Slings and Arrows

I can’t think of any decent person in recent history who has suffered the slings and arrows of derision more than Hillary Clinton. I am not a particular Hillary fan, but I do think she has been muddied over to the point where we can’t find the real woman underneath all the slander. Recently, however, I read an essay on line that was borrowed from the Facebook page of a man named Michael Arnowitz. What he had to say about Hillary was most interesting and in light of recent events, most relevant. I have cut much of the original (though it can be found on his Facebook page) and attach it here (And by the way, if you want a well-reasonaded defense of Hillary’s choice for V.P. you might visit this site and read what one of the brightest bloggers I have met has to say on the subject):

In the course of a single conversation, I have been assured that Hillary is cunning and manipulative but also crass, clueless, and stunningly impolitic; that she is a hopelessly woolly-headed do-gooder and, at heart, a hardball litigator; that she is a base opportunist and a zealot convinced that God is on her side. What emerges is a cultural inventory of villainy rather than a plausible depiction of an actual person.” —Henry Louis Gates The quote above comes from a fascinating article called “Hating Hillary”, written by Gates for the New Yorker in 1996. . . . 




To conservatives she is a radical left-wing insurgent who has on multiple occasions been compared to Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Kremlin’s long-time Chief of Ideology. To many progressives (you know who you are), she is a Republican fox in Democratic sheep’s clothing, a shill for Wall Street who doesn’t give a damn about the working class. The fact that these views could not possibly apply to the same person does not seem to give either side pause. Hillary haters on the right and the left seem perfectly happy to maintain their mutually incompatible delusions about why she is awful. The only thing both teams seem to share is the insistence that Hillary is a Machiavellian conspirator and implacable liar, unworthy of society’s trust.

 . . . 

And this claim of unabated mendacity is particularly interesting, because while it is not the oldest defamation aimed at Hillary, it is the one that most effortlessly glides across partisan lines. Indeed, for a surprisingly large percentage of the electorate, the claim that Hillary is innately dishonest is simply accepted as a given. It is an accusation and conviction so ingrained in the conversation about her that any attempt to even question it is often met with shock. And yet here’s the thing: it’s not actually true. Politifact, the Pulitzer prize-winning fact-checking project, determined for example that Hillary was actually the most truthful candidate (of either Party) in the 2016 election season. And in general Politifact has determined that Hillary is more honest than most (but not all) politicians they have tracked over the years. . . . 



Also instructive is Jill Abramson’s recent piece in the Guardian. Abramson, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal as well as former Executive Editor of the New York Times, had this to say about Hillary’s honesty: “As an editor I’ve launched investigations into her business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater. I’m not a favorite in Hillaryland. That makes what I want to say next surprising. Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.”

. . . .

. . . the most common opinion seemed to be that she was a self-righteous leftist who considered anyone with other views to be morally inferior. In short, the prevailing anti-Hillary accusation was not that she was unrelentingly dishonest, but that she was just intolerably smug.


 . . . 

But while conservative propaganda and lies are a constant in “Hillaryland”, if we look at Hillary’s career, and the negative attacks so often aimed at her, it seems clear that more than just political machinations are at play. My current conviction is that the main fuel that powers the anti-Hillary crowd is sexism. And yes I’m serious. So go ahead and roll your eyes. Get it over with. But I think the evidence supports my view, and I’ve seen no other plausible explanation. And just to be clear, I don’t think it’s ONLY sexism. But I do think that this is the primary force that has generated and maintained most of the negative narratives about Hillary.


. . . 

Hillary is nobody’s idea of perfect. Fine. But in my view if a man with her qualifications were running in the Democratic primary, Bernie would have been done before he even started. And if a man with her qualifications had been running for the Republicans, they’d be anointing him the next Reagan while trying to sneak his face onto Mount Rushmore. . . . .



