The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.3 (Summer 2013)
THE POLIS VS. PROGRESS
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Cell Phones and Celery: How to Create a Polis of Mass Dependency From Two Directions
John R. Harris
Author’s note: the following short piece was condensed from two posts published at Rachel Alexander’s online magazine, The Intellectual Conservative. My style is accordingly a little more “demotic” than is typical of this journal, for which I hope my readers will pardon me. The contents of the piece are certainly appropriate to this forum. Ms. Alexander, by the way, has been high-handedly marked for professional extermination by the Arizona Bar Association in a patently unethical manner, simply because she served a District Attorney “on the wrong side”. I urge anyone with legal connections to look into her case–as well as anyone, indeed, who needs curing of the naive belief that we still live in a free society.
I have known for several years that communications technology has altered the way people think—and even, from a certain perspective, their ability to think. Every classroom teacher over forty knows as much. You can tell a group of students five times to do a simple task, having first ascertained that they’re not texting and have logged off of Facebook… and ten percent of them will still go to their graves swearing that the instructions were never given. Another ten percent will have needed all five announcements, and another ten at least four announcements. Probably not more than a quarter of the class, or a third at most, would register the original directive after one clear broadcast.
Are these young people stupid? Their behavior replicates that of sad specimens whom, without hesitation, we would have identified as mentally challenged twenty years ago. Rush Limbaugh tactfully refers to them (along with occupants of the cerebral bell curve’s rising slope) as “low-information”. But why is so little information being received?
There are several theories. Varieties of information are in constant competition today because of the convenience and portability of media; hence more “boring” varieties (i.e., those less focused on the receiver’s immediate selfish interests) are neglected. I think there’s also clearly a state of mind associated with being wired and online: that is, with having the bud of an iPod in one’s ear while texting and keeping an eye on a computer monitor. Inattention becomes a learned behavior in some sense rather than the default condition of untrained minds. It’s almost necessary for survival. Human figures beyond the receiver’s “noospace”, as well, turn into mere playthings. Real persons must compete for a share of the present with realistic representations—and the former have no more right to common courtesy, let alone rapt attention, than the latter.
A sad irony here is that commentators like Limbaugh constantly promote the latest i-tech in the sincere conviction that they are serving free enterprise and Yankee ingenuity. They do not see that this revolution is a collective lobotomy for the electorate, even though it may also be styled a triumph for the Space Race, emergency warning systems, and so forth. The carry-over of these communications miracles into the marketplace has never unleashed the sort of individualism into the world that George Gilder often prophesied. Yes, ordinary people have been given instant access to a global forum by the Internet… but who pays any attention to them unless they cipher in the sexy shorthand of instant gratification? How many people will visit this website in a decade compared to the numbers that “follow” Dennis Rodman or Beyoncé on Twitter in one hour? The lopsided proportion, I well know, amounts to statistical zero.
The medium is the message, wrote another prophet with far greater truth than he realized. Marshall McLuhan belonged to my father’s generation. Neither one of those worthy men would have thought that television would midwife that regressive species, the Couch Potato, when it first arrived in ordinary households during the fifties. It was terrific diversion—stimulating, vilifying, fertilizing. Only decades later did we figure out, as pictures got better and “for TV” writing got worse, that brain activity was flatlining in front of the miracle box.
Communications gizmos are but one high-tech tentacle of the many that have throttled our intellectual and cultural life. Yet I scarcely think that anything can be more important than the manner in which thoughts—words that convey thoughts and, increasingly, full-formed sequences of images—are piped into our brains. Voters follow candidates in the same way that they follow their pop-cultural heroes on Twitter; they “like” a mouthy challengers in the same way that they “like” a snarky post in a chatroom; and they salivate like Pavlov’s dog at
Hollywood-inculcated cues such as “industrialist”, “big oil”, “rogue reporter”, and “female detective”. These New Age electors are people who think associatively: don’t give them linear logic—give them icons and keyword phrases. They are low-information because they’re instant-processing.
I enjoyed the rare pleasure recently of editing Peter Singleton’s piece for this issue about the classic 1968 television series, The Prisoner. If you haven’t seen the series, prepare yourself for a look into the future—into our present. I believe my colleague is quite right that surveillance technology is merely a sub-species of communications technology. We’ve already reached the point where we can be watched by our laptop camera as we view the Internet, where cookies monitor our preferences and selections in shopping, and where we volunteer immense amounts of sensitive personal information on Facebook just to fit in—to conform in a counter-conformist way, to be one of the Village’s progressive sheep. Changing the content of college History and Civics classes will not save our children from the twenty-first century assommoir. The medium is the message. If we continue to let our media rule us rather than learning how to hold them in check, then we will not recognize our grandchildren. We will have about the same level of exchange with them as Jefferson might have had with Washo the Chimp.
The foregoing pedigree offered for our current political and cultural crisis will probably not strike readers of this journal as original. We have sounded the same alarm many times over the years. I added, however, that electronic media represent only one branching network of a complex family tree, though perhaps no limb grows more directly into the trunk. I should like to identify just one more influence by way of giving complexity its due. The causal connections here, I am confident, will not have occurred to very many and are well worth contemplating.
