Thursday, December 28, 2017

stuff that, perhaps, we can get to in 2018

It's the end of a long year here at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  The incentive to blog is low ... for me.  I don't really want to get into all the reasons for that but I suppose what probably needs to be said is that low-volume blogging for Wenatchee the Hatchet probably has to be graded on some kind of curve.  Low volume blogging year for me in the history of the blog was still 71 posts. 

This is kind of an early New Year's resolution of stuff I hope, Lord willing that I have both the time and willpower to do the stuff, to blog about in 2018.

1. Discuss Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar, published by Edition Margaux.

2. Discuss German Dzhaparidze's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar, recorded by Esteban Colucci

3.  Discuss three of the four numbered published guitar sonatas of Dusan Bogdanovic, because they're all fantastic

4. Discuss the Matiegka complete edition after I spend some time going through it

5. Discuss at least some of the solo guitar sonatas of Angelo Gilardino, probably will only manage the three that can be ordered online these days

That's the musical stuff.  For animation I'd like to see if I can tackle writing about the following:

6. finally finish the Justice League essays, though I confess this probably won't happen quickly

Then there's more bookish stuff

7. discuss the new bad Ghost in the Shell remake with the old overhyped Ghost in the Shell. Those who venerate the old Oshii film will ... probably not like what I have to say about it.

I want to review John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution but though the book is very short the recommended secondary reading is pretty big.  In fairness to the fact that I think several of the books in Borstlap's recommended reading list at the end of his book look fantastic I want to also read those, too. I have my differences with Borstlap about a few topics but I think what he's trying to do deserves an informed and considered review. I won't get into that stuff for now but if you read my references to Elements of Sonata Theory, the writing of George Rochberg, etc then you might have a guess what one of my concerns about the 2nd edition is.

Of course this blog being what it is I want to tackle a book or two as the basis for blogging and reviewing here.

7.  I do want to write something about Justin Dean's book PR Matters.  What I hope to do is to situate the book and Dean's career at Mars Hill in the context of the maelstrom of public relations issues that were already emerging as he took the reins.  That takes some time, and more motivation than I have at the end of the year so, here's hoping for 2018.

Also ...
8. Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll's Evangelical Empire
Jessica Johnson's monograph comes out in May of 2018.

I do plan to get a copy of the book and review it.  Being the sort of moderately conservative semi-stick in the mud Presbyterian I am I don't doubt that Johnson and I differ on a few topics.  But this blog has been committed to maintaining as ecumenical and scholarly approach as possible.  I don't doubt that Johnson's book is going to be a more interesting read on the subject of Mars Hill than Dale Soden's mentions of Mars Hill in Outsiders in a Promised Land, which I discussed a while back.

I have had friends suggest that yours truly write a book about Mars Hill but I would need to recharge some batteries for a while before doing such a thing.  I also regard popular Christian publishing to be one of the bad guys in the twenty year history of Mars Hill.  If someone were to gift me a Thomas Nelson book these days my first temptation would be to burn the thing on general principle.  But I am willing to consider discussing things with scholars if they get in touch at this point.  Which is to say there's a decent possibility some of my blogging will get referenced in Johnson's book.  The work of scholarly investigation into the history and dynamics of Mars Hill could and should in some sense only be just getting started but I have a feeling that what the Christian industrial complex would like to do is "move on" and proceed as though whatever happened at Mars Hill was just some aberration that couldn't tell us something about the very nature of the industries. Not sure I will write such a book because I don't feel like a writer of books so much as a writer of essays, but I won't rule it out altogether.  It's also getting to the point where if a scholar or two wanted to get in touch I'd be open to being a resource for scholarly work on the topic of MHC.  To the point, I'm okay with being quoted in a certain forthcoming monograph. 

One of the biggest projects I hope to tackle, however, is addressing the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Francis Schaeffer's The God Who is There and Escape From Reason as the first two parts of his trilogy. I think it would be impossible to overstate the influence Schaeffer has had on conservative American evangelicals and that Schaeffer can be thought of as a kind of American evangelical equivalent of Theodor Adorno.  That comparison is intended to be provocative because both men wrote sweeping accounts of Western art that can be read as a legend of WASP decline and white flight; both men wrote in the later 1960s and had connections to respectively right and left political movements. 

Schaeffer's arts history is particularly bad, especially on the subject of music, which is a topic dear to my heart.  For the fiftieth anniversary what I'm hoping to write isn't exactly going to be as harsh as a take-down but, though I was a fan of Schaeffer's work in my teens and early twenties, I now believe that if Anglo-American evangelicalism is going to make anything interesting in the arts that dismantling Schaeffer's master narrative of WASP decline is obligatory.  Schaeffer, I intend to argue, had the same problem Adorno had but from a different direction.  Both men venerated earlier bourgeois Western European art.  When they perceived a radical break in history they reacted differently. Adorno wanted the break to be total and forward-moving (thus Schoenberg and Beckett), but did not altogether grasp how he was trapped ideologically within the Romantic era.  There's three books by David P Roberts that unpack that a bit I might reference there.  Schaeffer was a nostalgic who lamented the loss of Western culture without grasping that his narrative of decline couldn't even be squared with some basic points about Western history.  Around the same time he was writing Leonard Meyer came up with a more interesting counterproposal about the eruption of progress and the avant garde.  So ... stuff like that.  I am glad Schaeffer didn't attempt to survey Western music history because it would have been a trainwreck.  But in a way I almost have to discuss the 20th century musical changes in order to show how wildly wrong Francis Schaeffer was about stuff.

But ... this gets me to what I think is confining about the likes of Roger Scruton and John Borstlap, there's a sense in older guys, regardless of their place in the spectrum, that the high arts culture of Western Europe is on a decline.  Well, yeah, of course, because the empires are fading away and why shouldn't they?   My difference of conviction from people like Scruton or Borstlap has nothing to do with a lack of love for classical music.  I adore the music of Haydn. But the collapse of the long 19th century's ars perfecta isn't a bad thing, it's just a thing that happened.  We don't need some "renaissance" of a late Romantic idiom that has survived by way of the American song book and popular music and film scores just fine.  The Renaissance itself was a culmination of centuries of experimentation throughout the medieval period and its renaissance (because what we were taught was the Renaissance was just the big R renaissance not unlike the Romantic era was a big R stand in for that movement).  If we're in some kind of rhyming cycle of epochs of history we're not in a Renaissance, we're in a kind of new early or middle Baroque era, in which a panoply of forms and styles erupted with idioms based on improvisation over established formulas and tons of strophic structures.  But I'm rambling again. 

As usual, probably, what I hope to write about will probably be more than I manage to write about.  They say it's good to set goals, so here are some goals. 

a lookback on 2017, a relatively fallow time for the blog--the professional Christian media caste and its issues with amateurs, sociological propaganda as cultural norm, a MH thought or two, handful of favorites that were fun to write

I know there's no getting around the fact that this blog, to the extent that it's known about at all, is usually for one general topic, the life and times of Mars Hill but particularly its leadership culture.  People who've already read this blog over the last ten years probably know the drill but I was at Mars Hill early enough in its history to have met not just Mark Driscoll but also Mike Gunn and Lief Moi.  I also got to know a variety of people from that church community over the last ... wow ... it's actually approaching twenty years now ...

that can make a person feel old.

We're nearing the 20th anniversary of that Mars Hill feature in Mother Jones magazine where Mark said he was a very confrontational guy, not some pansy-ass therapist. A lot has changed and these days he's more about "father wound" and more or less lightly treading the subject of the only church prior to The Trinity Church that anyone would have any reason to know him for. 