Most of the people who hate Hillary when she’s running for office end up liking her just fine once she’s won. And I have every confidence that history will repeat itself again this November. As for myself, I have been watching Presidential elections since Nixon. And never in my life has there been an easier or more obvious choice than now. Trump is not merely a bad choice, he is (as many leading Republicans have already admitted) a catastrophic choice, unfit in every possible way for the office of the Presidency. 
As such, I happily voted for Hillary in my primary. And I will proudly vote for her in November. Yes she will disappoint us all on occasion. Who doesn’t? But I think she’s also going to surprise a lot of people. She will fear neither consensus when possible nor ass-kicking when necessary. She will safeguard us from the damage a right-wing Supreme Court would inflict on the nation. She will stand for the rights of women, LGBT Americans, and minorities. She will maintain critical global relationships, and she will react to dangerous situations with the temperament of a seasoned and experienced professional. And in a nation that didn’t even allow women to vote until 1920, she will make history by shattering the very highest glass ceiling, and in doing so forever change the way a generation of young women view their place in our Republic.
She’s going to be a fine President.
I’m with her.

Appeal To Fear

One of the typical gambits during an election year (or two) is the appeal to raw emotion. Politicians and those who resort to this tactic do not bother with logic or reason; they know the appeal to pride, hatred, or fear works like a charm. We have come to expect this from the Republicans, especially, but recently the Democrats have discovered that it might work to their advantage as well. I have been receiving daily fear-notices from the Democratic big-wigs shouting about the latest atrocity committed at the Republican Convention and warning me of the dire consequences that are certain to follow if Trump is elected president of these United States. I copied one of the latest, which I suspect you have also received:

Are you watching this?!

Mike Pence just officially accepted his nomination to be Vice President — and predicted a TRAGIC outcome:

PENCE: “I know we will elect Donald Trump to be the 45th president!”

We can’t let that happen! That’s why President Obama reached out for your help earlier.

“This convention should be a wake-up call for all of us.” – President Barack Obama

We CANNOT let Trump and Pence get to the White House.

That’s why a group of all-star Democrats has agreed to match every dollar if we get to $1,OOO,OOO by midnight tomorrow.

MILLION DOLLAR MATCH: PENDING

Suggested Support: $1

We have to hand the Republicans a crushing defeat.

Will you chip in $1 now?

They SAY they only want $1.00, but I strongly suspect they will accept more if I were so inclined. And by the way, the note loses something in the translation: in the original it appeared in bright colors amidst the capital letters. And it is just one of the many I have received in the last few  days. Honestly, people, do these folks really want to lower themselves to the level of their opponents? I would like to think that those who fear Donald can do so perfectly well on their own without bright messages shouting at them from their computers. I dare say there have been dozens of phone calls as well. I simply don’t answer the phone these days unless I know the caller.

It is apparent to anyone who has been following the Convention — even from afar, like myself — that there has been absolutely no attempt whatever to deal with the issues of the day. There has only been name-calling and hate-mongering — along with the usual nonsense designed to get Republicans fearful of Hillary Clinton, even to the point of calling for her death!

We can only hope the Democratic Convention will see that this is a terrible mistake and will address the issues that face us all in these Troubled Times — such things as global warming, the vanishing nature of the Middle Class, the growing numbers of poor and homeless, disproportionate taxes that allow the very rich to escape payment altogether, the atrocity that is Citizens United (which Hillary has pledged to help us rid ourselves of), and the like. Heaven knows there are plenty of issues out there that need to be addressed.

But above all else, the Democrats need to show some sense of unity and coherence while they rally behind the woman who can, in fact, get the job done and do it well, in order to lure the disillusioned followers of Bernie Sanders back into the fold and convince others that a vote for a third party candidate (like Jill Stein) — no matter how attractive she is and how she does indeed represent another way of going forward — is idealistic but hopeless, indeed it amounts to no less than a vote for Donald Trump.

When Bernie endorsed Hillary I suspect he saw the handwriting on the wall: she’s the only one that can beat Trump. But in taking him on, let us hope that the Democrats take the high road and not resort to wild emotional appeals.

