Posts Tagged ‘Communications’

“Language is dynamic” is a phrase invoked in praise or derision of shifts in usage. Corollaries include “the only constant is change” and “time’s arrow points in only one direction” — both signalling that stasis is an invalid and ultimately futile conservative value. The flip side might well be the myth of progress, understood in reference not to technological advancement but human nature’s failure to rise above its base (animal) origins. This failure is especially grotesque considering that humans currently albeit temporarily live in an age of material abundance that would provide amply for everyone if that largesse were justly and equitably produced and distributed. However, resources (including labor) are being systematically exploited, diverted, and hoarded by a small, unethical elite (what some call “alpha chimps”) who often use state power to subjugate vulnerable populations to funnel further tribute to the already obscenely wealthy top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. But that’s a different diatribe.

Although I’m sensitive the dynamism of language — especially terms for broad ideas in need of short, snappy neologisms — I’m resistant to adopting most new coin. For instance, multiple colors of pill (red, blue, white, and black to my knowledge) refer to certain narrative complexes that people, in effect, swallow. Similarly, the “blue church” is used to refer to legacy media struggling desperately (and failing) to retain its last shreds of legitimacy and authority. (Dignity is long gone.) Does language really need these terms or are hipsters just being clever? That question probably lacks a definitive answer.

My real interest with this blog post, however, is how the modern digital mediascape has given rise to a curious phenomenon associated with cancel culture: deletion of tweets and social media posts to scrub one’s past of impropriety as though the tweet or post never happened. (I’ve never deleted a post nor have any plans to.) Silicon Valley hegemons can’t resist getting their piece of the action, too, by applying deeply flawed algorithms to everyone’s content to demonetize, restrict, and/or remove (i.e., censor) offensive opinion that runs counter to (shifting) consensus narratives decided upon in their sole discretion as water carriers for officialdom. Algorithmic dragnets are not effective kludges precisely because thoughts are not synonymous with their online expression; one merely points to the other. Used to be said that the Internet is forever, so wait before posting or tweeting a reasonable duration so that irresponsible behavior (opinion and trolling, mostly) can be tempered. Who knows who possesses technical expertise and access to tweet and video archives other than, say, the Wayback Machine? When a public figure says or does something dumb, a search-and-destroy mission is often launched to resurrect offending and damning past utterance. Of course, scrub-a-dub erasure or deletion is merely another attempt to manage narrative and isn’t a plea for forgiveness, which doesn’t exist in the public sphere anyway except for rehabilitated monsters such as past U.S. presidents a/k/a war criminals. And the Internet isn’t in fact forever; ask an archivist.

Shifting language, shifting records, shifting sentiment, shifting intellectual history are all aspects of culture that develop naturally and inevitably over time. We no longer believe, for instance, in the four elements or geocentrism (a/k/a the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system; never mind the intransigent Flat Earthers who need not be silenced). Darker aspects of these shifts, however, include the remarkable Orwellian insight that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” from the 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here’s the passage for context:

Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past … The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.

In 2021, the awful lesson is taken to heart by multiple parties (not the Party in the novel but wannabes) who have latched maniacally onto Orwellian mechanisms of thought control specifically through the manipulation of records, history, and language. But as mentioned above, policing mere expression is not the same as policing thought itself, at least among those who retain critical thinking skills and independence of mind. I abstain judgment how effective attempted brainwashing is with the masses but will at least mention that Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea in 2007 before settling in the U.S. in 2014, describes the chilling totalitarian thought control exercised by the North Korean government — the stuff of nightmare dystopianism. The template is by now well established and despots everywhere are only too happy to implement it repeatedly, following an evil trajectory that should be resisted at every turn while still possible.

Continuing from part 1.

