February 28, 2013

Narcissism, Entertainment, Art

Over at a website (hitherto unkown to me) entited "Minyanville", one of the regular editors and contributors, Michael Comeau has a post up entitled "The Harlem Shake and the Decline of Western Civilization." Therein, Mr. Comeau notes a recent YouTube phenomena (don't blink - there may be a new one tomorrow)  in which people are posting 30 second music videos they have created which use a song (the "Harlem Shake") by an electronic music artist named Baauer. Mr. Comeau is not kidding about the "phenomena" aspect of this - a quick search of the term "Harlem Shake" on YouTube reveals "about" 201,000 results.

So, what's Mr. Comeau's problem with this? Is it that he's a conservative prude? He disclaims any such thing. Is it that he does not find any of the videos amusing? Not at all - he admits that "the part of me that can't help but laugh at the "Harlem Shake" struggles with the part of me that doesn't want to be entertained by all this." So, what's his concern then? Referencing an earlier post of his, "The Bull Market in Narcissism", he expresses his concern that we increasingly live in an age that values attention more than "true creativity and accomplishment." In his earlier work, quoted in the newer, he worries that:
Every generation of youth gets told it's worse than the last, but the rise of social media exhibitionism is a brand-new phenomena. If you wanted to get attention when I was a teenager, you had to go out in the real world and do it in person, which at least required something resembling courage....These days, if you want to get a reaction from the outside world, you can do it without getting out of bed.
I think he is right to express this concern.

Mr. Comeau joins a grand tradition of social commentators who have noticed a steady loss of highbrow culture in favor of the moment, of which social meadia is the very avatar. Others in this grand tradition have include:

Neil Postman, author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death" who stated in its introduction that:
As Huxley remarked in _Brave New World Revisited_, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In _1984_, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In _Brave New World_, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right
Christopher Lasch, who noted in his work "The Culture of Narcissim" (1991) when referencing other cultural critics and sociologists that:
"They fail to explore any of the character traits associated with pathological narcissism, which in less extreme form appear in such profusion in the everyday life of our age:
[1.] dependence on vicarious warmth provided by others combined with fear of dependence
[2.] a sense of inner emptiness
[3.] a boundless repressed rage
[4.] and unsatisfied oral cravings. Nor do they discuss what might be called secondary characteristics of narcissism:
[5.] pseudo self-insight
[6.] calculating seductiveness
[7.] nervous, self-deprecating humor. 
They thus deprive themselves of any basis on which to make connections between the narcissistic personality type and certain characteristic patterns of contemporary culture, such as the
[8.] intense fear of old age and death
[9.] altered sense of time
[10.] fascination with celebrity
[11.] fear of competition
[12.] deteriorating relations between men and women."
Alan Bloom, who painted the following in  "Closing of the American Mind" (1987) that (and his tech references are a bit dated, of course):
Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.
Jean Twenge, author of several books discussing the narcissism of the present generation, setting forth in one of her books:
The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970s, documented in Tom Wolfe’s article on “The Me Decade” in 1976 and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew, and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a “look at me!” mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful fact birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially than they actually were.
and in another book:
No parent ever says ‘my goal is to raise a narcissistic kid.’ It’s part of this overall individualistic culture. It comes from the ‘good intentions’ of trying to develop self esteem, from the cultural pressures of uniqueness and standing out.
Emphasizing specialness, uniqueness and standing out so much does tend to create that situation where we’re focusing on that, we’re focusing on being better [than others] and standing out.”
Alan Wolfe, who noted in a brief WSJ post on blogs that:
One by one, Marshall McLuhan's wackiest-seeming predictions come true. Forty years ago, he said that modern communications technology would turn the young into tribal primitives who pay attention not to objective "news" reports but only to what the drums say, i.e., rumors. And there you have blogs. The universe of blogs is a universe of rumors, and the tribe likes it that way.
The last is not so far off your thoughts on "attention", is it, Mr. Comeau?

Contrast your ideas on art and YouTube with this quote from "Art and Scholasticism" by Jacques Maritain:
The work of art has been thought before being made, it has been kneaded and prepared, formed, brooded over, ripened in a mind before passing into matter. And in matter it will always retain the color and savor of the spirit. Its formal element, what constitutes it in its species and makes it what it is, is its being ruled by the intellect. If this formal element diminishes ever so little, to the same extent the reality of art vanishes. The work to be made is only the matter of art, its form is undeviating reason. Recta ratio factibilium: let us say, in order to try to translate this Aristotelian and Scholastic definition, that art is the undeviating determination of works to be made.
YouTube is the narcissist in artistic action. Expressive only of self, not of art, taking no work, little pain, short periods of time, and certainly, little brooding. Try not to be cranky, Mr. Comeau - though, I have been trying for years, and it always seems to catch up with me.