Culpability

We don’t talk much about moral responsibility, or culpability, these days. We are big on “rights” but we fail to acknowledge that rights imply responsibilities. If I have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that imposes a responsibility on my part to acknowledge your rights to the same. There’s no such thing as one-sided rights — except in the cases of  children or the mentality challenged who cannot possibly be expected to acknowledge their rights to those who are responsible for their welfare.

But in failing to acknowledge responsibilities, we have become experts at pointing fingers at others to avoid blame. “Mikey made me do it, Mom.” We expect that in children, but we have arrived at the point where everyone seems to be acting like a child, pointing fingers when blame is due. The N.R.A., and those gun manufacturers that support that group, are a case in point. They like to say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. This is a half-truth. It’s not altogether false, but it is not altogether true, either. To see this we need to distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions when assigning causes. For A to be the cause of B (and therefore responsible for B) A must be the necessary and sufficient condition for B. For instance, in order for me to have killed Sam who lies dead on the floor it is necessary that I have been there when it happened. If I was there holding a gun and there is sufficient DNA evidence that I shot Sam, then there would appear to be both necessary and sufficient conditions for me to have been the killer.

The N.R.A. is right in that if there were no people there would be no gun deaths. But, then, if there were no guns there would be no gun deaths, either. Guns are the necessary condition for the gun deaths to occur. There need only be a nutter or two, along with fear and rage, in order to realize the sufficient conditions for gun deaths to occur. And there are plenty of nutters, as we are finding out daily. Thus, those who provide the guns are at the very least partially responsible, culpable, for the gun deaths and cannot simply point the finger elsewhere. To be sure, many of those nutters would find another way to wreak havoc, but the consequences would not be nearly as catastrophic as they are when the nutter is armed with an automatic weapon supplied by the gun manufacturer who is at the very least partially responsible for those terrible deaths since he provides the shooter with a weapon.

The Republican Convention runs this week and we are told that, since Ohio is an “open carry” state, there is a number of New Black Panthers and White Supremacists on hand, fully armed and ready to fight if the occasion arises. It’s a volcano primed to erupt and we can only hope that the occasion does not arise. But if it does and if people are killed, as they most certainly would be, then those who provided those militant people with weapons are at least partially responsible for the results. They will have provided the necessary conditions for the event to happen, if not the sufficient condition. Those who promote this sort of behavior with inflamed rhetoric must also be regarded as partially responsible for the results.

When we are screaming about our “rights” we must remember that those rights imply responsibilities as well. And we might do well to recall that the so-called “right to bear arms” is a right, under the Constitution, that is guaranteed to militia — not White Supremacists or Black Panthers (New or Old).

Formula For Success

So, you wanna be president, eh? I have some tips for you garnered from years of looking and listening at key holes. These are some of the things successful politicians do to win voters — especially voters that would put them in the White House. Pay close attention!

  1. Exude confidence. Appear to be in charge. You want to convince your listeners that you have everything under control, are cool under fire, and will achieve greatness.
  2. Know your audience. Know what they want to hear and tell them precisely that. It’s not about what is true, it’s about what people want to hear.
  3.  Repeat. Again, repeat. If you say something several times people will believe it is true, whether it is or not. Indeed, truth is not the issue, it’s all about what people want to hear and saying it enough times that they will believe whatever you say.
  4. Appeal to emotion. Don’t try to overwhelm your audience with facts. Facts will just confuse people. Know your audience and know what they fear and what they desire. Exploit their known prejudices: play on them. Then probe. And repeat.
  5. Deal in generalities. Don’t get bogged down in specifics. People don’t what specifics anyway. They want clichés and formulas, no matter how vapid or even how untrue. Richard Nixon won his way into the White House by telling folks he “had a plan” for getting us out of Viet Nam. He never said what that plan was, because, as it turned out, he had none. But people believed him because it was what they wanted to hear (refer back to point #2 above).
  6. Smile, look sincere, and pause for effect after saying something your audience responds to favorably — as though you knew what they were thinking.
  7. Never, ever admit you were wrong. Don’t change your mind even if it has been shown that what you said was a bald-faced lie. Stick by your guns and attack those who insist that what you said was untrue. People prefer their candidates to be self-assured, even if they are chronic liars. They won’t recognize a lie anyway and very few of them will bother to check your “facts” to see if they are true.
  8. Pander to your audience. Give them more credit than they deserve. As a group they may have a collective I.Q. of 73.6 but treat them as though they are brilliant and wise enough to make you their choice for president.
  9. Attack your opponents at every opportunity. Blame every problem on them, especially if something terrible has just occurred, and assure your audience that if you were president this sort of thing would not have happened and will never happen again if your are elected. Your opponents can do nothing right. Stress that. Don’t worry whether or not this is true because, as said above, the audience doesn’t care about the truth, they want to hear what they already believe is true.
  10. Keep it short. K.I.S.S. No long sentences. No logic. No lengthy explanations with data and evidence to support. Remember that your audience has the attention-span of a cocker spaniel and act accordingly.

