Barely Passing Our Attention Test: Whittaker and Khashoggi

America seems to be passing, just barely, the test of our ability to hold a single issue in our collective attention long enough to determine its significance and whether it requires action. There have been a flood of editorials and even a lawsuit from Democratic members of Congress declaring that Matthew Whittaker’s appointment as acting Attorney General is unacceptable and even unconstitutional.

And there has been increasing pressure from Congress and an incensed press for Trump to act on the evidence that Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman ordered the killing of one of his subjects, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Credit is due to some Republicans for this, Senator Bob Corker, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Bill Kristol, one of the founders of The Weekly Standard. They are the kind of conservatives who know how and when to take a moral stand, even on the shifting sands of Washington’s politics.

And all this amidst some worthy competition for our attention, like catastrophic wildfires, Facebook’s antisemitic lobbying campaigns, Brexit’s endgame, and a tanking stock market, just to name a few.

Some tweets from Corker and Kristol below. Both Republicans, mind you:

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The Creeping Loss of History

There are two great horrors in 1984, the violence done to the narrator by the thugs of the thought police, similar to the actual crimes of repressive regimes in Orwell’s time and ours, and then there is the creeping loss of history, the more subtle of the two horrors, and the one that makes the violence possible.

I would argue that Orwell’s book is preoccupied with the erosion of history more so than violence.

The main character’s experience of the loss of history takes up far more pages than his brainwashing and physical abuse. When we see him broken at the end of the story, it is the loss of memory which makes him less than human. Without memory, there can be no ward against unreality. Without memory, whatever the screens around him say is truth and always has been.

Apart from reports of violence against migrants and the U.S. prison population in Guantanamo and at home, I am not exposed to physical brutality, but I am exposed every day to the creeping loss of history.

I recently ghost wrote a book on the future of the workplace for an executive. In discussions of economics or of the future, it is commonplace to talk about history. Economics is a science without a laboratory. The only way to test out theories about how the economy might work in the future is to look at how it has worked in the past. The most important work of economics in the last decade, Tomas Piketty’s Capital, was notable for its analysis of wealth inequality in the past. Because of new methods, Piketty could be more precise than Marx.

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From the Commonplace Book: Why Our Phones Make Us Sad

Permit me a bit of philosophy on a gray Sunday morning.

From Guy DeBord’s The Society of the Spectacle, a passage I keep returning to, because I think it sums up what is new about the world of screens:

Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life.

And what is non-life? How is it autonomous? It is the world of algorithms, of thought moving without spirit.

The Byzantines and the Orthodox Church today believe that consecrated icons are alive. An image of St. Michael *is* St. Michael and deserves all the reverence due to the archangel. I witnessed in a remote Greek monastery the monks setting vast hanging light fixtures swinging at the height of their liturgy, to symbolize the world dancing with spirit. These are images which move only with spirit to move them, either human or divine. There is no deceit.

In the form of our screens we are surrounded by unconsecrated images which move only with alien intelligence. Like the demiurge or St. Paul’s dark mirror, they only reflect us. They do not bring life together, but fragment it.

Pelosi & Co. Need to Govern With One Objective, To Restore Public Trust in Congress

Earlier this week, I asked: What is the long-term price of tolerating corruption? The answer was a political environment like Brazil’s, in which the only trust left is in the army and the church, with none in government. Every move by those in power to undermine trust in our institutions, such as Trump’s appointment of the rankly partisan Matthew Whittaker to the Dept. of Justice, is worthy of our sustained collective attention and scorn. Without trust, the engines of democracy will stall. Without trust, we’re on our way to being Brazil or Venezuela.

That’s the viewpoint of two Republican-appointed former intelligence chiefs, Michael Hayden & James Clapper. In this review of their two recent on the subject, they argue that the decline of trust in American institutions is leading to a crisis of legitimacy:

“Ultimately, they fear that the consensus that holds the nation together–objective truth–is breaking down. That, they say, has been the precursor to government collapse, civil war and dictatorship in other countries, and they worry the same thing can happen here.

Back when I was at PBS, we often bragged that we were the most trusted public institution after the military. Whenever I fact-checked that talking point for a speech or press release, I always remember being shocked at how low trust in Congress was, even after it was freshly elected in opposition to a sitting President’s administration. Hayden & Clapper argue that the plummeting trust in the CIA and NSA isn’t due to a change in opinion about those agencies themselves, but about the ability of Congress to hold them accountable.

That’s why I agree with this editorial in The Times, which argues that Pelosi and the Democrats need to avoid the distracting scandals of The White House, designed to keep attention swirling around the President and to throw into doubt any statement about objective reality. As tempting as it may be for Democrats to engage in a spiteful volley of subpoenas, they can’t go overboard. Hold the executive brand accountable, yes. But the focus should be on sustaining their own message and achieving their own worthy aims.

If Congress governs with sanity and integrity, we might just find a new way forward.

What do you think?

 

We Live In A Gossip Column From Which There Is No Escape

This quotation from Marshall McLuhan, more than “global village” or “the medium is the message,” exemplifies what a prophet he was. He wrote these words in the 1960s, several decades before the Internet. All he needed was the wired world of phones, radios, and above all television to foresee not only how all other thought would be drowned out by gossip, but how much it would oppress us. For him, redemption was a physical as much as psychic necessity–such thinking was built into his orthodox Catholicism. In baptism or reconciliation, sins are truly washed away, their imprint removed from the universe, an act which is impossible if they are squirreled away in a database somewhere with Luciferian avarice, always ready to be brandished in accusation or sold for gain.

Zero Hour for Generation X?

Normally, I say that the idea of generations in American life is a refuge for lazy journalists who want to trade off nostalgia or fear of the future. Think how often you’ve read the clickbait headline “Why Millennials Have Ruined [insert beloved concept here]” and you’ll know what I mean.

But when the concept of generations crops up as a way to help us grapple with the impact of new technology, I’m all for it.

Based on this review, I’m likely to pick up Zero Hour for Generation X, a new book by Michael Hennessey, which calls on the cohort born between the mid 1960s and the early 1980s (I’m at the tail end) to remind the world how sane things were before digital technology turned the world into a voluntary panopticon, hostile to democracy, privacy, and enchantment. Americans are always fond of dismissing any skepticism about technology as merely a hatred of change, which, according to our national mythology is always for the good. All forward motion is progress, and the faster forward the better.

Throughout my career, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make Americans listen to the sensible alternative to this argument. There are bad forms of change and good forms, and new technology has the power to change us in ways we don’t always understand or control.

As thinkers from Thoreau to  C. S. Lewis to George Orwell have reminded us, it is to direct experience and to personal memory that we can always turn to in order to stay sane. But what happens when our information technology renders both direct experience and personal memory doubtful? What then?

Gen X may be the last generation to have a sure answer. I’m curious to see what Hennessey comes up with.