Power and influence

Bruno Maçães writes on world order and feelings of chaos:

What was remarkable about the Brexit referendum was that the country that had invented free trade and taken it to the four corners of the world was now refusing to be part of the largest and freest economic bloc ever created. As for Donald Trump, he has come to symbolize a precipitous retreat from the previous American foreign-policy consensus. … According to Trump, “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

The global order created after the Second World War had been endangered before, but in the past the threat had come from the out­side. Now it seems to be in danger of being abandoned by those who had been responsible for building it and who had always benefited from it. For some, Brexit and Trump have simply been an error of perception: It is true that the countries at the core of the system have to restrain their power and cannot come out on top every time, but over the long term they reap the largest benefits and have the most interest in preserving the system. …

The truth is that for many in the United Kingdom and the U.S., there is no longer a functioning liberal order. …

Surprising? Perhaps, but we have seen it all before — in those societies first suffering the impact of European or Western expansion. One historical analogy is with the arrival of European civilization in the Muslim world. Until the 18th century the course of history still seemed to be favoring the great Muslim empires, and the ruling Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal elites certainly never entertained any other possibility. When the shock arrived, in the form of a string of military defeats and growing trade dependence, no one was prepared. The initial reaction was to wait for the storm to pass while remaining faithful to traditional habits and principles. Two main strands of reaction were eventually considered. First, there was a call to purify Muslim society from later influences and deviations. The origin of the Wahhabi radical reinterpretation of Islam dates from this moment. The second response, moving in the opposite direction, was to try to reform Muslim society, to address its perceived weak­nesses and to appropriate some European ideas, at least in the area of military technology.

A similar process took place in China roughly a century later. Determined to open Chinese markets to foreign goods, Britain intro­duced the habit of opium smoking into the country and later defended its trade through military means, quickly dispatching the poorly equipped Chinese navy. The emperor sued for peace, opened five trade ports to foreigners, and ceded Hong Kong to the British in per­petuity. It was impossible to pretend that the world order as it had been conceived in Beijing since time immemorial could survive the onslaught, but the mandarins spent most of the next few decades doing just that, for their most treasured values prohibited the recog­nition of any alternative to Chinese civilization. …

One could speculate endlessly about the root causes of the new situation, but the truth is notably straightforward. Technology — once the preserve of the West — is now universal. In both cases discussed above, the Muslim and Chinese worlds were faced with a new kind of civilization, carrying all the secrets of modern science, which at first must have looked like supernatural powers. The encounter between European and Asian empires in the mod­ern age had a very specific meaning to those involved: the superiority of European technology. Some Asian thinkers or polemicists went so far as to make the intriguing claim that the encounter was not between Asians and Europeans, but rather between Asians and European machines.

We have now entered a new age, one perfectly summarized by saying that Western machines are every day meeting Asian machines. After all, the same tools we have used — and continue to use — to manage and influence the rest of the world are now fully available outside the West. When power and influence flow in all directions at once, the result is, from one point of view, a democratic order where everyone will rule and be ruled at once. From a different point of view, it could be described as a field of forces where every action is a reaction in an endless chain. Countries, peoples, voters, and presidents are ultimately disturbances in a chaotic field.

Maçães has a new book out called The Rise of Eurasia, which I assume delves into this further. As technology has flattened the world, I think Maçães is right in suggesting that “power and influence [now] flow in all directions.” Neither rising powers like China nor powers like America and Europe are able to exert unilateral power and influence, and that’s making everything politically and socially frothy.

Story and promise

A few years ago I came across Robert W. Jenson’s 1993 piece on modernity and post-modernity, and wrote some notes at the time that I thought I’d surface here. It was a helpful introductory piece for me to the topics of modernity and post-modernity, and why people use these words to describe our area and the recent past. Maybe it’ll be helpful for others, too.

First, Jenson’s thesis is conveyed to a significant degree right in the headline: “How The World Lost Its Story” addresses itself to the idea that western societies have tended to lose their cohering/cementing sense of meaning and purpose and are left with significant questions on how best to live and why.

