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52 Poems, Week 17: To Charles Williams (C.S. Lewis)

Sunday Night Journal, April 22, 2018

It seems I'm not the only person who thinks the most noticeable thing about Twitter is the amount and level of venom it seems to produce, very often in combination with stupidity. I freely admit that this is unfair on my part, because I'm not on Twitter, and so all I hear about for the most part is the controversies that spill out onto the Internet at large--the "Twitter mobs," as they are aptly called, which form and attack someone who has attracted their hostility. But the other day I saw a graphic associating various "social media" platforms with one of the seven deadly sins, and whoever composed it assigned Wrath to Twitter.

I know it isn't all bad. Much of it is harmless, and some of it is probably good. My wife the archivist occasionally mentions Twitter posts from archivists, or from museums or libraries, which contain interesting bits of lore. The Archbishop of Mobile uses it to tell the world that, for instance, he will be in Thomasville doing confirmations this weekend. I've seen jokes from Twitter that were actually funny.

But none of that changes my basic animosity toward it, which pre-dates any of the pathological phenomena. I was ill-disposed to it from the moment I heard of it, because of its name and because what one does with it is to "tweet." I took this as an open declaration that it was designed to be a vehicle for noisy, frequent, and trivial remarks. "Venomous" did not immediately occur to me as a likely possibility, though it probably should have; it's not as though the Internet was an altogether benign place before Twitter.

I had an instant conviction that it was not for me and that it was to be ignored, and I noticed with mild horror as it grew over the years and became one of that very small group of Internet platforms that, taken together, almost seem to define the net itself: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. My disdain has even extended to a reluctance to refer to it at all, and a great resistance to beginning a sentence with "So-and-so tweeted that...." How can you possibly take seriously anything that follows those words? It's like saying "So-and-so yapped...." "So-and-so grunted...." "So-and-so belched..."

Never of course did it cross my mind that a duly-elected president of these tenuously-united states would use Twitter as his favored means of addressing the nation and its problems (to say nothing of his own personal grudges) and that he would do it every day, so that no day would pass without a news story beginning "The president tweeted that...."

I found myself unwilling to use the word "tweet," whether noun or verb, in a sentence, without putting it in quotation marks. To do otherwise seemed to give it some kind of legitimacy that it didn't deserve, to suggest that I was somehow approving of it as a means of rational conversation. But this week I've had a slight change of heart. Very slight. I'm giving up the quotation marks.

This change was catalyzed by a case you probably heard of: a nutty professor who took the occasion of Barbara Bush's death to tweet (there, I've done it) that the former First Lady was, among other bad bad things, an "amazing racist," and that her death was an occasion for joy. A great furor immediately erupted, of course, including, apparently, a length exchange of hostilities between the professor, Randa Jarrar of Fresno State University, and people who criticized her. If you have somehow managed to remain ignorant of it, this Washington Post story has the basics. And it struck me: why should I feel any need to find a word more serious than "tweet" for this sort of jibber-jabber? Tweeting is appropriate and pleasant from a goldfinch. Coming from a human being it's ridiculous. If people are going to use this medium which makes them appear bird-brained, why should I try to dignify their twittering with a less silly-sounding word? 

Almost as striking to me as the professor's charge of racism was the way she used the word "amazing." This is a verbal tic which I associate with teen-aged girls, who seem to use it as a sort of all-purpose positive hyperbole, the way they used to use "awesome" (maybe they still do). Anyone the teenager likes is "an amazing person." To enjoy oneself is to have "an amazing time." She just ate"an amazing apple." And so on. I think this is the first time I've heard it used in a negative sense, though I suppose the word itself is just as applicable to something amazingly bad as amazingly good. 

Actually, looking more closely at what the professor said, I'm not sure that she meant "amazing" as negative. Her words were "Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist." What exactly does "amazing" mean there? Positive, but ironic? But then, who cares? It was a tweet.

I can't say I was much surprised to learn that what the professor professes is creative writing. Maybe she can write. Who knows, and, again, who cares? I don't plan to find out. I was actually a little surprised to find that her title is in fact "professor." The news media tend to use that word for anyone who teaches at the university level, though it is in fact a specific title, coveted and respected.

