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Archive for July, 2010

But, following on from yesterday’s pro-media post, Peggy Noonan warns David Cameron not to follow the sound-bite politics of the States:

America is not Britain and Britain is not America, but the culture of our politics – the polls, the imagery, the fixation on sound bites, the nonsense, the essential shallowness of presentation and of thinking, the inability of political figures to think long term – has grown similar. To your detriment, by the way.

Shall I tell you what Americans think? We think you used to have fusty, occasionally dishevelled, pipe-smoking, brandy-taking, hopelessly avuncular figures as your leaders: no one cared what they looked like, though they were interesting to listen to, or at least to watch moving through murky waters – like Harold Macmillan. Mrs Thatcher, too, was this sort, though never dishevelled. Now you have leaders who are young, sleek, slick, who believe always and almost only in what used to be called public relations and is now called the brand. I name no names. And, actually, I don’t mean to be harsh.

Here is the punchline:

You can today go to any office of any great leader in America and Britain – business leader, church leader, political leader – and you will find the great topic of conversation, the great focus of attention, the object of daily obsession, is not the mission (making money, spreading faith, leading an anxious citizenry in the right direction) but how the mission is playing in the media. It’s all they talk about. This is very sad.

Peggy Noonan is a columnist for the ‘Wall Street Journal’ and was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.

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It often seems that Christians in general (and the Catholic Church in particular) are locked in a perpetual battle with the secular media. The Church thinks the media is out to get it; and the media assumes that the Church has nothing credible to say to the contemporary culture. That’s the way the story is told.

I was at Worth Abbey last weekend, helping with a retreat for members of Catholic Voices. The whole project is built on the idea that the media can be a force for good in society, and that Catholics need to engage with the media more and not less.

Take a look at the promotional video here:

You can read a recent article here about Catholic Voices from the National Catholic Register.

And here are some words of explanation from their website. I especially like the quote from Cardinal Newman:

What’s the idea?

To train 20-25 Catholics in the art of speaking about their faith in the quick-fire settings of media interviews and public debates.

Where does the idea come from?

Catholic Voices has three main sources of inspiration:

1.      A recognition of the need for articulate, reasoned and committed Catholics to be present in the media, especially during the papal visit when the Church will be placed under the spotlight.

2.      Cardinal Newman’s call for “a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men [and women] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

3.      Pope Benedict XVI’s 1 February call, in his address to the English and Welsh bishops in Rome, for Catholics in the UK to “insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society” and for “great writers and communicators” to follow the example of Cardinal Newman in courageously communicating their faith.

A kind of Catholic Evidence Guild?

Yes, in the apologetic tradition – understanding your faith and the teaching of the Church, and learning how to express these clearly, succinctly, and reasonably. But CATHOLIC VOICES is different from the old model in that it is geared to the demands of the modern media.

So why the special training?

Partly the training is in media skills. Many people simply aren’t familiar with the idiom and the methods of modern TV and radio. That lack of familiarity can make even the most articulate Catholics defensive or simply ineffective. CATHOLIC VOICES will show how you can be open, transparent and positive in the media, as long as you are also strategic. Part of that is understanding the role of journalism and the pressures that exist on editors and journalists.

A large part of the training will be on the issues that the media – and society at large – is interested in. Church teaching can often seem abstract, aloof or inhuman; it needs grounding in real human experience. Rather than seminars in church teaching, we’re arranging vigorous dialogues with experts where the hard questions are not skirted but confronted straight on. That allows our team to think through their own positions, and for the co-ordinators to assess which speakers will be best to talk on which topics.

Is this an evangelisation initiative?

We do not see our task as evangelising through the media. We respect the media’s role to probe, question, and hold to account those who have power and influence, as the Church does. In responding to this demand, we are not so much evangelising as clearing the obstacles to evangelisation – presenting, we hope, the true face of the Church to replace the often mythical one portrayed in the media. What’s needed is an attitude of openness and transparency: we respect the media’s role in holding us to account, and we are happy to give an account of ourselves. If that leads to people having a truer view of the Church and the Catholic faith, we’ll have achieved our objectives. We are concerned less with persuading people than with articulating the Church’s positions in a way that is accessible, reasonable and accurate.

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A follow-up to Tuesday’s post about creativity and the place of constructive criticism in communities. I happened to read this piece by the philosopher Julian Baggini about the importance of complaining in a society that wants to be just and fair.

Constructive complaints are not just an effective tool for social improvement, they reflect a distinctive capacity we have as human beings for seeing beyond the present to new possibilities. This is the link between complaining and creativity.

Being able and willing to complain is what makes us rational and moral animals, capable of seeing and articulating the difference between how things are and how they should be.

The kind of constructive complaining that Baggini discusses is not the same as simply having a moan. A good complaint always has a moral aspect.

I think most people associate complaining more with moaning, whinging or relatively trivial consumer matters than they do high principle. That’s partly, of course, because as a matter of fact, many of our complaints are just kvetches. We moan as ice-breakers, to bond, to express frustration, or simply to express our values. But as a practical activity, I think complaining has become too associated with rights of contract. We live in an entitlement culture, in which, if anything goes wrong, we look for someone to blame, someone who is legally responsible. Trip up in the street and the thought soon arises: who can I sue? Your insurance company will tell you never to admit responsibility if you hit another car, even though usually one party is responsible.

