Bookcase: McLuhan and “The Medium is the Message” — Part II

Marshall McLuhan, 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

What did Marshall McLuhan mean by “The medium is the message?”  I think the idea is clearer today than back in 1962 when he published his landmark book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  He argued that it was not the content within the media that affects us the most, whether the media be radio, TV, newspapers, or anything else.  Rather, it is the actual medium itself that changes us, that transforms our minds. To try to unpack this concept, just think about your average teenagers today with their smart phones.  (Or yourself!)  Is it mostly the content on that phone that influences them as they ceaselessly tap and slide their fingers across the screen? Are they really looking for the latest news? What’s more addictive — the content or the process? McLuhan would  likely argue that it is the environment of the medium itself that has us transfixed.  It is the technology that is transforming us.

This is a also a theme in Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows, in which he posits that the internet actually is changing how we think and even the very structure of our brains as we allow ourselves to get pulled into its clickholes that never seem to end.  As an aside, I’ll add that is why it’s critical that we step back from communications media and re-learn how to connect with people one-on-one and face-to-face.  The forces of these technologies have become way too powerful, as have the tech titans who are controlling social media.

It is the way in which we use a technology that causes it to become an “extension of man,” as McLuhan subtitle implies. Interestingly, he means that he sees technology as extensions of our bodies, extensions of our natural functions.  For example, he has a chapter on clothing as a medium — an extension of our skin.  And transportation such as cars and bicycles are media that are extensions of our feet.  Those that affect our minds in terms of audio-visual media are, likewise, extensions of our central nervous systems.  If you are interested in the development of language — and especially how the phonetic alphabet impacted human society — that’s another reason for extending your eyes to read this amazing book.

By the way, five years later (in 1967) McLuhan coined another phrase: The Medium is the Massage.  This is the idea that a medium –whether TV, radio, the internet, a photograph — actually massages our senses and changes our perceptions in ways we don’t realize. So rather than the content of the message itself, it’s the medium — the presentation of the content, if you will — that affects us most.  I tend to agree.  And I think awareness of this point is key to building self-awareness today.

Bookcase: Looking at “The Medium is the Message” 56 years Later — Part I

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was a communications professor in Canada when he published his landmark book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man  in 1962. It is an absolutely fascinating read, though convoluted at times.

You may know that McLuhan coined a lot of well known phrases, such as “The medium is the message” and “global village.” But his theories are amazing and prescient.  Some of what he writes is all over the map and I don’t agree with all of it.  But he predicted with uncanny accuracy that with the information explosion due to hit later in the 20th century, our society would not really experience pluralism.

Quite the contrary.  At the time, he wrote about how the medium of television was affecting us.  His general thesis was that the effect of a medium itself — the environment it creates — is far more vast than the content of any particular program on it. His verdict:  we were actually undergoing an implosion of the Western society.  In other words, television was causing us to regress, to return to tribalism and divisions as opposed to becoming a more cohesive and open society. Consider also how the internet is affecting thought processes — causing a loss of clarity with all the noise and scatter that accompanies the technology. Well, McLuhan seemed to foresee that. He warned that newer communications technologies would only further expedite the implosion.

I’m certain this was very counter-intuitive when he wrote the book.  After all, what could seem more mind-opening than having more avenues of expression that would come with more avenues of information?  And more people chiming in? My personal conclusion is this: Well, it depends on how aware we are of how media plays on our minds. Are we more open to reason and logic, or have people become more emotional?  And it also depends on who controls the media. We as individuals who believe in self-governance? Or power elites directing a media that drive us more into a collective mindset?

Part II tomorrow . . .

(Book cover above is the MIT Press 30th Anniversary Edition)

Soviet Defector Yuri Bezmenov’s Love Letter to America

In 1970 a Soviet KGB agent stationed in India disguised himself as a hippie and blended in with a crowd. He managed to escape detection and found his way to the West where he defected.  Yuri Bezmenov took the name Tomas Schuman, and wrote a short book entitled “Love Letter to America.”  In it he describes how he fell in love with the goodness of America and couldn’t go on promoting the deceptions and inhumane tactics that poisoned so many lives.  Below is a 1984 interview with him “Deception was my Job” in which Bezmenov tries to warn Americans about the ideological subversion that is practiced on them by totalitarian actors, such as the Soviet KGB:

It’s a fascinating interview in so many ways.  Bezmenov was a member of the privileged elite in the Soviet Union.  He had nothing to gain materially by defecting, and certainly nothing to gain in terms of prestige.  It was the weight of conscience that caused him to break free of a life of practicing deception — and to take the great risks involved in making a break for freedom.  In his new life he resolved to do the best he could to help us understand how totalitarians play the game of ideological subversion, in which they push open societies to become closed societies.  You should look at his book in the link above to get the full story.  On page 22 of his book, he includes a chart to show the four stages of Soviet ideological subversion:  1.) Demoralization, which takes about a generation’s time, 15-20 years; 2.) Destabilization, which takes about 2-5 years; 3.) Crisis, which is a matter of months; and finally 4.) Normalization, basically the mopping up operation once an authoritarian system is in place.

It’s interesting that the demoralization phase in America began a whole lot longer ago than 20 years. I would guess at least 50 years or so.  If Bezmenov’s theory is correct, I think there are several reasons why America would still be standing as a free nation with an intact — though much threatened — Constitution. A lot of unpredicted forces seem to have disrupted the demoralization and destabilization processes. The election of Ronald Reagan would be one disruption, especially with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Many would also put the election of Donald Trump into this category of an unpredictable black swan event.  And there are a whole lot of cross currents in a free society that can foil the plans of even the most calculating totalitarians.  Chief among them, in my opinion, are freedom of association and freedom of speech that serve to cross pollinate ideas and feed a ripple effect of freedom.

Must Read: The Devil’s Pleasure Palace

I have a review of Michael Walsh’s book (now out in paperback) “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West” over at Acton Institute’s Transatlantic blog.  If you haven’t yet read Walsh’s book, it’s a must read for understanding the Left’s war on reality, and how it spawned political correctness and multiculturalism to divide and control us all.  Here’s the link for purchasing the book on Amazon:  The Devil’s Pleasure Palace

My review is here:  Book Review: “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace” by Michael Walsh.

We can trace critical theory back about a hundred years, to a group of Marxists in Germany:

The neo-Marxist thinkers who invented critical theory coalesced at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt after World War I. The core idea was to foment radical social change and undermine “repressive” Western culture by advancing roughly the premise that all ideas – except theirs, of course – should be criticized and challenged. The attacks on the institutions that make freedom possible – family, religion, classical education, the arts, free markets, free speech – can be traced to critical theory. Critical theory operates under the guise of “equality” and “social justice,” but suppresses all competing influences.

Walsh’s book is rich with allusions from literature and opera.  The title is based on the Schubert opera “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace,” a metaphor for the nihilism of critical theory which is all built on illusion — and crumbles into nothing when it is confronted head on.

An Ides of March Reminder about the Coercive Nature of Socialism

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) Soviet dissident and author of The Gulag Archipelago.

As polls report higher numbers of millennials claiming to be socialist (they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about) and spiking membership for Democratic Socialists of America, let’s try to absorb these words of the late Russian human rights advocate and gulag survivor Alexander Solshenitsyn:

 “In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many Western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion.”

Refugees from socialism – Russians, Cubans, Vietnamese – all tell the same story.  Socialism is not what romantics in the West think it is.  The system is coercive, by its very nature.  Give it enough time and enough crises, and socialist states always morph into even more coercive communist states.

College campuses are infested today with a political correctness – and a tragic ignorance of history – that has students singing the praises of socialism, a system that promises free stuff and delivers scarcity.

A year ago — on the Ides of March — I published an essay in the Federalist that explored this phenomenon:  “Socialism’s Bloody History Shows Millennials Should Think Twice Before Supporting It.”  I zeroed in on the case of communist hero Nikolai Bukharin, who was executed in 1937, after the show trials of Soviet strongman Josef Stalin.  It’s a natural progression when a “vanguard” of the people is blindly entrusted with too much power. That’s socialism in a nutshell:  too much power in the hands of too few people.  If you mention this to any pro-Socialist millennial, they are sure to pull out the talking point that theirs is a different brand of socialism, akin to the sort we see in Scandinavian countries.  To them it means social harmony through things like bike-share programs, recycling, free education, and easy housing. I understand, I understand.  The problem is that such freebies are the bait of socialism which cannot help but invite the switch to coercive Borg government.  Which, in the end, means punishment of any dissent and the death of free expression. Forget “resistance” of any sort without Hell to pay.

Prisoners at work in a Soviet gulag camp in the 1930’s.

Here’s an excerpt from my piece, which I hope you’ll read in full:

Socialism and communism both involve ceding to the state control over the distribution of goods and services for the masses. This involves giving up individual rights, and giving the state a good measure of control over our personal lives. This road always leads to tyranny, no matter what you pave it with, and no matter what you name it.

Socialism requires a power clique—or, as Lenin put it, an elite “vanguard”—in order to pretend to function. This means going heavy on executive power and rubber-stamp light on the legislative. Socialism demands that we place blind trust in whoever takes the reins of power to distribute society’s goods and services. This tiny elite, by the way, typically enjoys enormous privileges and a much higher standard of living than the hoi polloi, simply by being a part of the elite “nomenklatura.”

Sure, this oligarchy claims to distribute in the name of “equality.” That’s typically the cover story. The historical fact is that the vanguard, the power clique, eventually takes control of everything that’s produced—medicine, education, housing, food, transportation, etc. Its members then bureaucratically ration out—as they see fit—the means of human survival. In the end, you’ve basically got an elite corps of mobsters with the power to decide which folks are more equal than others.

Maybe Ferris Bueller took a Day Off, but Real Education has taken Generations Off

When I see the great clip below of Ben Stein as a high school economics teacher — from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — I’m very amused.  But at the same time, I  can’t help but feel saddened because I believe the scene also reflects the  intellectual theft committed by our education establishment over the past couple of generations.  The lecture in this classroom scene deals with the handling of the U.S. economy in the wake of the Great Depression. It’s another fascinating topic rendered irrelevant and boring by our factory methods of schooling, as well as by the effects of radical education reform.  The students neither know the answers nor care.  And their apathy is not something we can simply blame on a boring teacher.

I recall a feeling of annoyance — anger, actually — when I realized that so much classical education was basically withheld from me in my public high school.  Thanks to radical education reform, my high school did not offer the average student any year-long surveys or foundational courses in English and History. Instead, we got a new curriculum with a fractured menu from which we could pick from among many various 9-week classes.  Among the offerings were “American Drama” in which students could read a play or two by Lillian Hellman or Tennessee Williams; “Modern Poetry,” which mostly consisted of the lyrics of songs by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Simon & Garfunkel;  “Shakespearean Tragedy,” in which you could spend the academic quarter reading and studying nothing but Macbeth.  As far as History was concerned, students could choose from a menu in which they might study the Civil War for a quarter.  Or a new course called “Ecology.”  Or American Presidents. In the latter each student would simply pick one president to write a report about and then share it with the class.

Question: What’s wrong with this picture?  Answer:  It is devoid of context.  Instead of a continuum of foundational knowledge, students are offered fractured bits and pieces of out-of-context readings and discussions unattached to any greater body of knowledge.  A good survey course, on the other hand, will place historical events and people in context.  You’ll get the Big Picture instead of a few random and disconnected puzzle pieces.  A good English survey course will provide the entire spectrum and history of English literature.  By the time I got to college I realized that neither Chaucer nor Milton were even mentioned once in any of my English classes.  There were really only two ways to get a survey of history at my high school:  either you were selected for Advanced Placement or took the summer school class which crammed the entire academic year into six weeks. The former was not available to very many students, and the latter (which I opted for) was too compressed to retain much of anything.

This sort of experimental education laid the groundwork for the even more fractured education children are getting today, so much of it rife with political correctness.  And, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago at The Federalist, “Today’s Riot-Prone Mobs are a product of America’s Cult Like Education System.”

Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Group Think Has Got to Go!

Students at Stanford University voted last week on a ballot proposal to reinstate the study of Western Civilization.  Whatever the outcome of the vote — and the results have been delayed, ostensibly because of a senate election that was “too close to call” — the fact that this question is being entertained at all is astonishing.  It’s a bold move.  And a victory for independent thought.

I wrote about it in my recent Federalist article “Stanford Students Fight Campus Group Think.”   After the study of Western Civilization was trashed about 30 years ago, group think was able to put down deep roots on our college campuses.  Political correctness created new enemies of thinking in the form of “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggressions.”  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  No way.

When tyrants aim to erase collective memory — by hiding or destroying the literature, arts, and history that bind a civilization together — they aim to create the conditions for conformity of thought.  All totalitarians know this.  ISIS militants, for example, are making a big point of destroying ancient artifacts, as the video below shows.

Obviously, ISIS takes a more direct approach than the cultural Marxists in the West.  But the goals are the same:  cultivate ignorance, promote group think, and destroy independent thought. It’s all about obtaining raw power.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“. . .  learning about Western culture isn’t simply about undertaking a cohesive study of the history, philosophy, literature, and arts that have enormously influenced the world in which we all live. It is also about learning how to express ideas effectively, how to separate fact from propaganda through specific tools of learningdeveloped in the West. Taking those tools away—such as the Socratic method, civil discourse, and rules of order and civil debate—hinders clarity, independent thought, and the powers of observation. It makes students far less able to resist conformity and group think.”

Bookcase: Robert Nisbet’s “The Quest for Community”

If you are trying to make sense of the seismic changes going on all around us in society, sociologist Robert Nisbet tied it all together in his classic work “The Quest for Community.”   It’s not a light read, but it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand how to maintain a free society.  It’s a prescient work, and it helped me understand where so much of the alienation and eerieness of this current election cycle has come from:  the brokenness of civil society, the continuing dissolution of strong community ties.

I find it fascinating that Nisbet was writing about the breakdown of community and alienation back in 1953.  This was half a century before Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone” and 60 years before Charles Murray examined the devastating effects of family breakdown on community in his 2012 work “Coming Apart.”

As the ties that bind people together fall away — family, church, civic societies and private associations– alienation and loneliness in society grow.  But Nisbet noted that as this happens, the strong human impulse for community would remain.  We would merely grope around for a substitute.  So as social brokenness grows, people turn to the government to replace those ties.

It’s so bleak to consider all of this, because it’s happening with ever greater speed before our very eyes.  Worse, too many people cannot comprehend the irony of it all:  dependence on the mass state only leads to even greater atomization of the individual.  Even greater alienation. Is there anything cuddle-worthy in the mass bureaucratic state? Absolutely nothing.  All it can deliver is even greater loneliness.

Here’s an excerpt from Nisbet’s Preface, dated December 1952:

“The real significance of the modern State is inseparable from its successive penetrations of man’s economic, religious, kinship, and local allegiances, and its revolutionary dislocations of established centers of function and authority.  These, I believe, are the penetrations and dislocations that form the most illuminating perspective for the twentieth-century’s obsessive quest for moral certainty and social community and that make so difficult present-day problems of freedom and democracy.”

And in the preface to the 1970 edition, Nisbet noted this about youth and apathy:

“It has become steadily clearer to me that alienation is one of the determining realities of the contemporary age. . . By alienation I mean the state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility.  The individual not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it.  For a constantly enlarging number of persons, including, significantly, young persons of high school and college age, this state of alienation has become profoundly influential in both behavior and thought.”

Wow.  And that was 45 years ago!  Think about the mass cluelessness all around us today.  Think about students’ utter lack of knowledge of history, of civics, of the humanities.  Consider the lack of connection they must be feeling as they grope about, trying on all sorts of personas whether it’s a new gender identity persona or the persona of “social justice warrior.”    The divorce culture has rendered more than half of all children in today’s America the wards of broken homes.  Sure, children can be resilient.  But they so often feel broken and alienated as a result of the disruption in their ties with parents.  It takes its toll. Pathologies abound while folks scramble to find safe haven in the State.

And here’s the catch:  at the same time that the state gives  free stuff to individuals, it takes away from the individual’s personal relationships and associations.  As those relationships continue to weaken, State power grows. Let’s not forget that our families, our institutions of faith, our civic and private associations have always served as buffer zones balancing the freedom of the individual against the power of the state.  We’ve no choice but to defend and rebuild them.

La Marseillaise and Defiance to Tyranny One Person at a Time

A while back, I posted a blog entry on the Marseillaise scene in the movie Casablanca.  I feel compelled to run this entry again as we contemplate yesterday’s terrorist attack on Paris.  Whenever we forget that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, we lose.  Let’s never forget that, as well as the fact that our little acts of resistance add up, even if they may seem in vain.  As Vaclav Havel pointed out in “The Power of the Powerless,” these acts of resistance have an illuminating effect. This is also very relevant as we contemplate the full frontal attacks on the First Amendment happening on college campuses these days.  Below is my post from February 28, 2014:

After entry of the US into WWII, Warner Brothers released the classic Casablanca (1942) starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  One scene in Casablanca offers a magnificent juxtaposition with the Bavarian pub scene from The Mortal Storm (1940) discussed in the last post.  The place is similar:  another restaurant– Rick’s Cafe Americain.  Also similar is a cast of Nazi officers, stirring up song (this one “Die Wacht am Rhein.”)   But the similarities end there, when one man, Victor Laszlo, tells the orchestra to play the “La Marseillaise.”  A thrilled and grateful clientele all rise spontaneously and triumphantly, drowning out the Nazis’ song.

Watch here:

If Laszlo hadn’t done what he did, what then?  Chances are everyone would just sit around sulking.  The Nazis would then stir up enough folks to sing along with them to the point that the Nazi narrative would seem the majority view.  Morale would continue to plummet.

It’s the little acts of resistance that add up to make the biggest difference.  These acts plant seeds in others, creating a cascade effect.  Sad to say, it’s the power mongers of the world who seem to know this better than the rest of us do.  That’s why they insist on our silence as a way station on their road to total control.  So let’s not hide our light.

Militant Atheists Target an Old World War I Memorial

The Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, or “Peace Cross.”

One of the latest targets of militant atheists is the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial Cross pictured here.  In my latest Federalist article, I discuss the lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association that demands the removal of this monument which is also known as Peace Cross.  I wrote it in anticipation of Veterans Day and I hope many in the Washington, D.C. area will attend the wreath-laying there on Wednesday. You can read my article here:  Killing the Dead:  Atheists Attack World War I Memorial.

It’s been standing there — at the crossroads of Annapolis Road, Baltimore Ave, and Bladensburg Road just outside Washington, D.C. — for 90 years. Two mothers of fallen soldiers broke ground for it back in 1922.  On a bronze plaque at the base are the names of the 49 local soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.  The monument is massive, but its size accurately and appropriately reflects the feelings of people in the aftermath of a war that was unimaginably massive and tragic (total casualities — dead and wounded, both civilian and military — was about 38 million.)

There are two basic themes in my essay: the impact of World War I and the symbolism of crosses.  World War I was a cataclysmic event in human history that really set the course for so much of the violence of the 20th century, and the violence that continues to this day all over the world. And yet WWI is woefully neglected as a subject of study both in K12 public education and in higher education.  So more than ever, we ought to preserve and respect our memorials to World War I, not tear them down!  Second, the cross is basically a symbol of self-sacrifice.  It has been recognized as a symbol of sacrifice in war memorials for a very long time.

We honor the fallen because of their self-sacrifice. If you are able to grasp that reality, then you understand the need for an effective symbol to express it. More than anything else, the Bladensburg Peace Cross is a symbol of self-sacrifice in keeping with the enormity and the calamitous history of World War I. No other symbol so efficiently communicates self-sacrifice and suffering. No other symbol serves also to signify the hope that the dead did not die in vain, that they laid down their own lives so others would live in peace and freedom.

Understanding the history and the purpose of memorials is key here. If the plaintiffs thought this through in a meaningful and sincere way, they wouldn’t be doing mental gymnastics with the First Amendment’s establishment clause in order to tear down the 90-year-old Bladensburg Peace Cross.  Obviously, they have another agenda, which is to empty the public sphere of any and all religious imagery.   In the end, this is not just a war on religion.  It’s a war on history and memory.