Naturally there have been calls, loud calls, for her firing. Some conservatives have spoken against that and I think they're right. In truth Jarrar seems like a rather pathetic person, who would be more pitiable than anything else if she didn't have such a mean streak.


Here is Kevin Williamson's summary of the role of Twitter in his firing from The Atlantic.  

Where my writing appears is not a very important or interesting question. What matters more is the issue of how the rage-fueled tribalism of social media, especially Twitter, has infected the op-ed pages and, to some extent, the rest of journalism. Twitter is about offering markers of affiliation or markers of disaffiliation. The Left shouts RACIST!, and the Right shouts FAKE NEWS! There isn’t much that can be done about this other than treating social media with the low regard it deserves.

You may be able to read his side of the whole story here at The Wall Street Journal. (Thanks to Grumpy for the link.) I found that from my phone that link was blocked as being subscriber-only, but from my laptop it wasn't.


Speaking of people shouting "RACIST!": a month or two ago I stepped briefly into a discussion on Facebook in which Rod Dreher was being taken to task for having a "race problem." This seems to be what you say when you want to call someone a racist but don't have enough evidence to justify that word and are not, as someone like the professor above is, willing to use it anyway. Dreher had linked, in one of his many, many columns, to an article in which a former Peace Corps volunteer who had once spent a year in Ethiopia talked about how much she had disliked it. The context was Trump's alleged remark about not wanting immigrants from "s**thole" countries; Dreher was thinking aloud, as he often does, about whether some countries are in fact very messed-up places whose emigrants might not be desirable.

I didn't think Dreher's link was evidence of racism, especially considering that Dreher has written often and sympathetically about the situation of black people, and said so, remarking that the charge of racism is becoming meaningless. That was immediately taken to mean that I was denying the existence of racism. I of course intended for "meaningless" to apply to the making of the charge, not to the existence of the thing itself. It rankled me that I was being misunderstood, but there were at least a couple of people in the conversation who seemed very eager to make the charge, and it looked to me like any attempt to clear things up would only result in my acquiring a "race problem," if in fact I hadn't already, if only because I was defending Dreher. So I made a sort of quick intuitive cost-benefit, risk-reward assessment and dropped out of the discussion.

In our current polemical environment, to attempt to defend yourself from a charge of racism is one of the dumbest things you can do. It's like blood in the water for the attackers, and you cannot win. The more you protest your innocence, the guiltier you will look to them. Best to just walk away.

Why am I even relating this little incident? Because it did rankle, and it gives me some sort of satisfaction to say publicly and clearly what I meant. Why didn't I say it then and there? Because of the factors I've already mentioned, and because it was Facebook, and I don't personally know any of the people involved. I have no reason to think any of them reads this blog, but if they want to argue with me here, I can require a level of respect and decorum that I can't on someone else's Facebook post. In all the years I've been blogging I don't think I've deleted more than two comments, but I like having the tool available. 


And speaking of Dreher: I have often criticized his overly-agitated approach, and in fact have for long periods not read him at all. Lately I've gotten into the habit of reading him regularly. That's not altogether a good thing, because he does focus on all the bad things that are happening, and specifically on the deteriorating situation of Christianity in this country and in Europe. But though those are not the whole story, they are happening, and it's well to keep an eye on What Is Actually Happening


I don't know whether this is referring to some of the German bishops or what.



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I saw a billboard today between Birmingham and Atlanta that said Newborn Truck Stop. I can't for the life of me figure out whether it is for infant truck drivers, or baptized truck.

One of my granddaughters thinks that just about everything in my house is aMAZing, and she us only 5.


I enjoy twitter. Here is KW’s latest

As antidote to Dreher, try this piece by Tim Stanley in the Catholic Herald about his recent trip to the U.S.: "A new era for American Catholicism"

I think I mostly liked his sort of light-hearted approach that made me smile in places:

I found plenty of liberal parishes during my wander through the north east: in one instance, the priest’s accent was so Noo Yourk he made the Gospels sound like a police report. ...

