Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

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?

So far, this multipart blog post has trafficked in principles and generalities. Let me try now to be more specific, starting with an excerpt from Barry Lynn’s article in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Big Tech Extortion Racket” (Sept. 2020):

… around the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans began to develop technologies that could not be broken into component pieces. This was especially true of the railroad and the telegraph … Such corporations [railroad and telegraph companies] posed one overarching challenge: they charged some people more than others to get to market. They exploited their control over an essential service in order to extort money, and sometimes political favors … Americans found the answer to this problem in common law. For centuries, the owners of ferries, stagecoaches, and inns had been required to serve all customers for the same price and in the order in which they arrived. In the late nineteenth century, versions of such “common carrier” rules were applied to the new middleman corporations.

Today we rightly celebrate the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which gave Americans the power to break apart private corporations. But in many respects, the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was the more important document. This act was based on the understanding that monopoly networks like the railroad and the telegraph could be used to influence the actions of people who depend on them, and hence their power must be carefully restricted …

For a century and a half, Americans used common carrier policies to ensure the rule of law in activities that depended on privately held monopolies … regulations freed Americans to take full advantage of every important network technology introduced during these years, including telephones, water and electrical services, energy pipelines, and even large, logistics-powered retailers. Citizens did not have to worry that the men who controlled the technologies involved would exploit their middleman position to steal other people’s business or disrupt balances of power.

I appreciate that Barry Lynn brings up the Interstate Commerce Act. If this legal doctrine appeared in the net neutrality debate a few years ago, it must have escaped my notice. While Internet Service Providers (ISPs) enable network access and connectivity, those utilities have not yet exhibited let’s-be-evil characteristics. Similarly, phone companies (including cell phones) and public libraries may well be eavesdropping and/or monitoring activities of the citizenry, but the real action lies elsewhere, namely, on social media networks and with online retailers. Evil is arguably concentrated in the FANG (or FAANG) corporations but has now grown to be ubiquitous in all social networks (e.g., Twitter) operating as common carriers (Zoom? Slack?) and across academe, nearly all of which have succumbed to moral panic. They are interpreting correctly, sad to observe, demands to censor and sanitize others’ no-longer-free speech appearing on their networks or within their realms. How much deeper it goes toward shaping politics and social engineering is quasi-conspiratorial and impossible for me to assess.

Much as I would prefer to believe that individuals possess the good sense to shift their activities away from social networks or turn their attention from discomfiting information sources, that does not appear to be the case. Demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces commonplace a few years ago on college campuses have instead morphed into censorious removal, deplatforming, and cancellation from the entire public sphere. Those are wrong responses in free societies, but modern institutions and technologies have gotten out of hand and outstripped the limits of normal human cognition. In short, we’re a society gone mad. So rather than accept responsibility to sort out information overflow oneself, many are demanding that others do it for them, and evil private corporations are complying (after a fashion). Moreover, calls for creation of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, rebranded as a Truth Commission and Reality Czar, could hardly be any more chillingly and fascistically bizarre. People really need someone to brainwash decide for them what is real? Has anyone at the New York Times actually read Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and taken to heart its lessons?

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.

I have observed various instances of magical thinking in mainstream culture, especially here, which I find problematical. Although it’s not my ambition to disabuse anyone of magical thinking, which extends far beyond, say, religious thought, I was somewhat taken aback at the suggestion found in the comic at this link (not embedded). For those not familiar with Questionable Content (one of two online comics I read regularly), the comic presents an extended cast of characters, mostly in their early 20s, living in a contemporary New England college town. Those characters are supplemented by a few older parents and lots of AIs (in robot bodies). The AIs are not particularly futuristic but are simply accepted as a normal (if curious) part of the world of the comic. Major story arcs involve characters and AIs (the AIs are characters, I suppose) in the process of discovering and establishing themselves as they (the humans, anyway) transition into early adulthood. There are no great political themes or intrusions into life in a college town. Rather, the comic is largely about acceptance of difference. Often, that means washing away meaningful difference in the name of banal tolerance. Real existential struggle is almost entirely absent.