Are We Happy Yet?

Toward the end of that incredibly prescient novel, Brave New World, the Controller is having a discussion with Helmholtz and the Savage who have come to the point where they cannot accept the Brave New World and are about to be shipped off to an island where other malcontents live, though the Savage will hang himself before that can happen..

The Savage has been brought up in a reservation as an outcast reading, of all things, Shakespeare and he has been asking the director if such books are read any more in the Brave New World. Of course, they haven’t. Folks like Shakespeare simply don’t happen in the Brave New World. This world, the world Huxley sees as our future, has traded great artists and creative minds for “happiness.” As the Controller says:

“. . .our world is not the same world as Othello’s world. You can’t make [fast cars] without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they are safe; they are never ill; . . . they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. . . . that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art.”

Hopefully the reader will recognize the allusions to what is going on in Huxley’s dystopia. But there are several points I want to make that do not require any familiarity with the novel. To begin with, we might note the comment at the very end of his snippet: “we’ve sacrificed high art.” I used to assign this book to my students many of whom simply could not see what it had to do with them. But it has everything to do with them, because in so many respects ours resembles Huxley’s world. We have, consciously or not, traded high art for what we deem to be happiness. But, then, we have no more idea what happiness is than do the citizens of Huxley’s world. We think it’s all about pleasure as we live our hedonistic lives eating, drinking and making merry (or Sally or Ruth, or Ben) while our minds atrophy on the constant bombardment from television and electronic media and we gleefully replace the real world with social media. We even have soma — or any number of reasonable substitutes.

Huxley’s world is based on the premise that stability is better than unrest and discontent. Those who are discontented are simply removed. We haven’t gotten to that point yet — certainly not the elimination of discontented people. But if one of the two principals running for president of this country has his way we will get there. The man is deluded, of course, and wouldn’t recognize high art if it bit him in the butt. But he’s all for stability and insularity, getting rid of those who just don’t fit — i.e., those who would disagree with him and his insane policies.

It is, of course, discontent and even resentment that have formed the warp and woof of this country since a group of rebels got together and threw off the yoke of British rule and then declared their independence and wrote a constitution which is, for the most part, one of the truly great documents created by the human mind. But since that time we have seen the country gravitate more and more in the direction of Huxley’s dystopia. We seem to want to rid ourselves of those who would disagree with us or who are simply different. We certainly won’t listen to them. Rather than embrace difference and dissent, which are the lifeblood of any democracy, we seem to be content to see the country head further and further down the road toward oligarchy: let the rich buy the country and tell us what we want. After all, they are the ones who provide us with entertainment and keep our minds off real problems while, with their other hand, they rake in the profits. If this means that a great many people will die from guns going off haphazardly it matters not as long as they don’t go off in my direction. If it means that the wealthy will continue to suck the life out of a dying planet, so be it, as long as the planet lasts long enough for me to get in another round of golf.

Like the denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World, we know about diversions and having fun. We avoid strong feelings of love and affection — though we allow hatred to run rampant. We don’t have any Shakespeares any more, or any Beethovens, or build buildings that inspire deep feelings, such as the Cathedrals of old. Instead, those few with creative minds invent and tinker with inventions, ways to make our lives easier, make sure we don’t have to suffer or do without.  What is left of the arts is largely ignored in our haste to get back to our iPads. We no longer have the attention spans or the imagination necessary to engage art fully.

