And the Word Became App, and the Media Looked Upon Its Work, and Said It Was Good

It was dumb enough for Western media to credit Facebook and Twitter with (nearly) being the fulcrum of the Arab Spring, which has now dissolved into actual human complexity and savagery. Now, new media’s getting an upgrade. In a segment called “The Big Idea” (because a million big ideas = progress, right TED?) Chelsea Clinton reports for NBC Nightly News on a new Bible app for yr smartphone. Which makes it new. Because no one has a Bible app out there, right?

Story follows a youth pastor, of the vein-popping, cropped hair sort who’s megachurch standard these days. You know, the cool Christian. Hip, with it. “It makes me realize wow, they do get it. They’re digging into God’s word, just in digital form.” Just like the activity buildings for basketball and roller-skating that non-mega churches started erecting all over America in the 70s; there’s nothing Jesus disapproved of more than not being up-to-date with the latest trend.

Teen says, “I can dig into God’s word whenever I want to,” which, we guess, means sneaking a peek at the Bible app in his secular-school English class where he’s not allowed to read the Bible or, um, his phone. And then get in a round of Candy Crush Saga.

Bobby Gruenewald, the Innovation Pastor (who deserves his own post), at Lifechurch.TV (ditto), wears a blazer over a black t-shirt, and thought-urps all over Chelsea Clinton what we imagine he thinks are Innovatively Pastoral thoughts: “So it’s an online church experience,” minus, er, people, guidance, a reverent atmosphere, the sacramental? Chelsea Clinton (You can do better!) is polite.

Other teen says, “It’s brought Christianity to a higher level that the Bible couldn’t do on its own.” Postman wept.

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Assad’s “Dark” Threats: Just Say “Duh.”

“Conscience makes cowards of us all.”—Hamlet (and, uh, that’s good thing)

So we’re watching ABC’s evening newscast, and after they finish with the lone achievement of an elderly woman swimming from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage (cf. Evel Knievel, “Let’s start with the happy news!”), we are told in grave Announcer-voice that, as reported in a French newspaper, “Bashir Assad warned that any military strike against his country would spark an uncontrollable regional war and spread ‘chaos and extremism’.” (AP) As is our wont, it’s not so much the ludicrous, pie-faced insanity of the statement by another decrepit homicidal dictator that gets our notice, nor is it really the assumed cooperation of Assad’s “Hey, none of us are getting slaughtered, so, you know, whatever” buddies Russia and Iran. It’s the notion that MSM then add to the wall of incomprehension by Announcer claiming these particular threats are “dark” threats. Correct us if you can, but exactly when has what Assad said not been true of the entire Middle East since the end of WWII?

Acknowledging that possibility of all-against-all, genuinely apocalyptic violence is the reality the world has been living with ever since we discovered mustard gas and nukes is simply stating a fact. Anyone doing anything in the region could conceivably cause such a cataclysm. In fact, since Al Qaeda’s scapegoating of the West has subsided, somewhat, it seems pretty clear that half the pan-Arab world would like nothing more (when released from the hypnotic gravity of their morally bankrupt rulers) than to kill off the other half. And we’re not giving the West a pass in this department either (no human group is special): in our view, this is the state of the entirety of the desacralized modern human scene, as described in the work of Rene Girard and others (Or please, someone, read some Alisdair MacIntyre before describing contemporary moral claims as dark or light). Good violence and bad violence are all mixed up; no violence is now capable of restoring the old “order” with the (temporary) effectiveness that it once had (and we wouldn’t want it back if it could). Therefore, violence everywhere has been “freed.” The only meaningful decision left to all of us is this:

Renounce Violence, or Everybody Dies.

And we mean all violence: economic, environmental, psychological, sexual, as well as the old-fashioned gas’n’bomb’n’shoot variety. Threatening the financial collapse of the world in the name of global, Trumpesque hubris is no less a violent “threat” than war. Should we talk about the epidemic of gang rape in India? Our trigger-happy vigilantes of ‘whatever ya got’ in the good ole US of A?