He said it was all about Jesus and for a time many of us thought that's what he meant, and maybe he even meant it for a time.  Over time, particularly over the course of two decades, it may be proposed that what Mark Driscoll is about is legacy. For those who would call the church a cult from start to finish I'm not interested in contesting that, I'm more interested in posing a question that former members may have already settled for themselves but that those attempting to wrestle with the sea of information connected to the former church may benefit from reading about--if Mars Hill was a cult it couldn't sell a person what they weren't willing to buy, so what did they think they were investing into when they joined? 

If you can't honestly answer for yourself what you were looking for when you signed on you won't honestly be able to tell yourself what a better alternative to that may be.  To put things another way, if you were part of a cult and came to realize you were part of a cult that's just a point of arrival.  What that point of arrival won't accomplish for you is making you less susceptible to operant conditioning.  To put it still another way, just because you think you've stopped drinking the proverbial kool-aid doesn't mean you won't start drinking even more kool-aid based entirely on a different food coloring for the beverage that doesn't change the nature of what it is you've committed to as defined by how you commit to it. 

As I see things, the alternative to a Mark Driscoll message can't be a Dan Savage message because in the end those two guys are the same kind of person.  If you were a Twitter warrior for Mars Hill four or five years ago becoming a Twitter warrior on behalf of whatever cause you think is "opposite" Mark Driscoll is a mistake. I probably don't need to highlight too much just how much blogging I did inspired by Jacques Ellul's Propaganda over the last couple of years in connection to Mars Hill beyond a tag label.  Not merely in passing, Ellul's book primarily addressed the topic of propaganda in political and educational contexts, yet his proposals about the nature and effectiveness of propagandistic techniques are so relevant to contemporary megachurch cultural dynamics I would propose that every Christian who is or has been part of a megachurch culture should consider reading Ellul's book.

I don't think it can be emphasized enough that what many Americans consider to be the activity of a megachurch pastor, or the activity of a social media savvy Christian in general, needs to be understood as a form of propagandistic activity.  Most of the analyses I've seen attempted at highlighting the problems in the outrage cycle and how Christians in particular use social media and online networks to stump for these or those social or political causes fixate on the psychological dynamics they are afraid are being cultivated; some of those analyses even fret about the nature of the media usage but I don't think I've seen Christian bloggers say that the danger of using a blog or a Twitter handle or a Facebook platform to stump for this or that cause is that, if you're not explicitly marketing something, you're very likely participating in social media as a propagandist.

I've had more than a few criticisms of Mark Driscoll's approach to interpreting the Bible, and all sorts of other things but when I say I think that Mark Driscoll should be thought of not as a pastor but as a propagandist I grant that he's refined a formidable set of skills in the service of being a propagandist who is disguised as a pastor.  He's been so upfront through his internal talks with Mars Hill leadership as documented here and elsewhere about the nature of his media use and philosophy of media use that what separates him from other megachurch pastors and celebrity Christians is that he has, whether you love him or not, made the nature of the media use so transparent he lampshades it.  Driscoll is not so much unusual as a propagandist figure for simply being one but by highlighting this in his career at so many levels that if he were a television character he's broken the fourth wall about how he does what he's done.

And, frankly, for that I'm sincerely grateful.  Read through the tagged posts on Ellul and Mars Hill, read those statements Driscoll made about social media channel usage and compare that to Ellul's definition of a propagandist and I'd say that I didn't even really have to make a case that Driscoll was a propagandist rather than a pastor because Driscoll described his media usage in essentially propagandistic terms. 

One of the upshots of Ellul's book was to warn that in technological societies such as ours propaganda was not even optional and that if the Church embraced it then it would stop being the Church and serve whatever ideologies were dominant in the propagandistic era.

Another way to unpack that proposal is to say that Ellul was in some sense warning us about the emergence of what some in the Christian blogging and media sphere call the Christian industrial complex.  In this complex, however, opposites are not necessarily based on a Matthew Paul Turner vs a Mark Driscoll or a Rachel Held Evans vs a Mark Driscoll or John Piper.  No, these oppositions that appear to hold on paper are more apparent than actual in terms of what role these people play in the Christian media establishment.

Look, I'll put it this way, when Rachel Held Evans had her "Mark Driscoll is a bully, stand up to him" I was cynical about the sincerity of the ploy not because I don't believe she considers Driscoll to be a bully.  No, my cynicism was about how it seemed that Evans only made a public relations point of standing in opposition to Driscoll when it was time for one of her books to hit the market.  The substance of her engagement with Mark Driscoll's ideas was ... well ... kind of insubstantial.  It was not Rachel Held Evans but Janet Mefferd who confronted Mark Driscoll on air with allegations of plagiarism. 

And for those who remember the 2011 online "incident" that catalyzed Rachel Held Evans' outcry, something to do with fishing for anecdotes about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leaders in church services, Driscoll revealed he was trying to "start a conversation" and that somehow he didn't have the platform he needed to do that in spite of being a megachurch pastor with a blog and podcasts and things like that.  So ... he was going to address the big issues at Pastor Mark TV and in a forthcoming book about marriage called .... Real Marriage

Here in 2017 I look back on 2011 and it seems like Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans found it convenient to use their outrage cycles to promote their books.  Something that Christian pundits who decry the outrage cycle keep skating over when they condemn the lack of charity is a seeming refusal to admit that these kind of stoking the fires for the willing market is the whole damned point in media production and promotional terms.  Take Mark and Grace Driscoll's book on Real Marriage, there's a river of marriage books out there already.  If by the grace of God you somehow benefited from reading that book I don't want to take that way from you and, obviously, I can't.  But if the Gospel Coalition crew really cared about promoting the writings of the Reformers wouldn't they spend that money on, I dunno, translating and distributing the works of Bullinger and some of the continental Reformers whose works are not yet translated into English?  As the Driscoll plagiarism controversy unfurled for us who were ... well ... involved in documenting that, a lot of what passed for insight in Driscoll's books was recycling and re-presenting ideas from other, better books spanning the last ten to twenty odd years.  If what passes for popular level Christian book writing and selling in Anglo American contexts turned out to be cannibalizing old stuff in the hopes that people won't notice or that people will buy the old stuff can't any new Calvinist just go to or even and just download a bunch of Richard Sibbes?  The Bruised Reed really is great.

I got the feeling in the last few years in the post Mars Hill meltdown that the Christian media industry peanut gallery pretended that the problem was unaccountable bloggers and pundits when I don't think that's ultimately a particularly important issue compared to the conduct of the Christian publishing industry and associated systems.  The outrage cycle is business as usual.  Seeing how Driscoll and Evans played each other as catalysts for mobilizing their own respective fan bases by way of a lather, rinse and repeat cycle of online outrage was illuminating to consider over the last six years, but illuminating in mostly a bad way. 

I'm not talking about scholars arguing in a scholarly way, that's been going on for as long as there have been scholars.  I get that, I really do. 

I'm talking about something else. If you're a Christian complaining about the liberal or conservative media while hashtagging on Twitter you might want to ask yourself why you're complaining about the paid professionals who are doing professionally what you're voluntarily doing at your own expense.  The irony of a celebrity Christian blogger like Mark Driscoll venting frustration at Christian bloggers being uncharitable was an irony so rich that if it were a cake you'd have to have a one eighth inch slice so as to not overwhelm your taste buds.  Almost no church in the last twenty years was more famous than Mars Hill was for social media savvy and yet Driscoll would inveigh against bloggers.  Justin Dean's book features some frustration with bloggers yet he, too, has done blogging and podcasting.  Apparently all this stuff is just fine as long as it's being done by guys (preferably guys) and gals who are already working in the Christian media and publishing industries. It's maybe just tolerable for Joe or Jane Christian if you know where they live, in church terms, but that's less than ideal. 

