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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Every now and then I read an article in the news that is so disturbing to me that I find I can’t speak.  Let me preface this post by saying that I am extremely interested in technology.  I am completing a graduate degree in media studies.  I just finished an article on video gaming.  But I also am an unapologetic bibliophile.  I love books.  I love that they are filled with ideas of all kinds.  I love the way they smell and the feel of a heavy book in my hand. I like having them around me–on the shelves in my house and in my study.

It seems that a certain prep school called Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, has decided that books are simply outdated and therefore, they have given away their 20,000 volume collection and are replacing it with a cafe, computer lab, and flat screen TVs.

I’m aghast and honestly, I can’t really communicate what I feel–sadness, outrage, and incredulity, are all there in varied proportions.  I’ll leave you the link to the full article  here and finally leave you with the very germane introduction to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I highly recommend).  I’ve included his entire introduction below:

hollow

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
— Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business)

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Remembering 9-11?

When I got into my car this morning and drove the blessedly short commute to work that I have, I listened to NPR and was reminded that today is Friday, September 11th.  I hadn’t realized the date until I got in the car and turned on the radio.

The 9-11 remember phenomenon is fascinating, compelling, and slightly troubling to me.  I listened to person after person tell me that I should never forget 9-11.  The buzz phrase is, of course, “Never forget.”  Now I want to be clear: I am in not necessarily proposing that we do forget about it and move on; I recognize that remembering a trauma can be extremely cathartic, both personally and collectively, and there are good reasons for remembering various disasters.  What I would like to see, though, is more context for the call to remember 9-11.  People walk around today telling each other to “never forget”, but the obvious question to be begged is “Why?”  If we do not have a goal in mind for our remembering–a purpose for working through the trauma and remembering it–a deliberateness to our exercise of memory, then we will not deploy the emotions that are stirred up by that memory to any particular action and there will be nothing more political in our actions than merely saying, “never forget” to one another.

What concerns me about this lack of focus to the enterprise of remembering is that if we evoke emotions through remembering but then do not deploy them in any deliberate enterprise, we are all worked up with nothing to do.  It is very easy for people to provide unhelpful opportunities to do something with all that emotion by suggesting that we deploy it toward something divisive or hateful.  Some might (and have) suggested that we adopt attitudes of exclusion toward Arabs or Americans of Arab descent.  Some might (and have) suggested that all Muslims must, by nature of the fact that they are Muslims, hate Americans and be violent people.  This kind of rhetorical hijacking of our emotions to convince people of a specific (and racist) agenda is deplorable and all too common.  Some organizations, newscasters, and individuals love to argue through an appeal to fear, and this tactic works very well.  There is a tremendous opportunity on the anniversary of 9-11 to stimulate people’s fear and use the (appropriate) emotions of sadness and loss that are already there from the memorial of this event to try to convince people of positions and policies that we might never consider in March or around Christmastime.  But on September 11, when we remember the towers burning and falling, when we remember the national unity surrounding the disaster and the outrage that many Americans felt, it is easier to convince people to do things they might not do when the emotions of sadness, anger, and loss aren’t as strong.

So my suggestion is not to stop telling each other to “Never forget.”  Rather, my suggestion is to not stop at a catchy phrase that can go on a bumper sticker, but continue the thought on.  Tell each other what it is that we should never forget, and most importantly, tell each other why.  Use the memories and the emotions, both collective and individual, that are dredged up every anniversary of this disaster to fuel a deliberate introspection of our beliefs.  Reject the attempt of others to work you up into a person who is responding only to the emotions, and instead couple them with reason and time.  The national defense policies or the immigration policies or the political philosophies I support should be as reasonable in February or June as they are on September 11.

If they are not, then the damage done by September 11 goes far beyond destroying airplanes and skyscrapers.  Then the damage is to our own reason, to our own freedom of thought, and the act of terrorism goes even further by convincing us to subjugate ourselves to our own emotions and hold ourselves as slaves to our impulses.  What is a bomb compared to that?  A bomb cannot destroy our ability to reason, our character, or our personal or national dignity.  Surrender to the whimsy of our emotions can.

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A 1945 Prophet??

I am amazed by the fact that credit cards and electronic payment systems, personal computers, and the need for associative informational retrieval and search systems were talked about in 1945 by this guy.  You can read Vannevar Bush’s article “As We May Think”  in its entirety here.

 

Props to Bush...he called it!

Props to Bush...he called it!

 

 

I’m also amazed by the fact that all these things were not impossible then.  There were answers to these questions and these things could have been made with 1945 technology.  They didn’t require a technological shift.  What they did require was an infrastructure that could more cheaply produce them, the will to do it, and especially the demand to do it to get the whole ball of wax rolling.  It is significant to me that the concept behind a modern search engine like Google is not a new thing—the process and the mathematical formulas—the machines’ capacity—has been advanced significantly enough that we don’t think we’re entering codes to access specific data, but we are.  We’re entering search terms, and those are codes.  I think it’s significant to remember that retrieving information has changed and changed a whole lot, but there are fundamental concepts that have been preserved.  They are innovations, but not all innovative. 

Bush is thinking about the enterprise of not just science, but of the Academy in general.  He is thinking about the systematic study of the world and ideas.  This article, besides doing a number of other things, has humbled me by letting me see that the innovations that I think are so remarkable and show our development and application of technology to the world are perhaps not so innovative, but that we are perhaps standing on the shoulders of giants.  Even if we are merely standing on the shoulders of other people just like us, it is good to remember that the whole human enterprise of attaining knowledge is an ongoing thing.  All the things and innovations that are going on now, no matter how remarkable they seem now (or how remarkable they actually are), are pieces of a large scaffolding that mankind has almost continually been in the process of constructing.  We are not the end product of our own investigation.