Needless to say, we are not advocating any political position, including the musty “lesser of x evils” one. We wonder why it seems impossible for any such analysis ever to cross the airwaves in our supposedly free and inquisitive newscape. (Oh, wait, let us suggest a reason . . . )

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Guns as Entertainment; NRA as Postmodernist Death Cult

Because we are a nation based in fantasy. Much that is in the fantasy is a great, good thing in the world: equality under the law, for example (albeit almost fatally betrayed by slavery, and institutionalized racism for 100 years thereafter); the “Sermon on the Mount” Christian vision of Winthrop (routinely, almost idiomatically betrayed by far too may Republican officeholders today). These were ideals, most of them germinated in a skeptical-minded Enlightenment (not that skepticism hasn’t become the entire worldview of too many hardcore liberals now). But still. In the omnipresent mediascape, it’s the fantasy of your choice now. Build a bunker in Alabama, where Postmanisms are located, then kidnap a child from a schoolbus and take him down there? So we can viscerally feel your depthless paranoia while respecting your right to own lethal weapons, a law-abiding gun owner right up until the moment you shot the bus driver dead? Amy Bishop, too, was a law-abiding gun-owner, until, at the end of a department meeting, she whipped it out and killed several of her colleagues, in Alabama, at a research university. The line is so thin, LaPierre. And the end of that bunker story (which we’ve already forgotten, right?) is the natural end of all bunker mentalities.

There are no doubt many sane gun owners like a friend of mine who needs them to defend against an occasional drunken, hostile neighbor, or to stop feral dogs from killing his baby lambs (and his wife makes a fine lamb stew). But the vast majority of gun owners own guns to entertain themselves, we contend. Some of these entertainment-gunners just like to shoot at stuff, at a range or on their own property (knock yourselves out, guys’n’dolls). Some like to run around in paramilitary gear and pretend they’re fighting off a fantasy government that has the will+resources to come try to take 300 million guns away from them (guys, really—we can’t even keep the Post Office solvent). Some build bunkers and hijack school buses, or shoot up movie theaters or grade schools. Could it possibly be as simple as this: Either the world you live in is real, and requires real compromises, while discouraging mental scenarios that have exactly 0% chance of occurring; or the world is whatever is in your head, and every wretched excess is justified by the mere mentality that you’ve staked your existence on?

If the preceding is even partly true, then the NRA, as currently configured, is a nascent death cult, as surely as the Islamic extremists they so fear really are. (“Mon frère! Mon sembable!”) Maybe the NRA hasn’t actually advocated for consumers to be able to buy “cyanide-tipped armor-piercing bullets” (that’s a Simpsons joke), but when they advocate for all teachers to be locked and loaded and ready for a firefight in a building full of students AT ALL TIMES (recall, for the nonce, that Postmanisms are teachers), they seem to be advancing the view that 24/7/365, paranoid, hair-trigger “vigilance” is the only way a good society should function. And don’t start with your movies and video games yadda yadda–the fantasy media that produces an apocalyptic bunker mentality is on the InterWeb and talk radio, in fundamentalist churches, and to a lesser extent, underlies the merely self-serving commercial enterprise of Fox News.

Yeah, we saw that film from the PSA about what to do if some previously law-abiding citizen came onto our campus and started unloading on us and our students, and you know what it made us think? That if we had that kind of crap at the front of our cerebelli every second of the day, we might build a bunker too.

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“Wish in One Hand, Poop in the Other…”: What the Late Election Season Says About the Age of Total Noise

Here are five headlines, four from pundits of The Washington Post, one a “news analysis” item from NBC: 

“Will: Obama’s empty noise”

“Rubin: Obama escapes scrutiny on Libya”

“Gerson: Obama’s historic negativity”

“Parker: The un-callable election”

“Democrats face very steep climb to 25 House seats they need”

Of course, we at Postmanisms are being blatantly biased with our pundits-of-choice, each one being a bona-fide rightie (and we’ve left out Krauthammer!): Good-humored Parker, “old man” Will, former W. spokesmodel Gerson, and the execrable Jennifer Rubin (less pleasant for the length of a single column than listening to Laura Ingraham for an hour). The reason for our bias, however, is not simply a reflection of our political sympathies: the same analysis could have been done on Democratic-leaning pundits near the end of 2010, or for that matter, at the end of 1988, when the general noise-level on TV made a few of us think Dukakis still had a hope in hell.