There isn’t a church in New England that doesn’t claim to have been Jack Kennedy’s favourite, although the winner is probably St Francis Xavier in Hyannis, an attractive white building on Cape Cod where – to my surprise – there is a Tridentine Mass said every Sunday. Well, Rose Kennedy, Jack’s mother, did insist on wearing a mantilla in church – and if she had been a Latin Mass fan, it would sure be a win for the traditionalists. Doubtless a disappointment, though, for Congressman Joe Kennedy III, the latest family member with ambitions to be president. His guest to January’s State of the Union address was a transgendered soldier. ...

And when Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney ran for the presidency in 2012 on the budget slogan “Cut, Cap and Balance” it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that they lost. Or that the Republican leadership was later captured by Donald Trump running on the far more exciting promises to “Build That Wall!” and “Lock Her Up!” Neither pledge has yet been delivered. I don’t know why Trump doesn’t kill two birds with one stone by building a wall around Hillary Clinton.

His ending isn't bad either:
A friend in Washington said: “The goal of government is surely to help make the citizen become more virtuous.” Trump has thrown that fine ambition out the window, but the electoral reaction to Trump – which is inevitable and, when it comes, will be yuge – offers the chance to bring back the language of moral concern. As always, the best of America lies in its potential and its future, in its ability to surprise the world and do the right thing.

"A subject to which I expect to be returning in the near future is the way in which social media functions as a tool for the prevention of discourse rather than an instrument enabling it." (Williamson) I guess my little non-conversation about race is an example--of a sort of self-censorship in this case.

I'm afraid I don't share Tim Stanley's optimism but it is a good counter to Dreher's doom-n-gloom, which I'm all too ready to adopt.

Janet, wouldn't they be born-again trucks?



It is very impressive how interested all of you are in folks like Kevin Williamson and Rod Dreher. I would have never heard of either name if I didn't read this blog. Of course the reason I spend so much time here is because I became so offended by Facebook that I had to remove myself completely (account disabled by them, I hope). So I am in complete agreement with all of you on social media, twitter, etc. I can only handle the "friendly" environs of a blog where at least one person (the proprietor) I know personally. I put a quote around the word friendly since I am a liberal outlier.

I guess that brings me to my point. I'm currently reading a Kazuo Ishiguro book entitled "The Unconsoled" and that may be having the effect on myself of there being no point and uncontrolled ramblings which lead nowhere.... But I guess my point is that I find it consistently interesting (perhaps even fascinating) that most of you worry a lot about the state of society, where it is going, Christianity being demonized, etc. and that even though I am a practicing Catholic I have none of those worries. Perhaps I am too hung up on my own life, who knows?

These people seem to be fine writers, Dreher, Williamson, et al. I read the little piece that V Grumpy left the link to for KW, and enjoyed it. But for the most part I'm too lazy to worry about these "thinkers". Other than an occasional John Oliver or Bill Maher youtube video, and the nightly news, I only scan news on the internet quickly before returning to something that I feel helps to heal my soul a little, like Ishiguro for instance.

That's partly just a matter of interest and temperament. Apart from your desire to live in a socialist paradise :-) you don't give that much thought to political stuff. Well, that and your hatred of Trump. But I think it's also partly because you don't really dissent from the more-or-less-liberal mainstream as it's manifested in the media environment--journalism & the entertainment industry. Conservatives get sort of slapped in the face by hostile opinions everywhere, whereas if you avoid Fox News you can pretty much avoid right-wing slaps.

I'm not truly "political" in the sense that some people I know are--constantly following the details of it. But I'm very interested in sort of big-picture politics-and-culture questions.

I'm sure you are right, Mac.

As far as social media, I read this blog and look at YouTube videos. I also have a blog that features pictures of the sky. My other blog is pretty much abandoned.

I'm also more argumentative than most people (probably).

Although I don't do tweets myself, I do follow a few people on Twitter, largely because they make me aware of some article I otherwise would never have seen. Like this one Ross Douthat linked to today: "One Has This Feeling of Having Contributed to Something That’s Gone Very Wrong", which is an interview with someone I've never heard of, Jason Lanier, who's apparently a virtual reality pioneer. Here's a taste:

[Interviewer] You’ve written this book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts. I don’t want to make you summarize the whole book, but I want to ask what you thought was the most urgent argument, and to explain why.

