From my friend Neil Howe’s Lifecourse Blog.
Check this profile to get an introduction to Marshall McLuhan, his thought, and his works on media. This provides a starting point to understand Media Ecology as a key field for any effective critical cultural analysis.
Also, this quote pulled from the profile points to the handoff that took place from Marshall to his son Eric, whose work continues today, and also to a core analytical tool (the 4 Laws) you should include in your arsenal:
As the media popularized his ideas, McLuhan continued his work at the Centre for Culture and Technology, collaborating with eldest son Eric McLuhan to develop a synthesis of his ideas. Together they published a number of articles and books and attempted to articulate what they had began to refer to as the “4 Laws of Media”: every technology
(1) amplifies part of our culture,
(2) obsolesces aspects previously amplified,
(3) retrieves elements previously obsolesced, and
(4) eventually reverses or “flips” into something else entirely.
Pluralism entails engaging a plurality of opinions to shape one’s thinking on a complex issue. What stands out as one of Barack Obama’s great assets thus far is his interest in hearing multiple perspectives on an issue.
One story I read about Obama as a freshman senator stood out to me, because of the many “low key” habits he cultivated. His MO seemed simple: be the best possible Senator he could be. But what made him a difference-maker was very likely habits like this:
Listening, staff members said, also became Obama’s primary strength as a decision maker. When an issue confounded him, he assembled what he called a “brainstorm group” to mull it over. He sometimes retreated to his office for hours at a time to call experts.
That’s pluralism. We see this also in the observation of Denis McDonough, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser quoted in the NYT article A Handpicked Obama Team for a Shift in Foreign Policy:
“This is not an experiment, but a pragmatic solution to a long-acknowledged problem,” he said. “During the campaign the then-senator invested a lot of time reaching out to retired military and also younger officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to draw on lessons learned. There wasn’t a meeting that didn’t include a discussion of the need to strengthen and integrate the other tools of national power to succeed against unconventional threats. It is critical to a long-term successful and sustainable national security strategy in the 21st century.”
He seems to be making cabinet selections with an eye towards listeners with flexible minds, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates. I especially like this insight about Gates, which suggests he is more motivated by effective service than power preservation:
Mr. Gates acknowledged a year ago, during the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, that for many in the Pentagon it was “blasphemy” for “a sitting secretary of defense to travel halfway across the country to make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies.”
These are just indicators–but promising ones, to be sure–that the Obama administration will aim to be both representative of the broader populous and open to the best thinking on a given issue. With the difficult and high calling of serving as President of the United States, being an effective listener will be critical to navigating the many known and unknown difficulties ahead in order to best serve the American people.
The Wikipedia definition of Secularism identifies both a hard and a soft secularism, with the key difference being that “the hard secularist considers religious propositions to be epistemologically illegitimate.”
In my view, the “hard left” uses this kind of radical secularism to push out “religious” arguments from the public square. But I have yet to see a truly convincing argument from those proponents that hard secularism is anything but a religious argument itself. Hard secularism roots its claims in fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality and humanity that need to be examined closely. I haven’t read it yet, but that argument is the theme of Herbert London’s new book America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion.
Contrast this with early secularists like George Holyoake, who wanted to advance something far less militant–indeed, something closer to what I consider pluralism–as evident in this description of secularism: “It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others.”
Soft secularism arose in response to what was at the time a more exclusively Christian public square. It wanted to elevate other views to an equally legitimate seat at the table. Hard secularism wants to exclude every other view but its own.
I am reading E.J. Dionne’s Souled Out to help broaden my perspective and deepen my appreciation for the topic of pluralism. I can highly recommend it, especially if you do not understand how a strong liberal argument can be rooted in religion against the religious right. His book makes clear the importance of a softer secularism.
Given human propensity for control and fear of alternative viewpoints, it is dangerous for Christian fundamentalists to impose their morality on the rest of society. This view is rooted in a “religious” argument–which also happens to be empirically accurate–that humanity as inherently dignified but fallen from its initial God-given perfection. The wisdom of our founding fathers was to limit fallen humanity from the use of power against others.
Christian fundamentalism does not best reflect the Biblical mandate to love your neighbor as yourself. So, Christians should embrace this wisdom. Religious control in Europe has a very bad history. When this is replaced by pluralism, not hard secularism, it creates the opportunity for a more integrated, well-grounded perspective on complex issues. This is good for all of us. Pluralism calls all worldviews and their ideas to battle it out in the public square. Like competition in the economic marketplace, this competition in the marketplace of ideas has broad benefits.
In fact, a pluralistic approach to issues helps Christianity focus on its fundamentals. It also reveals how much it needs to get outside the current cultural “narrative” that views Christians as just another voting block in the GOP. This is hardly Biblical Christianity. Theologically and practically, pluralism reveals why we can step back, so we can step to the forefront of social action with our best insights and resources to serve the interests of all others in America, regardless of their worldview.
Stepping back helps one see that while it is good for the GOP to tout pro-growth capitalism, more must be done to avoid the materialism and consumerism it can engender. Both the individual and the state have a role in this. Does anyone else see that the innate inclination to “keep up with the Joneses” has at least in part fueled excessive credit spending and people buying too much house?