The fact that so many of my students couldn’t see what Brave New World had to do with their world is the thought that shakes me the deepest. We cannot possibly address our problems if we refuse to admit that  they are there, and we seem perfectly content to be….content..

Nervous Times

The satirist Tom Lehrer once said he felt like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. We are all learning that feeling as the news keeps getting worse and more and more slugs rise to the top of the mud that Donald Trump has stirred up with his hate and fear-mongering. He seems fit only to lead a mob, certainly not to lead this country. There can be no doubt that (a) the slugs were there all the time and (b) Trump’s rhetoric has given them the courage to speak and act their bigotry openly. These are, after all, the forgotten ones, the ones who find themselves among the discarded of society, the bottom-feeders, unsuccessful and frustrated by a system they blame for their own shortcomings. They see this man as the one who can deliver them from their despair and bring them a brighter day. He gives them license to voice their opinions openly and act out their hatred.  After all, if a “successful business man” says those things, they must be true. He has somehow managed to give bigots the conviction that their way of hating is perfectly acceptable.

There are so many problems with this scenario one hardly knows where to begin. But the extent of this phenomenon must be addressed. It’s easy to say, as I have in the past, that much of it is the fault of a flawed educational system. But that’s only a part off the problem and it doesn’t appear that it will be fixed in the near future — especially since those who can fix it are products of that very system and they see no problem.

The same remains the case with gun control, which is another part of the problem — a large part. There are so many guns out there in the hands of nervous nutters that even if a law were passed today prohibiting the purchase of automatic weapons there would remain a monumental problem, one that law enforcement is probably unable to deal with effectively. And, given that many of those in law enforcement are clearly fearful (and with good reason), one cannot ask those men and women to solve our problems.

Those who might take steps to gain some control of a system that is clearly out of control, the Congress, is paid by monied interests not to think (and they do that very well) and to simply pause in their daily activities from time to time to say a silent prayer for those who have been brutally killed in the name of hatred and bigotry.  They fiddle while Rome burns. But it would take strong laws preventing the sale of all automatic weapons together with a recall of such weapons already sold, coupled with enforcement of those laws by the National Guard, to begin to make inroads against the rising tide of hatred and fear.

I tend to be pessimistic when it comes to the motivation of most of my fellow humans, but I like to think I am being realistic when I say that a solution is possible only if the Congress is radically altered in its make-up and the leaders are courageous enough to take on such powerful entities as the N.R.A. Until that happens, until some sort of leadership and courage are shown at the Federal level, the situation will remain the same or even get worse. There are growing numbers of fearful people who are frustrated by their lack of power and the unwillingness of those in power to take any steps to improve their collective lot and these people are armed and will continue to act in haste and wreak havoc. If cool heads don’t prevail, we may well become an armed camp in which might makes right.

We need to remind ourselves that the appendix can be removed when it is inflamed and the pestilence that pervades this country at the present time can also be rooted out. But it will take decisive and courageous action on the part of those with the power to effect change. Until such people are elected to Congress we can simply expect more of the same. And the appendix may well rupture.

 

Bits and Pieces

After reading a good book there are bits and pieces of insight and even wisdom that float to the top — bits and pieces that deserve special attention and deeper thought. I always underline them and return to them later — which is why I read real books, not electronic substitutes. This way the books become a part of me and I also become a part of them. Readers of these blogs will know that I often return to Christopher Lasch, one of the deepest thinkers I have read who always teaches me something about subjects that interest us both. In reading The Minimal Self — which I have referred to in earlier posts — I have quoted several insights that I think deserve special attention. I post other bits and pieces here:

ON THE SURVIVAL MENTALITY

(Lasch is convinced that we as a culture have entered a survival mode of existence that resembles in important ways the techniques used by the inmates of the death camps during the Second World War. In this regard, he noted):

“. . . It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any numbers of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and to live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow victims — they also insists that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. It is the survivors who try to ‘give meaning to survival,’ while those who come after them and live under conditions seemingly more secure see meaning only in survival itself.”

