In the last post, I had a great deal of terrible things to say about smart phones. Today, I’d like to discuss their greatest redeeming quality, indeed, the thing that could make them the savior of American democracy: their ability to function as actual telephones.
I’d like to do this first by simultaneously explaining both how it was actually the automobile that precipitated the downfall of America and also how such explanations are nonsense. We’ll then take a detour through some Buddhist philosophy, Christian mythology, and a Tolstoy novel you’ve never heard of. If I have the patience, I’ll weasel my way through an anti-mask argument and hopefully land somewhere in the vicinity of Charlie Chaplin and/or Jesus.
It seems I’ve basically given away the whole argument now. I hope you’ve grasped it. If not, don’t worry, this won’t get any less complex or any better explained.
The downfall of America
I’d like to state my wager for the record: When future historians settle on the causes for the downfall of late modernity’s largest superpower, they will begin with Henry Ford. Quick reminder for those who haven’t thought about Henry Ford since elementary school history class: Ford is in the history books for revolutionizing automobile manufacturing with the assembly line. Ford’s Model T came out in 1916 in America, while the fading European monarchies were busy sending their boys to the post-apocalyptic hellscape known as Flanders. The Model T was the first automobile (then known as a “road coach”) built for the middle class at an affordable price.
Fun side note: Tesla’s Model 3 was not termed the Model E because Ford threatened to sue them. I wanted to tell you the interesting story about how Ford already had a trademark on “Model E” from like a hundred years ago, but no such vehicle was ever built. They threatened to sue purely because it sounded too much like “Model T”. Sounds pretty flimsy to me. Given that they didn’t sue over “Model 3” which to me sounds more like “Model T”, I’m inclined to believe that Ford’s executive suite is just a bunch of prudes. Regardless, the American system is so good at protecting innovators from the threats stagnant old behemoths that Tesla settled for their line of Models S, 3, X, and Y. Close enough.
Whatever your beliefs about the First and Second World Wars, there is no denying that both were very good for the American economy. While the sacrifices of those who served should not be ignored, most Americans benefited greatly from the wars. They sold huge amounts of machines and material to the Allies, brought back wages that they couldn’t spend during the wars, and (as cold as it sounds) took advantage of the reduced labor force. Both the “Roaring Twenties” and the “Baby Boom” were characterized by middle class Americans’ suddenly having a lot more disposable income than before the war.
The twenties featured the birth of “mass culture”, and Ford’s rapid manufacturing helped automobile ownership become part of the American identity. I’ll just let The History Channel’s editors explain this:
But the most important consumer product of the 1920s was the automobile. Low prices (the Ford Model T cost just $260 in 1924) and generous credit made cars affordable luxuries at the beginning of the decade; by the end, they were practically necessities. In 1929 there was one car on the road for every five Americans. Meanwhile, an economy of automobiles was born: Businesses like service stations and motels sprang up to meet drivers’ needs.
The Baby Boom years (1945-1964) were economically a repeat of the twenties when Americans had finally clawed their way out of the Great Depression and then rationing during the Second World War. As one veteran featured in David Halberstam’s The Fifties quipped, “It was a gift from heaven that we found these wonderful houses to move in.” While I’m sure many Europeans wanted the same thing, they first had to clean up the rubble of their leveled cities and then had to rebuild alongside over half a billion of their closest frien-emies. Meanwhile in the US, almost no harm was done to infrastructure, and the population stood at just over 150 million. The US and Europe have about the same land area. That meant plenty of room to build brand new subdivisions of clapboard, cookie-cutter houses that developers like Abraham Levitt couldn’t build fast enough.
I want to make it clear that I’m not pointing fingers here. I love the idea of having my own house instead of living in an apartment, but if everyone is going to have their own house, we’re going to take up a lot more space. That means walking or biking to the store or to work is often impractical. With so many people moving into the suburbs in the 1950s, it’s no surprise that city planners built cities around cars instead of pedestrians or cyclists. What seems like a good thing on its face (the security and happiness that comes with home-ownership, freedom of movement granted by a personal automobile, etc.) comes with hidden costs. This futuristic American city is a place where commuting from home to work and back requires less than 100 steps, less than a minute breathing fresh air, and interaction with no one who isn’t a family member or a colleague.
I’ll address the first two in a rant later next year, but the last is most germane for this discussion. Let me first delve into a topic brought up by Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in a book all Americans should read, The Coddling of the American Mind. The rates of depression and suicide among people under 25 have skyrocketed since 2011, mostly affecting young women. Their theory to explain the phenomenon is the influence of social media. When two guys have a disagreement, everyone knows what it means to “step outside and settle their differences”. I support more non-violent conflict resolution, but there are some benefits to settling a problem with fists. Black eyes and broken noses will heal. Lost teeth can be replaced. Bloody knuckles will be worn as a badge of honor until they too heal. But really, the problem is typically settled by the time one guy ends up on his butt. Testosterone is high, adrenaline surges, emotions flare, and then that pent up energy is released. Conflict over.
