Thursday, July 18, 2019

Reflections on a "weaponized" culture

So much talk these days about the manipulation of the media by this U.S. president!
The anatomy of the dynamic goes like this: the president rants (never mind on which platform!) and the media rushes and gushes as if his every word was their latest and most important career nourishment supplement, really a steroid to which they are addicted. Changing the channel, changing the meme, shifting the klieg lights from whatever is the president’s latest moral and ethical tragic and ever so public failure to the next “tweet” has, through the complicity of the media, injected the same “steroid” into the American soap-opera. And the reporters are partially responsible.

However, their executives, themselves addicted to the latest Neilsen ratings as their “empirical measure” for determining their industry advertising rates, the empirical measure for their investors’ dividends, and not incidentally, their own share portfolios and their chances for promotion, transfer to another company, their access to venture capital should they wish to strike out on their own (via podcast, for example). And feeding this “food chain” of the media oligarchs, of course, is the president’s complicity, nefarious and eminently strategized and tactically targetted rants.
Chris Hedges, among others, regularly rants about corporate media collusion with the corporate-political-military-pharmaceutical-fossil fuel-insurance-intelligence behemoth.

However, while I do not disagree or defer from Hedges’ analysis, it is the underlying “sell-and-win” narcissistic culture, mind-set, propaganda, education system and “state of the union” in the U.S.. Too big for our modest human minds to integrate, assimilate and digest, this “mountain range” of information, now supplemented by both macro and meta-information, from both the “deep state” and the allegedly “public and political” state inevitably gets broken down into mini-bytes, like those Kellogg Mini-Wheats that have supplanted the old Shredded Wheats of our youth. Nano-second sound bytes of the latest gossip, career implosions, legal evidence of collusion, obstruction, groping, homophobia, racism, and other scraps of “political pornography” titillate millions, as it substitutes for and actually replaces legitimate discourse and debate of substantive and potentially lethal issues (global warming, nuclear missile development and deployment, mass incarceration, judicial wrongful convictions, gutting of public education, and corporate welfare as examples).

And instead of relegating such political pornography to the tabloids, the media has morphed into their own versions of the tabloid model. Joe Scarborough (MSNBC’s Morning Joe) articulately posits the differences between the “ground noise” and the “signals” to which all military generals have to pay attention. Trouble is, as he acknowledges, the media is committing the ultimate failure to distinguish between the two, “my (Joe’s) name at the top of the list of those media”!

Language, mere words, may finally be rising to the heights of its merited public, survival significance….words frame each and every one of our ideas, perspectives, opinions, ideologies, strategies, tactics, alliances, enemies, (now “”frenemies in another of our ‘cute’ hybrid addictions), and another “alternative facts” (courtesy of Kelly Anne Conway).

Depending on when and where the “words” are used, they may have application from one field to another: for example, from quantum physics to political culture.
In Quantum physics, Superposition is known to be the uncertainty of a particle (or particles) being in several states at once, while quantum Entanglement occurs when each possible state of two particles depend on each other’s state. It would seem, at least to the feeble and somewhat overwhelmed mind of this scribe, that a political “Quantum Entanglement” and “Quantum Superposition” are playing themselves out on our television screens each and every day.

Schrodinger’s Cat first came to public attention in the news coverage of the Kawai Leonard period of “limbo” when he was considered to be “staying” in the Toronto with the Raptors and “leaving” for greener pastures, likely back in California. According to Wikipedia,
Schrodinger’s cat is a thought experiment sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian  physicist Erwin Schrodinger in 1935….The scenario presents a hypothetical cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead, a state known as quantum superposition, as a result of being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur.

If we were to consider the Schrodinger’s cat experiment (the cat is conceivably both dead and alive) to be one end of a continuum of thought, and the absolute, concrete literalism to be the opposite end of this continuum, political culture could hypothetically and imaginatively be “positioned” at some likely moving point on the continuum. In his seminal work introducing the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk posits literalism as a significant impediment to the seminar’s search and research for the historical Jesus. Funk writes these words:

“Literalism has created what Northrop Frye has termed the “imaginative illiterate.” This product of the ascendancy of the empirical sciences, who can understand things only literally, dominated both high and naïve levels of culture. It doesn’t seem to matter that the literalist understands the literal in different senses on different occasions. At times, the literalist takes literal” to mean the descriptive, true-to-fact assertion; at other times, he or she understands the “literal” to mean the conventional, what everybody takes for granted. When used to mean what everybody takes for granted, the “literal” sense may thus also include the nonliteral. For example, everyone knowns that there are no real oats in “sowing wild oats,” and there is neither iron nor curtain in “the iron curtain.” Yet these popular expressions are understood to refer “literally” to youthful indiscretions and an impenetrable political boundary….
The physical science and preoccupation with the literal have nearly killed the imagination. That does not mean that I want to give up my refrigerator and modern medicine, both of which owe their efficacy to the sciences. But it does mean that refrigeration and surgery do not cover all the needs of the mind and the spirit. There are some things that cooling and lancing will not cure. The ability to perceive the nonliteral dimensions of our world is the victim of our inclination to exchange a refreshed sense of the world for a mess of technical pottage.” (Funk, Honest to Jesus, p.51-2)

Playing off the empirical/conventional dichotomy, sliding seamlessly from what some consider true-to-fact to the convention, is a technique the current occupant of the Oval office has mastered proficiently, to his short-term headline-generating benefit, while at the same time, energetically (and we presume deliberately and consciously) imposing a scorched earth obliterating approach to the common set of facts to which we were all previously in accord.

And the media, given its cultural belief that it writes and speaks to an audience of “sixth-grade readers/listeners,” falls imperceptible and tragically into the trap of conflating the conventional and the factual. It also, invariably, couches its headlines in the most blatant overused, cliché-ridden language of phrases like “sowing wild oats” or “the iron curtain”.

Supporting a devolution to minimal literalism, the legal profession too is drowning in the precise and limited/limiting definitions of words, reinforced by case law based on the interpretations of those sitting on the bench. “Hate speech” for example, is defined as speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of protected attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. (Wikipedia)

And yet, everyone knows, deep and profoundly in his/her gut, what constitutes offence, disdain, disrespect and alienation, without having to resort to a legal definition. Insults, name-calling, verbal bullying and taunting, the kind of verbiage that saturates social media (often even leading to both successful and attempted suicides by victims) are a “norm” which is forcefully and deliberately underscored, enhanced and vigorously disseminated by the current occupant of the Oval office.

The conflation of the “factual” with the “conventional” along with the etherization of the imagination leaves public discourse, the street vernacular and the expectations of every young person observer reduced to such a “trash” level, emblematic of a national culture devoid of even the basic levels of education. It is not only a dynamic that robs the discourse of its “table manners” and its “creativity” and its “nuance” and its minimal expectation of compromise, healthy interaction, the search for a common “truth” as well as for a common and unifying and uplifting “goal”.

Reports in The Guardian today point to a U.S. Congressman’s letter to the Pentagon asking for a report on the potential “weaponizing” of ticks with the Lyme disease germ, for the purpose of enhancing military objectives. “The House approved an amendment proposed by a Republican congressman from New Jersey, Chris South, instructing the defence department’s inspector general to conduct a review of whether the U.S. “experimented with ticks and insects regarding use as a biological weapon between the years of 1950 and 1975.” Currently, some 400,000 Americans are affected by Lyme disease each year.

Effectively, through a combined impact of the conflation of “literal” and “conventional”, and the effective scorching of the American (and other western countries’) individual and collective imagination, it is not only the prospect of “weaponizing” of insects that disturbs. The weaponizing of words, for the purpose of political and personal narcissistic ambition and gain, in the extremely short term, is another impact of the endangered “species” of imaginative, expansive, collaborative, co-operative and language and the mind-set that provides the garden for such a language.

Transforming the political culture into a battlefield, through the abusive, dangerous, lethal reduction of language into coded bullets, in both naïve and ‘high’ levels of culture is an impediment, not only for Jesus Seminar scholars, but also for anyone seeking to imagine, design and grow a dream that focuses on the protection of human and all other flora and fauna species.

Literalism, combined with the military manufacturing behemoth, the pharmaceutical vulture, the starving “egos” of political leaders desperately clinging to power, not only imitates but also emulates the modus operandi, the desperation and the determination of those identified by terrorist organizations against which the “establishment” claims to be protecting us. Linked to this cultural “ethos” of course, is the notion of the “binary” as a cornerstone of public discourse, personal thought, digital devices and transactional interactions. “For us or against us” as  articulated by George W. Bush immediately after 9-11, even if it had minimal relevance in that moment, is not a state designed to sustain a family, a community, a nation or a planet.

The words of Maya Angelou, as a poetic antidote for this potentially lethal culture of “weaponization”, ring out this morning as a solo, ubiquitous and lyrical melody struggling for an audience amidst this psychic and political embattlement:
You may shoot me with your words
You may cut me with your eyes
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

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