What these headlines have in common is an almost deistic faith by the ardent supporters of one party that their wishes can come true if only they’re expressed fervently in public: “Go, team, go! We know you’re behind 35-7 in the fourth, but you’ve got SPIRIT! S-P-I-R-I-T!!” Will calling Obama’s closing arguments “empty noise,” after his own party’s candidate spent the last month shredding every position he’d staked out over the previous year, then topping it off with blatant lies in ads with his name on them, is mere bluff. Rubin channels Fox News’ fervent desire that a tragic (and probably problematic—who knows?) event in a Middle Eastern nation that 99% of Americans could not find on a map be magnified into an emblem of 9/11-size failure-to-prepare is just more rank nonsense. Gerson, though capable of being thoughtful, bears the terrible news that exactly everyone knew a year ago, that in a rough political environment where margins were thin, this race was primarily going to be about winning ugly; one only had to watch a couple of his own party’s primary debates to gauge how negative. Parker has not been reading (or taking to heart) Nate Silver, who himself acknowledges that Friday’s 80.9% is only a probability, albeit one worth a small wager. Collectively, these are wishes that seek to reify themselves simply by being written/published. In an age infinitely noisier than 1988, you’d think a little more circumspection would be in order. (Then again, we are not paid to make a certain sub-demographic of readers feel good every time we poke our heads above ground. We ourselves are not “totally confident” about the outcome on Tuesday, nor after an agonizing week of possible recounts in Ohio—though thankfully, nothing depends on Florida this time. We’re merely hopeful.)

The NBC header is a different kind of beast, in a class with recent ones in places like Slate that idly ponder “what ifs” about a hypothetical Romney administration’s policies. (Admittedly, the candidate has made it exceptionally hard to discern, not what he’d like to do in Fantasy Whitehouse, where he barks CEOish orders at Congress and they do what he says, but what the rational businessman might probabilistically think he could actually achieve.) It isn’t a “steep climb” because no one—go find your anonymous blogger to try and prove us wrong—to our knowledge has suggested the Democrats had a real shot at regaining the House this year. The superfluous “they need” (= “to take back the House”) is a completely spurious premise, unless one is doing a reverse-Fox and trying to wish into existence some Democratic wave/landslide which, people, just ain’t gonna happen, and that prediction has a gold-plated lock on it.

Silver makes the point, in his magnificent, good-humored “The Signal and The Noise,” that more information often leads to WORSE predictions, topping that with hard data which shows that the more a pundit appears on TV, the LESS accurate their predictions tend to be (think: ideological intransigence, getting paid to voice your fans’ opinions on TV, mere hubris). If anyone out there really believes that the Information Age is not busy producing more mythology than all of ancient religion and literature combined, Postmanisms wants to play a game of idea-poker with you.

Who’s your Oracle?

 

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Culture of Contempt (Old People Edition), or “Who’s the Douche?”

Admittedly, this one’s well at the margins of anything one might call the mainstream, but something about its cancerous vibe struck a chord for us. (cf. our earlier entries on Family Guy) Turns out that a novelist who was last popular some twenty-odd years ago was reading the new biography of David Foster Wallace, another writer who came of age in that generation. Apparently, novelist Brett Easton Ellis felt the bio to be a locus of all he despised about the now-deceased Wallace, his work, and his readers. Being a modern guy, he also felt he couldn’t contain his loathing to a mere think-piece for Newsweek, but had to broadcast it over one of our hip, happening social networks, Twitter. (How about an all-rant site called Farter, where posts are called Poots?)

A taste: “OMG is the solemnity of the David Foster Wallace myth on a purely literary level borderline sickening…”; “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation…”; “Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the Literary Doucebag-Fools Pantheon…”; “I find the halo of sentimentality surrounding him embarrassing.” Quite enough, thanks.

First, we’d like to point out that words like “overrated” (a word you often hear chanted at sporting events) and “pretentious” have dogged Wallace’s work since the time Ellis was outselling him ten to one, and that what they come down to is crotchets of taste. One likes the Ramones, the other likes King Crimson, and amazingly some people can actually make room for both in their pantheon, depending on how the mood strikes. But one can never win an argument about taste. A friend of ours will drink no fizzy soda but Diet Coke, is not fooled by substitutes, and will not be dissuaded by her friends on a long cross-country car trip. (Coke Zero really is awful, though.)

We, of course, are avid readers of Wallace, and if you need an excuse to quit reading us, click away (for years now we’ve been reading what horrible humans we are, what limited intellects we have, for appreciating the work of DFW). Yet we are not blind adherents who can’t recognize the variance in quality between, or even within, his works, and we’ve never thought to tell anyone who didn’t “get” Wallace that they were blind or stupid. We do sometimes feel like Professor Frink, when he’s demonstrating atomic properties to third-graders with one of those toy ball-rolling machines; he won’t let Ralph play with it because, “I’m enjoying it on so many more levels than you.” We’re also pretty sure that if an Ellis work has ever had more than two levels, we missed them.