So here’s the dilemma: knowing a little bit about media theory and how the medium shapes the message, I’m spectacularly unconvinced that the cheerleaders are correct and that an entirely new mediascape (a word I thought maybe I had just made up, but alas, no) promises offers to correct the flaws of the older, inherited mediascape. It’s clearly not journalists leading the charge. Rather, comedians, gadflies, and a few academics (behaving as public intellectuals) command disproportionate attention among the digital chattering classes as regular folks seek entertainment and stimulation superior to the modal TikTok video. No doubt a significant number of news junkies still dote on their favorite journalists, but almost no journalist has escaped self-imposed limitations of the chosen media to offer serious reporting. Rather, they offer “commentary” and half-assed observations on human nature (much like like comedians who believe themselves especially insightful — armchair social critics like me probably fit that bill, too). If the sheer count of aggregate followers and subscribers across social media platforms is any indication (it isn’t …), athletes, musicians (mostly teenyboppers and former pop tarts, as I call them), and the irritatingly ubiquitous Kardashian/Jenner clan are the most influential, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, whose tastes skew toward the frivolous. Good luck getting insightful analysis out of those folks. Maybe in time they’ll mature into thoughtful, engaged citizens. After all, Kim Kardashian apparently completed a law degree (but has yet to pass the bar). Don’t quite know what to think of her three failed marriages (so far). Actually, I try not to.

I’ve heard arguments that the public is voting with its attention and financial support for new media and increasingly disregarding the so-called prestige media (no such thing anymore, though legacy media is still acceptable). That may well be, but it seems vaguely ungrateful for established journalists and comedians, having enjoyed the opportunity to apprentice under seasoned professionals, to take acquired skills to emerging platforms. Good information gathering and shaping — even for jokes — doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and responsible journalism in particular can’t simply be repackaging information gathered by others (i.e., Reuters, the Associated Press, and Al Jezeera) with the aforementioned “commentary.” A frequent reason cited for jumping ship is the desire to escape editorial control and institutional attempts to distort the news itself according to some corporate agenda or ideology. Just maybe new platforms have made that possible in a serious way. However, the related desire to take a larger portion of the financial reward for one’s own work (typically as celebrities seeking to extend their 15 minutes of fame — ugh) is a surefire way to introduce subtle, new biases and distortions. The plethora of metrics available online, for instance, allows content creators to see what “hits” or goes viral, inviting service to public interest that is decidedly less than wholesome (like so much rubbernecking).

It’s also curious that, despite all the talk about engaging with one’s audience, new media is mired in broadcast mode, meaning that most content is presented to be read or heard or viewed with minimal or no audience participation. It’s all telling, and because comments sections quickly run off the rails, successful media personalities ignore them wholesale. One weird feature some have adopted during livestreams is to display viewer donations accompanied by brief comments and questions, the donation being a means of separating and promoting one’s question to the top of an otherwise undifferentiated heap. To my knowledge, none has yet tried the established talk radio gambit of taking live telephone calls, giving the public a chance to make a few (unpurchased) remarks before the host resumes control. Though I’ve never been invited (an invitation is required) and would likely decline to participate, the Clubhouse smartphone app appears to offer regular folks a venue to discuss and debate topics of the day. However, reports on the platform dynamics suggest that the number of eager participants quickly rises to an impossible number for realistic group discussion (the classroom, or better yet, graduate seminar establishes better limitations). A workable moderation mechanism has yet to emerge. Instead, participants must “raise their hand” to be called upon to speak (i.e., be unmuted) and can be kicked out of the “room” arbitrarily if the moderator(s) so decide. This is decidedly not how conversation flows face-to-face.

What strikes me is that while different broadcast modes target and/or capture different demographics, they all still package organize content around the same principle: purporting to have obtained information and expertise to be shared with or taught to audiences. Whether subject matter is news, science, psychology, comedy, politics, etc., they have something ostensibly worth telling you (and me), hopefully while enhancing fame, fortune, and influence. So it frankly doesn’t matter that much whether the package is a 3-minute news segment, a brief celebrity interview on a late night talk show, an article published in print or online, a blog post, a YouTube video of varying duration, a private subscription to a Discord Server, a Subreddit, or an Instagram or Twitter feed; they are all lures for one’s attention. Long-form conversations hosted by Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and Lex Fridman break out of self-imposed time limitations of the typical news segment and flow more naturally, but they also meander and get seriously overlong for anyone but long-haul truckers. (How many times have I tuned out partway into Paul VanderKlay’s podcast commentary or given up on on Matt Taibbi’s SubStack (tl;dr)? Yeah, lost count.) Yet these folks enthusiastically embrace the shifting mediascape. The digital communications era is already mature enough that several generations of platforms have come and gone as well-developed media are eventually coopted or turned commercial and innovators drive out weaker competitors. Remember MySpace, Google Plus, or American Online? The list of defunct social media is actually quite long. Because public attention is a perpetually moving target, I’m confident that those now enjoying their moment in the sun will face new challenges until it all eventually goes away amidst societal collapse. What then?