At this point I would mention that I've been part of a PCA church for the last six years or so, so if at any point Mars Hill leadership tried to indicate that I wasn't in submission to spiritual authority or wasn't a member of a church it wouldn't be hard to invite friends to visit me at the church I attend to catch up on stuff.  The laundry list of reasons a celebrity Christian blogger of a neo-Calvinist stripe would say you shouldn't trust this blog didn't apply.  The MH leaders couldn't say I wasn't Reformed enough or didn't have solid enough theology (I was recruited to the Theology Response Team to answer questions on behalf of the MH elders by a deacon and an elder more than a decade ago). They also couldn't say I wasn't part of a local church. They couldn't say I was bitter because I was denied this or that leadership role in the church because I've never wanted to actually be in formal ministry at any level.  This conventional list of complaints about Christian bloggers that neo-Calvinists tend to trot out on the internet wasn't applicable to me and the hundreds if not thousands of people from Mars Hill who had any idea who I was could work this out for themselves, I didn't even need to tell them. 

I've got maybe not even a tenth of the blog traffic this year that I had back in 2014 and that's great.  I love that the blog isn't mainly about the Mars Hill scene.  Of course I plan to leave everything I've ever blogged about Mars Hill over the last decade up for consultation.  I've been happy to get back to blogging about the stuff I wanted to blog about before I felt obliged to chronicle things about Mars Hill.  Nobody could make a compelling case that "all" this blog has ever been about was attacking Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll.  The paradox is that in many cases the Christian bloggers who lament the kinds of glib analyses they see being promulgated online, who are worried about the "hot take" culture, are often ... heh ...

Blogger activists and anti-blogger blogging activists are using the same range of tools to make their respective points but in many a case these Christian bloggers and anti-bloggers don't realize how similar their spiritual fruit and range of polemical styles overlap.  The most tedious bromide from conservative Christian bloggers and pundits I've heard and seen over the last fifteen years is that immersion in this or that pop culture product or social media system keeps people from being grown up. 

For those who were part of Mars Hill and have left it the last thing you might want to be doing is taking up a cause to fight for on the internet if, a mere three to five years ago the cause you were constantly advocating for was Mars Hill and your investment of yourself in it.  What happens in a society like ours is that when people stop drinking one kind of kool-aid they don't really stop drinking kool-aid, they just change the color of the kool-aid to some other cause.  As Ellul put it, when people change teams they don't stop absorbing propaganda, they simply start absorbing propaganda for a different cause.  So a person who was a complementarian at Mars Hill might become a feminist, the problem is that if you reduce Mars Hill to an ideological checklist and that's that you have completely failed to understand how profoundly a culture like that shapes who you are.  It's never just "what" it's the mind-shaping immersion of the "how". 

Think of it this way, former Mars Hill member, if you haven't in some sense detoxified a mass-media fueled, social media participating activist conception of public righteousness that defines who you are then it doesn't matter whether you're throwing yourself into a blue state civic religion or a red state civic religion you'll be serving an antichrist worse than whatever it was you served within the confines of Mars Hill.  It doesn't matter if you wanted to make America great again or affirm "I'm with her".  Driscoll's propagandistic method was small time by comparison. 

Let me see if I can try to approach this indirectly by way of a reflection on what's known as the "hot take" approach to social issues in social media.  It could be applicable to the first person industrial complex/personal essay approach as well.

The Christian "hot take" blog or podcast needs to be understood as part and parcel of a cultural system of content generation and content promotion.  You know ... in a way I gotta give Justin Dean credit for spelling this out in his book about PR.  What makes Mars Hill a special church culture in 21st century American terms is how explicitly is leadership culture kept publishing content about how and why they're propagandists and how and why, if you want your church to thrive, you should totally be one, too, or hire someone who is.  But, ahem ...

In evangelical terms there's basically one of two paths at work:

1) a Christian with a modicum of celebrity is inveighing on a topic to agitate a base
2) a Christian with a modicum of celebrity is talking to another Christian about a product on sale or a cause to invest in

That's ... pretty much it, right there.

When Jesus said to take care you don't do your righteous deeds for acclaim the warning can apply to social media use, even though it's arguable that in making use of social media you're never doing anything except advertising something.  That's it. That's what social media is remarkably useful for, promoting stuff if not outright selling stuff.   Every time you use social media of any kind ask yourself "Why am I willing to sell this?" Because selling is what you're doing.  It's fine if you believe in the cause but, and this is the point I've been hammering away at here, you need to also ask yourself if you being a propagandist is the best way to use your time.  Ellul wrote half a century ago that there was this thing called sociological propaganda and that it was immensely difficult to produce and distribute at a state controlled top down level.  Well, that was half a century ago.  Ellul was not in a position to anticipate that the majority of what goes on in the blogosphere and social media usage, as I'm seeing it in the Christian media industry scene but even more so in political activity, is sociological propaganda.

Sociological propaganda is what you let the rabid fans of the brand do on your behalf and all you hae to do in a gatekeeping capacity is to say a few things that provide them with an incentive to do their own thing.  Mars Hill members who plugged into social media got fantastic at creating sociological propaganda whether they knew that was what they were doing or not.  If your righteousness is demonstrated by what you post on social media feeds first and foremost then, hey, you're like Mark Driscoll!  Sweet.  You're like Rachel Held Evans!  You're like any celebrity Christian who can use social media to sell something and you're doing it at your own time and expense.  Maybe it's for a great cause addressing social inequality or the decline of Christian doctrine.  My warning is that if you don't abandon this "how" of being a social media advocate online even if you've left Mars Hill then at a social, emotional and spiritual level you're still acting like a Mars Hill member even if you think you've repudiated the official platform of ideas you picked up there.

Which is another way of warning that if you're a former Mars Hill member you could still manifest the training of that culture in how you use social media and relate to people through it, reflecting the cultural training you got inside Mars Hill.  The longer you were there and the more immersed you were in that leadership culture the worse you're likely still going to be unless you step back long enough to understand what being a lay or vocational propagandist in a social media context might mean. 

Last year Joe Carter wrote about "pseudo-events".  It's possible to read a pseudo-event as a publicity stunt, which, of course, it is, but pseudo events probably constitute a more virtual stunt.  No, I think I take that back, I hesitate to call pseudo-events publicity stunts because I think that a pseudo-event is ... well, you can read Carter first.

The Christian media complex isn't addicted to pseudo-events, pseudo-events are simply the new norm for marketing.  You see that two option summary of what goes on in Christian punditry earlier?  Well, anything that isn't a front and center explicit sales pitch for a product is going to be the outrage machine that drums up demand for a sales pitch for a product that addresses the topic that is most often brought up in the pseudo-event, often a person and the person as a representation or distillation of a set of ideas or behaviors.  Mark Driscoll is a bully!  Stand up to him ... by buying my book!  I don't have a set of platforms that can adequately give me an occasion to pontificate on marriage above and beyond my pulpit and blogs and twitter and Facebook and Instagram and ... anyway ... in order to really talk about important issues a guy needs a dedicated web page and also to promote this book.

When people who are the movers and shakers within the Christian media industry itself get indignant about amateurs using the same tools they use in the professional scene to similar ends, but particularly when the amateurs raise objections to the lather, rinse and repeat cycle of production promotion passing itself off as spiritual life, the outrage may be more that there are Christians who object to the idea of the constant rebel sell itself.  Don't prove to me your a Christian by how you're willing to sell me something on social media that might be a cause you really, seriously believe in.  Show that you're a Christian by how you treat people. 

When the guys at the Gospel Coalition so often embody the very sales pitch methods and pseudo-events they find frustrating in others it's impossible to take them seriously, just as its impossible to take a Rachel Held Evans seriously or even Matthew Paul Turner.  The longer I spend time blogging and reading blogs and considering what celebrity Christians who use social media have to say about it when the shoe is on the other foot the harder I find it to believe they can say a lot in good faith.  Frequently the people most upset about how other people seem to be misusing or misshaped by social media activity are themselves symptomatic of the problems they see in others.