Jenson talks about this struggle through the framework of “story and promise,” or put another way through the relationship between the story of this life and the promise of what’s to come. The “story of this life” corresponding roughly to the order and purpose to be derived from the chaos and randomness of everyday life, and the “promise of what’s to come” corresponding roughly to Christian or transcendent perspectives on eternal truth, itself pointing to a “something” beyond the immediate experiences of the present and thus furnishing reasons to create and conserve the order and structure of a society for both present and future purposes. Modernity was friendly to reason, but post-modernity appears not to be.

“Story and promise,” Jenson suggests held “modernity” together:

… [modernity] has supposed we inhabit what I will call a “narratable world.” Modernity has supposed that the world “out there” is such that stories can be told that are true to it. And modernity has supposed that the reason narratives can be true to the world is that the world somehow “has” its own true story, antecedent to, and enabling of, the stories we tell about ourselves in it.”

On “promise”:

In effect, the church could say to her hearers: “You know that story you think you must be living out in the real world? We are here to tell you about its turning point and outcome.” ….

One of many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence. Israel had been the nation that lived a realistic narrative amid nations that lived otherwise; the church offered herself to the gentiles as their Israel. The church so constituted herself in her liturgy.

Think broadly and regard “liturgy” as analogous in some sense to culture, or shared ideas, or observances that make a cohesive civilization possible by harmonizing its discordant parts into a whole:

[Today, many] simply do not apprehend or inhabit a narratable world. Indeed, many do not know that anyone ever did. The reason so many now cannot “find their place” is that they are unaware of the possibility of a kind of world or society that could have such things as places, though they may recite, as a sort of mantra, memorized phrases about “getting my life together” and the like. There are now many who do not and cannot understand their lives as realistic narrative. John Cage or Frank Stella; one of my suburban Minnesota students whose reality is rock music, his penis, and at the very fringes some awareness that to support both of these medical school might be nice; a New York street dude; the pillar of her congregation who one day casually reveals that of course she believes none of it, that her Christianity is a relativistic game that could easily be replaced altogether by some other religion or yoga—all inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.

“All inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.”

To think of the most basic and essential stories about reality as, at best useful, but most likely just necessary lies is nihilism, and it’s a weak basis for either getting any anything “real” or for creating or conserving any reliable social order. A friend of mine at Penn State used to almost consolingly remark to himself in moments when he was feeling dispirited, “Life’s a bitch, then you die.” This dark humor was basically funny at 20, but within a few years it becomes more visibly an abyss from which nothing good will emerge.

We convince ourselves no absolute truth exists, and at the same time that morale-boosting lies are absolutely useful—all while failing to recognize the irony in grasping at something transcendent while rejecting any permanence-outside-of-time as impossible.

If this is discouraging or just leaves you feeling angry or nihilistic, read Jenson’s whole piece for a holistic sense of what he’s talking about.

Three languages of politics

Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides is a short introduction to the reality of “three axes” in American political life and the problem with trying to heal the culture before confronting the moral concerns of each axis. Tristan Flock writes:

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians each have their own tribal language, which often baffles and infuriates outsiders. Until we grasp the nuances and assumptions of each language, mutual understanding is impossible. Fortunately, Kling provides a simple framework for making sense of these semantic differences. …

Kling’s framework eschews the simplistic left–right spectrum in favor of a ‘three-axes’ model of political communication, whereby people tend to communicate in either a progressive, conservative, or libertarian manner. It is simple enough to be grasped at a glance, yet complex enough to aid in understanding. The three ways of communicating can be summarized as follows:

  • Progressives communicate along an oppressor–oppressed axis, where those who stand up for the underprivileged are good, while those indifferent to the plights of the disadvantaged are bad.
  • Conservatives communicate along a civilization–barbarism axis, where those who stand up for time-tested traditions and virtues are good, while those indifferent to assaults on Western values are bad.
  • Libertarians communicate along a liberty–coercion axis, where those who stand up for individual rights are good, while those indifferent to government intrusion are bad.