February 15, 2013

Forward to "Amusing Ourselves to Death" - Neil Postman

Hattip: Constructive Curmudgeon

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another -- slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's _Brave New World_. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in _Brave New World Revisited_, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In _1984_, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In _Brave New World_, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

-- Neil Postman, Foreword to _Amusing Ourselves to Death_ (1985)

February 6, 2013

A Pledge...(C**p I will Not Remain Silent About)

Several weeks ago, on the "Popehat" blog, "Clark" had a post called "consistency", in which he opened by saying that:
Here's a fun game to play:
Skewer partisans on the other side of the divide over the fact that during the last administration they had their panties in a knot over the president doing X, Y, and Z, but during this administration (with the appropriate brand of either Coke or Pepsi sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office), they're mysteriously silent.
 He ended the post with:
Here's my challenge to you (and to myself):
1) when the wrong brand of soft drink is behind the desk (whether that's right now or in a few years), make a list of the utterly horrible illegal crap he (or she) is doing, day in and day out. And post it someplace public, like your blog.
Now, here's the tricky bit:
2) title the blog post "crap I will not remain silent about … even when my own guy is doing it 4 or 8 years from now"
And so this is my challenge to myself and to you.

We have reached a point in this country where the President does what he wants with our military power under a thin veneer of justification, makes himself the cheerleader (and major drafter of, and negotiator for) legislation to achieve his goals (these actions a far cry from the Youngstown case's statement that: " In the framework of our Constitution, the President's power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker. The Constitution limits his functions in the lawmaking process to the recommending of laws he thinks wise and the vetoing of laws he thinks bad") and is never held accountable for any action, not even through the voting booth.

It is enough.

A common complaint among the literati who vent so often in the press, in blogs, on stage, and in classrooms is that being bound by some dead Founders' interpretation of the Constitution is foolhardy or evil, for what could such a person know of our time, now?

What the Founders knew of importance had little to do with how we (for instance) feel about sexual activity among adults, and everything to do with knowledge and experience of human nature. When George Washington warned about "foreign entanglements", he was not only warning against engaging in wars overseas or permanent alliances with questionable allies - rather, his deeper knowledge was of human nature, which was apparent to him and every Founder. They knew that "[i]n framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." The Founders knew the imperfectability of human nature, when perfection depends solely on the individual to exercise restraint - the example of Cincinnatus notwithstanding.

Chesterton had an analogy involving a gate, used to illustrate his brand of traditionalism:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." 
Chesterton never mentioned a gatekeeper, for in the common law, the law and tradition are the gatekeepers. Now we have those (compassionate conservativism, blind social justice, progressivism, etc.) who, in the name of shining goals (education, healthcare, solving Libya, Iraq, etc.) are willing to throw down the gates of law and tradition that prevent achievement of those goals. But, the gate thrown, the fence torn, the impediment weakened and discarded, the way is clear - those with different goals and different ideas, upon taking the reins of power, will not, with rare exception, either be able to restrain others or themselves. Most will not even be aware of the former constrictions, or care to find out.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, every right or benefit acquired by the people via increased government power is a current or future power acquired over the people as well. How many scrap dealers failed because of Cash for Clunkers, when the price for scrap aluminum plummeted? How many poor could no longer obtain a vehicle because the market for old, but running cars, was crushed with the cars themselves? How many benefited from the failure of capitalism that was the bank bailout? The auto bailout? All abuses of government power - propping the few at the hands of the many for the benefit of the powerful. And who will say that such powers, having been used and approved by silence or applause, will be used benignly at all? We have only the statements of the wielders of the current power, and they neither have nor can enforce a guarantee that the successors to that power will abide.

All of history is against it. All of human nature is against it.

It is enough.

February 4, 2013

The Same Sad Stories - Family Law Practice

On a recent blog post by Rod Dreher on a heartening decision in a difficult family, I noted the following:
This is an important story, and it happens because the few will the good in their choices.

I see it occasionally, but only occasionally, in my family law practice. For most in the bottom, say 20%, the family is now not usually a source for strength, encouragement, or love, but the child’s first experience of pain, of hatred, and of instability.

Absent vacations, most weeks bring at least one case, if not multiple cases, where a potential new client is a variation on:

1. Trying to get visitation with his child who lives with his ex-girlfriend who has just filed trumped up charges of child or domestic abuse (and who invariably shows up with either mother or new g.f. (inevitably pregnant) in tow); or

2. Trying to get child support from her ex-fling who cannot hold a job and is on drugs at least some of the time, may be violent, and is not likely to show up at any court (and shows up with either Father (in the best cases) or lunkhead #x, who rarely says anything intelligible)).

Both cases usually rely significantly on government aid, rarely have the ability to pay even minimal attorney fees, and almost all will admit, when pressed, that they knew that the former significant other was jobless / violent / had mental instabilities / etc when they slept with him / her. Sadly, I have begun to be able to predict general details of stories based upon who is with the potential client in the waiting room, and this is with fewer than 10 years of practice in the area.

And, statistics aside, these people come from all races and usually comes from broken homes, many from multiple-broken homes, where they have seen a series of step-fathers and mothers. And when the children of such homes become teens, knowing that they have power to affect custody, will play one parent against the other in a bid for looser control, easier rules, more “stuff” and preferred parenting style.

Indiana is 2.3 Billion dollars behind in child support, almost all men. It is not uncommon, in court, to hear discussions in front of the judge of amounts like $10,000, $30,000, or $50,000 owed from one man to multiple offspring with different women.

For those who have read Theodore Dalrymple’s descriptions of the British lower classes, and their lives on drugs, sex, alcohol, and government support, our next generation will almost certainly be reaching that level. R.R. Reno is right – true social justice would make some attempts to address these problems, and society would be throwing resources at a targeted few, rather than progressive visions of “health care for all”, “education for all”, “equality of marriage” and so on.