Now, obviously, I am absolutely all in and all for Christians using blogs and social media with a social responsibility paradigm of serving the public good and loving neighbor.  Clearly I believe that's an important thing Christians should do.  But that is not the same thing as being in sales mode or stirring up anger so that the angry base can then be sold on a product they've been primed to want to buy. 

So part of my scaling back of blogging activity is that I don't feel like I need to blog as much this year, I don't feel like blogging as much because it takes away time from reading and composing, and because I'm not eager to be part of what I now regard as the Christian blogosphere's fixation on outrage production and sales promotion.  I guess I' m saying that I believe blogging can and should be used in the promotion of education and the public good and not just a blunt instrument for sociological propaganda of the sort that is the aim of red state and blue state civic religions that masquerade as the Christian faith.

You also can't really blog as fast if you're doing the kind of musical analysis I've been doing or getting back into writing about films now and then. 

The last year or so has not been particularly pleasant or encouraging and there have been some things in the offline world that came up that made the prospect of writing as much as I used to less appealing. 

Nevertheless, obviously I blogged a couple hundred posts this year.  Fittingly enough, we kicked off the year 2017 at Wenatchee The Hatchet looking back at Frank Turk's quitting blogging at Pyromanics.

Frank Turk at Pyromaniacs on calling it a day on blogging, which inspires some more thoughts on what some call watchblogging

For those who aren't already familiar with what I mean by talking about red state and blue state civic religions there's this piece:

revisiting the "Deadlock of American civic religions" ide, Americans de-churching from the institutional church doesn't mean for a moment they'll be rejecting the red or blue state civic religions

Whereas 20 years ago I really enjoyed Buffy the Vampire Slayer my interest in the series cooled steadily and even quickly after the end of season 3.  I explained a bit of that and why I've come to believe that Joss Whedon is kind of an overhyped one-trick pony over at the following post.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer at year 20

Now one of my favorite blog posts from 2017, easily, would also have to be the least user-friendly post for anyone who doesn't have fun reading musicology books at a grad school level.

On the possibilities of spatial-temporal correspondence between the syntactics of ragtime and sonata forms

One of my projects in the last few years has been working to formulate a fusion of the syntactic procedures of sonata forms with the style of ragtime, blues, and country.  There's a lot of theoretical reflection and compositional work that has to go into a project like that.  It's been one of the things I've been slowly working at accomplishing in the last twenty years.  It was the kind of thing I meant to start writing about seriously in 2011 but, as anyone who's read the blog between 2011 and 2015 knows, a bunch of stuff at Mars Hill happened.  But this year and last I've managed to get more into blogging in a serious way about music and the arts more generally.

Of course ... seeing as somebody still insists on a media presence and has a legacy that has been ... interpreted a bit post-resignation, it was necessary to provide a long-form analysis of the interview Mark Driscoll did with Sheila Walsh.  The video went down quickly after initial release and it's only accessible via Driscoll's platform last I saw, but there's an extensive analysis with links (which may or may not work now) in this series of tagged post.

on the Walsh/Robison interview with Mark Driscoll

Since this year was also the 25th anniversary of Batman: the animated series, it seemed good to run with all the content I wrote for Mockingbird for the 20th anniversary years ago.  If memory serves (and it might not) the versions at this blog are the longer, less edited-down versions of what Mbird ran years ago.  I remember the end of the Clayface essay was truncated at Mbird in a way that I hoped wouldn't happen.  If you want to read all the originally published works at Mockingbird that whole set of essays is called Batman: The Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire.

Not that anyone exactly asked me but if someone were to ask me what I had the most fun writing in all of my time as a blogger I'd have to say it was writing about Batman: the animated series for Mockingbird.  I had a blast writing it, even though it was actually ... pretty difficult.  One of my college buddies read the series years ago and told me he thought it was funny that I wrote about Batman cartoons just as seriously as I would write about Dostoevsky.  Well, yeah!  I love Dostoevsky, too!  I even think that for all its warts here and there that Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is the closest thing to an adaptation in spirit we'll get for a Dostoevsky story.  The more time goes by I can appreciate BTAS even with its shortcomings of clunkily written episodes and some takes on characters I didn't always warm up to.  You can't understand the last twenty years of American animation on television without getting a sense of how much BTAS and The Simpsons opened the floodgates to a new approach to animation. I take Dini and Timm's series seriously as art because they made it clear that what they wanted to do with the series was treat it as a work of art and not just something to distract the kids in the afternoon.  It shows and the show has held up for decades since it came out. 

Another less charming anniversary came this year.

regarding the 10th anniversary of Mark Driscoll's "Fathers and Fighting"; two firings and their context; and Driscoll's explication of powers and providences published or presented in 2008 in the vein of "I see things" and how distrust of his executive elder team was wrong

There were a few deaths this year.  Nat Hentoff passed but for classical guitarists the most noteworthy passing was more recent, the death of Matanya Ophee.  Ophee's lecture "Repertoire Issues" was something I read in transcript at G.A.L.I. on Ophee's website way, way back in 1999 and it changed my life.

I started composing a cycle of chamber sonatas for the guitar with woodwinds, strings and brass.  It's supposed to have about twenty-four duo sonatas in it by the time I'm finished.  Ophee's admonition to guitarists was that we have no inferiority complex about what our instrument and its literature has to offer.  I started getting an idea to write 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar over the years and eventually finished that cycle, and arranged it for guitar duet.  I've been working on creating another cycle of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar since 2015.  Knowing that a lot of people just don't like fugues I know the stuff won't be to everyone's liking and it's an esoteric niche, but I've managed to conclude to my own satisfaction, if no one else's necessarily, that fully convertible counterpoint on solo guitar in every major and minor key is absolutely possible and even practical. 

I really, really wanted to write about Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar which were published this year.  They deserve to be written about and they deserve to be heard, but this was, sadly, not the year to have things together enough to blog in that way, not the way I would like to write about the cycle. 

Nor did I write about John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution as I'd intended.

There's no review of PR Matters by Justin Dean, that may as well wait for 2018, too.

I also meant to write about a few other things but those things are incubating. 

I did a little bit of writing over at Mbird this year, though.

We kicked off contribution to Mockingbird by being unimpressed with The Red Turtle. The film was pretty but vacant, an uninspired entry in what I'd now probably describe as a mollifying art religion for what a bohemian bourgeois.  Yeah ... that might be a harsh way of putting it but the film was a real disappointment.

If you want to see a film that manages to be visually gorgeous and surreal and riffs on connection and spirituality in a way that's vastly more interesting than The Red Turtle go rent Your Name.  The subject of incompetent Western remakes of anime classics real or merely cult is going to be something I hope to tackle in 2018 because, man, that Ghost in the Shell remake was lame but in many respects no lamer than the original.  But I might be able to demonstrate by example that a film like Oshii's original Ghost in the Shell is a cult classic because of the stream of ideas that film critics can write about the film that the new film shuts off.  I've written a lot in bits and pieces about how the art religion envisioned by 19th century artists has mutated into a kind of meta-art religion of arts criticism and I'd unpack more of what I think that means but it's easier to do that as part of another project I've been incubating.  It's probably going to make its way into what would be considered an unpardonable sin in the art religion of arts criticism Decalogue of writing about the Michael Bay Transformers franchise. Yeah, they're terrible movies but they're terrible in a very special way that film critics don't want to understand.

Meant to tackle that this year but ... well ... see ... I'm not going to get at my attempts to read Gadamer's Truth and Method as part of that project so let's just move on.

I actually really liked the new Wonder Woman movie, though--yet it was fascinating to read film critics and social commentators find Diana wanting in light of her perceived debt to real feminists and real feminism and some went so far as to say it was Americanist propaganda ... as if that problem in Marston's creation was somehow not emblazoned in the costume.  But I digress.

Another superhero film I saw and thought was ... okay ... was the new Spiderman film.  The cake was tasty and yet it has a strange aftertaste which was the subject of this essay.