I think Kling presents a good tactical basis for healing some of the political and social wounds in our culture, simply from a standpoint of learning how to better and more meaningfully communicate across different lines and ways of thinking. This doesn’t strike me as a good strategic basis for political engagement, because it doesn’t directly address questions of telos and virtue and meaning in everyday life, and I suspect those implicit questions are what drive people into different axes in the first place.

Sharing what you love

John Byron Kuhner on parenting and love:

I think most children get a sense pretty clearly of what their parents hate.  Most people are pretty hateful, and pretty public about it  … and children in particular are exposed to parents’ hatred all the time. People dread family gatherings [because of] hatred that is so toxic, and which people feel so entitled to impose on everyone else….

I want to share with my children what I love. I want to model for them how an adult loves: loves his spouse, loves his family, loves his work, loves his home, loves the world, loves people, loves things, loves life, loves God. And I know I can’t love everything equally. Some things I’ll love more than others. But I’d like my kids to know what I love and why, just because they’ve been part of our lives, and we’ve talked about them.

My mother tells me a story about her own father, that he would take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art frequently, and yet she never knew why he decided to do so. His own wife, my mother’s mother, had no interest and never came. He had only an elementary school education (he was an immigrant from Ireland), and hadn’t even gone to high school, much less college. What did he get out of seeing Canovas and Van Eycks with his daughter on his day off from work? “I never really knew why he wanted to take me there,” my mother confesses. “All I know is that it changed my life.” My mother ended up going to college, and majoring in art history. A father probably doesn’t have to talk about the things he loves, to make a difference in his child’s life: he just has to expose his children to them. But talking about them is useful too.

“I never really knew why he wanted to take me there. … All I know is that it changed my life.”

After many years of teaching, I have to confess that I believe all the more in parenting. For all the very best students I’ve ever had, I’ve been able to say: “I think these children learn things at home.” Their parents may not be teaching them Latin, but they’re teaching them something: their children are learning to cook, they’re learning life wisdom, they’re learning to fix things, they’re learning about books and ideas. In short, almost all of my best students have been people whose first classroom was their home. And one never knows what kind of effect this will have decades later.

At age thirty-seven, when Goethe made his first trip to Italy, he wrote of his arrival as a realization of “all the dreams of my youth,” and he specifically recalls those prints he had seen in his childhood home. Goethe would remain in Italy for nearly two years, and would consider it one of the high points of his life — and a kind of fulfillment of his relationship with his father. I find this one of the most moving images of the tension between the generations resolved by shared love of enduring intellectual beauty.

This is one of my great hopes as a parent: that my children one day will see past my faults, and find me redeemed somehow by the love I had in my heart, a love they have found a way to share somehow. This would be, I think, one of the things that would make me most happy…

What a great witness to the power of little moments of witness to love.

Lonely young people

Rhitu Chatterjee reports on a recent study, specifically highlighting the health risks of loneliness and the surprising fact that loneliness afflicts the youngest Americans are lonelier than older Americans:

Loneliness isn’t just a fleeting feeling, leaving us sad for a few hours to a few days. Research in recent years suggests that for many people, loneliness is more like a chronic ache, affecting their daily lives and sense of well-being.

Now a nationwide survey by the health insurer Cigna underscores that. It finds that loneliness is widespread in America, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. …

More than half of survey respondents — 54 percent — said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And 2 in 5 felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they “are isolated from others.”

…the results are consistent with other previous research, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, who studies loneliness and its health effects. She wasn’t involved in the Cigna survey. While it’s difficult to compare the loneliness scores in different studies, she says, other nationally representative estimates have found between 20 percent and 43 percent of Americans report feeling lonely or socially isolated.

Loneliness has health consequences. “There’s a blurred line between mental and physical health,” says Cordani. “Oftentimes, medical symptoms present themselves and they’re correlated with mental, lifestyle, behavioral issues like loneliness.” …

And there is growing evidence that loneliness can kill. “We have robust evidence that it increases risk for premature mortality,” says Holt-Lunstad. Studies have found that it is a predictor of premature death, not just for the elderly, but even more so for younger people.

