Friday, February 24, 2017

The Society of the Spectacle: Am I complicit?

A recent Op-Ed piece in the NY Times caught my eye.  The title was intriguing "Trump and the Society of the Spectacle" and a bit provocative but the content went well beyond the current political situation and analysis.  Take a look and then come back here.

I have purchased Guy DeBord's book, The Society of the Spectacle, but have not yet read it.  Hopefully my understanding will deepen when I do.  But for now what struck me was the role that images play in our current reality.  Fifty years ago DeBord saw that images--spectacles--were replacing direct and personal experience.  Twenty years later, he saw nothing that dissuaded him.  Imagine what he would think now with our media-drenched culture.

In 2000 Kodak estimated that 80 billion photos had been taken world wide.  The low end of current estimates for 2017 is 1.3 trillion.  That is the LOW estimate.  The share taken by phones has sky rocketed to 80 percent from 40 percent in 2010.  In addition to this flood of images, the internet and especially social sharing sites have made this torrent more available than ever before.   (Click here for source article.)

DeBord's concern was that reality, direct experience, would become less and less present to people who relied more and more on images or what he called spectacles.  We just celebrated the first 100 years of the National Park System.  The George Eastman Museum here in Rochester mounted a major exhibit of the photography of the national parks and the role it played in their development and popularity.  It turns out that images (first landscape paintings and then photographs) make for a very effective way of introducing people to places and people who are so different from everyday reality that the imagination isn't much use.  You can describe the Grand Canyon all day but I will never be able to envision it until I see a photo which then provides at least a beginning point.  Of course, to experience it directly is the best thing but for most people images have to suffice.

But here is the thing:  Images have a life of their own and become a part of the cultural history of a place or people.  The early landscape paintings and photographs of many of our national iconic sites determined how these sites would be viewed for generations following.  The viewpoints in Yosemite National Park today are exactly the ones that early photographers shot from.  There may be other views that are equally visually interesting but we tend to overlook them in the attempt to capture what others have captured.

But more to DeBord's point, the image, even photographs which purport to be accurate depictions, is not the same as engaging directly with the object.  With the image, we lose the full human interaction with the subject and substitute whatever reaction we have to the image.  Someone had that direct interaction and images make it possible for that person to share something of the interaction with others.  But it is never completely and totally the same.  Images are seen, discussed, shared and come to have a widely shared meaning that is only one among a number of possible meanings.

Consider the photo here, one that is familiar to anyone of a certain age.  It was taken on February 1, 1968 in Saigon at the beginning of the Tet Offensive.  It appears to be soldier executing a civilian on an ordinary street.  It was adopted by anti-war activists as an example of the brutality of the Vietnamese regime toward civilians and quickly became a symbol for why the war should end.  In fact, the photo was disconnected from the actual experience which showed a South Vietnamese General summarily executing a known Vietcong soldier who had led a murder squad targeting police and civil leaders.   Violent and gruesome, yes.  But it's meaning was manipulated to advance a political cause.  This was possible because it had become disassociated from its reality.  Click here to learn more about this photo.

This photo was a product of photojournalism with our expectation of visual accuracy.  But what of other photographs?  What is the relationship between the image we see and the object depicted.  I will talk about digital photography a bit later but for now consider another iconic photograph by Ansel Adams, Moonrise Hernadez NM.  On the left you see the image as he captured it and on the right the one we all saw after he manipulated in the darkroom.  Adams famously said, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”  A print is a work of art and will reflect the sensibilities and desires of the one who makes the print.  We tend to think that a photo is an exact representation of the object captured.  In fact, each photo is a rendering of the captured image of the object.  Unless one is content with viewing the negative, one has to come to terms with the fact that the photo is the result of direct intervention by the print maker.  Learn more about this photo.  Learn more about Ansel Adams.

Digital photography makes this point even clearer.  A digital image is a collection of "1"s and "0"s that record the characteristics of light falling on arrays of photodetectors.  These are stored as computer files.  Computer programs (algorithms) are used to convert this digital information into images.  A series of choices and decisions about light, color, sharpness, light balance, luminance, etc. determine the exact characteristics of the visible image.  With all these decisions to be made there is the same intervention of a "print maker" even if it the designer who programmed the software in the camera so we could see the image on the back of the camera or on the phone.  One can achieve different results from different decisions.  In addition, just as before, a print maker can further adjust and manipulate the image.

With digital photography, we cannot see the raw image since it is just a collection of those "1"s and "0's.  Actually a typical photo has millions of pixels each one with digital information.  Below are two renderings of a photo I took of a sunrise at the Grand Canyon.  On the top is the original photo with just the processing provided as a default by the camera.  Below is another rendering which has been enhanced in several ways.