[Lanier] Okay. By the way, it’s … For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

[Interviewer] Right now! So the whole thing is already urgent, so which of these urgent pleas do you believe to be the most pressing?

[Lanier] There’s one that’s a little complicated, which is the last one. Because I have the one about politics, and I have the one about economics. That it’s ruining politics, it’s empowering the most obnoxious people to be the most powerful inherently, and that’s destroying the world. I have the one about economics, how it’s centralizing wealth even while it seems to be democratizing it. I have the one about how it makes you feel sad; I have all these different ones.

But at the end, I have one that’s a spiritual one. The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also fucking phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.

It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.

Wow, that is fascinating. I'll read the whole thing tomorrow.

Lanier wrote a book a few years back called You Are Not a Gadget!, which I meant to read but never got around to. There were several interesting interviews with him around the time of that book as well.

It's interesting that he, like Franklin Foer, Jonathan Taplin, and others, roots the problems with Big Tech not so much in the "tech" itself, but in the underlying philosophy of its prime movers -- a combination of a sort of counter-culture based utopian collectivism with a fiscal and individual libertarianism: Timothy Leary crossed with Ayn Rand.

If you've read Lasch, W. Berry, or esp. Augusto Del Noce it will sound familiar.

Speaking of Berry, in his intro to his latest collection of essays, he talks about the Trump victory. After criticizing both conservatives and liberals for their respective contributions to this misadventure, he writes that as a result we seem to have gotten as President a perfect exemplar of the primary interests of both parties: a man who is both sexually liberated and financially deregulated.


Here is Robert Gotcher's sky blog:

Really nice.

Pretty wonderful. We should all spend more time looking up instead of down at our phones.

In this case I'm using phone to look up.

Like you, Mac, I've steered clear of Twitter entirely. It amazes me that seemingly sensible people have Twitter accounts. I refer to Twitter users as "twits". I suppose there could be good uses for it, but it just really seems like a dumb idea.

You can remove the quotes from around "tweet", but you still somehow need to convey a slight sneer or whiff of disdain.

I think pinterest is a more positive social medium.

I'm sitting here reading the Lanier piece, getting ready to comment on it, and it suddenly dawned on me that it's Thursday mid-day and I haven't done the 52 Poems post yet. I was out of town Monday and Tuesday which seems to have left me confused about what day it is.

Traveling will do that. Went to Mass at a parish where they say Midday prayer before Mass, and the priest announced the readings for Thursday. I thought, "Why is he doing Thursday on Wednesday?


I thought Wednesday was Monday.

'You can remove the quotes from around "tweet", but you still somehow need to convey a slight sneer or whiff of disdain.'

True. That could be difficult so an easier path is to avoid quoting "tweets" at all. Not hard for me to do. Although I grabbed one off Facebook earlier today which I'll probably mention this Sunday.

About the Lanier piece: I haven't had time to finish it and I know I won't have time to say a lot about it, because there's a lot to say. But one quick thing: Rob referred to a "counter-culture based utopian collectivism with a fiscal and individual libertarianism: Timothy Leary crossed with Ayn Rand."

And Lanier says "Way back in the ’80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs."

Something that people outside the tech industry may not realize is that it changed *a lot* when people my age began to be very present and then dominant in it. This was in fact in the late '70s and early '80s. For some reason computing attracted a disproportionate number of ex- or semi-hippies. As long ago as the early '80s probably 85% of the software developers I knew were very much on the political-cultural left. Hardware people were maybe less so but still I guess 60%. It goes back to the early '70s, when '60s utopianism came down to earth to a great degree, and it became ok to be a leftist and make a great deal of money. Now it's not just ok, it's not even questioned.

Pope Francis has a lot to say about technology in Gaudete et exultate.

See esp. 29-30 on the effect technology has on the need for solitude; 112-117, which talks about aggression and violence, incl. on the internet.

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