For some reason, as I read this I also think of two Biblical references.  The first is the writing of the Israelite Teacher/Philosopher who wrote that “There is nothing new under the sun.”  The other is the account of the antediluvian endeavor to build a tower that reached to heaven called Babel, and the judgment that was brought against those who exercised their tower-building skills with great hubris.

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I want to make a disclaimer from the beginning–I was born in Austin, Texas.  While I realize that living the first six weeks of my life in Texas doesn’t really mean much more than I left a bunch of smelly diapers and infantile tantrums in the Lone Star State to mark my birthplace, I also have to admit that whenever Texas is mentioned I have a little soft spot.  Weird, I know.  “Soft spot” and “Texas” don’t really go together.  Maybe other words go with Texas–“ego”, “hospitality” (depending on what people group you belong to), “nifty drawl”, and “spunk.”  

The current leader of the Lone Star State, Governor Rick Perry, hinted on Wednesday that Texas might someday try to actually go it alone.  Permanently.  As in secession.  Speaking to a group of…ahem…extremely excited far-right-leaning children of the plains, Perry said, in response to the crowds chanting “secession,” that if the government in Washington wasn’t going to listen to the people, why then, the people of Texas just might cut the ties and ride off into the glorious sunset of…some kind of separatory action.  

Now, I would like to point out that a whole bunch of ordinary Texans think their governor is a couple horses short of a herd, and in the face of extreme criticism from almost every segment of society, Perry has essentially said that the idiots who misconstrued the Constitution and are causing the problems today also were stupid enough to misconstrue my speech.  Then he exercised a little Newspeak and told everybody what he ACTUALLY said.  It’s very different from what every news agency has on tape, but who cares?  He’s a Texan, darn it, and he stands for things.  

What I find interesting is the scenario in which he actually had the stones to seriously insinuate that secession could be on Texas’ agenda, since the last war of secession was the bloodiest American conflict EVER.  Perry was speaking at a Tea Party rally, where people co-opted the meaning linked to the Boston Tea Party and tried to apply it in the same way to their anger at bailing out banks with taxpayer money.  They’re angry that taxes are going up.  Funny, since taxes are actually lower for the middle class under Obama, and tax increases for the richest 5% of the folks in the nation haven’t even started yet–those start in 2011.  But what could be more American than getting riled up by a demagogue and protesting things out in the street that aren’t happening?  The only thing that really tops the Tea Party is Perry’s acquiescence to the small crowds screaming for Texas to secede from the Union.  They screamed, he lapped it up, and now he’s doing a really weak backpedal.  I liked one of the many many quotes from Texans on Perry’s chosen actions: 

“Governor Perry, what you speak of is sedition. Texas may not opt out of the Union. I believe we already settled that issue in our past. I’ll be the first to take up arms when that day comes. I’m an American first and Texan second.”  -bigboxes in the comment section of a CNN article.

But of course, what’s a little sedition among friends?

Texas, get rid of that irresponsible and foolish lunatic you’ve voted into your governor’s mansion.

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In a lecture in one of my classes on Monday, Professor Charles Young (Philosophy, Claremont Graduate University) paraphrased Plato’s opinion (in response to a question) that it takes theory to have art or systematic approach to a craft (techne), which is what we might call practice.  Another student raised the question of “how do we make our practice have the nobility that the Aristotelian practice seems to have?”  I’m guessing that behind this intriguing question is an observation that practice in the days of Aristotle possessed a purity and an objectivity that we wish to have in our own practice.  There is a feeling that if we could simply frame the question or have the right setting or the right arena for our discourse and our rhetoric, our techne/craft/practice would be able to enter a discussion more purely, without as much emotional baggage as it sometimes does today.  If we could simply adhere to a colder form of logic, then our techne would be of a higher sort than it is now. 

To those who hold this idea, even if it is buried under a mass of critical theory or thrown into the corner of our minds under the old deconstructionism we have lying about or the old magazines of postmodern theory stacked on top of one another, I have a few observations.

 

First, I find this idea in myself.  I not only wish, but at times, find myself believing it to be so that there is a purity of inquiry, a detachment of the researcher, that can be attained if one is careful enough, systematic enough, logical enough, and detached enough.  I wish it to be so because if it were, inquiry and practice would be a lot cleaner and a lot easier. 

 

The idea that there can be a purity or detachment of inquiry, some kind of pure and logical detachment is, I believe, a false myth.  It is a story that we tell ourselves to serve a social purpose, namely to allow us to retract into our own research problem and leave some of the meta-research questions unanswered.  This is not always a bad thing; sometimes it is necessary because of the scope of our research and we haven’t time to discuss it.

 

All of this is not new to any graduate student, but it is easy for me, when reading any ancient text, and especially Plato or Aristotle, to find myself indulging in the belief that these ancients, and all their contemporaries, were able to discover this purity of logic, this nobility of reason and discourse, and if we could only see it and all move together that we too, could be like them. 

 

Maybe this is so, but I wonder, also, if the nobility we think we see in the ancients is real or if it is a reflection of the human desire and search for transcendence—a search to come out of ourselves and be larger than what we are; a search for eternity or Divinity.

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