Default development parameters
Additional manipulation
Most people would probably select the second rendering as the better one.  I did because I made a set of specific decisions to achieve this.  But this image is now, in a way, two steps away from the reality, that sunrise at the Grand Canyon.  (By the way, most people might think that a video would be more accurate, more realistic.  However with the advent of CGI, or computer generated imagery, you can't even be sure of that.)

All this is interesting and pretty tame but it part of a long development which has shifted our experience from first hand, direct experience to engagement with an image, in fact, trillions of images.  Once we have made that transition, there is the danger that the image will become unmoored from the reality.  At first, this might be in small ways, as with these images, but it can eventuate in bizarre distortions that can be used in political communication to distort reality in the service of an ideology.  "Fake news" is often a third or higher generation of an actual event or even a completely fictitious but believable event.  When people begin to act on these images, we have crossed into unknown territory of "The Society of the Spectacle."

Has my involvement with images and their manipulation been part of a larger cultural process to which I have been oblivious?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Trump: "...we will be protected by God."

When I read the president's inauguration speech, I noted this paragraph toward the end:
There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.
It struck a jarring note but frankly I didn't spend time trying to figure out why.  Then I read the lead article in the local Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Courier, which used this in both the headline and lead of an article by Mark Pattison of the Catholic News Service.

Now I realized how dangerous these words really are.  That realization was heightened when I read to the end of the article and saw the only comment that had yet been posted:  "Thanks be to God!! It's GREAT to have Him part of the American scene again."  Now I was sure that the logic and theology of the passage in the speech was seriously flawed and alarmed that the only comment to date seemed oblivious to its non-orthodox stance.

I immediately posted the following comment which was approved for posting in the next day.
 God protects all creation and always has. No nation or people has a special claim to protection that holds them immune to the consequences of what we humans do to each other and to creation. It is inconsistent with our faith tradition to think that God protects us and not others. I find it both ironic and disturbing to link God's protection with police power and military violence. Jesus preached a faithfulness to God which resulted in his murder by the police and military of his day. Whatever God's protection is must surely be of a different kind than the protection afforded by the world.
 Walter Breuggeman, a leading scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, has recently written in Reality, Grief, Hope:  Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks about the ways in which 6th century BCE Israel misread its political, social and economic realities because of an absolute belief in being chosen by YHWH regardless of its faithfulness to the Sinai covenant, a covenant of law not birth (Abrahamic covenant.)
The Jerusalem destroyed in 587 B.C.E. was a product and carrier of the elemental conviction of Israel--and more specifically of the urban elite in the Jerusalem establishment--that it was indeed YHWH's chosen people and so enjoyed the full commitment of YHWH as patron and guarantor.  (5)  
None of the vagaries of history can disrupt this divine commitment.  Thus David and his entourage, the entire company of urban elites, are given guarantees that do not require engagement with the facts on the ground.  (10)
The prophets were not fortune tellers but rather voices raised against the behavior of the urban elites both civil and religious, in Jerusalem, who were oppressing the peasants of Israel siphoning off more and more money and crops to support their life style in Jerusalem.  These elites felt that the Mosaic promises from YHWH gave them unconditional protection no matter how abusive they were and no matter how extreme the resulting equality.

This notion of chosenness morphed into an ideology which prevented them from seeing what was happening all around them.  The prophets were basically saying that this inequality and abuse could not go on unfettered and with impunity.  Whether or not YHWH would punish them, opponents in their dangerous neighborhood would prey on the weakness that such corruption bred and conquer Israel with overwhelming violence.  Instead of waking up to what was happening, the leadership lived in denial holding on to this "promise" of being chosen.  Ultimately that failure to engage with reality resulting in the despair of captivity and removal.

Language like that in the President's speech raises the specter of "exceptionalism" with all its attendant problems.  If we add some God-given commitment of protection to the already overwhelming military power of the United States, we will be tempted to think that the United States can do whatever it wants or needs to do regardless of the impact on other people or nations.  This ideology will prevent us from dealing with the realities we face in the world and at home.  If we are prone to incredulity when we see others opposing us and ask in disbelief "Why do they hate us," we are already well on our way to to the denial and despair of which Breuggeman writes.

The irony for Christians should be compelling.  Jesus opposed the civil and religious authorities of his day because he came to live a life of faithfulness to the will of the Father who sent him.  That faithfulness brought him into conflict with the elites of his day who used their police and military power to dispose of this disturbing presence in their midst.  They had ears but did not listen.  Eyes but did not see.  They were certain that they expressed YHWH's promise and power and that whatever they did was by definition right and defensible.