Things are more difficult for girls. They tend to duke it out with words, not fists. This means that conflicts drag on for potentially all of high school. However, before the age of social media, at least a girl could go home and cry into her pillow at night, take it out on a clueless dad who just wants to try to start a conversation, or vent to a different circle of friends. Now that TwitBook, NetMeTube, InstaChat, and whatever other newfangled silliness kids are using these days are keeping us sucked in and glued to the conversation every waking moment of our lives, many girls have no escape from the stress of conflict. For far too many, it feels like the only escape is death.
This theory might become clearer with a reference to road rage. Unless you’re an enlightened Boddhisattva or a real life saint, you have experienced road rage. I have gotten much better throughout my twenties (which are almost over. holy shit. I’m almost 30!! Might as well start picking out my tombstone now.), I still feel the urge to curse at the idiots and maniacs who occupy the roads. As the late, great philosopher George Carlin told us, “anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.” Somebody cuts on you off in traffic? Testosterone is high, adrenaline surges, emotions flare, and all that energy has nowhere to go.
For many Americans, after a long day of dealing with idiots at the office comes a long drive of idiots on the road; is it any wonder Americans are pissed off when they get home?
Is it any wonder than the US has one of the highest child abuse rates in the industrialized world? Correlation is not causation; I’m just saying it could be a factor.
Is it any wonder that the US has one of the highest intimate partner abuse rates in the industrialized world? Correlation is not causation; I’m just saying it could be a factor.
Perhaps the safest thing to do is just turn on the tube and ignore the family. But what to watch? Americans seem to be unique in preferring vindictive and heroic violence. Correlation is not causation; I’m just saying it could be a factor.
And of course, the correlation between media violence and behavior is a long-standing debate. As I continue to repeat, correlation does not equal causation. It’s very possible that the US’s regular ranking near the top of the OECD list for violent crime and homicide rates is also a consequence of some other cause.
But again, correlation is not causation; just saying it could be a factor. And I’ve not even pegged any of these statistics to the prevalence of car ownership. A thousand relevant factors have come and gone in the seven decades since the end of the War! I sincerely hope you haven’t even entertained the thought that this clueless blogger has identified the sole underlying problem of American society. Anyway, my emotions are flaring up. Can you read them in this text? of course not. Here’s a video of Aussies handling road rage:
I mention road rage because it’s an excellent time to practice what the Buddhists call metta from Pali which is often translated “loving kindness”. Effectively, it is adopting an attitude toward everything and everyone wishing them well. It’s not easy. Even in a session led by a recording in which I’m sitting alone, I feel a resistance to opening up and expressing a feeling of love towards anyone in particular. This does in fact need to be directed toward a specific person. It’s fine to express a general love for all living creatures, but that’s not a feeling. Even with a heavy dose of MDMA, that feeling is directed towards someone or something. On the road, this is very difficult because everything in my physiology is heightened to be defensive.
Defensive driving is a good thing! This person who just cut me off is literally putting my life in danger! And I’m supposed to feel love towards them?!
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this person did not mean me harm. Most likely, they made a mistake or legitimately didn’t see me. Even if they were feeling vindictive, they were probably suffering from the same rage I am now, they are just as much a slave to it, and they actually deserve more compassion because they have a tough uphill struggle to get back to a mindset of enjoying being alive.
This is what Jesus was talking about when he commanded his followers to “turn the other cheek” and to love thy brother and thy enemy. It is these sorts of actions that will bring about heaven on Earth. I don’t think he meant this literally or metaphorically, but symbolically, which is somewhere between the two. A symbol is a real thing and it can imbue a real feeling in a person. In a sense, it is a literal thing. But this “heaven” that Jesus speaks of is not some fairy tale utopia in the clouds. I’ve spent a lot of time scanning Google Earth, and I can confirm that no such place exists.
Instead, it is a world inhabited by the believer. I mean the world in the truest sense because we often don’t mean the physical Earth when they say “world”. We mean the collection of things relevant to a person or a concept, e.g. the Western World, the business world, my world, your world. If I can forgive the driver who cut me off, I can walk out of the Hell of rage I’ve created for myself and enter the Heaven of love and kindness, of loving kindness, of metta.
What would Jesus do?
I have been thinking about Christianity a lot recently because I just finished Leo Tolstoy’s final novel Resurrection. He intended to write a sequel, but at the spry age of 82, he ran away from home to go on a grand adventure, presumably to go find himself (I think that’s a safe assumption because it’s the true motive for any adventure). Unfortunately, his body was much older than his mind, and he was found dead in a railway station. In the final twenty years of his life, he became a proper evangelist, but one in the tradition of Luther; he railed against the church for its corruptions and how it ought to be reformed. He became a polemic against the Tsarist Russian state, but he was also no fan of Marx. He decried the private ownership of land, but he also saw that state ownership was just asking for corruption. He predicted the horrors of both Nazism and Marxism when he saw that such collectivist systems would enable people to “commit the most horrible crimes without having any feeling of guilt” by convincing them to serve the state and “thereby banning all human brotherly relations….”