I guess now that I've written all this out even a "fallow" year for me involves a lot of writing. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

fielding a question about the perpetual virginity of Mary, Mark Driscoll describes "My experience with the Catholic Church has always been positive" though he says he was not a Christian, revisiting some accounts of Driscoll's shift from nominal Catholic to Protestant

The holiday season being what it is, questions about the perpetual virginity of Mary are inevitable.  Mark Driscoll recently fielded this question at his blog.
Both my father’s and mother’s sides of the family have historically been Catholic. I was born in a Catholic Hospital and baptized in a Catholic Church as a baby. I also attended a Catholic school where I served as an altar boy assisting the priest with mass. My grandmother was a devout woman who joined an order of lay nuns after my grandfather passed away.
My experience with the Catholic Church has always been positive. I was not a Christian devoted to Jesus while attending mass growing up, but that was my own responsibility and not the fault of any person or organization. I simply did not have much interest in learning more about any faith. [emphasis added]

At whatever age Mark Driscoll was a server his post-Protestant conversion account has been consistent that he didn't have a real religious faith.  This more recent statement that his experience with the Catholic Church has been/was always positive is a little puzzling.  Because while it can be established Driscoll said he was an altar boy it can also be established that he did have a couple of reservations about becoming what he considered a Christian and about the nature of formalized Christian service over the years.

For instance, in one of his Mars Hill era sermons, Driscoll said that if you had asked him if he was
a Christian prior to his conversion to Protestantism he would have said he was a Christian.  Here's a sermon from 2002 in which Driscoll explained what he meant.

Part 4 of Galatians
Pastor Mark Driscoll
Galatians 3:1-14
June 02, 2002

And my misunderstanding was this: I thought that as long as you believed in God and you were a good person, then God would love you and you would go to Heaven. That’s what I thought. And if you would have asked me, you know, when I was up until the age of 18 or 19, “Are you a Christian?” I would’ve said, “Yes, and a Christian is someone who believes in God and is a good person.” And that’s what I thought. Until a drunken frat guy shattered my world with one decent question, and God uses anything. He used a drunken frat guy, who was like a seventh year sophomore to absolutely upset my theological worldview.

I did not drink because I made a list of rules to declare myself self-righteous. So, I said, “Why, I’m gonna be a good person.” I made this little list of things that I thought a good person should be. I won’t lie. I won’t steal. I won’t cheat. I won’t drink. I won’t smoke. I won’t, you know, beat anyone up who doesn’t deserve it. I won’t – I had this list of things that I would do and not do, and I would declare myself “good.” That is the essence of works and self-righteousness. That was basically my worldview. “I make my rules, and I live up to them. I’m a great guy.”
So, I had these rules, and one of my rules was I won’t drink because then God will look down and say, “Well, I’m going to pick Mark for my team because he’s such a great guy.” After all, I was.

So, what happened was I was at a frat party in college, which is not the typical place that God shows up in powerful, illuminating, theological acumen. But this drunken frat guy came up, and he said, “Here. Drink a beer.” And I said, “No, I don’t drink.” He said, “Why?” I said, “I’m a good person.” (Laughter)
And he said, “Well, why do you want to be a good person?” I said, “Because I believe in God, and I’m a good person.” He said, “Well, Jesus drank,” which is about the only part of the Bible he really knew. That and, “Thou shalt not judge.” He put those two verses together, and he’d come up with alcoholism. But anyway. (Laughter)
I said, “No, I’m a good person.” He said, “So, how do you know you’re gonna go to Heaven?” I said, “I know I’m gonna go to Heaven because I’m a good person.” And he asked this question that shattered my world. He was basically mocking me, trying to get me to drink. And he said, “Well, how good do you have to be to go to Heaven?” I thought, “I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know.” And he said, “Do you have to be good all the time? And if you’re not good some days, does that cancel your bad days, and who makes the rules, and how do you know what’s good and bad?” He was just sort of in a drunken stupor rambling, but it was a really good question, I felt, particularly considering his condition. [emphasis added]
I said, “I don’t know,” and I started thinking about that. How good do I have to be? How moral do I have to be, and who determines the morality? Do my good days cancel my bad days, and did my sins cancel my obedience? And I started getting really muddy about where I was at. Up until this point I thought, “I’m a good guy. I’m a great guy.” And then I realized, “Well, maybe I’m not good enough.”
And so, what I decided was, “I’ll read the Bible to get all the rules, and then I’ll do them to make sure that I’m a good guy.” Okay. Now my wife, she was my girlfriend at the time. Moral of the story is if a woman gives you a Bible, give her a ring. She gave me this Bible as a graduation present from high school, and I started reading the Bible.
So, by Driscoll's account, he thought of himself as being a Christian but he changed his mind about the legitimacy of his Christian faith during his time in college.  

While there's certainly room to imagine that servers (aka altar boys from an earlier era's nomenclature) had no training whatever in their respective roles in liturgy, Driscoll has confirmed multiple times he was an altar boy.  Whatever his lack of legitimate Christian faith in his understanding was no obstacle from participating in Catholic liturgy in some capacity.
September 30, 2013
An arty, jock, altar boy

I was raised Catholic and served for a few years as an altar boy while attending Catholic grade school.  I've got an artistic bent. I like architecture, interior design, music, visual arts, etc. Growing up I was an odd mix: a jock who played a lot of sports, a fighter who got in more than a few brawls, and an artist who liked to sketch, draw, and experiment in various mediums. I appreciated the artistry of the Catholic Church. Stained glass, paintings, colors, icons, statues, candles--it was all quite beautiful.

Some Catholics are born-again, Jesus-loving Christians. I was not one of them.  I was a spiritual religious guy until Jesus saved me at the age of 19.  ...

But despite a generally positive account that he was raised Catholic and an altar boy there was at least one respect in which Driscoll did not have an altogether positive impression of church life and Christians.

… The last thing I ever thought I would be was a pastor, because growing up Catholic, the pastor is a guy who lives at the church, is flat broke, is committed to never having sex, and walks around in a dress. So pretty much, that was a last career choice of all possible career choices. [emphasis added]
Joe: When he got into high school, he was always into student body president, journalist on a newspaper, redid the high school— somehow or another, he got involved in that. He was always into something.

Yeah, I was a nice—at least I thought—nice, moral Catholic guy. I had a pretty bad temper, did well in school and sports, was dating Grace as a high school student, sleeping with her. She was a pastor’s daughter. So definitely, life was put together wrong.
Part 5 of Proverbs
Pastor Mark Driscoll | October 28, 2001
You know why schools, Christian schools, Christian churches, Christian ministries are primarily female? Because the church is feminine, and masculine men don’t feel comfortable there. It’s true. The church has adopted, I would say, inordinately the bride metaphor from scripture. Women are very comfortable from that. Men don’t understand that. It’s very hard for a man to think of himself as a bride, wearing a white gown and walking down the aisle. If he’s very comfortable with that, he has significant issues. He has much to work through. And so, there are different metaphors in scripture that men and women will gravitate toward in regards to their relationship with God. For me, this is – this is a very important issue. I was raised in south Seattle, in the ghetto, behind the Déjà vu, next to the airport. Okay? If you’ve been there, you can repent and don’t go there anymore. [emphasis added] But, for the rest of you, if you don’t know where it’s at, that’s fine. It’s – it’s an interesting neighborhood. Gang-banging, drive-by’s, drugs, prostitution, the green river killer was there, the whole thing. One of the local elementary schools would have to go out on Monday and take the used condoms and the syringes off the playground before the kids came. And so, I was the oldest of five kids. And I grew-up in a blue-collar, hard-working, union family. My dad’s name is Joe, and he hangs drywall. Okay?