Over and over again the Christian scriptures and the Psalms remind us that we are not saved by "war chariots" or "strong horses" but by faithfulness to the will of the Divine One:  love the Divine One with your whole heart and mind and love other humans (and all creation) with the same love that Jesus had for his friends, his enemies, and even strangers.  We will be protected in all the ways that really count in the Reign of the Divine One if we live our lives that way.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A step back, a deep breath, a reassessment: Hope, a beginning

If I can be realistic about what happened and if I can grieve what I have lost, then I can begin to construct a sense of hope for the future.  If I stay in a state of denial about what happened and what I have lost, I am left to find hope in the same realities, people, programs, etc. failed me to begin with.  I remain trapped in a cul de sac that can only lead to the same place:  repudiation, anger, and finally despair.  If you have read my earlier blog postings this year, you know I am referring to the results of this fall's U.S. presidential election.  Yesterday was the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States.  It was a difficult day for me precisely because I had to again confront realistically what had happened and my feelings of repudiation.  It also reminded me of what I have lost.  I had placed my hope in outcomes of political processes thinking that if the "right" people were elected and if they enacted the "right" programs then everything would somehow be "OK."  And, of course, there is my fear that with the "wrong" people with the "wrong" programs that everything would fall apart.  You can see how easy it would be for someone with those feelings to fall into despair.

Yet all three Abrahamic religious traditions agree that we are to place our hope in Yahweh, the Triune Divinity, or Allah and not in the works and plans of human beings.  As a Christian, I am called to place my hope in the Divine One incarnated as Jesus the Christ.  I deeply desire to find hope exactly there but it is not as simple as saying that, at least for me.  How can I get from the brink of despair to an enduring sense of hope that everything will be "OK."  All I know for sure is that I cannot simply rely on politics and political action for that hope.  Both are important and I certainly understand and accept my responsibility as a Christian and an American to promote actively my views on our local, state and national agenda.  How we deal with each other in those contexts is vitally important and requires my attention and action.  But if it ends there, I will inevitably end up exactly where I am now:  on the edge of the precipice of despair.

Where do I begin to build a sense of hope?  There are several steps but the first is surely to recognize the ancient wisdom from the Hebrew Scripture repeated by Jesus in his life and preaching:  those who rely on the things of this world will not find eternal life but rather death.
16 A king is not saved by his great army;    a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory,    and by its great might it cannot save.18 Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,    on those who hope in his steadfast love,19 to deliver their soul from death,    and to keep them alive in famine.  Psalm 33
If we think about these verses in a modern context, we can get closer to the underlying meaning.  First of all, although the verses are addressed to "a king" they are really meant for us.  We are well past kings and the social-political order based on royal power and prerogatives.  The source of our modern political polity is not a king or even a president but rather the people, each and all of us together.  By what are we saved?  Horses are not at the top or even on my list of things that I think can save us.  But some of the following might be:  strong military and police forces, laws that encode strict moral codes, laws that are inclusive of diversity of all types of people and live choices and orientations, restrictive immigration laws, humane and accepting immigration policy, free enterprise and unfettered markets, social programs with preeminent claims on public resources, and on and on.

My religious tradition is clear:  none of these or anything like these will "save" us or will make "everything OK."  Somehow our hope, my hope, is to be placed in the "steadfast love" of the Divine One.  I am not asked to ignore all those political and policy concerns but rather to be realistic about what will save us.  It will not be the right mix of social and economic government policies, important as they are, but rather a personal coming to terms with the deepest realities of life, of my life.  Dare I say that what is needed for me is a conversion.  Perhaps a renewal of conversion gives a better sense.  If think that I can maintain my own spiritual framework and just tinker with some government programs, I am playing a fool's game which, like a Greek tragedy, will predictably end up with me on the same brink of despair.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A step back, a deep breath, a reassessment: Grief

Walter Breuggeman in Reality, Grief, Hope provides a scripture-based process for coming to terms with the signs of the times."  In an earlier post, I dealt with the reality process of becoming clear about what has happened.  In this case, it was the 2016 presidential election.  I tried in that post to be as clear as I could by setting aside as much as I could my own ideological framework and accepting what had happened.  As I have reflected further, I realize that the outcome of the election was not what was important.  If the democrat or some other progressive had won, I might have missed the underlying message.  Trump's win simply highlighted something I probably would have otherwise missed.