ART AS REFLECTIVE OF CULTURE

“. . .modernism in its most ‘advanced’ form no longer explores new frontiers of sensibility, new dimensions of reality, but, on the contrary, undertakes a strategic retreat from reality and a regression into a realm . . .’in which mental and perceptual operations are so basic that they cannot sustain any but the most undifferentiated emotions.’ It is hardly necessary to add that in ‘advanced’ art this embodies the survival mentality characteristic of those faced with extreme situations: a radical reduction of the field of vision, a ‘socially approved solipsism,’ a refusal to feel anything, whether pain or pleasure. . . . the weakening of the distinction between the self and its surroundings — a development faithfully recorded by modern art even in its refusal to become representational — makes the very concept of reality, together with the concept of the self, increasingly untenable.”

ON CHILDREN AND THEIR UPBRINGING

“Our culture surrounds children with sexually seductive imagery and information; at the same time, it tries in every possible way to spare them the experience of failure or humiliation. It takes the position that ‘you can be anything you want to be.’ It promises success and gratification with a minimum of effort. Adults spend a great deal of time and effort trying to reassure the child of his importance and of their own love, perhaps in order to allay the suspicion that they themselves have little interest in children. They take pains not to remind the child of his immaturity and dependence. Reluctant to claim the authority of superior experience, parents seek to become their children’s companion. They cultivate a youthful appearance and youthful tastes, learn the latest slang, and throw themselves into their children’s activities. They do everything possible, in short, to minimize the difference between the generations. Recently it has become fashionable to minimize gender differences as well, often — once again — with the best of intentions.”

TRUE CONSERVATISM

“A truly conservative position on culture rejects both enforced conformity and laissez-faire. It attempts to hold society together by means of moral and religious instruction, collective rituals, and a deeply implanted though not uncritical respect for tradition.”

THE ‘HELPING PROFESSIONS’

“All these institutions operate according to the underlying principle that a willingness to cooperate with the proper experts offers the best evidence of ‘adjustment’ and the best hope of personal success, while the refusal to cooperate signifies ’emotional problems’ requiring more sustained therapeutic attention. . . the shift form the authoritative sanctions to psychological manipulation and surveillance. . . [has given rise to] a professional and managerial class that governs society not by upholding authoritative moral standards but by defining normal behavior and by invoking allegedly non-punitive, psychiatric sanctions against deviance.”

Gone is the moral high ground of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently. It has vanished within the self in which all of reality has been reduced to the “world-for-me.” We are now living in an age that centers on the self, the reductio ad absurdum of solipsism.

Film As Art

I remarked in passing on a recent post that there is a basic difference between film regarded as art (as it was in many countries other than in this one at least until recently) and film as entertainment (which is what it is regarded as in this country, for the most part.) I think this distinction warrants development and some support. Besides, I am sick and tired of writing and reading about the current political race!

Years ago I was director of a Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux.” (It is not important to know when this was, let’s just say it was after the Flood.) At that time we used a number of films as points of departure for discussion in small seminars after the film was shown. Note, please, that the film was not shown in class time. The topic for that term was ‘Good and Evil,” a broad topic, you will agree. A good friend of mine in the theatre department who knows everything there is to know about films recommended “The Shop On Main street” and that was shown to the Freshman class in several showings at the Campus Religious Center. I was present at the first showing of a powerful film with subtitles about the deportation of Jews during the early 1930s. After the film had been shown, I heard one young man turn to his neighbor and say: “Subtitles suck.” That was his assessment of the film, a film as gripping as any I have ever seen, before or since.

The young man, who shall not be named, had confused film as art with film as entertainment. He came to the show expecting to be entertained. Instead, he was asked to pay close attention, read, and think about what he was seeing. Apparently, he could not do the latter.