My dad’s a guy. My brothers are guys. I’m a guy. We love each other. Things are good. I come from a decent home. And one my biggest fears in high school was becoming a Christian, because I thought immediately I would have to become very feminine. ‘Cause all the guys I knew who were Christians were just very – very soft, very tender, very sort of weak guys. And I thought, “That’s just not gonna work.” So, I wouldn’t go to youth group. They tried to drag me to – I was in a Catholic church and our priest was gay, and I didn’t get this guy at all. He would wear silk shirts and silk pants, and he would wear low – basically, like, bathroom slippers all the time. [emphasis added] And he would tan all year. So, he had a nice bronze glow.

And I didn’t relate to this guy at all, not in the least. I don’t – I don’t – silk? Just – I don’t get that. And so, he – he was this very, very feminine guy. And they tried to – I tried to go to church with my family and I didn’t get it. So, they tried to take me into this youth thing, and it just didn’t work. So, I just left. I said, “That’s it. I’m gone. There’s no men here.” [emphasis added]  ‘Cause it was all older ladies, women and children. You couldn’t find a guy anywhere near it, and that’s not unusual. When I came to Christ in college, reading the Bible, and realized the gospel, and I went looking for a church; and a few of the first churches I went to were just completely uncomfortable. It was like walking into Victoria’s Secret. The décor, at first, it’s like fuchsia and baby blue, and there’s pink, and it’s just like, “What in the world has happened here?” And then the songs are very emotive, and it’s like love songs to Jesus, like we’re on a prom together or something. And I didn’t get that at all, ‘cause that made me feel real odd. And then – and then the guy preaches, and he’s crying and all this stuff, and trying to appeal to my emotions. And I was just like, “This didn’t work.” So, I kept looking for a church. So, I found a church where the guy got up and he said, “This week I was out bow-hunting.” He used that as an illustration. So, I became a member of that church. True story. I didn’t have any theological convictions, but if a guy killed things then I – he could be my pastor. [emphasis added]
That reads weirdly directly as a statement that he had a preconception about what kind of man could be a pastor and a spiritual role model for him.  That might invite some questions such as--if as recently stated Mark Driscoll's experience of Catholicism was uniformly positive what was there to worry about finding a guy who could shoot his own game being a pastor to Mark Driscoll?

Altar boy service in childhood withstanding, it seems as though the breach with that positive Catholic upbringing happened at some point near adolescence.
starting at 54:45

Proverbs 29:21, “If a man pampers his servant from youth, he will bring grief in the end.” These guys are pampered; totally pampered. Okay? And again, this is not a boasting on me. This is a – this is actually a tribute to my dad. I was eleven years old. I was going out for the little league all-star team, and I needed a new glove. My dad said, “Good. Go make some money.” I said, “Hey, dad, I’m eleven.” He said, “Well, you’re taller than the lawn-mower. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” True. So, I get the lawn-mower, and I go and I mow lawns to get my glove. And I come back and my dad says, “You owe me gas money. You used my gas.” It’s the nicest thing my dad ever did. Up until that point, I didn’t know gas cost money. Now, I do. Now, I appreciate gas.It comes to the point where I’m 15 and I wanna get a car. I said, “Dad, I need a car.” He says, “Good. Go get some money.” I said, “Okay, fine.” So, I falsified my birth certificate, I lie about my age, and I get a job at a 7-11 selling lotto tickets and liquor and cigarettes to people that are twice my age. I was not a Christian, so – I shouldn’t have done it anyways, but I wasn’t a Christian. And so, I’m 15, working at a 7-11 selling stuff. And I make a decent living, and I buy my first car, a 1956 Chevy that I should’ve never sold. That’s a whole other sermon. And – and so I’m 15, driving myself to work without a license, because I gotta go make money to pay for my car. [emphasis added] Okay? And again, I was not a Christian. Okay? So, I’m not saying, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”

And I realize that, since I was young and I was strong, I could make more money. And so I started dinking around trying to figure out where to make more money. And I find out that guys in unions make a lot of money. And – at least compared to me working at the 7-11. And I got tired of getting robbed and held-up, too. ‘Cause if you run a 7-11 behind a Déjà vu, somebody’s gonna put a gun at your head. And after a couple of those, you realize, “For minimum wage, I’m not taking a cap. You know? I’m not gonna get shot for, like, a pack of cigarettes. I’m not gonna do that.” So, I lied about my age. I falsified my birth certificate again, and told them I was 18. Got a job working long-shoring down on the docks in Seattle. And I would go throw 100-pound sacks of peas, and unload trucks, and work hard. And they paid me tremendous money. [emphasis added] At the time, it was like $10.00-something an hour. This was, like, in 1986 or ’87 or something. And I’d work 40 hours a week, and over-time was double-time. And none of the guys would wanna work over-time. Usually it was on Friday, ‘cause they had to get containers out, and those guys all wanted to go to the topless club.

And so, I would work all the over-time at $20.00 an hour as a 16 year old kid. This is in the mid-‘80s. Right? So, I’m loaded. I have money, money, money, money. So, I buy a car, and I start saving for college, doing my stuff. And with my dad – I thank God for my dad. My dad’s like, “You’re a guy. You work. You pay your way. Good. It’s good for you.” And you know what? He’s right. He was totally right. Thank God for my dad. My brother and my other brother and myself, we’re all doing great, making good money, doing fine. My brothers are all in management leadership running companies or businesses. It’s great. You pamper a guy from his youth, and he just – he gets this course of action. All of the sudden he feels like if his hands are dirty, or his muscles are sore, or if he put-in a long day, or thought something was tough, that’s unusual; that’s abnormal. And so, he avoids it.

So with some variance depending on subject context, Driscoll either was or was not someone who considered himself a real Christian prior to his conversion to some form of Protestantism.  In one setting the catalyst might be a drunk frat boy asking him a question that rocked his world; reading the Bible his girlfriend and future wife gave him; or it might be that he said he was trying to prove a Bible-thumper wrong and became a convert.

But what Driscoll describes as a conversion experience may or may not necessarily indicate anything about a Christian faith as such.  Not everyone subscribes to what would be known as an American evangelical concept of conversion or conversionism.  That's not to cast doubt on Driscoll's narratives on the basis of the observation that not all practicing Christians consider an American altar call crisis type conversion to be the only way to "know" a person is a Christian.  This is more a proposal that over the course of twenty years the question of whether or not Driscoll's pre-Protestant activities as a Catholic should really be considered "not Christian" may be something its okay to express some doubt about.  In Catholic and Protestant polemics never the twain shall meet but in a setting where so many atheists and secularists and non-Christians can read about the lives of celebrity Christians there's a point at which all of those readers would ask whether or not Catholicism and Protestantism are distinctions that only matter to those insiders who label themselves. 

So, as you can see from the sermon transcripts, it's a bit ambiguous whether or not Driscoll was or wasn't a Christian depending on the context of what rhetorical point he's making in a given context and in what relationship the legitimacy of his at least nominally Catholic upbringing had to the ethics of whatever he was or wasn't doing in the narrative he shared in a sermon in the context in which the sermon was given. 

Now people who convert from one team to another tend to feel and write and think as though they have become altogether new people.  Anti-communists who were once communists labor to put as much distance between their old self and the new self.  A Catholic convert from Protestantism can be inclined to cast off as many vestiges of the old life as possible.  Similar things can happen for folks who embrace Eastern Orthodoxy and seek to divest themselves of any traces of things that seem Protestant.  Driscoll, within the context of an American evangelical way of public discourse, could have plenty of legitimate reasons to believe he was not, by the metrics of American Protestantism, ever really a Christian during his Catholic days.  But after twenty years he's shared enough about his history as a Catholic altar boy that it's possible the boundary between his nominal Catholic self and his Protestant conversion self may be much fuzzier than anyone, including Mark Driscoll, could ever ultimately sort through. 

For the self-described altar boy to go from being an altar boy to not wanting to be called a Christian despite vaguely thinking of himself as a Christian the change that happened may just have been that Mark Driscoll hit puberty and it was as an adolescent he began to harden his teen male views about how men who served in Christian ministry were not just vaguely gay and unmanly men.  But then how Driscoll observed and concluded that the priest at his church was gay would be an entire story unto itself, one that to date Driscoll has not seemed to have shared in much detail for the record. 

at City Journal Jonathan Haidt proposes how and why the US has fractured in its conceptions of civic discourse

Twenty-five years ago as a college freshman I recall an older guy I would meet in the cafeteria lunch room made a comment about the state of political discourse in the post-Cold War early 1990s.  His worry was that the two party system, as he put it, had been hijacked by radicals and reactionaries. 

Jonathan Haidt arrives as a sort of corresponding set of observations, though he takes time to get there.

Why do we hate and fear each other so much more than we used to as recently as the early 1990s? The political scientist Sam Abrams and I wrote an essay in 2015, listing ten causes. I won’t describe them all, but I’ll give you a unifying idea, another metaphor from physics: keep your eye on the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Imagine three kids making a human chain with their arms, and one kid has his free hand wrapped around a pole. The kids start running around in a circle, around the pole, faster and faster. The centrifugal force increases. That’s the force pulling outward as the human centrifuge speeds up. But at the same time, the kids strengthen their grip. That’s the centripetal force, pulling them inward along the chain of their arms. Eventually the centrifugal force exceeds the centripetal force and their hands slip. The chain breaks. This, I believe, is what is happening to our country. I’ll briefly mention five of the trends that Abrams and I identified, all of which can be seen as increasing centrifugal forces or weakening centripetal forces.

External enemies: Fighting and winning two world wars, followed by the Cold War, had an enormous unifying effect. The Vietnam War was different, but in general, war is the strongest known centripetal force. Since 1989, we have had no unifying common enemy.

Now this is an interesting proposal, pedestrian though it is by itself but it may have been that the Cold War was, as a more explicitly ideological battle, better for creating unity than shooting wars were.  Ellul's musing in Propaganda about half a century ago was that it was not yet clear how things would play out if the two parties in the United States decided to make use of propagandist techniques within their own cultural and national idiom.  To try to keep a dense book summarized in the shortest possible terms, Ellul's proposal was that propaganda during wartime was normal and expected but that the post-World War II scene and technological societies in general introduced two elements that were new.  The first was that every modern state had to use propaganda and the more pressing concern was that in the context of the wars of the twentieth century propaganda was constantly being used on the citizens as well as enemies.  In Ellul's diffuse taxonomy of propagandas state education played one of the more important preliminary roles.  I would venture to guess that your average American educator believes his or her role to be educating children so as to not be susceptible to propaganda, which would, unfortunately, probably be the opposite of what any state-backed educational system is supposed to do. 

In the absence of easily identifiable external enemies prior to the War on Terror and Gulf War 2 what may have been happening, which Haidt kinda gets to, was that the partisans within American politics and ideological conflicts began to regard each other as the new enemies and the battle, whether the respective sides would admit this or not, is what kind of world-dominating empire the United States was supposed to be.  The inherently dominant role of the United States was not really in question in the last twenty years.

But with the end of the Cold War the ad hoc coalitions of the blue and red, or if you will the left and right, in the United States began to fracture.  Darryl Hart's From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin seems like a quick read of how the traditional conservatives, anti-communists and libertarians that were temporarily held together in the Reagan coalition began to break apart.  A comparable blue state coalition of socially progressive religious believers, New Dealers, and Democratic hawks might have been a comparable coalition that began to fragment in the wake of the Cold War.  Catholics who might have been progressive on most economic and racial issues but may have been conservative on abortion may have migrated to the conservative wing a little here and there.  The general idea I'm proposing is that ad hoc coalitions within the red and blue scenes in the United States began to fragment and balkanize at the same time.  

That's why I have my doubts that Haidt's right about the next point the way he formulates it.

The media: Newspapers in the early days of the republic were partisan and often quite nasty. But with the advent of television in the mid-twentieth century, America experienced something unusual: the media was a gigantic centripetal force. Americans got much of their news from three television networks, which were regulated and required to show political balance. That couldn’t last, and it began to change in the 1980s with the advent of cable TV and narrowcasting, followed by the Internet in the 1990s, and social media in the 2000s. Now we are drowning in outrage stories, very high-quality outrage stories, often supported by horrifying video clips. Social media is turning out to be a gigantic centrifugal force.

This gets back to Ellul and propaganda, and I would propose that as the previously described ad hoc coalitions fragmented away from each other they began to balkanize internally.  Mass media as a whole, not merely social media, played a role in cementing this shift.  If we bring in Ellul's term "sociological propaganda" (i.e. arts and entertainment) then the quasi-religious narratives at play in novels and films and so on were hardening these respective in-groups even before social media.  What social media provided was a more exponentially potent feedback loop.  If there's a case to be made for the value of traditional criticism and analysis it is, on paper, that this mediating role allowed some insulation or procedural slowing of the rate at which "idea makers" could get ideas across that could permeate an activist element in the public. 

Ellul warned that under the long-term influence of propaganda that we'd get citizens who swore they were upholding the tenets of democratic society while behaving like storm troopers.  That is what we get in contemporary social media usage.   There's an additional challenge in the separation and balkanization mass media can involve that may be related to the next point Haidt gets at.  If social media tends to balkanize and calcify subgroups then these respective groups entrench when they could interact.  I.e. as immigration continues and diversity is alternately seen as praiseworthy or a threat to the social fabric in the form of those who are considered insufficiently interested in or acceptable to assimilation this can get circulated in the aforementioned mass and social media.

Immigration and diversity: This one is complicated and politically fraught. Let me be clear that I think immigration and diversity are good things, overall. The economists seem to agree that immigration brings large economic benefits. The complete dominance of America in Nobel prizes, music, and the arts, and now the technology sector, would not have happened if we had not been open to immigrants. But as a social psychologist, I must point out that immigration and diversity have many sociological effects, some of which are negative. The main one is that they reduce social capital—the bonds of trust that exist between individuals. The political scientist Robert Putnam found this in a paper titled “E Pluribus Unum,” in which he followed his data to a conclusion he clearly did not relish: “In the short run, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”

He goes on to essentially propose that diversity pursued as an end unto itself as distinct from a variety that is possible within the bounds of a common heritage does not promote social cohesion.  Haidt is going to get at what I would regard as the two sides of one coin, the aforementioned separation and balkanization effects of propagandistic techniques employed within subcultures. 

In short, despite its other benefits, diversity is a centrifugal force, something the Founders were well aware of. In Federalist 2, John Jay wrote that we should count it as a blessing that America possessed “one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, the same language, professing the same religion.” I repeat that diversity has many good effects too, and I am grateful that America took in my grandparents from Russia and Poland, and my wife’s parents from Korea. But Putnam’s findings make it clear that those who want more diversity should be even more attentive to strengthening centripetal forces.

The final two causes I will mention are likely to arouse the most disagreement, because these are the two where I blame specific parties, specific sides. They are: the Republicans in Washington, and the Left on campus. Both have strengthened the centrifugal forces that are now tearing us apart.

This is the part where Haidt gets at the Republican side of what my old college associate said was the process through which the two party system became hijacked by reactionaries and radicals respectively:

The more radical Republican Party: When the Democrats ran the House of Representatives for almost all of six decades, before 1995, they did not treat the Republican minority particularly well. So I can understand Newt Gingrich’s desire for revenge when he took over as Speaker of the House in 1995. But many of the changes he made polarized the Congress, made bipartisan cooperation more difficult, and took us into a new era of outrage and conflict in Washington. One change stands out to me, speaking as a social psychologist: he changed the legislative calendar so that all business was done Tuesday through Thursday, and he encouraged his incoming freshmen not to move to the District. He did not want them to develop personal friendships with Democrats. He did not want their spouses to serve on the same charitable boards. But personal relationships among legislators and their families in Washington had long been a massive centripetal force. Gingrich deliberately weakened it.

And this all happened along with the rise of Fox News. Many political scientists have noted that Fox News and the right-wing media ecosystem had an effect on the Republican Party that is unlike anything that happened on the left. It rewards more extreme statements, more grandstanding, more outrage. Many people will point out that the media leans left overall, and that the Democrats did some polarizing things, too. Fair enough. But it is clear that Gingrich set out to create a more partisan, zero-sum Congress, and he succeeded. This more combative culture then filtered up to the Senate, and out to the rest of the Republican Party.

As noted in other posts here, Jacques Ellul's book on propaganda more than hinted that this kind of thing might be a risk.  But, of course, the balkanization was not "just" happening on the right side.  What may have made the right side somewhat unique was the avenues and media through which the balkanization took place, possibly a matter as simple as what preferred modes of mass media propaganda were preferred by respective propagandistic constituencies.  It may have been that conservative/Republican types preferred talk radio and chain emails and php forums and so on whereas the liberal side preferred more mainstream mass media and academia decades ago.  Haidt gets to the "left" soon enough, though I would propose that we not ignore that the mainstream blue/neoliberal/Clintonian "center" is just as apt to traffic in identity politics as the more "extreme" left and right wings Haidt has been discussing.

The new identity politics of the Left: Jonathan Rauch offers a simple definition of identity politics: a “political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest.” Rauch then adds: “In America, this sort of mobilization is not new, unusual, un­American, illegitimate, nefarious, or particularly left­wing.” This definition makes it easy for us to identify two kinds of identity politics: the good kind is that which, in the long run, is a centripetal force. The bad kind is that which, in the long run, is a centrifugal force.

Injustice is centrifugal. It destroys trust and causes righteous anger. Institutionalized racism bakes injustice into the system and plants the seeds of an eventual explosion. When slavery was written into the Constitution, it set us up for the greatest explosion of our history. It was a necessary explosion, but we didn’t manage the healing process well in the Reconstruction era. When Jim Crow was written into Southern laws, it led to another period of necessary explosions, in the 1960s.

The civil rights struggle was indeed identity politics, but it was an effort to fix a mistake, to make us better and stronger as a nation. Martin Luther King’s rhetoric made it clear that this was a campaign to create conditions that would allow national reconciliation. He drew on the moral resources of the American civil religion to activate our shared identity and values: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note.” And: “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Of course, some people saw the civil rights movement as divisive, or centrifugal. But King’s speech is among the most famous in American history precisely because it framed our greatest moral failing as an opportunity for centripetal redemption. This is what I’m calling the good kind of identity politics.


There's more but I don't feel like going through the whole thing. 

So, obviously, my thoughts about Haidt's presentation is that cumulatively our cultural levels of using mass media have played a substantial role in the separation and balkanization of identitarian groups.  This wasn't a hard view to arrive at.  Leonard B. Meyer proposed it decades ago as a probable future in Music, the Arts and Ideas.

Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 339
As each subculture creates its own past--magnifying its virtues, glorying in its victories, sharpening its grievances, and savoring its animosities--it defines its individuality. In so doing, it intensifies and specifies its differences from other subcultures. The search for past roots leads to the isolation of subcultures, an isolation "rationalized" by ideology. That is, the valuing of ethnic identity and community can in part be understood as a very late manifestation of Romanticism in which national cohesion is depreciated as a conventional, arbitrary creation, whereas ethnic relationships are prized as a result of natural, quasi-biological constraints.

Subcultural, and especially ethnic, isolation is heightened by a vision of the future characterized by uncertainty and hazard. Put the other way around: belief in inherent historical progress diretcs attention to common cultural goals; and when goals are shared (as they are, for instance, in combat or in team sports) ethnic differences become irrelevant. In the absence of shared goals ground in a vision of a better future, differences are heightened and the result is interpersonal insecurity and tension. We become uncertain how to behave, or, more precisely, about how others will respond to our behavioral norms. And so we seek the security of our own kind, of ethnic commonality. ...

The isolation of subcultures from one another is exacerbated not only by the vast increase in specialization, characteristic of late twentieth century culture, but by an overabundance of information in each area of specialization.  ...

It's not surprising if in the last few decades that in the face of such an overwhelming sea of information and a need to cope with the existence of such information that cultures and subcultures would embrace interpreting all of this information through the lens of an ethnic mythos or a demographic mythos.

Thus there could be a New Left history or an alt right history or whatever history with associated historical tools you might want.  Within the propagandistic dynamic available in any given subgroup "their" story may be a myth while "our" story relies upon solid research.  If in the wake of postmodernist approaches history is reduced to the power plays of a variety of groups then whoever manages to control the canonical narrative options gets power.  Whether or not those varioisu positions don't themselves have a capacity to reflect power plays might seem moot but for people within their enclaves that might not be a given. 

Meyer's comment opened on this subject with "creates its own past".  The self-assigned task of creating a mythology and history robust enough to maintain social identity and cohesion has been with us for a while now. 

Which is another way of saying that when Francis Schaeffer claimed that the Romantic era optimism and interest was expired in the 1960s he couldn't, really, have been more wrong.  As a formative contributor to the creation of a useful past or the quest for a useful past, to paraphrasingly invoke D. .G. Hart's description of what men like Schaeffer and Barton were doing in reverse-engineering a suitably "evangelical" or "conservative" history of the United States, Schaeffer was in some key respects one of the key perpetrators of a kind of mythic fabrication of the sort Meyer described in more general terms in the passage quoted above. 

One of the persistent troubles with the kinds of mythologies and histories we create for ourselves is the propensity within them to build narratives that exonerate us rather than implicate us.  But I don't feel like writing ten thousand words about that topic this weekend.  It's enough to merely allude on that topic for now. Better writers and thinkers than me could spend lifetimes doing a better job exploring that. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Inside Higher Ed: national college enrollments on decline six years in a row in US.

Overall college enrollments in the U.S. have declined for a sixth straight year, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, but at the slowest pace since the slide began.

The 1 percent decline this fall was due to undergraduate enrollments, which fell by nearly 224,000 students, or 1.4 percent. Graduate and professional programs were up by 24,000 students, according to the center, which tracks 97 percent of students who attend degree-granting institutions that are eligible to receive federal financial aid.

And despite the recent focus by policy makers on associate degrees and certificates, four-year degree programs were the only ones up in the new enrollment data.

Among undergraduates, the center found an enrollment decrease of 2.3 percent for associate-degree seekers, and a 10.7 percent drop for students pursuing certificates or other nondegree credentials. But enrollments were up 1.5 percent among four-year-degree seekers.

Part-time-student enrollments fell by 3.3 percent, according to the report, while the number of full-time students increased by 0.3 percent.

The center also found that enrollments were down for first-time college students. This group saw a 2.3 percent decline, of 63,000 students, compared to the previous fall. Most of the decrease was due to adult students, with the number of first-time students over the age of 24 dropping by more than 13 percent. But 23,000 fewer traditional-age students enrolled in college this fall, a drop of 1 percent. (Adult student enrollments over all have declined by 1.5 million since 2010, the center found.)

“This suggests further declines to come over all in the years ahead, which will continue to present planning challenges for institutions and policy makers seeking to adapt to new economic and demographic realities,” said Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive research director.
even if anti-intellectualism as proposed by journalists and academics were as substantial a problem as they say it is, and I'm not so sure it is, the sheer expense and challenge of college application and degree completion may have gotten so expensive it's not worth it for people to keep trying.

I lean more toward backing trade schools at this point, despite having been pretty enthusiastic about higher education in my twenties.  But for many of my younger friends I'd say I'd rather they learned a trade and then we can hang out and discuss literary theory and classical music and cartoons so they don't have to get into the kind of debt I and people in my generation took on to get even just undergraduate degrees.