In the linked comic, a new character comes along and offers advice to an established character struggling with sexual attractions and orientation. The dialogue includes this exchange:

Character A: If tarot or astrology or religion halps you make sense of the world and your place in it, then why not use them?
Character B: But they’re not real. [emphasis in original]
Character A: It doesn’t matter, if you use them constructively!

There it is in a nutshell: believe whatever you want if it, um, halps. I’ve always felt that being wrong (i.e., using unreal or make-believe things) was a sufficient injunction against anchoring oneself to notions widely known to be false. Besides, isn’t it often remarked that the biggest fool is one who fools himself? (Fiction as a combination of entertainment and building a worldview is quite normative, but it’s understood as fiction, or to a lesser degree, as life imitating art and its inverse. Exceptions abound, which are regarded as psychopathy.) The instruction in that dialogue (part object lesson, part lesson in cognition) is not that it’s OK to make mistakes but that knowingly believing something false has worthwhile advantages.

Surveying examples where promulgating false beliefs have constructive and destructive effects is too large a project. Well short of that, nasty categories include fraud, gaslighting, and propaganda, which are criminal in many cases and ought to be in most others (looking at you, MSM! — or not, since I neither trust nor watch). One familiar benevolent category is expressed in the phrase fake it til you make it, often recommended to overcome a lack of confidence. Of course, a swindle is also known as a confidence game (or by its diminutive, a con), so beware overconfidence when asked by another to pay for something (e.g., tarot or astrology readings), take risks, or accept an ideology without question.

As philosophy, willful adoption of falsity for its supposed benefits is half-baked. Though impossible to quantify, my suspicion is that instances of positive outcomes are overbalanced by negative ones. Maybe living in a constructed reality or self-reinforcing fantasy is what people want. The comic discussed is certainly in line with that approach. However, while we dither and delude ourselves with happy, aspirational stories based on silliness, the actual world around us, including all the human institutions that used to serve us but no longer do, falls to tatters. Is it better going through life and eventually to one’s grave refusing to see that reality? Should childlike wonder and innocence be retained in spite of what is easily observable just by poking one’s head up and dismissing comforting lies? Decide for yourself.

Something in an online discussion brought me back to my days as a Boy Scout. (No, not that, with your nasty, nasty assumptions.) It was one of the first merit badges I earned: Citizenship in the Community (link to PDF). I can’t remember any of the content anymore (haven’t yet consulted the PDF), and indeed, looking back with the advantage of several decades of hindsight, I have a hard time imagining any of the (morality? ethics?) lessons learned back then having had much durable impact despite remembering an emerging confidence and awareness (a commonplace delusion of youth) of my position within the community. Still, I appreciate having had many Boy Scout character-building experiences, which led to simple and enduring understandings of ideals such as honor, duty, preparedness, service, forbearance, shouldering hardships, and perhaps most of all, accepting responsibility for others, particularly those younger and weaker. (I’m not claiming to be any sort of paragon of virtue. Cynicism and misanthropy may have wrecked that aspiration.) I never served in the military, but I surmise others learn similar lessons slightly later in life when more readily absorbed and not so easily forgotten. In the past decade plus, some may seek these lessons through participation in endurance sports or martial arts (if not distorted by bad instruction like in Cobra Kai), though the focus outward (i.e., toward community and mutual reliance) may not be as strong.