The sad thing, though, is Ellis’ need to attack “the myth,” which no artist from Shakespeare to Led Zeppelin should ever be held responsible for. Especially in our media age, these memes or “infotainment orbs” generate themselves whether the artist participates or not; as Neal Gabler notes in Life: The Movie, even trying to be off the myth-making grid (Pynchon) only makes you ‘the author who is never seen, except with a bag over his head on The Simpsons. But Ellis then has to go that extra mile (why else would he have gotten noticed by a Salon writer and been able to send his contempt all the way down to mere Postmanisms?), and assert, in that Zeus-like tone that characterizes so much communication on the InterWeb, that anyone who thinks Wallace was great is a) a douche (frat-boy as literati), and b) a fool (meaning he or she is dumber—has worse taste/doesn’t live in New York/has to actually buy books—than Brett Easton Ellis).

It simply isn’t enough to have enemies and hate them; one must despise everyone who may have been reached, in what those readers consider to be a profound way, via a work of art. It’s our belief that the new intensity of this felt compulsion to verbally destroy, and to do so instantly, thoughtlessly, and with no desire except to provoke a response (Here we are!), is merely an aftereffect of our disembodied digital landscape. One has to talk as loudly and vilely as possible now in order to be heard over the howling wind of a billion cells, souls, dogs barking.

We wish to thank Prachi Gupta of Salon for following Ellis’ bile with a sort of ghost answer, from which we have stolen this: “Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development … Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” (DFW, from an interview with Larry McCaffrey)

Hard to think of less douchey words spoken in the last twenty-odd years.

Quotes sourced from Prachi Gupta of Salon.com:

http://www.salon.com/2012/09/06/bret_easton_ellis_hates_david_foster_wallace/

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How Learning Does Not Work: Self-Ed vs. Human Nature on CBS This Morning

Yes, it’s summer again, time to bask in the glow of largely inane morning television, but our subject is not the weird tension on CBS This Morning between Charlie Rose’s earnest attempts to add depth to this moribund format and Gayle King’s equal and opposite desire to pull things back toward happy, chatty trivia as if she’s auditioning to replace Kathie Lee over at Today. No, what we’re addressing is an illuminating, completely serendipitous juxtaposition between two views of the world with regard to education that happened on 6/13/12.

First up: “Six years ago, Sal Khan created Khan Academy, an online school that now has more than 2,300 educational videos in 12 languages—all completely free.” His “academy” is just a collection of videos on the Internet, “all free,” as if we haven’t heard of YouTube. Charlie asks the dapper Mr. Khan why it is “people” want to go online and learn new things “with you.” “They feel like I’m sitting there at the kitchen table, very conversational, off the cuff,” sayeth Mr. Khan. “When you learn something, it’s a very stressful experience and I think people have under-emphasized how important tone is, and not being condescending and being conversational.” Ok, learning is stressful, and that’s bad, right Mr. K.? Yet how can it be other than stressful to learn a new skill, Algebra, say, or a foreign language? It is precisely the avoidance of this kind of stress that the average young person seeks to avoid by writing answers on their palm (or, now, their smartphone, which can solve translation problems stress-free!) And all the pleasant, casual “tone” in the world will not make it go away. Learning is work, precisely the thing our entertainment-oriented culture does not train young people to want to do. Charlie follows: “But it says something about the curiosity of people to know more, to improve themselves.” Khan: “For all people, the biggest high they can have is to learn something.” So education should be a stress-free “high”? Khan: “When you see kids who are disengaged in math class or science class, it’s just because they’re frustrated . . . and feel like something’s going over them.” So if we just make kids “comfortable,” and somehow get them “excited” about learning, they’d jump right in and apply themselves?

Gayle follows with celebrity-type questions for Mr. K.: How many people come up to him to say they saw him on 60 Minutes? How does he “feel” about people “signing up” for his website. (Famous, we guess. “Viral,” even?) Content of interview ended.

But who exactly are these young, goal-having little adults he, and even Charlie, are talking about? Like Bill Gates, Mr. K. assumes that “people” (there’s a generalization for you) are “naturally” interested in “learning.” As teachers of college classes for some 20 years, Postmanisms can assure you that they are far from the majority at any school.

A related but unmentioned subtext: Gayle’s intro. began by quoting Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” and followed with, “How ‘bout no more teachers, period?” Exactly what our ever-more Walmart / efficiency / profit-centered educational system may want. Why have teachers at all? Why do kids need the experience of discipline and socialization that attending classes away from one’s kitchen table requires? Why not just podcast your teaching staff’s lectures, send the kids home, and give the teachers a penny-per-view for their experience and expertise?