The GOP promotes traditional family values, but Christians must get outside of narrow partisan interest to extend selfless love and charitable judgments even to those who want to throw of the “societal constraints” they believe those family values create. Christian morality is costly. Christ gave up His life to save those who denied Him, rejected Him, and nailed Him to the Cross. Are His people holding themselves to the same standard in the public square, or are we trying to hold others to it instead?
Furthermore, many conservatives rightly promote pro-life causes, but won’t the same underlying appreciation for human life cause one to be broken over the remaining implications of racism and slavery in our cities and in Black families? If one is fixated on political power and winning elections, one will not see clearly. I am as guilty of this tendency as anyone.
Instead, when we humbly allow ideas from all worldviews to compete in a pluralistic system, we can combine deep appreciation for life with a strong concern for personal liberty and privacy. In the tension created from these two poles, I am confident new insights can emerge that promote strong national defense while also watching out for Big Brother and its infringement on individual liberty. Perhaps even a balance can be found here, so that we can protect the unborn through anti-abortion legislation while reassuring others that their personal privacy is not being infringed by such legislation.
Elections are great, but in the aftermath we must regain our balance. Hard secularism keeps us off balance and hinders peace. Any form of dogmatism is dangerous, for in holding our own views too tightly, we can easily neglect the full respect of our fellow citizen. Embracing pluralism as a core value helps one regain the right balance between personal conviction and respect for others, indeed, between truth and love.
As I introduced here, there is a something unique about the present generational constellation in America, and this creates one of the more intriguing facets of the present election. Bill Strauss & Neil Howe, leading researchers and authorities on the subject of Generations, break down the birth years of these groups as follows:
- Silent: 1925-1942
- Boom: 1943-1960
- Thirteenth (aka Generation X): 1961-1981
- Millennial: 1982-2003
Consider the birthdates of the present Presidential candidates:
- John McCain: August 29, 1936 (Silent)
- Hillary Clinton: October 26, 1947 (Boom)
- Barack Obama: August 4, 1961 (Gen X)
How does a candidate communicate (both in content and in style) to each of these cohorts? This is no small challenge, as we shall examine further. This configuration provides a great equalizer. While Obama has clearly earned high marks with the Millenials, he will need large portions of other generations to win, especially since the youth vote is notorious for staying home on election day, while more of our elder citizens tend to vote, proportionally speaking.
How can we understand the distinctions between these generations? Strauss & Howe have laid the foundation for understanding generations across American history. My research suggests a framework that can be laid upon that foundation, and our building material is the vital process for all social life called language acquisition, or how we learn language as children.
As leading linguist Steven Pinker has shown, language is learned largely by observing patterns and exceptions from other speakers. Because we are innately wired for language, we can pick things up with amazing speed and scale. From speaking a few dozen words in our first 24 months, a typical child’s word usage expands to a few thousand words by year five, enabling one to carry on meaningful conversations with adults.
One’s communication environment has a major impact on how one learns language as a child. Imagine a child born in the early 1940s, at the start of the Baby Boom. The first radio broadcast for a US presidential campaign had taken place in 1936. Bing Crosby’s White Christmas was recorded in 1942 and sold a million copies by 1946. In 1943, the US Army commissioned the creation of the electronic computer ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator). By 1945, there were fewer than 7,000 working TV sets in America.
The seeds were sown that became our always-on global interactive mass media environment. But at that time the dominant means of human communication were still the spoken and the printed word.
Of course the spoken word is irreplaceable, but for mass media it is ineffective without amplification. These other media do just that. By the end of the 1940s, the technology was scalable, mass media delivery became a proven profitable business model, the demand for content was skyrocketing, producers understood how to leverage great acts across media formats, computers were rapidly improving in processing power, and news cameras were finding their ways deep into the halls of political power.
For all the study of the social, political, and economic impact of these interrelated phenomena, little attention has been paid to the process of child-learning-language. Yet, that may be the area of greatest enduring impact.
Once John McCain’s Silent Generation is gone, nearly every American mind will bear the childhood stamp of electronic media in their language development. Generation X will go down as the first American generation to grow up acquiring language with both print and electronic media saturating the environment. The Millenials will have grown up with the added interactive dimension of the Internet, which has fueled the social networking phenomena.
Why have YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and the like taken off among young people? Because their experience of human language is indivisible from the ways they ingest it, making tools like these part of their core language experience. The impact of this should be seismic, as the suggested by the new book Millenial Makeover by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais.
My research suggests that the key variable in understanding all this is the way writing vs. electronic media call upon your brain’s left vs. right hemispheres, respectively. The brain’s innate asymmetric design involves interdependent functioning of the two hemispheres, each side possessing distinct strengths and weaknesses. In future posts I will highlight the way these strengths and weaknesses play out through the language processing of each hemisphere.
For now, it is important to realize that we are in a very unique and vulnerable moment. I feel that as I watch the present Presidential primaries unfold. I am not sure what to make of all this, but I do know at least one thing. Much of what has been proven over time can be strengthened as it is passed to the rising generations, but what is not passed down effectively can largely be lost for the future.
Consider the unique moments in American history that were not televised but only captured in print. What if those events and their significance no longer inform the identities of future generations?
These are the stakes we face, and my concern about this election is that we may be setting a trajectory to overturn the old school, blood-bought truths of American history that are rooted in self-sacrifice for the service of others (vs. self-assertion irrespective of the impact on others), and it will become increasingly harder to regain them when we need them. Given our international threats, I am not sure we can survive without them.