"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

This demi-paradise, this under kingdom....

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximus, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....Rome, and Rome alone, had built a kingdom and only it could approve how to build an underkingdom, a minirealm, a subordinate rule.
John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79.

And hot on the heels of my post about Trump's "bizarre" tweets comes Ezra Klein to point out we are amusing ourselves to death with Trump news.  I read his ideas expecting them to be at least a useful insight into my own, if not a better corrective.  In the end, I was disappointed.  He has a point, I think, but along the way he stops to distance himself from Neil Postman's analysis of our culture (well, the one we had when Postman was alive and writing, but even Klein has to acknowledge, sotto voce, that technology hasn't really changed culture that much) and drops this clunker, and it doesn't really get any better after this:

It can be hard to read Postman today; much of his argument scans as crankiness, and some of the world he describes — writing, as he was, before the dawn of Facebook and Twitter and search engine optimization and autoplay videos — feels like a golden age. This is a manifesto in which Sesame Street, with its mission of making learning fun, serves as a villain because children shouldn’t be taught that education is just another form of entertainment.

There is a lot of pedagogical theory running around these days (most of it, I think, about as sound as most sociological theory; i.e., based on nothing at all) about education being something other than the dull lecture, caricatured by J.K. Rowling's history professor at Hogwarts who died during a lecture, but his ghost kept droning on, and still teaches classes.  Yes, lectures can be dull and pedantic, and yes, there can be better ways to educate.  But consider the examples of the "super-teachers" that swept the country a few years ago in the wake of "Stand and Deliver," the story of Jaime Escalante.  Escalante was portrayed, in the film at least, as engaging his class; but really, all he did was lecture.  His approach was little different than the one I've seen portrayed in British film as the experience at Oxford:  small classes of students talking to a teacher. The lectures everyone loves to hate are actually what are done for first and second year students, to get them through the basics they need in order to advance to junior and senior level studies (I use the American terms, but you get the point).  I teach classes of 35 students in Freshman English every semester; UT-Austin teaches upwards of 150 (or more?  I don't know, never went there as an undergrad or taught there) students per Freshman English class (the student body is upwards of 50,0000).  The university has no choice bu to fill lecture halls in order to teach incoming students how to write for a university class.  As students rise in education, classes get smaller; graduate classes are seminars of a handful of students and a teacher, probably the ideal size for pedagogy; but hardly a practical size for a university that can't afford 1 faculty member for every 10 students.

And the biggest problem with education is students who expect to be entertained.

I've taught students who want to engage the subject; I've taught students who expect to have their boredom alleviated.  I don't blame Sesame Street for that, but there are studies beyond Neil Postman pointing out Big Bird & Co. really don't do that much to educate pre-schoolers.  Beyond a rudimentary level (basic language acquisition), knowledge and understanding are not absorbed through exposure; it is an intellectual effort, no more or less demanding than physical fitness.  You don't get "ripped" by watching somebody work out on a machine being sold to you between acts in a police drama.  You don't become educated by watching TeeVee, no matter what the program is.

And Mr. Postman's thesis that we were, and are, entertaining ourselves to death still pretty much holds up, especially when you consider how subdivided we are now by the internet and the ability to find people who agree with us, and damn all the benighted fools who don't!

And really, Ezra, you aren't that old and the world didn't begin with your birth.  It can be hard to read Plato today (not that Postman is on Plato's level); or Dickens; or really any book at all, in this age of tweets and Facebook posts.  That doesn't mean the effort is not repaid.  Besides, something "hard to read" may simply mean you need to face the challenge and learn something from it.  True education, really deep learning, can be the hardest thing of all.  Then again, as we used to say (maybe before Ezra's time, or maybe it would embarrass him as a memory):  "No pain, no gain."

Or maybe Mr. Klein is not that critical of all that came before him:

And yet the world we live in is both the sort of dystopia Postman feared and worse than anything he dared predict. The president of the United States emerged out of reality television, cable news, and caps-lock tweeting, and his great gift is his ability to own our attention in the precise ways those mediums own our attention — by stoking conflict, deepening grievance, starting fights, and turning everything, absolutely everything, into can’t-look-away entertainment.

Yeah, I don't know about that, either.  Just as we can't quite (yet) call the President wholly detached from reality (i.e., "insane" by lay standards), we can't also ignore the pronouncements of the President of the United States even when his Press Secretary tells us to.  Trump doesn't really have a gift;  Trump is the President, and while Trump may be the most useless person ever to hold the office, he's certainly no "Silent Cal" Coolidge.  He demands attention but he's the President; it's very difficult not to give the modern President attention.

But Mr. Klein sees my argument, and raises me:

But that’s precisely the point: While everything a president says is newsworthy in theory, virtually nothing that most presidents say is newsworthy in practice. President Obama, like Presidents Bush and Clinton before him, put endless time into painstakingly crafted speeches in carefully chosen locales laying out energy policy and tax ideas and defenses of his record. They didn’t get a tenth of the coverage that Trump’s rallies got. Sometimes they got no coverage at all — particularly on cable news, where entertainment value reigns supreme.