Agriculture, and its decline in the ordinary citizen’s life: this is not a minor contributant to our miseries. I hasten to stress that my observation is not made from the pessimistic Doomsday perspective of fidgety survivalists—though, of course, consumers are indeed buying dehydrated beef stew in record volume for storage in their cellars and bunkers. In a time of utter turmoil, naturally, you’ll need to feed your family. “Preppers” who have only stocked Del Monte green beans and corn will eventually empty the last can, even though they may be able to shoot a figure-eight into the torso of any competitor for that can. Over the long haul, food is a resource that will clearly have to be replenished the old-fashioned way: i.e., by farming.
None of which concerns mere here in the least: I propose, rather, that agriculture is very beneficial to the psyche—so much so that our republic only began to deteriorate when the link between man and soil was ruptured. The notion that frail individuals need Big Brother in order to survive would never have crossed a true farmer’s mind, and would surely have turned his strong stomach. (I speak not of agri-business, by the way—not here or anywhere else; most of what passes for farming today is just another species of statist boondoggle.) The Industrial Revolution, unfortunately, proceeded in a way that tore farmers from their land and held them hostage to meager wages in unwholesome cities. Things got pretty ugly. The industrialized North enslaved immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe in ways practically as binding as those employed by Southern planters upon imported Africans (a population, this last, made available for slavery by northern shipping concerns). Indeed, our Civil War was essentially the result of ever more centralized and monopolistic industrial interests drawing an ever more dependent—but also more resistant—agrarian culture into their Charybdis of ambition. (It certainly was NOT about freeing all Africans, whom Mr. Lincoln himself believed inferior beings unworthy of the vote, of being jurors, or of receiving public education.)
We should have stayed on the farm, perhaps; or, since they say progress is irresistible, then we ought now devise a way to technologize the small family farm, even (or especially) in suburban circumstances. For farming, to repeat, is good for the soul as well as the body. Farmers understand cycle, for one thing. They therefore grasp viscerally that existential freedom has limits—that terrestrial freedom is really nothing other than the precious gift of choosing how to adapt oneself to the inevitable. All that lives in this world must someday die to this world. A farmer who should fail to understand as much would perish. Farmers survive within the rhythms of life and death. They need to know when to plant, when to harvest, and how to read the sky’s dozens of moods. Freedom without cost or boundary makes no sense to them. A free man is free to work, free to look after himself and his own—not free to sleep late and then have a government-issue card punched for his breakfast pizza.
A close friend of mine (who always votes for the utopian candidate) is indignant that I allow my son to shoot squirrels with an air rifle. But squirrels aren’t as cuddly as they appear. They are metabolically racing omnivores. They destroy fruit trees, they devour eggs and small songbirds, and they sometimes get into attics and chew up roofing and wiring. Their natural enemies—foxes, coyotes, tree snakes, etc.—have been driven far from man’s habitat, and so they have wildly overpopulated in back yards and public parks. Holding them in check isn’t wicked, but it may seem so to people who think that everything can and should live virtually forever unmolested beside everything else. Those who seem to think this way and are past the age of six are usually college-educated city-dwellers. They don’t accept the hard facts of life.
The farm also teaches you (as I’ve hinted already) what might be called the work cycle. You turn the earth, pull the weeds, plant your sprouting spuds, collect rainwater, give the garden a daily splash, pull more weeds, and finally dig your potatoes. Now you have something to eat. If you don’t work, you starve; but if you work exceptionally hard, you may build up a surplus—which you can then barter or sell if (like potatoes) it doesn’t store especially well. A person who refuses to work has no “right” to your produce. Common decency demands that you help a poor bloke who’s down on his luck, yet not at your children’s expense, and not if said ne’er-do-well keeps coming back for more.
We understood this when our sweat and toil translated directly into food on the table. When, however, we increasingly started to draw a wage for selling shoes or cars or stocks, our intellectuals and our clergy could no longer keep the former relationships in focus. Some people had so very much more than they needed, yet only broke a sweat when working out at the gym. Where did all that affluence come from? Why wasn’t it shared more evenly?
It wouldn’t be such a very bad thing, it seems to me, if our “economic recovery” and our nanny state’s time-out disciplining (also known as “austerity”) turned every ordinary citizen back into a gardener or farmer. Nature doesn’t lurch along with crisis-ridden news alerts, the popular romances of Climate Change and Bush-Engendered Tornadoes notwithstanding. Instead, she plays one cycle into another with patience, rhythm, and relative quiet. The spiral of existence has not been, and cannot be, “straightened out” into a linear progression on a graph just because we are mapping genomes and sending remote-control trolleys around the Martian surface.
True, a Chernobyl may disrupt the smooth regenerative powers of nature for centuries. The irony about that particular case is that the most progressive regime on the planet at the time engineered the reactor’s meltdown. Perhaps we may hope that the young zealots of the Green movement may one day recognize natural cycle and totalitarian progressivism to be enemies to the death. The very essence of the progressive program is to manhandle natural order so that we may call our own existential tune instead of dancing to the seasons we have inherited for time immemorial.
There is an axis hiding here that cuts right through party divisions. Big-government Republicans who never saw a seascape that wouldn’t look better with motels and casinos are of course no better than big-government Democrats who want to siphon millions of tax dollars into wind farms rather than design a less energy-hungry city. Whether we at last choose to live again within the terrestrial cycle of being or are forced to do so by the mismanagement of greedy autocrats, we will likely recover this most humane and enlightening generator of culture in some measure.
Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.