Resurrection, published in 1899, is partly about these themes, but it is mainly about living a meaningful life. Tolstoy makes clear his beliefs about the subject in his protagonist’s final monologue. After reading Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, in which Jesus delivers such commandments as loving thy brother, forgoing sensual love, being true to one’s word, forgiving all offenses, and loving one’s enemy, Prince Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov (a self-portrain of Tolstoy) realizes that “If we have been sent into this world, it must be by someone’s will and for some purpose” and that “If men will but fulfill these commandments, the kingdom of heaven will be established here on earth, and they will attain the greatest good possible to them.”
I’ve never been religious, and I find many church teachings patently absurd, but sifting through some of the advice in the New Testament has yielded some valuable wisdom. These kinds of directives that can be found around the world (The Buddha taught similar non-violent lessons) have survived for a reason: societies that follow them (more or less) flourish. The great irony here is that the teachings of Jesus survive through a process of evolution. Effective teachings survive while others perish.
However good the teachings are, it doesn’t mean they’re easy to follow. This is why we recognize saints for living in the image of Christ. It doesn’t happen very often! In the throes of road rage, I’m unlikely even to remember that I ought to be forgiving much less actually following through wtih it. Some of these ideals are legitimately impossible. Jesus claims that even looking at a woman lustfully is adultery. Yeah, ok, I’ll just turn off my testosterone because I totally have conscious control over that.
But snark aside, I can set up my life to be more in line with such ideals. I can actually practice metta meditation to start building the habit and have some prepared thoughts and phrases to say to a friend whose relationship I have with them I’ve been meditating on. I can choose film and literature that highlight values of forgiveness and cooperation instead of vindictiveness and violence. I can avoid situations in which malicious thoughts tend to creep up (e.g. scrolling Twitter comments) and engage in more human interaction where such malice is less likely. Really, it’s a matter of engaging with people instead of machines.
Engaging with voiceless Twitter text makes us think about ourselves and not to feel for others. To win at Twitter means to be more clever than the next person.
Charlie Chaplin (and/or more Jesus)
And indeed, I’ve landed about as close to Charlie Chaplin as I could have hoped. If you haven’t watched his speech from The Great Dictator, do so. It’s only three minutes, but it might be one of the best three minutes of your life. (The rest of the movie is mediocre.)
In a paragraph that is still all too relevant in the age of instant communication in which more and more of humanity interacts not face-to-face but through machine mediators and with robots, Chaplin expresses his fears for the fate of humanity at the outset of World War II:
We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….
We may not have a great dictator rampaging across Europe in mechanized warfare, but more and more of humanity is bowing their heads to the machine masters in their pockets. The EU has recently called the companies that create these devices “too big to care”. Though it may be humans designing these systems, they themselves are part of a massive system several steps removed from the user. They may care what is happening to their users, but the people they care about are caricatures of the people who are really out there using these devices. So much information is lost between the design room and eyes of the user. No matter how much of a humanitarian Jack Dorsey claims to be, the system his organization has created is a wall that keeps him from actually communicating with practically all of the people on Twitter. These are interactions with machines, not men.
I’ve changed the order of things a bit here, but this might be a good time to discuss a way of looking at this a bit more rationally. We can imagine the difference between talking to someone face-to-face and interacting with them through a Twitter thread (or even an email for those of you who, like me, are too old for Twitter) as simply a loss of information. Depending on which hack you believe, somewhere between 50% and 90% of communication is nonverbal, i.e. not through the actual words used. Realizing that quantifying such a thing as “communication” between two people is meaningless, I am using this simply a way to indicate how important all the other bits are: intonation, facial expressions, body language, etc. Anyone who has watched a film in a language they don’t speak (or a language nobody speaks in the case of Quest for Fire) knows how well you can follow along just from observing how people interact without understanding a word.
When I read a text message, I have to fill in some enormous chunk of the meaning of the words with my own imagination (which significantly reflects my own unconscious, I couldn’t manage to pack even a reasonable explanation of this into several thousand words, so I’ll leave it at that). If the the phrase is at all nuanced, I’m probably not going to understand it properly. I try to get around this problem in posts like this by droning on for ages trying to use more words to fill in those gaps. This has already taken me several hours to tick out and edit, but I probably could have explained my thoughts to someone in five minutes.
