd and to, when it comes down to it, act as if the church were a product that needed to kowtow to the economic laws of supply and demand. 

Thus the kitschy marketing gimmicks, the buzzwords and slogans and nonsense, that, when you actually pay close attention to what is really being said - turns out to be mere slogans or aphorisms that are so broad they could mean almost anything.

Thus all the trendy clichés and buzz-words in Christian sub-culture - metanarrative, intentional, missional, gospel-centered, relevant, authentic, journey, conversation, identity, construction, self-talk, “speaking into,” “prophetic word,” relational, hipster, “spiritual formation,” etc., etc.

Postmodernism came along and announced (reasserting the propositions of Mediaeval nominalist philosophy) that language, along with the traditional definitions of English words, had lost its meaning.  The Deconstructionists claimed that traditional rationalist thinking was passé, that traditional Western thinking was corrupted by hidden metanarratives, ideologies of power and social constructs, and that human identity was to be constructed out of whole cloth by “finding” the satisfaction of supposed psychological needs “in” things of your own choosing.  All this nonsense was explained in trendy and fashionable terms.  Much of the modern American church took one look at it, rolled over on its belly and happily adopted the language of a philosophy designed to cut down Christianity at the roots.

None of the sort of thing, of course, that would brighten one’s day.

When I point out how conservatism has been losing, I do not mean to complain about our numbers in the sense that I expect traditional conservativism to be the majority point of view.

I am not referring to the mere fact that we are currently a minority.  Conservatism has survived minority status before.  Neither I am referring to the fact that we are not trendy or currently in fashion.  Being fashionable has never been a worry of the conservative, and despite all the hyped-up talk of getting “with it” with the younger generations or appealing to minority demographics, of learning how to be “up to date” with the latest technology and social networking campaign strategies, we are going to have to admit that making these changes is not going to “fix” anything not already blatantly obvious or easy.

Listening to opponents labeling us as “behind the times” or “reactionary” or “antiquated” is as anciently old hat as political philosophy itself.  Even to be worried about such accusations is to forget how to be a conservative in the first place.

But, then again, that’s it.  We have forgotten how to be conservative.  The consequences of this are the well-documented widespread desertions from our ranks.  But, even worse, the consequences are the loss of the conservative point of view from the public square.

We have allowed the Sean Hannitys and Ann Coulters and Glenn Becks, the Mitt Romneys and Rick Santorums and even the Rand Pauls, to make up their own definitions of what being conservative means.  This is our degradation.  This is our criminal abandonment of our outposts in the dark of the night.  This is our incompetence and ignorance and naivety and defeat and break with our time-tested traditions.

This is our severing ourselves from history, from reason, from culture, from intellectual foundation, from the arts and humanities, from basic human relationships and from life.

To be young and conservative has become, for far too many bright and active and passionate people, to be disenchanted and disillusioned.

I know too many other young conservatives (or former conservatives) who are struggling with embitterment, with apathy and with boredom.

The most powerful inclination can easily turn into the desire to disassociate ourselves from conservatism itself.  We turn more independent and progressive.  We join the ranks of those who have simply given up on our ancestors.  We no longer care enough to study or to learn what being conservative really meant before it was co-opted and used as the pretext for the ranting and invectives of populist self-serving demagogues.

How do we escape this banalization and ultimate despair?

How do we avoid ignoring the problem in the hope that it just goes away?

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, to be young and conservative has meant sinking into an ever deepening morass of cynicism.  It is so easy to be cynical.  It is too easy to sneer and dismiss words that seem as if they are now empty and have lost all meaning, and then to attempt to create your own language that only further isolates you from the rest of the world.  It is also too easy to give up the hard and complex work that thinking through the present situation requires.  It is too easy to quit trying and to just unquestioningly accept the uncomplicated role of a mere propagator and loyal supporter of one’s own ideologically enclosed camp.

Or, why not just join the opposition? - it is, after all, more open, more tolerant, more inclusive, more willing to help the lost and the poor and the needy.  That is what Christ would have done ... isn’t it?

Or, perhaps even more easily, why not allow your cynicism to encompass the entire political spectrum?  Just float along with the times.  Liberal and conservative are boxes too simplistic to fit into anymore anyway.  Why do we need to be labeled at all?  Why follow our parents and grandparents' biased stereotypes?  Why not just be independent, individual, authentically you?  Why not insist on being merely your own unique, nonconforming and beautifully individual snowflake?  Why not?

Because these dumb questions have been asked before.

Because choosing your own individualhood over continuity with the past, both bad and good, is the rejection of community.

Because refusing all labels and generalizations is to ultimately conform to the transitory fashion of the time.