The subject came up in a discussion of participants in small-scale democracy, something I’ve always known is messy, unrewarding, thankless, and sometimes costly yet still necessary to be a good citizen contributing to one’s community. Many adults get their first taste of local democratic groups (read: self-governing) through parent groups like the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Or maybe it’s a performing arts organization, home owner’s association, church council, social work hotline, self-help group, or cooperative. Doesn’t matter which. (Political activism and organizing might be something quite different. Hard to say.) Groups run on the good will and dedication of volunteered time and skills for the benefit of members of the community. As with any population, there are always free riders: those who contribute nothing but enjoy and/or extract benefits. In fact, if everyone were integrally involved, organizational complexity would become unmanageable. If activities of such groups seem like a piece of cake or vaguely utopian, just join one and see how different character types behave. Lotta dead wood in such organization. Moreover, power mongers and self-aggrandizers often take over small-scale democracies and run them like private fiefdoms. Or difficult policy and finance discussions divide otherwise like-minded groups into antagonists. As I said, it’s a decidedly messy undertaking.

Members of the community outside of the executive group (typically a board of directors) also have legitimate interests. Maybe community members attend meetings to keep informed or weigh in online with unconstructive complaints and criticisms (or even mockery and trolling) but then refuse to contribute anything worthwhile. Indeed, boards often have difficulty recruiting new officers or participants because no one wants to take on responsibility and face potential criticism directed at them. I’ve also seen boards settle into the same few folks year after year whose opinions and leadership grow stale and calcifies.

Writ large, leadership skills learned through citizenship in the community rise to the equivalents of Boy Scout merit badges Citizenship in the Nation and Citizenship in the World (no links but searchable). Skills deployed at those strata would arguably require even greater wherewithal and wisdom, with stakes potentially being much higher. Regrettably, having just passed through an election cycle and change of leadership in the U.S., my dour assessment is that leadership has failed miserably at multiple issues. The two most significant involve how we fail to organize society for the benefit of all, namely, economic equality and resource sustainability. Once market forces came to bear on social organization and corporate entities grew too large to be rooted in community service anymore, greed and corruption destroyed high-minded ideals. More self-aggrandizers and careerists than ever (no names, fill in the blanks, they’re all famous — or infamous) rose to the tops of organizations and administrations, especially politics, news media, and the punditry. Their logical antidotes are routinely and ruthlessly disenfranchised and/or ignored. The lasting results are financial inequality run amok and unsustainable resource addictions (energy mostly) that are toxifying the environment and reducing the landscape to ruin and inhabitability. (Perpetual war is a third institutional failure that could be halted almost immediately if moral clarity were somehow to appear.) It’s all out there, plain to see, yet continues to mount because of execrable leadership. Some argue it’s really a problem with human nature, a kind of original stain on our souls that can never be erased and so should be forgiven or at least understood (and rationalized away) within a large context. I’m not yet ready to excuse national and world leaders. Their culpability is criminal.

I have a memory of John Oliver dressing down a room full of entertainment journalists (ugh …) asking him questions following his Emmy win a few years ago. The first few had failed to offer even perfunctory congratulations for his award but instead leapt straight into questions. After his demand that everyone observe basic courtesy by at least acknowledging the reason for their attention being focused on him, each dutifully offered their compliments, which Oliver accepted graciously, and a question and answer ensued. It was a worthy reminder (something I mistakenly believed superfluous when I was much younger) that we have a sophisticated set of manners developed over time to which we should all subscribe. Behaving otherwise (i.e., skipping straight to matters at hand) is boorish, clownish, rude, and unsophisticated. Thus, routine exchanges at the beginnings of most interviews intended for broadcast go something to the effect, “Thanks for appearing on the show” or “Nice to meet you” followed by “Pleased to be here” or “My pleasure.” It’s part of a formal frame, the introduction or prologue, bearing no significant content but needful for hosts and guests to acknowledge each other.