Every time we digitize or analogize our communication into a medium (text, telephones, video messages, etc.), some amount of information is lost. That lost information has to be filled in, and that leaves room often for malice where none was present. Indeed, assuming malicious intent every time may be built into us. It’s useful! If I always assume a stranger is trying to kill me, I’ll run away and stick to the people I’ve known all my life. If I assume a stranger is friendly and get it wrong even one time, I could lose my ability to pass on my genes. Thus, our more cautious ancestors were potentially more likely to procreate. (yes, I know this is only half true, but I’ve already dragged this out too long)
We can also lose information simply by putting up barriers. How do you make yourself look like a stone-cold killer in your profile picture? Wear sunglasses and a blank expression. Even better? Cover up that expression with a mask. If we wanted to cultivate a society in which everyone was afraid of everyone else, a good place to start would be mandating dark sunglasses and masks. Look around, we’re halfway there.
Maybe the anti-mask movement isn’t about masks or politics or ideology at all. Maybe people are just tired of being scared. More likely, they’re tired of being told that they should be scared, especially of each other. Maybe their refusal to wear a mask is a values statement, a way of saying, “I believe that there are more important things than simply continuing to exist.” Maybe it’s a way of saying, “I’ll take my chances so that I can see the faces of my loved ones and show them that I love them, and that if this disease takes us, at least we lived to the fullest until the end instead of hiding behind a mask.”
Perhaps this is putting the idea in too good of a light, but if you think refusing to wear a mask is purely selfish, I think you’re mistaken. There is a difference between individualism and narcissism. It’s a fine line to walk, but we who come from the Judeo-Christian tradition (and just about everyone in the West, theist or atheist, is part of that tradition) depend on the values of individualism. Such collective action as the blind obedience to government officials that has been expected during this pandemic is anathema to American values.
Americans believe in individual liberty and its corollary, personal responsibility. CoViD-19 has been around for nearly a year. If you don’t know how to protect yourself by now, you’ve been living so far from society that you don’t need to worry about it. If you want to take the risk of refusing those protections, that is your right and your responsibility, but if you’ve taken the risk and been unlucky, don’t expect the medical system to be available for you. You are responsible for you’re actions just like everyone else, including those you may feel inclined to protect like the elderly or the obese. But they’re also responsible for their own actions. Grandma may be in her eighties, but just because she got old doesn’t mean she gave up her autonomy. She may be at higher risk if she chooses to forgo protections, but that’s her risk to take, and taking that choice from her is an affront to her personal sovereignty as an individual.
Are you getting angry?!
Good. I was too. That was getting me so worked up that I had to go to the gym to let out the pent up energy. But what are you going to do about it? Go to the gym? Curse at your computer? Curse at someone else?
If I had said it to your face, you could just curse at me. But I probably wouldn’t have said it to your face. It’s a rather hardline position to take. It’s rationally defensible, but it’s much harder to stick to when a real human being with real emotions is scowling at me, or at least has a chance to respond.
It’s a conversation that needs to be had though. The guy who refuses to wear a mask because he thinks it’s just the flu and the guy who wears his mask while hiking are both acting like idiots, but those seem to be the only politically acceptable positions to take. The right answer is far more nuanced, but it takes years of practice and probably a degree in literature to be able to convey such nuance with unvoiced, disembodied, lifeless words.
For most of us, coming to a reasonable compromise requires discussion and dialogue, not just monologue. One of the things I hate most about online tutoring is that I get very little feedback from the student while I’m talking. In class, I can immediately see from the look on their face if I’m making sense or not. Such face-to-face interactions are hard to come by these days. Even when this pandemic is over, America will still be a place where the path of least resistance is to spend one’s days trudging from home to car to office to car to pub to car to home to car, ad infinitum. Fortunately this is a country where striking up a conversation with a stranger won’t make people think you’re a lunatic. At least, it didn’t used to be.
So for now, I’m trying the next best thing: the telephone. Yes, we lose the information of body language and visual cues, but at least my interlocutor has a chance to respond immediately. At least I can temper my arguments on the spot instead of letting them fester. That’s infinitely better than words on a screen.
Jesus also said in that sermon, “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment … will be in danger of the fire of hell.… First go and be reconciled with them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:22-24).
So far, geologists have found no evidence of a housing for the souls of the damned deep inside the Earth’s molten core. Until they do, I’ll stick to the interpretation that Heaven and Hell are real worlds that real people inhabit when they are either getting along with others or fighting with them (or themselves), respectively. Jesus’ commandment is just good advice for getting on happily in the world because the sooner I can make amends with those with whom I have quarreled, the sooner that adrenaline and rage can subside. Too much reading and writing let’s those emotions fester.
The fastest way to escape Hell is to pick up the phone.
Wait! What does any of this have to do with American democracy?!
ugh. That’s going to take way too long to explain in text form. Just call me, and we can talk about it: 970-208-4464.
“And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”
— Leo Tolstoy (1900)