What I have lost and what I need to grieve is the notion that any political or social arrangement would somehow make "everything OK."  Psalm 33 seeks to disabuse us of the notion that everything will be OK if we can just have the right arrangement in the world:
The war horse is a vain hope for victory,  and by its great might it cannot save.  Psalm 33:17
As humans living in the world it is natural for us to hope that what we do and how we manage things will make everything OK.  The Psalmist is telling us just the opposite.  Relying on the things and powers of this world will not save us.  In fact, focusing on them can easily make us lose sight of what is really important.  The verses that follow make that crystal clear:
Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,    on those who hope in his steadfast love,to deliver their soul from death,    and to keep them alive in famine.  Psalm 33:18-19
We do, of course, live "in the world."  But Christians are called by their faith to not be "of the world."  We live in human community and our decisions, actions, and speech make a difference in that community.  But it seems that the values that come to dominate that society are inimical to its very nature and make it difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a community to provide the resources, nourishment, attention and care to all those in the community, especially those who have been excluded for whatever reason.

I wish that it were possible for a well constructed political program and process to provide such a community.  I now see this by itself is, while perhaps a necessary ingredient in a humane society, is not a sufficient cause of such a society.  Such a society requires the conversion of the members of the society to a set of values and beliefs which are radically opposed to those which seem so prevalent today.  This is a much more difficult, even impossible task, but it is the only one worth pursuing.

Still I wish it were otherwise.  I wish that contributing to the right political causes, working for the right politicians, voting for the right candidates would make everything OK...without requiring me to change in such fundamental ways.  I wish that it was simple but it is not.  Yet, I wish it were and I grieve that loss of an ordered, settled, undisturbing approach which is only in the end a delusion that comforts me without changing me.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Unexpected modern prophets

Walter Breuggemann in Reality, Grief, Hope:  Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks provides what was to me a revitalized understanding of the ministry of the Hebrew Scripture prophets:  Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea.  The easy popular understanding is that these prophets could foresee the future.  This misunderstanding makes it difficult to see the full meaning of prophecy and those prophets.  It is not that prophets foresee the future but that they see the current reality clearly, without the distortion that comes from ideological commitment.
The prophets call the urban [and temple] establishment to recognize that social reality is populated by neighbors and occupied by YHWH,...The neighbors among us wait to be treated by neighbors.  The God who moves amid the poetic utterance will not be settled or domesticated or managed.  Thus reality is always at risk.  And how the powerful conduct themselves will determine the outcome.  The acknowledgement of YHWH was the central agent will lead to well-being; but disregard of YHWH will lead to disaster and disorder.  Respect for the neighbor will make for safety; but disregard of the neighbor will result in violence and dismay.  pp. 22-23
Speaking out against an ideology of chosenness or exceptionalism, the prophets were looking at the reality on the ground where peasants around Jerusalem were being bled by the urban and temple elite of the city.  They saw in this unjust manipulation a violation of both divine reality and human nature.  They saw that it could not last but would end in disasters: economic, political, social and religious.  Those who managed the pyramid that was this ancient culture could change these realities through decisions and policies which would accord with divine and human nature.  If they did not but persisted in their abuse and in their delusions of invincibility, the inevitable destruction would be visited upon them.  Thus prophets speak not about the future but about the way things are now and present a different view to "the powers that be."  This description also describes the ministry of Jesus some 800 years later.

According to Breuggemann, these prophets chose "reality" over "ideology" and "grief" over "denial."  Out of that coming to terms with loss in real terms, they were able to construct "hope" as over against the "despair" left to those whose focus on ideology can only lead to denial.  In reflecting on this analysis, I realized that there have been American prophets whose words call us to consider how things really are and to set aside our ideology of "exceptionalism" in order to come to terms with our real challenges.

Robert Bellah published Habits of the Heart:  Individualism and Commitment in American Life in 1985.  It identified two central values of the American experiment:  individualism and communitarianism.  The synergy between individual good and the common good were central to what became America.  He described how one of these values had gained the ascendancy and threatened or could threaten the entire enterprise.  Individualism without the countervailing power of the common good would threaten the whole.

In 2000 Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Reival of American Community.  This painted a compelling picture of the ways in which the American sense of community was weakening and dissolving.  The book is noted more for its analysis of the problem than for the solutions which are suggested.

Juliet B. Schur has written two books that look at the current American economy and find that it is not delivering the satisfaction in human terms that we want from our work.  The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and The Overspent American:  Why We Want What We Don't Need.  An overwhelming concern with individual wealth and welfare has led to overworking and overspending that has degraded for most people the value of simply making more money.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown in The Spirit-Level, as the subtitle says, more equal societies almost always do better than less equal ones.  These two scholars take a look at the facts of economic status in developed countries and conclude that increasing inequality results in a more dangerous and less healthy society for everyone in the society.  The focus on individual good without the balancing commitment to the common seems to result in benefits for some but even they turn out to be disadvantaged.