The famous lyric goes “haters gonna hate.” That reflexive structure is equivalent to the meaningless phrase “It is what it is.” Subtexts attach to these phrases, and they take on lives of their own, after a fashion, with everyone pretending to know precisely what is intended and meant. That was the lesson, by the way, of the phrase “Stupid is as stupid does,” made up precisely to confound bullies who were making fun of someone of apparently limited capacity. In light of these commonplace rhetorical injunctions to actual thought, it is unsurprising that practitioners of various endeavors would be revealed as cheerleaders and self-promoters (sometimes rabidly so) for their own passion projects. With most activities, however, one can’t XX about XX, as in sport about sports, music about music, or cook about cooking. If one plays sports, makes music, or cooks, exemplary results are identifiable easily enough, but promotion on behalf of those results, typically after the fact but sometimes in the midst of the activity (i.e., sports commentary), takes place within the context of language. The two major exceptions I can identify are (1) politicking about politics and (2) writing about writing, both heavily laden with speech. (A third example, which I won’t explore, might be celebrating celebrities. Ugh.)

Of the first example I have little to say except that it’s so miserably, ugly, and venal that only politicians, policy wonks, political junkies, and campaign strategists (now full-time political strategists considering campaigns never end) derive much joy or energy from the reflexive trap. The rest of us prefer to think as little as possible about the entirely corrupt nature of political institutions and the associated players. The second example, however, is arguably an inborn feature of writing that still commands attention. Writers writing about writing might be typically understood as fiction writers revealing their processes. A recent example is J.K. Rowling, who leapt from obscurity to international fame in one bound and now offers writing tips (mainly plotting) to aspirants. An older example is Mark Twain, whose recommendation to ward off verbosity is something I practice (sometimes with limited success). Writers writing about writing now extends to journalists, whose self-reflection never seem to wear thin as the famous ones become brands unto themselves (perhaps even newsworthy in their own right). Training attention on themselves (“Look mom, no hands!”) is rather jejune, but again, commonplace. It’s also worth observing that journalists journaling about journalism, especially those who reveal how the proverbial sausage is made (e.g., Matt Taibbi and his book Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another (2019)), are essentially self-cannibalizing (much like celebrities).

What strikes me lately is how many writers, journalists, and commentators (probably includes bloggers like me — bloggers blogging about blogging) have become cheerleaders for the media in which they work, which is especially true of those who have abandoned legacy media in favor of newer platforms to connect with readerships and/or audiences. Extolling the benefits of the blog is already passé, but the shift over to podcasting and YouTube/TikToc channels, accompanied by testimonial about how great are attributes of the new medium, has passed beyond tiresome now that so many are doing it. Print journalists are also jumping ship from legacy publications, mostly newspapers and magazines, to digital publishing platforms such as Medium, Revue, and Substack. Some create independent newsletters. Broadcast journalists are especially keen on YouTube. A fair bit of incestuous crossover occurs as well, as media figures interview each other endlessly. Despite having restricted my media diet due to basic distrust of the legacy media in particular, I still award a lot of attention to a few outlets I determined deserve my attention and are sometimes even trustworthy. Or sometimes, they’re just entertaining. I still tune in the stray episode of someone I find infuriating just to check in and reinforce my decision not to return more frequently.

Stopping here and breaking this post into parts because the remainder of the draft was already growing overlong. More to come in part 2.

Continuing my book-blogging project on Orality and Literacy, Ong provides context for the oral tradition that surrounded the two great Homeric classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to Ong, it took decades for literary critics and sociologists to overcome their bias, borne out of literacy, and recognize how formulaic are the two epics. They are essentially pastiches of commonplace plots, phrases, and sayings of the time, which was a notable strength when oral delivery based on memorization was how epic poetry was transmitted. In a literate era, such clichés are to be avoided (like the plague).

Aside: my review of David Serota’s Back to Our Future mentions the dialect he and his brother developed, filled with one-liners and catchphrases from entertainment media, especially TV and movies. The three-word (also three-syllable) form seems to be optimal: “Beam me up” (Star Trek), “Use the Force” (Star Wars), “Make my day” (Dirty Harry), “I’ll be back” (The Terminator), etc. This construction is short, punchy, and memorable. The first holder of high office in the U.S. to attempt to govern by catchphrase was probably Ronald Reagan, followed (of course) by Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Donald Trump. Mustn’t overlook that all three (and others) came to prominence via the entertainment industry rather than through earnest (Kennedyesque) public service. Trump’s numerous three-word phrases (shtick, really) lend themselves especially well to being chanted by adoring crowds at his pep rallies, swept up in groupthink, with a recognizable beat-beat-beat-(silence) structure. The rock band Queen stumbled upon this same elemental rhythm with its famous stomp-stomp-clap-(wait) from the anthem “We Are the Champions,” consciously intended for audience participation (as I understand it).

Further aside: “We Are the Champions” combines its iconic rhythm with a recitation tone sourced in antiquity. Make of that what you will.

Ong goes on to provide a discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, which I list here without substantive discussion (read for yourself):

  • orality is additive rather than subordinative
  • orality is aggregative rather than analytic
  • orality is redundant or copious
  • orality is conservative or traditionalist
  • orality is close to the human lifeworld
  • orality is agonistically toned
  • orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
  • orality is homeostatic
  • orality is situational rather than abstract

Of particular interest is Ong’s description of how language functions within oral cultures distinctly from literate cultures, which is the source of the bias mentioned above. To wit:

Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing … In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase … [w]ithout writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual … [for] ‘primitive’ (oral) people … language is a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought — oral people commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power. [pp. 31–32]

If this sounds conspicuously reminiscent this previous post, well, congratulations on connecting the dots. The whole point, according to a certain perspective, is that words are capable of violence, which is (re)gaining adherents as our mental frameworks undergo continuous revision. It’s no small thing that slurs, insults, and fighting words (again) provoke offense and violent response and that mere verbal offense equates to violence. Not long ago, nasty words were reclaimed, nullified, and thus made impotent (with varying levels of irrational rules of usage). Well, now they sting again and are used as ammo to cancel (a form of administrative violence, often undertaken anonymously, bureaucratically, and with the assistance of the digital mob) anyone with improper credentials to deploy them.

Let me draw another connection. Here’s a curious quote by Walter Pater, though not well known:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.

Put another way, the separation of signifier from signified, an abstraction conditioned by literacy and rationalism (among other things) is removed (“obliterated”) by music, which connects to emotion more directly than representational art. Similarly, speech within primary oral cultures exists purely as sound and possesses an ephemeral, even effervescence (Ong’s term) quality only experienced in the flow of time. (Arguably, all of human experience takes place within the flow of time.) Music and “primitive” speech are accordingly dynamic and cannot be reduced to static snapshots, that is, fixed on a page as text or committed to a canvas or photograph as a still image (hence, the strange term still life). That’s why a three-word, three-syllable chant, or better yet, the Queen rhythm or the Wave in sports arenas (a gesture requiring subscription of everyone), can possess inherent power, especially as individuals are entrained in groupthink. Music and words-as-violence get inside us and are nearly wholly subjective, not objective — something we all experience organically in early childhood before being taught to read and write (if in fact those skills are learned beyond functional literacy). Does that mean culture is reverting to an earlier stage of development, more primitive, childlike, and irrational?

While working, I half listen to a variety of podcasts via YouTube, usually minimizing the window so that I don’t see the video. Some report that long-haul truckers are also avid podcast listeners (presumably discarding AM radio); who knows? At any rate, I find it dispiriting that nearly every podcast has attracted sponsors and now features unavoidable, in-your-face advertising on top of ubiquitous exhortations to like, subscribe, ring the bell, and buy merch. Ads are sometimes read live, no longer being prerecorded bits during regular commercial breaks. Segues into ad reads are often tortured, with tastelessness being an inverted badge of honor somehow.

I get that for those who have made podcasting their primary incomes, opining on anything and everything ad nauseum (sorta like me, actually), sponsorship is what keeps them stocked with peanut butter. Why do I still tune in? Well, some are actually entertaining, while others are exceptional clearinghouses for information I wouldn’t otherwise gather — at least when not pedantic and irritating. Good thing I’m only half listening. Case in point: a few weeks back, the DarkHorse Podcast (no link) announced it would begin doing ads, but to make the bitter pill easier to swallow, free endorsements (unpaid ads) would also be presented. Right … more of what I don’t want. In characteristic fashion, the two hosts beat that damn horse well into the afterlife, softening none of the irksome content (at least for me). Although legacy media (e.g., radio, TV, magazines, newsprint) has always required forfeiting some part of one’s time and attention to ignoring or filtering out ads, streaming services and online blockers have done away with much of the unwanted marketing. Perhaps that’s why I’m exasperated at it now being unavoidable again.

With this in mind, here’s my promise to you, dear reader: I will never monetize this blog or put it behind a paywall. I won’t even put up a tip jar or coffee mug to entice micropayments. The blog will also never connect to Facebook or Twitter or any other platform. This blog is totally free and unencumbered (except the ads WordPress puts in, which are relatively easy to dismiss and/or circumvent). Maybe I’m fortunate that I earn my living elsewhere and disavow any desire to be a pundit, influencer, or media figure. Those folks are uniformly unenviable, especially when distorted by their own celebrity so that they forget who they are. Instead, this blog will remain what it’s always been: a venue for me to work out my ideas and secondarily share them.

The backblog at The Spiral Staircase includes numerous book reviews and three book-blogging projects — one completed and two others either abandoned or on semi-permanent hiatus. I’m launching a new project on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), which comes highly recommended and appears quite interesting given my preoccupations with language, literacy, and consciousness. To keep my thinking fresh, I have not consulted any online reviews or synopses.

Early on, Ong provides curious (but unsurprising) definitions I suspect will contribute to the book’s main thesis. Here is one from the intro:

It is useful to approach orality and literacy synchronically, by comparing oral cultures and chirographic (i.e., writing) cultures that coexist at a given period of time. But it is absolutely essential to approach them also diachronically or historically, by comparing successive periods with one another. [p. 2]

I don’t recall reading the word chirographic before, but I blogged about the typographic mind (in which Ong’s analyses are discussed) and lamented that the modern world is moving away from literacy, back toward orality, which feels (to me at least) like retrogression and retreat. (Someone is certain to argue return to orality is actually progress.) As a result, Western institutions such as the independent press are decaying. Moreover, it’s probably fair to say that democracy in the West is by now only a remnant fiction, replaced by oligarchic rule and popular subscription to a variety of fantasy narratives easily dispelled by modest inventory of what exists in actuality.

Here is another passage and definition:

A grapholect is a transdialectal language formed by deep commitment to writing. Writing gives a grapholect a power far exceeding that of any purely oral dialect. The grapholect known as standard English has accessible for use a recorded vocabulary of at least a million and a half words, of which not only the present meanings but also hundreds of thousands of past meanings are known. A simply oral dialect will commonly have resources of only a few thousand words, and its users will have virtually no knowledge of the real semantic history of any of these words. [p. 8]

My finding is that terms such as democracy, liberalism, social justice, etc. fail to mean anything (except perhaps to academics and committed readers) precisely because their consensus usage has shifted so wildly over time that common historical points of reference are impossible to establish in a culture heavily dominated by contemporary memes, slang, talking heads, and talking points — components of orality rather than literacy. And as part of a wider epistemological crisis, one can no longer rely on critical thinking to sort out competing truth claims because the modifier critical now bandied about recklessly in academia, now infecting the workplace and politics, has unironically reversed its meaning and requires uncritical doublethink to swallow what’s taught and argued. Let me stress, too, that playing word games (such as dissembling what is means) is a commonplace tactic to put off criticism by distorting word meanings beyond recognition.

Although it’s unclear just yet (to me, obviously) what Ong argues in his book beyond the preliminary comparison and contrast of oral and chirographic cultures (or in terms of the title of the book, orality and literacy), I rather doubt he argues as I do that the modern world has swung around to rejection of literacy and the style of thought that flows from deep engagement with the written word. Frankly, it would surprise me if his did; the book predates the Internet, social media, and what’s now become omnimedia. The last decade in particular has demonstrated that by placing a cheap, personal, 24/7/365 communications device in the hands of every individual from the age of 12 or so, a radical social experiment was launched that no one in particular designed — except that once the outlines of the experiment began to clarify, those most responsible (i.e., social media platforms in particular but also biased journalists and activist academics) have refused to admit that they are major contributors to the derangement of society. Cynics learned long ago to expect that advertisers, PR hacks, and politicians should be discounted, which requires ongoing skepticism and resistance to omnipresent lures, cons, and propaganda. Call it waking up to reality or simply growing up and behaving responsibly in an information environment designed to be disorienting. Accordingly, the existence of counterweights — information networks derived from truth, authority, and integrity — has always been, um, well, critical. Their extinction presages much graver losses as information structures and even the memory of mental habits that society needs to function are simply swept aside.

Considering the acceleration of practically everything in the late-modern world (postmodern refers to something quite different), which makes planning one’s higher education somewhat fraught if the subject matter studied is rendered flatly out-of-date or moribund by the time of either graduation or entry into the workforce, I’ve heard it recommended that expertise in any particular subject area may be less important than developing expertise in at least one subject that takes a systems approach. That system might be language and communications, mathematics (or any other hard science), history, economics and finance, business administration, computer coding, law and governance, etc. So long as a rigorous understanding of procedures and rules is developed, a structuralist mindset can be repeated and transferred into other subject areas. Be careful, however, not to conflate this approach with a liberal arts education, which is sometimes described as learning how to learn and is widely applicable across disciplines. The liberal arts have fallen distinctly out of favor in the highly technological and technocratic world, which cares little for human values resistant to quantification. Problem is, Western societies in particular are based on liberal democratic institutions now straining due to their sclerotic old age. And because a liberal arts education is scarcely undertaken anymore, civics and citizenship are no longer taught. Even the study of English has now been corrupted (postmodern does apply here) to the point that the basic liberal arts skill of critical thinking is being lost through attrition. Nowhere is that more abundantly clear than in bristling debate over free speech and censorship.

Aside. Although society tinkers and refines itself (sometimes declines) over time, a great body of cultural inheritance informs how things are done properly within an ideology or system. When tinkering and refinement become outright intransigence and defiance of an established order, it’s commonplace to hear the objection “but that’s not how _______ works.” For instance, debate over climate science or the utility of vaccines often has one party proclaiming “trust [or believe] the science.” However, that’s not how science works (i.e., through unquestioning trust or belief). The scientific method properly understood includes verification, falsification, and revision when results and assertions fail to establish reasonable certainty (not the same as consensus). Similarly, critical thinking includes a robust falsification check before “facts” can be accepted at face value. So-called “critical studies” (a/k/a grievance studies), like religious faith, typically positions bald assertions beyond the reach of falsification. Well, sorry, that’s not how critical thinking works.

Being older and educated before critical studies were fully legitimized (or gave rise to things as risible as feminist glaciology), my understand has always been that free speech and other rights are absolutes that cannot be sliced and diced into bits. That way lies casuistry, where law founders frequently. Thus, if one wishes, say, to trample or burn the U.S. flag in protest, no law can be passed or constitutional amendment enacted to carve out an exception disallowed that instance of dissenting free speech. A lesser example is kneeling silently rather than participating in singing the national anthem before a sporting event. Though offensive to certain individual’s sensibilities, silencing speech is far worse according to liberal democratic values. Whatever our ideological or political difference are, we cannot work them out when one party has the power to place topics out or bounds or remove others from discussion entirely. The point at which spirited debate crosses over into inciting violence or fomenting insurrection is a large gray area, which is the subject of the second impeachment of 45. Civil law covers such contingencies, so abridging free speech, deplatforming, and adopting the formulation “language is violence” are highly improper responses under the liberal form of government codified in the U.S. Constitution, which includes the Bill of Rights originally omitted from the U.S. Constitution but quickly added to articulate the rights fully.