In the course viewing many podcasts, often conducted by relative unknowns who nonetheless manage to attract someone of distinction to interview, I notice a tendency to geek out and succumb to effusive fandom. Even a little bit of that has the unfortunate effect of establishing an uneasy tension because the fan often becomes unhinged in the presence of the celebrity. Even when there is no latent threat of something going really wrong, the fanboi sometimes goes to such an extreme heaping praise and adulation on the interview subject that nothing else worthwhile occurs. Instead, one witnesses only the fanboi’s self-debasement. It makes me squirm watching someone figuratively fellating a celebrity (apology for my coarseness, but that’s really what springs to mind), and those on the receiving end often look just as uncomfortable. There’s simply no good response to the gushing, screaming, fainting, delirious equivalent of a 15-year-old Beatles freak (from back in the day) failing to hold it together and being caught embarrassingly in flagrante delicto.

Like others, I admire some people for their extraordinary accomplishments, but I never describe myself as a fan. Rather, objects of my admiration fall uniformly in the category of heroes people one shouldn’t scrutinize too closely lest their flaws be uncovered. Further, those times I’ve been in the presence of celebrities are usually the occasion of some discomfort precisely because celebrities’ fame invokes a false sense of intimacy (one might say oversharing) because details of their lives are in full public view. A balanced interaction is impossible because I know quite a bit about them whereas they know nothing about me, and topics gravitate toward the reasons for their celebrity. Most of us average folks feel compelled to acknowledge the films, trophies, recordings, awards, etc. that form their accomplishments, no matter how out of date. I’ve never been in the circumstance where a famous person, recognizing that I don’t recognize him or her (or don’t kowtow as expected), plays the celebrity card: “Don’t you know who I am?”

An interrelated effect is when someone has way too much money, that fortune clouding all interactions because it transforms the person into a target for those currying favor or otherwise on the make. Scammers, conmen, golddiggers, sycophants, etc. appear to extract wealth, and the dynamic breeds mutual distrust and wariness even in routine transactions. Chalk it up as another corrupting aspect of inequality run amok, this time affecting wannabes as well. In light of this, I suppose it’s understandable that rich, famous people are most comfortable among those similarly rich and famous, thus, immune to envy and fandom (but not always). Everyone else is alienated. Weird sort of gilded case to live in — not one that I admire.

I admit it: I’m a bit triggered. Storming of the U.S. Capitol Building last week, even though it was over in one day, sent a lot of us back to the drawing board, wondering how things could come to that. Not that civil unrest, attempted coups and secession, and even revolution haven’t been predicted for months. Still, the weirdness of this particular manifestation of citizen frustrations is hard to fathom. See, for instance, this blog post, which offers a reckoning not easy to face. Simply put, crowds that form into protests and physical occupations fully recognize their abandonment at the hand of oligarchs and political leaders and as a result act out their desperation and nihilism. Their question becomes “why not take over and occupy a building?” Doesn’t matter, nothing to lose anymore. It’s already all gone. Whether it’s a college administrative building, governor’s mansion, federal or state office building, or the U.S. Capitol Building, the sentiment appears to be the same: why the hell not? Doesn’t matter there was no plan what to do once the building was breached; doesn’t matter that it wasn’t occupied for long; doesn’t matter that property was damaged; doesn’t matter that lives were ruined and lost; doesn’t matter that no replacement government or executive was installed like a real coup or revolution would demand. Still works as an expression of outrage over the dysfunctions of society.

On the bright side, actual death and injury were quite limited compared to what might have obtained. Mayhem was largely limited to property destruction. Plus, it was a potent reminder to legislators (filmed scrambling for safety) that maybe they ought to fear backing the citizenry into corners with nowhere to turn. Conjecture that, had the racial make-up of the protesters been different, a massacre would have ensued remains just that: conjecture.