The "powers that be" who think they are winning in this current situation tend to deny these analyses and the inevitable consequences that arise from them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A step back, a deep breath, and a reassessment: Reality

I was stunned by the results of the recent presidential election.  I had a hard time believing that the electorate would reject a continuation of the social programs that have been so important to our nation:  Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and various protections of social and economic groups on the margin.  My deep roots in the Democrat party and organized labor as well as my study of Catholic Social Teaching led me to assume our national commitment to the common good was strong and vigorous and outweighed our understandable commitment to individual welfare.  It is fair to say that I am one of those "liberal elites" who lost touch with the reality of the working middle class.  It is also fair to say that the commitment to the common good may still be strong but there are differences in how to protect and strengthen it.  Where you sit in the economy and society will have a lot to do with how you see this.  Perspective is unarguably important.

As upsetting as the results are to me, they provide an opportunity for me to take a step back and try to understand what happened and what it might portend for me.  Walter Breuggeman in his Reality, Grief and Hope:  Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks urges us to engage in this process in times of unsettling change:  Understand what has happened without resorting to ideology; grieve the loss rather deny it; and construct hope anew from basic values rather than the previous understandings and processes.

While the popular vote went one way, the electoral vote--the only one that determines the outcome--clearly indicated that people wanted a change that would "make America great again."  Exactly what that meant was never clear but it spoke to those who could look back and think that things used to be a lot better for them and the country.  Further the campaign was at pains to blame elite liberals for policies and decisions which had caused this decline and loss of "greatness."  The very principles of my own social philosophy were rejected by the majority of the electoral voters and the policies and decisions from came from those principles needed to be reversed, overturned, and negated.

All the early signs indicated that the incoming administration along with the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate intends to dismantle those policies and programs or, at least, revise them to conform to a different ideology.  Privatizing Social Security is an example of this.  While there will be opposition to these and many other changes, there will be changes in both domestic and foreign policy because the election results require such changes.

It does me no good to pretend this didn't happen or that it won't last very long.  It is tempting to think that the whole thing was a con, actually the continuation of a con, which keeps working over and over again even to the detriment of those keep buying into the con.  Unfortunately that kind of thinking is more ideological than realistic.

As unpleasant as it may be and without giving up my ideals and the need to work in opposition to these changes, I need to face the reality that my ideals and values have been repudiated by the only electorate that counts.  My next blog will extend my thinking into the other two tasks.

Monday, December 26, 2016

1913 all over again?

Earlier this month, I attended a panel discussion at the World War I National Memorial and Museum in Kansas City.  Dr. Matthew Naylor, President of the Museum, made some observations that frightened me.  "There has never been a time since 1913 that is more like 1913 than today."  In 1913 the world and especially the major powers in Europe were "sleepwalking" their way toward and then into the Great War, a war none of the powers wanted or particularly intended to create.  But it did happen and eventually led to World War II with its horrendous toll in human life with a total of 78 million deaths in both.

Based on Naylor's comments and my own reflection, there are three ways in which 1913 and today are similar.  First, the rise of nationalism, nativism, and tribalism.  A commitment to the global common good has been and is being undercut by a rising concern with national self interest.  There appears to be a growing movement to move away from commitments of all sorts to make things better for everyone in favor of making things better for us.  This is especially troubling in the developed nations who consume vastly more resources that their share of world population.  Developing nations increasingly see no reason why they should be penalized by restrictions on their development after developed nations have enjoyed more or less unfettered growth for a century.

Second, international alliances are shifting in hard to comprehend ways.  After decades of stable alliances and treaties, nations are beginning to back away from them and seem to want to make their own deals in a way that sees the impact on other countries as often irrelevant.  One can easily suspect that some of the newly emerging alliances are not clearly in the public arena so that implications of world events is becoming more difficult to predict.

Finally, there are regional and local conflicts which are being pursued by actors who have little regard for the global implications of their actions.  Further these local actors are tied into both formal and informal alliances with major world powers.  The conflict in Syria has already brought US and Russian military into close contact and near conflict.

What is different now and immensely more dangerous is that the major world powers and some of the regional actors have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.  For forty years I have never thought about nuclear war as anything remotely possible.  Now I have experienced again some of the anxieties that were widespread in 1950's.  Nuclear conflict in the world no longer seems impossible.  God help us.