Because it is to merely accept the proposition that form and limit to thought is the negation of self (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

Because doing so is to follow an old and worn and much trampled path.  It is, quite frankly, a dull and unimaginative option.

Because, and it is time we understood these distinctions again, “immanentizing the eschaton,” as Eric Voegelin would say, is impossible and attempting it causes more harm than good.  Because conservativism, as H. Stuart Hughes would say, is the negation of any ideology.  Because one acts differently if one is trying to attain perfection, than if one is trying to work within the confines of reality.

You do not, in fact, get to do your own thing.  “Doing your own thing” is the populist path pursued by Cleon in the time of Pericles.  It is the position insisted upon by Callicles in spite of the challenging questions of Socrates.  It is the ability promised by Gaius Marius as he began the destruction of the Roman Republic.  Insisting on your own personal independence is the much romanticized path articulated in all its pleasure-seeking detail by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and then followed happily by Thomas Paine, by the Jacobins and by Robespierre, by Ralph Waldo Emerson and by Henry David Thoreau, by Marx and by Engels, by John Stuart Mill, by William Jennings Bryan, by the Progressives and the by Positivists, and by the Existentialists and the Deconstructionists.  And each merry path, historically, ends in darkness.

Eschewing labels is a philosophical trope unto itself, promulgated by post-modern philosophers precisely like Michel Foucault or by Christian religious “emerging” teachers like Brian McLaren.

Just sit down and read Plato’s Gorgias.

Seeking to be free from traditional social constraints is not just something you can do without associating yourself with a particular line of thought.  Life is too complex to avoid schools of thinking.

There are philosophically backed positions for any action that you may choose to take. Our actions, after all, demonstrate how we really think.  Even if we do not think through the logical consequences of the ideas that our actions demonstrate that we really believe, the logical consequences still exist regardless.  There is a intellectual history to thought.

There are ideas that you will prove that you believe by how you act, even if you are ignorant of where these ideas originated from or if you are uneducated as to how these ideas have been explained and why and to what purpose.

By how you act and by how you speak (or by how you don't act or how you don't speak), you support one philosophy against other ways of thinking, even if you do not even know that the philosophy exists.

I also am, however, one of these uneducated unfortunates.

Intellectual history is not a subject often taught in schools or universities.  It was not taught to me.  It was not taught to my parents.  It wasn’t really taught to my grandparents.  If you (a) are alive right now, and (b) have received a modern education, then the chances are really really good that you were cheated.  We’re all in the same boat.

Understanding that the ideas that I speak, support and advocate have histories is not an understanding I have been conditioned or trained to possess.  I wasn’t taught habits of precision in my speech, my writing or my thinking.  The Classical Educational model, prevalent in schools from before the Medieval Ages to the Nineteenth Century, was designed to create well-rounded critical thinkers.  The progressivized Twentieth Century version of “education” was designed to teach useful subjects and values.  The Twenty-First Century version of “education” is merely a 2.0 of the progressive version, the same version, now with increased access to computers and internet and phone applications.

We need to realize the unique problems with which we have to deal in our own age.  In his follow-up book, Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley explained:

“In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies -- the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

If Orwell's version of totalitarian oppression was the fight of the 20th Century, then Huxley's soft form of (even democratic) despotism, will be the fight of the 21st Century.

“For conditions even remotely comparable to those now prevailing we must return to imperial Rome, where the populace was kept in good humor by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment -- from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions. But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema.  In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature (the feelies, orgy-porgy, centrifugal bumble-puppy) are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation ... Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but some-where else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.”

We can do better.

There is much work to be done, but first things first.

Here is, therefore, putting all participants in our current cultural, political and religious landscape ON NOTICE:

There are still conservative thinkers who are not so easily disillusioned with our old political philosophy.  This is because our thinking is not based upon mere passing historical fashions like the “Tea Party” or the “Religious Right.”  What we know of conservatism is not only the transitory movements our own little age or lifetimes.  Instead, our thinking is shaped by the intellectual work that was carefully laid before us by the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Robert Nisbet, Richard M. Weaver, Gerhart Niemeyer, James Burnham, Eric Voegelin, Whittaker Chambers, Leo Strauss, T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer Moore, George Santayana, W.H. Mallock, W.E.H. Lecky, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Henry Newman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others.  This is the tradition we adhere to.

This is a foundation that still exists today even if the talking heads currently making large amounts of noise on the television are unaware of it.

Therefore, today we read and seek out respectable, formidable and persuasive thinkers such as Robert P. George, Victor Davis Hanson, Russell Jacoby, Marilynne Robinson, Roger Scruton and Wendell Berry.  In our current technological age, we are also interested in making a few adjustments and realignments within the Conservative coalition.  This ought to include a line of thinking that questions how technology shapes who we are and how we live: begun by the likes of Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and now Nicholas Carr, among others.

