Monday, April 16, 2018

It's Not Even Past #18 - The Crisis of What is Art - Part 2 - Propaganda - Still A Little More

(Roger Cohen clip, up to 21:53)

That was Roger Cohen of the New York Times speaking, I needn't clarify about what except to say that it was a lecture on Isaiah Berlin in the Age of Trump, our age, potentially defined by a thinker whose thoughts apply to every age. If this podcast keeps going indefinitely, then Isaiah Berlin will be mentioned again and again and again.

We ended the last broadcast at an arbitrary point, simply because the subject of this series of podcasts is too large to be summed up in any one half-hour. Then I got horribly sick and had to skip a week, but the arbitrary point on which we ended was with my mentioning of mediocre distractions, and in case you hadn't noticed, mediocre distractions are the nub of where we are today, the spoke around which it all turns, the essence of what makes the Age of Trump the Age of Trump, when our attention spans have so atrophied that we can't put together coherent thoughts that connect one day of our lives to the next and we therefore move from whatever captures our attention one day to whatever captures it the next (the irony of basing this podcast on almost exactly that idea is duly noted...).

Any meaningful achievement in the world that gives true satisfaction can't be a fleeting success that is bestowed from one day's work. Meaningful, lasting satisfaction requires a span greater than we can focus on at any given moment, the ability to be frustrated by it, the ability to fall back in love with it, the ability for the dimensions of the relationship to broaden, deepen, widen. It requires the ability to delay gratification and to focus on greater goals than can be achieved in any one given day, or perhaps any thirty given years. This is what it means to have a career, to be in a marriage, to raise a family, to build an organization. These are the things of which lasting satisfaction is made, and it doesn't seem as though the majority of Americans have enough ability these days to see those satisfactions through. There is sadly never a guarantee of joy at the end of an agonizing journey, but there is an unfair guarantee of joy's absence if we never embark on such a journey.

(more artfulness is put into propaganda today than into art)

We live an era when truth is no longer considered objective and measurable, and therefore even facts are considered relative to the eye of the beholder. For reasons many and various, this has been a long time coming, and in an era when truth has been considered relative for all kinds of mediocre philosophical reasons, we can't be surprised that this is where we've arrived.

(something here about Zizek, Derrida, Foucault, Butler)

I fear the world has quite a bit more spinning out of control, and spinning much more lethally, before it comes anywhere close to landing on its feet again.

Somehow, at the exact same time that college students learn that the truth is relative, the graduates who take their educations most seriously behave in such a way that makes the truths they believe so absolute as to be fanatical. When beliefs go too far to one side, they unwittingly embrace elements of the other side as compensation.

Here's just a small example. Lately I've seen a series of internet memes, saying that only a white male could have friends who disagree with them politically, because the political issues at stake today are so important that only white males could never be personally affected by this. There's a little truth to this, who could deny it? But a little truth is the most dangerous thing in the world, because it uses its appearance of veracity to cover up the deeper truths, and therefore, this is very nearly most poisonous propaganda there is. It's not just toxic, it's very, very dangerous. The toxicity is in how it peer pressures everyone to give up those friends and family who are insufficiently radical, lest their more political friends give them up for not doing so. But it's precisely because so many people, people with so much more power than the marginalized, have poisonous beliefs that so personally affect so many others in ways they don't realize that they have to be watched very carefully at a very personal level; that they have to be evangelized to, shown courtesy and warmth, so that their bubble of abstractions becomes the very real problems of very real people. The only other option is to let their hatreds fester unchanged and unwatched, which will only grow over time, until the marginalized become such a threat in their imaginations to their way of life that they have to be eliminated. It amazes me that people can live in 2018 America and not already see how far we are into that process.

Go ahead and judge conservatives poorly. I certainly do, I'm not ashamed of it, and in spite of any protests to the contrary, the way they judge liberals like me and people well to my left, whom they usually perceive as indistinguishable from me, thunders so loudly that nobody with liberal beliefs could possibly hear anything else. There is no doubt in my mind that being a conservative in today's political climate says something deeply unflattering about a person's moral character, and I have no doubt that the vast majority of them believe the same about anybody who isn't a conservative. But to say that the moral depravity of their beliefs is anything even close to as egregious as committing acts of moral depravity: thievery, abuse, fraud, is ridiculous. There are so many variables that constitute the makeup of a person's moral character, so many mitigating reasons everybody behaves the way they do, so many potential paths to redemption and so many ways to morally fail, that the flaws of a person's beliefs have to be the most forgivable of mortal sins. Poisonous beliefs may be a gateway of entitlement that allows people to commit egregious acts, but until any person him or herself crosses the line into committing acts so egregious, nobody should be considered as culpable as the offender. Let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone, we have all, in our various ways, been guilty of excusing people who poison the well of human behavior.

I was very sick last week, so I spent it binge-watching an old favorite TV show, Parks and Recreation. The reason to bring it up is not to advocate for it as something immortal, though it was easily one of the best things on TV when it was on, but the true miracle of the show was that at the show's center was a friendship of mutual esteem and respect between Leslie Knope, a mid-century idealistic and optimistic American liberal who believes that government exists to solve problems, and her boss, Ron Swanson, a deeply pessimistic 90's libertarian who believes that his role is to minimize the damage government can do. The typical Parks and Rec plot involves Leslie coming up with a solution that is ridiculous, as Ron inevitably says it will be, which then results in a chastened Leslie incorporating Ron's realism into a solution that works. To see this on television in the early 2010s, when the country receded into unprecedently unbreakable party lines was a kind of miracle, and a kind of prayer that we all can cross these unbreakable lines in our own lives.

(why art is political and why it isn't - the point of consuming art is precisely because politics will not give us what we want - )

I'm a personal believer that the key to the world being a livable place is to adjust your expectations accordingly, because the only place where it's relatively safe to demand infinite expectations is art, and there only for the audience, not the creator. We live in an era when the solutions to our problems are, in fact, the problems. When everyone's truth is equally valid, how then do we prove the truth? We could, of course, make alternative facts illegal to share, and set a government standard, but what then happens if a potential authoritarian comes along who realizes he can increase his power exponentially if he makes only alternative facts legal ones - some would say this is Trump's aim. Even if it is, I doubt he has the competence to do anything like that, but a smarter person reading Trump's playbook, say, an American Putin, could do so very well, and many people say that that's precisely what Putin has done in Russia.

It really is extraordinary that, on the one hand, we live in this incredibly science and data based era, and because everything now has to be scientifically backed by data, there are a lot of assumptions, important assumptions that used keep the world afloat, that people refuse to take for granted. A traditional news source is unbiased? Show me the proof. A vaccine doesn't cause a disease? Show me the proof. And yet, even when you show them the proof, they show you proof they think as as real as your proof. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Senator from New York and the intellectual incarnation of the American center, used to say that 'people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.' And yet, the more facts we have at our disposal, the more facts people fabricate.

(politics vs. technology)

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