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The end of every U.S. presidential administration is preceded by a spate of pardons and commutations — the equivalents of a get-out-of-jail-free card offered routinely to conspirators collaborators with the outgoing executive and general-purpose crony capitalists. This practice, along with diplomatic immunity and supranational elevation of people (and corporations-as-people) beyond the reach of prosecution, is a deplorable workaround obviating the rule of law. Whose brilliant idea it was to offer special indulgence to miscreants is unknown to me, but it’s pretty clear that, with the right connections and/or with enough wealth, you can essentially be as bad as you wanna be with little fear of real consequence (a/k/a too big to fail a/k/a too big to jail). Similarly, politicians, whose very job it is to manage the affairs of society, are free to be incompetent and destructive in their brazen disregard for needs of the citizenry. Only modest effort (typically a lot of jawing directed to the wrong things) is necessary to enjoy the advantages of incumbency.

In this moment of year-end summaries, I could choose from among an array of insane, destructive, counter-productive, and ultimately self-defeating nominees (behaviors exhibited by elite powers that be) as the very worst, the baddest of the bad. For me, in the largest sense, that would be the abject failure of the rule of law (read: restraints), which has (so far) seen only a handful of high-office criminals prosecuted successfully (special investigations leading nowhere and failed impeachments don’t count) for their misdeeds and malfeasance. I prefer to be more specific. Given my indignation over the use of torture, that would seem an obvious choice. However, those news stories have been shoved to the back burner, including the ongoing torture of Julian Assange for essentially revealing truths cynics like me already suspected and now know to be accurate, where they general little heat. Instead, I choose war as the very worst, an example of the U.S. (via its leadership) being as bad as it can possibly be. The recent election cycle offered a few candidates who bucked the consensus that U.S. involvement in every unnecessary, undeclared war since WWII is justified. They were effectively shut out by the military-industrial complex. And as the incoming executive tweeted on November 24, 2020, America’s back, baby! Ready to do our worst again (read: some more, since we [the U.S. military] never stopped [making war]). A sizeable portion of the American public is aligned with this approach, too.

So rule of law has failed and we [Americans] are infested with crime and incompetence at the highest levels. Requirements, rights, and protections found in the U.S. Constitution are handily ignored. That means every administration since Truman has been full of war criminals, because torture and elective war are crimes. The insult to my sensibilities is far worse than the unaffordability of war, the failure to win or end conflicts, or the lack of righteousness in our supposed cause. It’s that we [America, as viewed from outside] are belligerent, bellicose aggressors. We [Americans] are predators. And we [Americans, but really all humans] are stuck in an adolescent concept of conduct in the world shared with animals that must kill just to eat. We [humans] make no humanitarian progress at all. But the increasing scale of our [human] destructiveness is progress if drones, robots, and other DARPA-developed weaponry impress.

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Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.

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Unlike turtles, humans do not have protective shells into which we can withdraw when danger presents. Nor can we lift off, fly away, and elude danger the way birds do. These days, we’re sorely beset by an invisible pandemic spread by exposure to carriers (read: other people) and so asked or forced to submit to being locked down and socially distanced. Thus, we are withdrawn into the protective shell of the home in cycles of varying intensity and obeisance to maintain health and safety. Yet life goes on, and with it, numerous physical requirements (ignoring psychological needs) that can’t be met virtually demand we venture out into the public sphere to gather resources, risking exposure to the scourge. Accordingly, the conduct of business has adapted to enable folks to remain in the protective shells of their vehicles, taking delivery through the car window and rarely if ever entering a brick-and-mortar establishment except in defiance or at the option of acceptable risk. In effect, we’re being driven into our cars ever more, and the vehicle is readily understood as a proxy for its inhabitant(s). Take note of pictures of people in bread lines during the Great Depression having been replaced by pictures of cars lined up for miles during the pandemic to get packaged meals from charitable organizations.

Reflecting on this aspect of modern life, I realized that it’s not exactly novel. The widespread adoption of the individual vehicle in the 1940s and 50s, as distinguished from mass transit, and the construction of the interstate highway system promised (and delivered) flexibility and freedom of tremendous appeal. While the shift into cars (along with air travel) doomed now moribund passenger rail (except intracity in the few American cities with effective rail systems), it enabled the buildout of suburbs and exurbs now recognized as urban sprawl. And like all those packages now clogging delivery systems as we shift even more heavily during the holiday season to online shopping, a loss of efficiency was inevitable. All those individual cars and boxes create congestion that cry out for solutions.