Yes, Trump does get coverage because he entertains.  His rallies are more interesting than policy speeches.  That isn't an accident, but you can't blame the media because people don't want to watch policy speeches.  Who has better ratings:  C-Span, or FoxNews?  Even MSNBC was beating out C-Span before Trump took office.  We will always prefer spectacle, especially in a democracy.  This is something Plato understood and the Romans exploited (panem et circenses, anyone?).  Did Trump really invent this?  Or does he just exploit it?  And besides, when the President is calling NFL players "sons of bitches" and responding with vituperation to a U.S. citizen (LeBron James) or damning California for not building enough dams, I think those statements are newsworthy.  Policy speeches are newsworthy, too, and I'd rather hear more of them from this Administration; but simply because smooth traffic flow doesn't draw the rubber-necking attention a 10 car pile up does is no reason to damn the local news for not airing a 5 minute story about how there were no major road accidents today.

Which is not to say Klein's thesis is completely wrong; but it is a bit too simplistic:

The chaotic swirl of information, anger, conflict, identity, performance, and trivia that characterizes Trump’s governance also characterizes the mediums that created him. For all the talk of normalizing Trump, it was our normalization of the platforms he thrived on — reality television, cable news, and Twitter — that made Trump possible. Could Trump have won the Republican primary and the presidency in the days before he could call into cable news shows at will, get his rallies carried live on television, drive media coverage from the comfort of his Twitter account? Could he have won if we hadn’t come to see our politicians as entertainers, to believe conflict the true story of governance, to connect the quantity of media coverage with the quality of candidates? I doubt it.
In that highlighted sentence there is a world of discussion to be had.  Andrew O'Hehir asked recently whether "left wing hate" aimed at Hillary put Trump in office.  To the extent it simply kept people away from the polls, people convinced Trump couldn't win (even Trump didn't think he could), the narrative attached to Clinton, the "quantity of media coverage" of her since her husband ran for office and she declared she wouldn't be in the kitchen baking cookies (ask your grandfather!), was undeniably a factor.  But is that a wholly new thing in American politics?

Lyndon Johnson was reported to have told an aide to spread a scurrilous rumor against a political opponent.  But it's not true, the aide protested.  "I know it's not," Johnson supposedly replied.  "I wanna see him deny it!"  We are surely more saturated with political coverage and news reporting than LBJ ever experienced.  But even to this day, without the benefit of CNN or Facebook or Russian trolls, everyone remembers LBJ for Vietnam or the "failure" of the Great Society, without realizing how much of the modern world we accept as immutable and eternal, came from his legislative efforts.  We have yet, 50+ years later, to begin to connect the quantity of media coverage of LBJ's decision to not run for office again (Vietnam) with the quality of the candidate (LBJ accomplished more in 6 years than FDR did, legislatively, in 12).  Maybe the situation seems worse to Mr. Klein because he's alive for it now.  But I can tell you it's more like Howland Owl's observation on nuclear physics:  it ain't so new, and it ain't so clear.

Mr. Klein does quote Postman just after that paragraph quoted above, and it's an apt warning, because nothing is ever neutral or benign, or "magical" in the sense that it will take of our problems without our oversight or input:

“To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple,” Postman warned.

Yes, but to think human nature, or human society, is fundamentally altered by technology or even "a program for social change," is not necessarily an advance on that stupidity.  Consider, after all, what Donald Trump does with it:

Like an NFL coach reviewing game film, President Trump likes to watch replays of his debate and rally performances. But instead of looking for weaknesses in technique or for places to improve, Trump luxuriates in the moments he believes are evidence of his brilliance.

Behind the scenes: Trump commentates as he watches, according to sources who've sat with him and viewed replays on his TiVo, which is pre-loaded with his favorites on the large TV in the private dining room adjoining the Oval Office. When watching replays, Trump will interject commentary, reveling in his most controversial lines. "Wait for it. ... See what I did there?" he'll say.

"People think it's easy," Trump said in one riff about rally footage, per a source with direct knowledge. "I've been doing this a long time now and people are used to it, every rally, it's like, people have said P.T. Barnum. People have said that before. And they think that's easy, because hey, P.T. Barnum, he does the circus. ... They don't realize, it's a lot of work. It's not easy."

In the early weeks of the administration, Trump loved to relive his debate performances against Hillary Clinton. His favorite, according to sources with direct knowledge, was the St. Louis debate after the Access Hollywood tape leaked, when the Trump team invited Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct accusers as their guests in the live audience.

Trump used to enjoy rewatching the moment in that debate when Clinton observed, "It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country."

"Because," Trump replied, "you'd be in jail."

A source who's discussed the moment with Trump told me, "He thinks it's the greatest thing that ever happened in the history of presidential debates."

Panem et circenses, divi filius, pontifex maximus.  The technology may replace coins and statues, but the fundamentals remain.


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