… “Our survey found that actually the younger generation [born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s] was lonelier than the older generations,” says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. …

Respondents who said they have more in-person social interactions on a daily basis reported being less lonely.

The survey also found that working too little or too much is also associated with the experience of loneliness, suggesting that our workplaces are an important source of our social relationships and also that work-life balance is important for avoiding loneliness.

When we talk about the health of our country in a civic sense, it seems to me that we should almost always also be talking about the health of the human relationships in our country.

Wisdom for seekers

I started following Naval Ravikant some time ago on Twitter. His thinking tends to be rich and compelling. Noah Madden has compiled many of Ravikant’s quotes and insights, and below I’m excerpting parts of a series Ravikant shared a few weeks ago on success and wealth:

  • Seek wealth, not money or status. Wealth is having assets that earn while you sleep. Money is how we transfer time and wealth. Status is your place in the social hierarchy.
  • Understand that ethical wealth creation is possible. If you secretly despise wealth, it will elude you.
  • Ignore people playing status games. They gain status by attacking people playing wealth creation games.
  • You’re not going to get rich renting out your time. You must own equity – a piece of a business – to gain your financial freedom.
  • You will get rich by giving society what it wants but does not yet know how to get. At scale.
  • Pick an industry where you can play long term games with long term people.
  • The Internet has massively broadened the possible space of careers. Most people haven’t figured this out yet.
  • Play iterated games. All the returns in life, whether in wealth, relationships, or knowledge, come from compound interest.
  • Pick business partners with high intelligence, energy, and, above all, integrity.
  • Don’t partner with cynics and pessimists. Their beliefs are self-fulfilling.
  • Learn to sell. Learn to build. If you can do both, you will be unstoppable.
  • Arm yourself with specific knowledge, accountability, and leverage.
  • Specific knowledge is knowledge that you cannot be trained for. If society can train you, it can train someone else, and replace you.
  • Specific knowledge is found by pursuing your genuine curiosity and passion rather than whatever is hot right now.
  • Building specific knowledge will feel like play to you but will look like work to others.
  • When specific knowledge is taught, it’s through apprenticeships, not schools.
  • Specific knowledge is often highly technical or creative. It cannot be outsourced or automated.
  • Embrace accountability, and take business risks under your own name. Society will reward you with responsibility, equity, and leverage.
  • “Give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” – Archimedes
  • Fortunes require leverage. Business leverage comes from capital, people, and products with no marginal cost of replication (code and media).
  • Capital means money. To raise money, apply your specific knowledge, with accountability, and show resulting good judgment.
  • Labor means people working for you. It’s the oldest and most fought-over form of leverage. Labor leverage will impress your parents, but don’t waste your life chasing it.
  • Capital and labor are permissioned leverage. Everyone is chasing capital, but someone has to give it to you. Everyone is trying to lead, but someone has to follow you.
  • Code and media are permissionless leverage. They’re the leverage behind the newly rich. You can create software and media that works for you while you sleep.
  • An army of robots is freely available – it’s just packed in data centers for heat and space efficiency. Use it.
  • If you can’t code, write books and blogs, record videos and podcasts.
  • Leverage is a force multiplier for your judgement.
  • Judgement requires experience, but can be built faster by learning foundational skills.
  • There is no skill called “business.” Avoid business magazines and business classes.
  • Study microeconomics, game theory, psychology, persuasion, ethics, mathematics, and computers.
  • Reading is faster than listening. Doing is faster than watching.
  • You should be too busy to “do coffee,” while still keeping an uncluttered calendar.
  • Set and enforce an aspirational personal hourly rate. If fixing a problem will save less than your hourly rate, ignore it. If outsourcing a task will cost less than your hourly rate, outsource it.
  • Work as hard as you can. Even though who you work with and what you work on are more important than how hard you work.
  • Become the best in the world at what you do. Keep redefining what you do until this is true.
  • Apply specific knowledge, with leverage, and eventually you will get what you deserve.
  • When you’re finally wealthy, you’ll realize that it wasn’t what you were seeking in the first place.