Among the solutions (really a nonsolution) were the first drive-through banks of the 1970s. Is doing one’s banking without leaving the vehicle’s protective shell really an efficiency? Or is it merely an early acknowledgement and enabling of antisocial individualism? Pneumatic tubes that permitted drive-through banking did not speed up transactions appreciably, but the novel mechanism undoubtedly reinforced the psychological attachment Americans felt with their cars. That growing attachment was already apparent in the 1950s, with two bits of Americana from that decade still resonating: the drive-in theater and the drive-in restaurant. The drive-in theater was a low-fidelity efficiency and alternative to the grand movie houses built in the 1920s and 30s seating a few thousand people in one cavernous space. (A different sort of efficiency enabling choice later transformed most cinema establishments into multiplexes able to show 8–10 titles instead of one, handily diminishing audiences of thousands to hundreds or even tens and robbing the group experience of much of its inherent power. Now that premium streaming content is delivered to screens at home and we are disallowed assembly into large audiences, we have instead become something far more inert — viewers — with fully anticipatable degradation of the entertainment experience notwithstanding the handsome technologies found within the comforts of the home.) I’ve heard that drive-ins are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in 2020, with Walmart parking lots converted into showplaces, at least temporarily, to resemble (poorly) group experience and social cohesion connection. The drive-in restaurant of the 1950s, with their iconic carhops (sometimes on roller skates), is a further example of enabling car culture to proliferate. Never mind that eating in the car is actually kinda sad and maybe a little disgusting as odors and refuse collect in that confined space. One might suspect that drive-ins were directed toward teenyboppers and cruisers of the 1950s exploring newfound freedom, mobility, and the illusion of privacy in their cars, parked in neat rows at drive-ins (and Lookout Points for smooch sessions) all across the country. However, my childhood memory was that it was also a family affair.

Inevitably, fast food restaurants followed the banks in the 1970s and quickly established drive-through lanes, reinforcing the degradation of the food experience into mere feeding (often on one’s lonesome) rather than dining in community. Curiously, the pandemic has made every restaurant still operating, even the upscale ones, a drive-through and forced those with and without dedicated drive-through lanes to bring back the anachronistic carhop to serve the congestion. A trip to a local burger joint in Chicago last week revealed 40+ cars in queue and a dozen or so carhops on the exterior directing traffic and making deliveries through the car window (briefly penetrating the protective shell) so that no one would have to enter the building and expose oneself to virus carriers. I’ve yet to see a 2020 carhop wearing roller skates (now roller blades) or a poodle skirt.

Such arrangements are probably effective at minimizing pandemic risk and have become one of several new normals (discussion of political dysfunction deferred). Who can say how long they will persist? Still, it’s strange to observe the psychology of our response, even if only superficially and preliminarily. Car culture has been a curious phenomenon since at least the middle of the 20th century. New dynamics reinforcing our commitment to cars are surprising, perhaps, but a little unsurprising, too, considering how we made ourselves so dependent on them as the foundation of personal transportation infrastructure. As a doomer, I had rather expected that Peak Oil occurring around 2006 or so would spell the gradual (or sudden) end of happy motoring as prices at the pump, refusal to elevate standard fuel efficiency above 50 mph, and climbing average cost of new vehicles placed individual options beyond the reach of average folks. However, I’ve been genuinely surprised by fuel costs sinking to new lows (below the cost of production, even bizarrely inverting to the point that producers paid buyers to take inventory) and continued attempts to engineer (only partially) around the limitations of Peak Oil, if not indeed Peak Energy. I continue to believe these are mirages, like the record-setting bull market of 2020 occurring in the midst of simultaneous economic, social, and health crises.