We greatly value tradition.  We understand that prudence and moderation are virtues.  We acknowledge Edmund Burke’s warnings, but also his elucidations upon how conservative thought always has to make new adjustments in every historical age.

We exist.  We are young.  And we are going to start participating in the public square.  There are some readjustments that will have to be made.

I, for one, find the level of discourse conducted over at Fox News equally as appalling as that conducted over at CNN.  I cannot stomach listening to the thoughtlessness of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and others like them.  I am embarrassed that anyone at all ever listens to Glenn Beck.

There is some serious housecleaning that needs to be done.

 The times do change.  The more Huxley that I read, the more prophetic I find him.  We are allowing ourselves to be too distracted and contented.  We no longer care about politics and culture, let alone do we care about being active in these spheres.  We are not doing much of anything to preserve the basis of our own civilization.  Huxley explained:

“That so many of the well-fed young television-watchers in the world's most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing, but not too surprising. ‘Free as a bird,’ we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unrestricted movement in all the three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone -- or at least by bread and circuses alone. ‘In the end,’ says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's parable, ‘in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, “make us your slaves, but feed us.”’ And when Alyosha Karamazov asks his brother, the teller of the story, if the Grand Inquisitor is speaking ironically, Ivan answers, ‘Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that they have vanquished freedom and done so to make men happy.’ Yes, to make men happy; ‘for nothing,’ the Inquisitor insists, ‘has ever been more insupportable for a man or a human society than freedom.’ Nothing, except the absence of freedom; for when things go badly, and the rations are reduced, the grounded dodos will clamor again for their wings -- only to renounce them, yet once more, when times grow better and the dodo-farmers become more lenient and generous ...

“The young people who now think so poorly of democracy may grow up to become fighters for freedom. The cry of ‘Give me television and hamburgers, but don't bother me with the responsibilities of liberty,’ may give place, under altered circumstances, to the cry of ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ ... The Grand Inquisitor reproaches Christ with having called upon men to be free and tells Him that ‘we have corrected Thy work and founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority.’ But miracle, mystery and authority are not enough to guarantee the indefinite survival of a dictatorship. In my fable of Brave New World, the dictators had added science to the list and thus were able to enforce their authority by manipulating the bodies of embryos, the reflexes of infants and the minds of children and adults. And, instead of merely talking about miracles and hinting symbolically at mysteries, they were able, by means of drugs, to give their subjects the direct experience of mysteries and miracles -- to transform mere faith into ecstatic knowledge. The older dictators fell because they could never supply their subjects with enough bread, enough circuses, enough miracles and mysteries.”

The circuses of the Twenty-First century are now all the rage.  They are distracting and occupying us without any relief.  Conservatives are going to have to choose to distinguish the moderation and prudence that is necessary for the order of their own souls.

And, finally, and most important of all, there is an underlying conviction.  Social civilized order is a gift with profound moral dimensions.  The choices that we make on where we invest and spend our time, on how we choose to think, on what we emphasize, compromise or give away are not limited to some little secular material box that the Gnostic heresy would have us limit them too.  In epistemology, there is a moderate school of realism that (a) acknowledges the existence of absolute truths, and (b) also acknowledges the fact that they only inhere in the very specific particulars of the reality in which we actually live.

Mere abstract theorizing and ideological reductionism are of no use to us.

Apathy and cynicism are not going to change anyone’s soul for the better.

There are adjustments on issues we can make but there are also some hills worth dying on.

There is so much of very great value in our culture.  If even a tiny fraction of what the greatest philosophers and theologians have said about the existence of the eternal is true, then there are really moments in life and culture where we can find that intersection between “time and the timeless.”  There are particulars that exist in the reality in which we live that can make us into better persons.

There are some problems that, without striving for any perfect Gnostic dream world, we can address differently from the past.  We will have to.  There are intellectual and social and solid foundations upon which we can rest our positions.  When we rest a reform - no matter what the social problem happens to be - upon the right traditional grounding, it will be unassailable to ill-informed critique.

There are moral dimensions to our life together that I have no interest in trivializing into simplistic ideological slogans but neither do I have any interest in denying their existence.  You shouldn’t either.  It is by acknowledging these further dimensions to life that we can take the broader and more moderate view of political and cultural questions.  It is by challenging ourselves to think through all the implications of how we choose to act or not to act that we can strive for discernment, prudence, and reasoned good judgment.  It is by seeking out the good that we have no experience of that we can shape and change ourselves for the better.

These are all considerations that I have too long neglected to my own detriment.  My prayer and my desire is that I - that we - would neglect them no longer.

The foundations have not yet been destroyed.  They are still there to be the ground for our action.

Tempus fugit.  Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret.