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?


Midterm Results: Victory for the Democrats (Not with a Bang, But a Whimper)

Compared to the far more substantial opposition party victories in 2006, 2010, and 2014, last night was a disappointment, even an occasion for worry.

The attacks on democratic norms and institutions we’ve witnessed in the last two years, as well as the upheavals of foreign and trade policy by the Trump administration, should’ve triggered a recapture of both houses by the Democrats. Instead, we got a moderate swing toward the opposition party that could’ve happened in the midterm elections of any first-term presidency–albeit one that will insure the kind of basic check on Presidential power that the constitution was designed to enshrine.

As Bill Kristol has pointed out on twitter, the Democrats lack the discipline to stay on message—any message. And as David Brooks wisely pointed out, demography means that it is the Democrats who will be leading the country into a majority-minority future. If they don’t come up with an inspiring, unifying message, it will be left to the fear mongers to forge the emotional core of our national life. The sooner the Democrats forge their own coherent national narrative, the better their short-term electoral fortunes, and the better the health of the nation. It will be an uphill battle against social media, which is predisposed to negativity, but it is a battle they have to get serious about fighting.

Most worrying for democracy is the toleration in Georgia of massive voter disenfranchisement by a secretary of state who abused his office to win the governorship. Especially because it is politicians like Stacey Abrams, known for pragmatic bipartisan governance, whose “purple state” leadership will provide just the kind of unifying narrative our country needs to know who it will be in the 21st Century.

What did you think of the outcome of the elections?

Is Roe v. Wade our Dred Scott?

Earlier this week I wondered if there were a central axis to the cold Civil War we have in America. In the years leading up to the actual Civil War, all public debate revolved around the question of slavery. You couldn’t fully participate in the world beyond your door without calling yourself either abolitionist or pro-slavery.

When the Supreme Court, lead by the pro-slavery Chief Justice Roger B. Tawney, ruled in Dred Scott in 1857 that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” the country was torn in half. Instead of settling the question of slavery, as Tawney intended, we moved closer to war. In response, Republicans in Congress added another justice to tip the Supreme Court in favor of abolition.

In an editorial for the Post (which was summarized in The Week), Michael Barone posits that Roe v. Wade is the hidden fault line in our current politics. Barone’s editorial isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, but about the way that the issue has shaped electoral politics for 30 years, putting both Republicans and Democrats on ideological islands, unable to find common ground on anything, even when their beliefs or expediency in serving the public good might dictate it.

Is the abortion debate the source of the vast reserves of emotional energy that have been heaped on the Kavanaugh Affair by both sides?

Even if you believe that Kavanaugh’s offenses or the shadow of doubt cast on him render him unfit for the Supreme Court, or if you believe that his confirmation is a deliberate punishment of feminists by reactionaries, it is still worth considering how the abortion debate has invisibly fueled this controversy. It is like the sleeping dragon buried beneath the castle of contemporary politics. We don’t talk about it. We don’t dig it up. But we can feel its heat.

What do you think is the central axis of our politics?

P.S. – I almost didn’t post this, for fear of being misunderstood. Let me be clear: I am *not* calling for a repeal of Roe v. Wade. I am *not making a moral correlation between the wrongness of Dred Scott and the rightness or wrongness of Roe v. Wade. I am making a historical analogy that I hope will help us solve something that puzzles me about our politics, i.e. the source of the hatred and the co-existing unrealities that I see fueling it daily. 

Do the facts of the Kavanaugh Affair even matter?

Before last week was out, The New York Times released a report detailing how President Trump likely engaged in hundreds of millions of dollars of tax evasion before his election. In any prior time, a bombshell like that about a sitting President would’ve warranted an address to the nation. It would have been not quite Watergate, but certainly a Whitewater-grade crisis.

And yet all we have time for at the moment is the roiling emotional whirlpool of the Kavanaugh Affair. And even in the trenches of that debate, the two sides seem to be arguing about a different event.