And here are a few of Naval’s observations that Noah Madden highlights:

  • “The secret to public speaking is to speak as if you were alone.”
  • “The fundamental delusion — there is something out there that will make me happy and fulfilled forever.”
  • “Even today, what to study and how to study it are more important than where to study it and for how long. The best teachers are on the Internet. The best books are on the Internet. The best peers are on the Internet. The tools for learning are abundant. It’s the desire to learn that’s scarce.”
  • “A rational person can find peace by cultivating indifference to things outside of their control.”
  • “The power to make and break habits and learning how to do that is really important.”
  • “To be honest, speak without identity.”

 

Hemingway on leisure

A great piece on Ernest Hemingway’s approach to leisure:

Hemingway had a zeal for making the most of life, not only in his professional vocation, but in his leisure time as well. Papa always wanted to be where the action was, not just as a spectator but as a participant; he wanted to experience what the world had to offer firsthand, with all five senses. In this he certainly succeeded, becoming not only a war correspondent and writer of classic novels, but a hunter, fisherman, sailor, amateur boxer and bullfighter, and world traveler. Few others in modern history have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched so much. …

Papa embraced what he called “the fiesta concept of life.” He was always seeking after excitement and adventure and looking to have a “hell of a good time.” Hemingway’s friend, A. E. Hotchner, “had never seen anyone with such an aura of fun and well-being. He radiated it and everyone [around him] responded.” He was always looking forward to what was around the corner, and began each day with high expectations for what it would bring. In fact, he typically stood on the balls of his feet, like a boxer, seemingly ever ready to move, to fight, to leap into action, to go.

To get at the fun he so relished, we popularly imagine Hemingway taking a loose, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, party-on kind of approach to life.

But as Hotchner explains, Papa’s philosophy of leisure was actually the opposite of spontaneous…

The gusto with which Hemingway attacked his “leisure” time not only created incredible adventures for himself, but for those who enjoyed the exhilaration of being pulled into his orbit. As one friend remembered, “He generated excitement because he was so intense about everything, about writing and boxing, about good food and drink. Everything we did took on a new importance when he was with us.”

The fact that Hemingway rigorously planned out his good times, Hotchner adds, did not mean that there was no flexibility.” A visit to Paris that was supposed to be a two-day trip, could turn into a two-month stay. But it did mean that Hemingway, whether at home or on vacation, had a detailed idea of what he wanted to do each day — the places he wanted to visit, the people he wanted to see, the activities he wanted to partake of, the restaurants and bars in which he wanted to eat and drink. As Hotchner observes, each day “was set up carefully before it dawned or, at the very latest, at its dawning.” …

Hemingway wanted a life filled with excitement, drama, and real interest, and understood that those qualities wouldn’t just happen — they had to be intentionally planned for and created.

It’s a secret to good livin’ that commonly goes unrecognized. Even those who plan out their work days, don’t think of planning out their leisure time. Folks head into the weekend without any idea of what they’d like to do with it, and end up piddling around the house, surrendering to the inertia of television, and feeling restless come Monday that they let another 48 hours of potential fun slip away. Or they take trips without a real itinerary in mind, spend the days a little aimlessly, and return home feeling like they could have made more of their rare vacation time.

Plotting your “off hours” can help you make much more out of them.

It doesn’t mean scheduling out each hour of your evenings or weekends, nor carrying around a clipboard of activities on your vacation, and continually checking your watch to keep yourself moving between them. It doesn’t rule out flexibility, changing plans, and taking unforeseen detours. It doesn’t even necessarily require planning too far ahead.

“Everything we did took on a new importance when he was with us.”

New mediums discredit old content

Seattle to San Francisco this morning, then Napa. We passed Stanford’s campus as we approached San Francisco:

I finished Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, and wanted to share a final excerpt.

First, technologies (as mediums for information) are never neutral, in the same way no two landscapes neutrally convey the same visual information, even though they share in the nature or “technology” of being “horizontal earth scenes,” so to speak:

The technology of television has a bias… It is conceivable to use television as a lamp, a surface for texts, a bookcase, even as radio. But it has not been so used and will not be so used, at least in America. Thus, in answering the question, What is television?, we must understand as a first point that we are not talking about television as a technology but television as a medium. There are many places in the world where television, though the same technology as it is in America, is an entirely different medium from that which we know. I refer to places where the majority of people do not have television sets, and those who do have only one; where only one station is available; where television does not operate around the clock; where most programs have as their purpose the direct furtherance of government ideology and policy; where commercials are unknown, and “talking heads” are the principal image; where television is mostly used as if it were radio. For these reasons and more television will not have the same meaning or power as it does in America, which is to say, it is possible for a technology to be so used that its potentialities are prevented from developing and its social consequences kept to a minimum.

But in America, this has not been the case. Television has found in liberal democracy and a relatively free market economy a nurturing climate in which its full potentialities as a technology of images could be exploited. One result of this has been that American television programs are in demand all over the world. … American television programs are in demand not because America is loved but because American television is loved.

We need not be detained too long in figuring out why. In watching American television, one is reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s remark on his first seeing the glittering neon signs of Broadway and 42nd Street at night. It must be beautiful, he said, if you cannot read. American television is, indeed, a beautiful spectacle, a visual delight, pouring forth thousands of images on any given day. The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Even commercials, which some regard as an annoyance, are exquisitely crafted, always pleasing to the eye and accompanied by exciting music. There is no question but that the best photography in the world is presently seen on television commercials. American television in other words, is devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment.

…what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this—the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials—all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads. There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that “good television” has little to do with what is “good” about exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial images look like.

It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.

Film, records and radio (now that it is an adjunct of the music industry) are, of course, equally devoted to entertaining the culture, and their effects in altering the style of American discourse are not insignificant. But television is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances. No one buys a record to find out the baseball scores or the weather or the latest murder. No one turns on radio anymore for soap operas or a presidential address (if a television set is at hand). But everyone goes to television for all these things and more, which is why television resonates so powerfully throughout the culture. Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself.

Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. As typography once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, education, law and other important social matters, television now takes command. In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.

His point is that television as a medium (rather than as a piece of technology) is the key way to judge its purpose/impact. How it orders our thinking, our expectations about the way (and use) of news and knowing and information, and how we reconcile our ultimate concerns in life with these things.

A lesson I take from this? New mediums tend to discredit older content by their nature and their prioritization of conveying information. An ancient poem recited in its native tongue, when carried across time, translations, and most importantly from the medium of oral recitation to printed word, is not the same poem. The majority of its fundamental bits might be there, but the fullness of that poem is lost when it is removed from its original cultural context and the language it was designed for, and the method of conveyance it was designed for.

If we read the Iliad today and think to ourselves, “Well, that wasn’t so great,” it’s likelier that we think that not only because new mediums (new methods of knowing, with their own priorities and biases) have discredited older mediums like the printed word and epic poetry, but also because the Iliad came out of an oral tradition and not a print tradition. These are entirely different way of conveying and experiencing knowledge.

In conserving older content through new mediums, we lose some of their essence in the process, while at the same time building up a sort of bias against them compared to whatever the present mediums for knowing might be.

America’s first allies

I’m in Washington, where I’ll be for the rest of the week. In honor of Independence Day, I’m sharing an excerpt from the Oneida Indian Nation’s narrative of their role as America’s first ally, and then John Paul the Great’s reflection on America from his 1995 visit in Baltimore:

Over two hundred years ago, near the site of the present-day Oriskany Battlefield Historic Site, there stood a thriving Oneida village called Oriska. In that village, Oneidas cared for their children and attended to their homes. They tended their crops, and stored the excess for the harsh winter months. They, like their colonial neighbors, lived their lives. Everything would change in a short time, however, as war came to the region and took its toll upon Oneida and colonist alike.