Immediately following this blather was former MTV Loveline jokester Adam Carolla, promoting his new comic-memoir. Surely without intending to, he precisely rebuts Mr. Khan by saying of H.S., “I didn’t have an idea; I didn’t have a goal . . . High school is set up for people who want to go to college. For those who aren’t going to college . . . the other 80% of us . . . there was a shovel or a carpet-cleaning wand.” He’s referring to his earliest jobs, but he’s right on target about the lack of forward thinking in the vast majority of young people, as true in our time time as it must be now. One of us, at that age, was “interested” in absolutely nothing but Star Wars and recording pop music off the radio, yet somehow these things never turned up on exams in his English or Physics classes. And today, we can guarantee young people that most of the bosses they are likely to work under are going to be interested only in what skills they have, not how quickly they can find someone else’s answer to a question on their smartphones.

Interestingly, Carolla also mentions the mindset of being poor, of seeing all the luxe-life presented on TV and thinking to oneself, “Well, that’s not for me.” Here, he hits on a second inherent problem in our increasingly stratified economy. How can a young person possibly be made to believe that Algebra, or literature, or a foreign language will help them in some faraway future, weighed against short-term pleasure-seeking? Long-term values like learning and self-improvement are neither “natural” nor “easy,” Mr. K.

Solipsism as Protest: OWS Impressive as Guinness-Record Flash-Mob

As avid readers of Matt Taibbi’s caustic, detailed rundowns of Wall Street criminality (ethical whoremongering? Darwinian robberbaroning?) in Rolling Stone, we can hardly be credibly accused of either financial neo-con sympathies or arrant cynicism when we suggest that “the Occupy movement” is one of the most curious phenomena in our ongoing political malaise. FOXies can’t help themselves as they play the old “here come the dirty hippies again” meme, but 60s protesters at least had a short, sharp answer when someone took the mic and said “What do you want?” (“Freedom!”, or “Stop the war!”)

From the beginning, we expected little from a movement whose randomly chosen (by gawking TV news reporters) spokespeople would turn up on the news saying they were, in fact, rather pleased that they had no leaders and no set agenda. Seemed a bit like an “I Hate Jar-Jar Binks” website: a valid sentiment unlikely to stanch the flow of cash into the Lucas Empire (though it did achieve the reduction of the character to one very funny reaction shot in volume V, or whatever). Oddly, as the movement grew, not a single slogan has risen to join the meme-pile, not even the simplest “Congress Invalidate the Supreme Court’s Designation of Corporations as People, Now!” (Try getting a crowd to yell that one.)

But when we use the word “solipsism,” we’re not referring to the garden-variety hobby-horse of your average conspiracy theorist, a semi-factual/semi-delusional belief or narrative which fails to bend to any contradicting evidence. Our financial system, a faith-based confidence game in which Goldman and Citi are God, has, in its infinite hubris and self-interest, indeed wrought world-historical calamity. It sucks, and we don’t like it too! Feel better? No, what we mean to suggest is the category error that is semi-mass protest in service of no achievable goal. Fatuous comparisons to the Arab Spring revolts hold no water, as there is no target that will be brought down like Gaddafi, unless the protesters mobilize people to vote for candidates like Elizabeth Warren in upcoming elections who actually intend to try to curb the outsize power of the investment-“banking” sector. (Bankers used to be people who earned modest, steady returns for their customers by not betting 30-to-1 shots in markets they’d legally rigged to go bust.) And since most of that sector is wired into a transglobal system which will not, now or ever, come under the purview of some World Court of Superfraud, but will continue to play nation-against-nation for maximum returns for itself, the aim of a protest against it essentially translates into a mass feelgood (feelbetterforawhile?) moment for participants and beleaguered viewers of them on television. Its evanescence is the essence of the televisual world: the appearance of meaning (really, the venting of sentiment) as the world of hard facts and phony-MONY capital grinds relentlessly forward.

We’d propose a Jubilee movement (rather than a Fight Club-style violent disruption, which we still think is a possible mutation of OWS; we prefer listening to Radiohead), if we believed for a second that forgiveness of sins (here, self-destructive short-term-gain debt, though the same analysis would work for energy, water, sexual fulfillment—you name it; we’ve bought it) were even a concept in this age. As for consciousness-raising, see you at the ballot box (if the world hasn’t ended) in 2012.

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