Conservatives see themselves in a war to vindicate a sane, decent man against intimidation by a conspiracy. Liberals see themselves preserving public virtue against partisanship, and defending the de facto equality of women before the law. One the one hand, common decency. On the other, moral and political progress.

But of course every event is now just a chapter in an exhausting clash between two these two alternate realities. Every event is our next potential Dreyfus Affair, and we must always have a Dreyfus Affair as a heat sink for our collective rage.

What was the Dreyfus Affair? Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jewish military officer who was convicted in the 1890s of treason for sharing military secrets. Because French conservatives, bereft of a monarch, rallied around the military as an organ of nationalism, there was no chance that Dreyfus, a Jew, was going to be acquitted. Dreyfus’s guilt was what what the historian Barbara Tuchman has called an “overdetermined” event. Everybody knew how the jury was going to vote, yet the dragged out debate about his guilt or innocence gathered nuance and meaning and swept up every national figure of the time, forcing them to one side or the other. The details of the Affair became like the objects and situations in a nightmare, having an ominous quality in the dream that seems absurd upon waking.

To this day, nobody knows what the exact details of the case were (though Dreyfus was innocent), but the Affair lives on as the first great mass media-fueled all-consuming controversy. It was such a big deal that the writer Emile Zola had to flee the country after being convicted of libel for writing an opinion piece on the verdict. I think of it as the first salvo in a kind of cold civil war between French conservatives and liberals, a model for the way things get hashed out in our time here in America.

It’s better than a hot civil war, I suppose, but the consequence of governing national life this way is a level of unreality and emotional charge that can be hard to contain or escape from. And we engage in it now on television and not in print, which means the thoughts that get tossed around are courser, shorter, and smaller.

Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, was concerned that her testimony would not affect the course of his nomination and approval, as indeed it has not. The outcome of Kavanaugh’s nomination process was “overdetermined,” in Tuchman’s sense of the word. Whatever the facts, they no longer matter. All that matters is that these hearings are the latest scapegoat, to be paraded down the street for both right and left to heap their scorn on before the next scapegoat is found.

What do you think it will be?

The Surprising Effectiveness of Gentle Public Shaming

Where would you put your money?

Leave it to the staff of one of my favorite lunch places to come up with a brilliant example of the persuasive communication.

What do I love about it?

It’s absolutely of the moment. It exploits identity to motivate us to action (We all want to express how we feel about Brett Kavanaugh because it says something about who we are). By seeding the tip jars the restaurant itself subtly expresses a point of view. It gamifies what is otherwise an obligation. It’s physical, and it has an implicit but clear call to action.

And what could be more American than monetizing political expression?

Shamed a bit by the tip jar, I pulled out my (electronic) wallet without a second thought and made a point of mentioning to the staff that I was putting my digital tip into the Matt Damon jar.

Bravo, guys. I’ll be back for lunch again tomorrow.

The deep historical roots of our moment of toxic masculinity–and one rhetorical tactic that could get us through it.

Touring Salem last weekend, I learned that one of the causes of the witch hysteria of 1692 was the absence of a colony-wide government. About six years before the trials began, the governor of Massachusetts had been ousted, and the status of the colony’s government and even the colony itself were in disarray. This left the villages of Massachusetts at the mercy of the judges, magistrates, and clergymen who ran the local institutions.

In the absence of clear leadership at the top, these men started using and modifying the machinery of the state into a tool for state-sanctioned theft of property, the extraction of fees from the poor, and the punishment of their political enemies. And they took advantage of the lower status of women and religious prejudice to do it.

Sound familiar?

Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has compares political institutions to Meso-American pyramids. If you start digging into the grand exterior you’ll eventually hit on the decrepit, subterranean sacrificial mound the whole thing was built on. At the root of the American political pyramid is a Puritan theocracy. If you put enough stress on the overlying structure, eventually you’ll find yourself cast down on the underlying ruin it’s built on. Atavism in institutions can be charming, but it can also be harmful, all the more so because it is so often invisible to those affected by it.