Liberal democratic ideology arose in mercantile, substantially agrarian Western societies before scientific, industrial, and capitalist revolutions built a full head of steam, so to speak. Considering just how much America has developed since the Colonial Period, it’s no surprise society has outgrown its own founding documents. More pointedly, the intellectual commons was a much smaller environment, often restricted to a soapbox in the town square and the availability of book, periodicals,and broadsides. Today, the public square has moved online to a bewildering array of social media platforms that enables publication of one’s ideas well beyond the sound of one’s voice over a crowd or the bottleneck of a publisher’s printing press. It’s an entirely new development, and civil law has not kept pace. Whether Internet communications are regulated like the airwaves or nationalized like the U.S. military, it’s clear that the Wild West uber-democratic approach (where anyone can basically say anything) has failed. Demands for regulation (restrictions on free speech) are being taken seriously and acted upon by the private corporations that run social media platforms. During this interim phase, it’s easy for me, as a subscriber to liberal democratic values, to insist reflexively on free speech absolutism. The apparent mood of the public lies elsewhere.

/rant on

I recently shopped at a media store that sells new releases as well as second-hand copies of books, music, movies, video games, and tchotchkes. Remember those? Amazon killed off most of them. Lots of costumes this time of year, too, which is to be expected given proximity to Halloween. The rather forced reintroduction of pumpkin spice into foods items has already appeared, but I haven’t yet seen the annual, heavy marketing swing toward the Christmas engorgement buying season. Let’s hope it’s muted this year. Somewhat predictably, given my eclectic tastes, I found nothing of interest to buy but did see of a row of bins offering vinyl (LPs, if you prefer) for sale, which were displaced by CDs in the 1980s except for used record stores. Funny how vinyl has come back ’round. My vinyl collection dates me and probably makes me a curmudgeon, not a hipster.

I keep up with neither new fiction nor the latest “this is what just happened …” exposé authored by someone given a book deal (and presumably a ghostwriter), typically on the heels of some very recent event or job loss. A cottage industry seems to have sprung up along these lines without my having noticed. Curiously, one thematic bin/table/kiosk sold titles mostly by conservative pundits and operators to whom I award little or no attention (obviously not keeping my ideological enemies close). Here’s a brief list of the ones I can remember (no links):

  • John Bolton — The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir (2020)
  • Karl Rove — Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight (2010)
  • Candace Owens — Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation (2020)
  • Michael Eric Dyson — What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America (2018)
  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders — Speaking for Myself: Faith, Freedom, and the Fight of Our Lives Inside the Trump White House (2020)
  • Bill O’Reilly — The United States of Trump: How the President Really Sees America (2019)
  • Sean Hannity — Live Free Or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink (2020)
  • Jeanine Pirro — Don’t Lie to Me: And Stop Trying to Steal Our Freedom (2020)
  • Michael Cohen — Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump (2020)

The cluster appearing in Fall 2020 suggest their publication was timed to influence the presidential election. It’s also safe to say (based on prior acquaintance) that these authors are worthless highly polemical. None of these titles will be found on my bookshelf, not even temporarily as books borrowed from the library. I saw only one title that might be categorized as originating from the opposing political perspective: Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018), with a foreword by Michael Eric Dyson. (How did Dyson’s contribution escape my attention? Oh, I know: I absolutely refused to read it, especially after Matt Taibbi’s withering review.) Accordingly, the accurate charge of liberal bias in the academy, in media, and on newly censorious social media platform’s such as Twitter and Facebook might be inverted when it comes to book publishing. I admit the evidence for such an assessment is purely anecdotal.

My reading habits have shifted during covidtime. Whereas I used to commute to work and spend some time on a train or bus reading print from the page, I now find myself (half a year now and counting) working from home and drawn lazily to my computer screen, no longer having one or two reliable, daytime blocks away from my electronics. (I have steadfastly successfully refused to use my smartphone as my central vehicle for connectedness to the public sphere or adopted any sort of e-reader.) As a result, my reading, though not diminished in quantity, is somewhat more directed toward the hot, daily news cycle rather than the cool, more prosaic monthly (magazines) and yearly (books) time frames of print media. Daily newspapers, a legacy media product, also no longer serve me because they, too, have become polemical and thus abandoned the objectivity and truthfulness that made them worthwhile in the project of sensemaking.