As with the other villages that comprised the Oneida Nation of over two centuries ago, the Oneida people lived under the fundamental principles of democracy. It was that belief in freedom that brought the Oneidas to the aid of the colonists during the Revolutionary War, marking the Oneidas as the United States’ first allies.

But it was not an easy decision. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprised of the Oneida, Tuscarora, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca nations, could not agree at the onset of the American Revolution if they should war against the colonies. The Oneidas were opposed to any such hostility and because of their dissent unanimity among the nations could not be reached. Thus, the proposal to wage war as a confederacy against the colonists was defeated.

But just as the Oneidas had ties to their colonial neighbors, others within the confederacy had their own allegiances. It was therefore determined by the confederacy that each individual nation could decide for itself whether or not to engage in the war and on which side. The Oneidas chose the colonists.

“I often wish that I could look back through time and hear the words of my ancestors as they sat around the council fires deliberating on whether to join the colonists in battle,” said Keller George, Wolf Clan member of the Oneida Nation’s Council. “I wish I could listen to the wisdom of their arguments to join the United States and become its first allies.

“Our people have always made decisions based upon how it will affect the seventh generation to come. I know that the decision my ancestors made over 200 years ago, around those ancient fires, was made with the consideration for the faces yet unborn. I represent one of those faces and I thank my ancestors for their wisdom in choosing to aid this great country at its birth.”

Once the decision was made, the Oneidas, and their adopted brothers the Tuscaroras, entered the fray, fighting side by side in many crucial battles of the war…

John Paul the Great, speaking in Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore:

America has always wanted to be a land of the free. Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth: the truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God’s image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people about the direction they must give to their lives and their activities.

One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure”. President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community. The basic question before a democratic society is: “how ought we to live together?” In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? …

Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contribution of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy? Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought. …

Christ asks us to guard the truth because, as he promised us: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8: 32). Depositum custodi! We must guard the truth that is the condition of authentic freedom, the truth that allows freedom to be fulfilled in goodness.

We must guard the deposit of divine truth handed down to us in the Church, especially in view of the challenges posed by a materialistic culture and by a permissive mentality that reduces freedom to license. But we Bishops must do more than guard this truth. We must proclaim it, in season and out of season; we must celebrate it with God’s people, in the sacraments; we must live it in charity and service; we must bear public witness to the truth that is Jesus Christ.

Catholics of America! Always be guided by the truth – by the truth about God who created and redeemed us, and by the truth about the human person, made in the image and likeness of God and destined for a glorious fulfillment in the Kingdom to come. Always be convincing witnesses to the truth.

Awakening the moral conscience (personally, and perhaps socially) is the most fundamental task that every generation in any society has for itself, but particularly in nations that claim an inheritance of independence and liberty—because the exercise of liberty always involves moral decision making. This is what FDR was speaking to in saying that, “In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.”

‘News of the day’ is a figment

Neil Postman writing in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms.

To take a simple example of what this means, consider the primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.

As I suggested earlier, it is implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.

To give still another example, one of more complexity: The information, the content, or, if you will, the “stuff” that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist—could not exist—in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business. Such information simply could not exist as part of the content of culture.

This idea—that there is a content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation. Cultures without speed-of-light media—let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most efficient space-conquering tool available—do not have news of the day. Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.

I wonder if it’s safe to say that every medium is defined, at least to a large degree, by the information it either excludes or diminishes in importance.

For the past number of years I’ve thought that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from advertising in daily life; that it’s worth paying for services and subscriptions that eliminate the noise, anxiety, and false urgency of advertising. And I think this is still desirable and valuable, but it’s worth reconsidering this to say that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from information-in-excess in daily life.

That is, a deeply lived, engaging, and meaningful life is one where noise of all sorts is kept to the barest minimum. How to do this, practically speaking?