I don’t want to pick on that young man. He might have simply tried to be funny. I clearly am not to know. But the remark does raise the issue I want to discuss: how does film as art differ from film, as entertainment? The answer is deceptively simple: film as art requires the engagement of the spectator’s feelings along with his or her whole mind, intellect and well as imagination. It demands their full attention. It raises issues and requires that we make an effort to connect and interpret. It doesn’t reward a passive audience that simply wants to sit back, stare, and eat popcorn.

The implication, of course, is that film as entertainment does do the latter. And that is all that it does do. It hands the spectator a finished product, complete with special effects and noise enough to drown out any ideas he or she might have about what is happening away from the screen. It makes few, if any, demands of the spectator.

Think about Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho,” where the line is thinly drawn but still apparent. The shock of the ending is suggested rather than shown. This is key, as it is in almost all art. Hitchcock still, at that time, required of his audience that they participate in the making of the work of art, which was the film. They never saw a woman stabbed in the shower or a madman/madwoman attacking the hero at the end off the film. But they thought they saw it, and if they had any doubts the music helped them out. They put the pieces together and made up these scenes for themselves. And in the process they were involved in the horror that was “Psycho.” From that time forward, in American film history (with a few exceptions — by such film makers as Woody Allen) — the films became more graphic and less taxing on the audience. As the American audiences became more and more jaded and used to the sensational it became imperative on the part of filmmakers to become more and more vivid in their presentations, demanding less and less of their audience. That was that way the audiences wanted it. That was what we gradually became used to. We became lazy and easily diverted. Film had become entertainment. We got what we wanted.

The interesting thing to note in this process is that it parallels the gradual immersion of the American public into electronic media and the rule of thumb in television and movie theaters everywhere: give them that they crave. Give them all our production crews and special effect people can give them. This was a breath of fresh air to the special effects people who were learning new tricks at every turn and were perfectly capable of scaring the pants off every passive spectator in any theater anywhere in this broad country. I daresay it became something of a contest, with the winner taking home the trophy. And if today’s tricks didn’t work, there’s always tomorrow. The sky’s the limit! And the audiences paid large fees to be entertained and came back for more. In the meantime, their imaginations wilted and the true film makers, who shrank in numbers, played to smaller and smaller audiences.

This brief history is somewhat simplistic, but essentially correct, I think.

Death of Affect

The title of this post is words borrowed from J.G. Ballard and they put me in mind of the fact that one of the things that sets our era apart from preceding ones is the various movements that have resulted in the widespread death of millions of innocent people. We use words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe those movements, but those words hardly describe the systematic elimination of whole groups of people — such as an estimated 22 million souls under the various programs initiated by Joseph Stalin in the last century. And it behooves us to mention the current use of drones by this country to “take out” terrorists while killing thousands of innocent civilians. Indeed, the inclusion of ordinary citizens in the death count in recent wars is something relatively new in human history. In order to distinguish these events from the systematic “removal” of eight million Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis the term “Holocaust” was coined in the mid 1960s and it does a fairly good job of establishing the uniqueness of the events surrounding the “Final Solution” that was carried out by such people as Adolph Eichmann under Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s.

The term “Holocaust” enjoys special status and has not (yet) been borrowed or stolen by historians or social scientists in their efforts to describe other such events — such as the more recent “ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe. But it matters not. What happens is that we hear the word, or the words, so often that we become inured to them. They cease to have any real meaning.  How can any of us imagine, for example, what the words “twenty million” even mean when applied to the death of civilians who have done nothing whatever to deserve those deaths, except that they were different? We cannot.

Eventually, the words cease to have any real meaning and, worse yet, the events that those words are supposed to describe cease to have any reality for us. Those are things that happened to other people somewhere else. We adopt what has been called a “survival strategy” that protects us from such harsh realities. We exhibit “selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live one day at a time,” as Christopher Lasch said in describing the mindset of those in the death camps who had given up all hope. After all, if a nation decides to systematically “remove” its own citizens what recourse does anyone have? The only option is to focus exclusively on one’s own survival. Nothing else matters.