/rant off

Caveat: this post is uncharacteristically long and perhaps a bit disjointed. Or perhaps an emerging blogging style is being forged. Be forewarned.

Sam Harris has been the subject of or mentioned in numerous previous blog posts. His podcast Making Sense (formerly, Waking Up), partially behind a paywall but generously offered for free (no questions asked) to those claiming financial hardship, used to be among those I would tune in regularly. Like the Joe Rogan Experience (soon moving to Spotify — does that mean its disappearance from YouTube?), the diversity of guests and reliable intellectual stimulation have been attractive. Calling his podcast Making Sense aligns with my earnest concern over actually making sense of things as the world spins out of control and our epistemological crisis deepens. Yet Harris has been a controversial figure since coming to prominence as a militant atheist. I really want to like what Harris offers, but regrettably, he has lost (most of) my attention. Others reaching the same conclusion have written or vlogged their reasons, e.g., “Why I’m no longer a fan of ….” Do a search.

Having already ranted over specific issues Harris has raised, let me instead register three general complaints. First, once a subject is open for discussion, it’s flogged to death, often without reaching any sort of conclusion, or frankly, helping to make sense. For instance, Harris’ solo discussion (no link) regarding facets of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which event sparked still unabated civil unrest, did more to confuse than clarify. It was as though Harris were trying the court case by himself, without a judge, jury, or opposing counsel. My second complaint is that Harris’ verbosity, while impressive in many respects, leads to interviews marred by long-winded, one-sided speeches where the thread is hopelessly lost, blocking an interlocutor from tracking and responding effectively. Whether Harris intends to bury others under an avalanche of argument or does so uncontrollably doesn’t matter. It’s still a Gish gallop. Third is his over-emphasis on hypotheticals and thought experiments. Extrapolation is a useful but limited rhetorical technique, as is distillation. However, treating prospective events as certainties is tantamount to building arguments on poor foundations, namely, abstractions. Much as I admire Harris’ ambition to carve out a space within the public sphere to get paid for thinking and discussing topics of significant political and philosophical currency, he frustrates me enough that I rarely tune in anymore.

(more…)

Once in a while, when discussing current events and their interpretations and implications, a regular interlocutor of mine will impeach me, saying “What do you know, really?” I’m always forced to reply that I know only what I’ve learned through various media sources, faulty though they may be, not through first-hand observation. (Reports of anything I have observed personally tend to differ considerably from my own experience once the news media completes its work.) How, then, can I know, to take a very contemporary instance this final week of July 2020, what’s going on in Portland from my home in Chicago other than what’s reported? Makes no sense to travel there (or much of anywhere) in the middle of a public health crisis just to see a different slice of protesting, lawbreaking, and peacekeeping [sic] activities with my own eyes. Extending the challenge to its logical extremity, everything I think I know collapses into solipsism. The endpoint of that trajectory is rather, well, pointless.

If you read my previous post, there is an argument that can’t be falsified any too handily that what we understand about ourselves and the world we inhabit is actually a constructed reality. To which I reply: is there any other kind? That construction achieves a fair lot of consensus about basics, more than one might even guess, but that still leaves quite a lot of space for idiosyncratic and/or personal interpretations that conflict wildly. In the absence of stabilizing authority and expertise, it has become impossible to tease a coherent story out of the many voices pressing on us with their interpretations of how we ought to think and feel. Twin conspiracies foisted on us by the Deep State and MSM known and RussiaGate and BountyGate attest to this. I’ll have more to say about inability to figure things out when I complete my post called Making Sense and Sensemaking.

In the meantime, the modern world has in effect constructed its own metaphorical Tower of Babel (borrowing from Jonathan Haidt — see below). It’s not different languages we speak so much (though it’s that, too) as the conflicting stories we tell. Democratization of media has given each us of — authorities, cranks, and everyone between — new platforms and vehicles for promulgating pet stories, interpretations, and conspiracies. Most of it is noise, and divining the worthwhile signal portion is a daunting task even for disciplined, earnest folks trying their best to penetrate the cacophony. No wonder so many simply turn away in disgust.