The point of all this is to draw attention to the distinct possibility that we may already be adopting the same strategy in the face of the facts and descriptions of the mass killings that fill our newspapers and television on a daily basis — not to mention the constant reminders about world-wide terrorism and the violence that has become the order of the day on television, video games and American movies. After a while, those words and those events take on an abstract, unreal existence. We turn into ourselves and focus attention elsewhere rather than confront the terrible fact that there are maniacs who, heavily armed as they all seem to be, can decide who will and who will not live. As happens with medical doctors and policemen, after a while these events become the norm and our feelings shut down.

It is quite possible — he said, risking the charge of conspiracy theorist — that the powers that be in this country (mainly such powers as the N.R.A.) — are quite content that we should become desensitized to the daily mass killings by maniacs with automatic weapons who kill indiscriminately. It’s hard to turn on the television, or turn to the computer, or read a newspaper, without being told about another killing of numerous people by another maniac. And the hope may well be (one I do not share) that eventually we will become so desensitized to this news that we will stop paying attention altogether and cease to be concerned. After all, what can we do in the face of such powerful entities as the N.R.A. that has the Congress in its pocket and tells it how to vote?

This, it seems to me, is one of the most serious problem we face: that we will become so desensitized to the fact of grim and violent death that we will no longer care. It will be something for someone else to worry about. Instead, we worry about more important things, such as how the local sports team is doing and whether it will make the playoffs this year.

Personality vs. Character

I’m reading Christopher Lasch’s book The Minimal Self again in which he analyses with penetrating scrutiny the sickness that pervades today’s consumer society. It is a society, Lasch insists, that puts a premium on appearance over reality, resulting from the fact that advertisers have convinced us that it is only appearance that matters. We “upgrade” when what we are using is no longer in fashion, whether or not it still works. Indeed, he says, it’s not about how the thing works anyway. It’s about how our owning it will appear to others. We must have the latest because our friends will think less of us off we don’t. (Oh, and by the way, make sure to leave your trailer home standing prominently next to your house so folks will know you have one!)

Lasch knows better than anyone that the reduction of the “minimal self,” which  we are fixated on, does not translate into the need to build better character; rather it translates into molding our own appearance so we will be attractive to others. In today’s parlance, he might say, it’s all about how many “likes” we get on social media. Regarding the cult of personality, Lasch notes the following important difference:

“Since [a person] will be judged, both by his colleagues and superiors at work and by the strangers he encounters on the street, according to his possessions, his clothes, and his ‘personality’ –not, as in the nineteenth century, by his ‘character’ –he adopts a theatrical view of his own ‘performance’ on and off the job. . . .. the conditions of everyday social intercourse, in societies based on mass production and mass consumption, encourage an unprecedented attention to superficial impressions and images, to the point where the self becomes almost indistinguishable from its surface.’

Indeed, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. in my memory who was the last to speak not only about the “moral high ground” but also about judging men and women by the “content of their character.” We don’t talk much about character any more (or about the moral high ground for that matter). We don’t seem to care about what sort of person, say, an athlete happens to be. If Tiger Woods is a womanizer and behaves like a wild animal on the golf course we care not a whit as long as he can hit his drive over 300 yards and beat the opposition. Though, in saying this, it must also be noted that in our racist age it is interesting that a black man can be so popular in a world otherwise peopled by wealthy white men who play a game at posh golf courses. That, in itself, may be a good thing.

In any event, the switch from a concern with the kind of people we are to the concern with how we appear to others is based on our consumer culture, according to Lasch, and results in a superficial view of the world — indeed a view filtered through a lens that is focused primarily on the shallow self and how what we do will impress others. We want them to “like” us, whether they like us for the right reasons or not. The “minimal self” is still the focus of our attention, but it is not focused on the deeper self that is formed in the real world meeting both success and failure, growing by way of occasional suffering and struggle. This is a self that can only be found by looking elsewhere. Instead we find a shallow self that purchases goods on the basis of their popularity (“It’s a terrific shirt, sir. Everyone is wearing them today.”) and presents itself as something to be bought on the same basis, a self that cares only about how many friends it has on Facebook.