Too often, complaint is not about principled objection on moral grounds, but opportunistic objection on grounds of self-interest. To rectify this, we need to work on mastering the art of complaint. Constructive complaint requires only two things: that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different. It sounds simple, but too often our protests fail this test. Most commonly, as anyone who deals with public complaints for a living will tell you, many of our objections just don’t get the facts straight. If I had a penny for every time I had been castigated for writing something I never actually wrote, I’d have £823.87 by now (and I can almost hear the next penny dropping as I write).

Wrong complaint comes in numerous other varieties. To take just one, there is the contradictory complaint, whereby our objections demand incompatible things. For instance: complaining that first-past-the-post hands power to parties with only minority support and then complaining when a coalition partner compromises on major issues. You can, of course, complain that the partner has compromised too much on the wrong issues, but to demand no movement on any issue of substance is incompatible with the complaint that governments in the UK should reflect the electorate’s wishes more proportionately.

This example is a good one because it shows how easy it is to complain sloppily, but also how important it is to get the complaint right. There is a lot to object to in the programme of this government, so it matters that we do not waste our energies making ill-informed, contradictory or otherwise mistaken complaints. So we should not listen to those who tell us we should complain less and be more “positive”. Rather, we should make complaints that are principled and thought through. A good society depends on its best complainers.

Jean-Paul Sartre bases his whole existential philosophy on this insight. He uses the language of ‘negativity’. The miracle of human existence is that we are not trapped in the present, we are always looking beyond – not just to what will be, but to what might be, what could be, what should be. We are always conscious of what is ‘not’, and our understanding of the reality in which we are presently immersed is determined by how we envision a reality that has not yet come to be. This reaching into the future is part of what makes us human, and part of our essential nature is to be dissatisfied. It doesn’t mean we are never happy, just that happiness will always (in this life) be provisional.

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Toy Story 3 is about to hit these shores, and the Economist’s Schumpeter wonders how the studio that created it can continue to be so successful.

Pixar has mastered the art of creativity, but how can this be sustained? They have two answers.

The first is that the company puts people before projects. Most Hollywood studios start by hunting down promising ideas and then hire creative teams to turn them into films. The projects dictate whom they hire. Pixar starts by bringing in creative people and then encourages them to generate ideas.

The second answer is to encourage people within the studio to interact and give constructive feedback to each other.

In most companies, people collaborate on specific projects, but pay little attention to what’s going on elsewhere in the business. Pixar, however, tries to foster a sense of collective responsibility among its 1,200 staff. Employees show unfinished work to one another in daily meetings, so get used to giving and receiving constructive criticism. And a small “brain trust” of top executives reviews films in the works.

Pixar got the inspiration for this system from a surprising place—Toyota and its method of “lean production”. For decades Toyota has solicited constant feedback from workers on its production lines to prevent flaws. Pixar wants to do the same with producing cartoon characters. This system of constant feedback is designed to bring problems to the surface before they mutate into crises, and to provide creative teams with a source of inspiration. Directors are not obliged to act on the feedback they receive from others, but when they do the results can be impressive. Peer review certainly lifted “Up”, a magical Pixar movie that became the studio’s highest-grossing picture at the box office after “Finding Nemo”. It helped produce the quirky storyline of an old man and a boy who fly to South America in a house supported by a bunch of balloons.

Pixar also obliges its teams to conduct formal post mortems once their films are complete. In lesser hands this might degenerate into a predictable Hollywood frenzy of backslapping and air-kissing. But Pixar demands that each review identify at least five things that did not go well in the film, as well as five that did.

Imagine what your community or workplace or family would be like if people were really free enough to give constructive criticism and suggestions to each other – in the right context. It takes a great deal of trust, and a certain self-confidence. You need to have enough security to know that your place in that community is valued and assured – both to give it without unkindness and to receive it without defensiveness.

I’m not saying that the seminary where I work is perfect, but we have a very useful system for reviewing the year. We meet for a morning or afternoon each June to look back over the year together. In groups of five we collect ideas about what the highlights of the year have been for us personally, about what things have worked well in the life of the community, and about what improvements we could make for next year.

We feed all these ideas back to the larger group, and if there are any common or controversial issues emerging we talk through them to get some idea of what people feel, and to note any practical suggestions.

You can’t act on everything, and at the end of the day the Rector and his team will need to make some executive decisions, but it is a great way of acknowledging together what is working and discerning how to move forward. At the very least it stops you getting stuck, or (even worse) undoing the good that might already be taking place.

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What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.

Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:

One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.

Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.

He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:

The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.

A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.

And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.

What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.

It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.

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I haven’t been to the map exhibition yet at the British Library. But in a recent conversation someone was telling me about the history of ‘upside down’ maps.

It was a delight to discover so many of these on the internet. It had always puzzled me why the map of the world is always printed one way up — with the North at the top and the South at the bottom. And I’d wondered about the psychological and cultural effects this must have on our understanding of the world.

It was hard enough for me to see an old Australian school atlas with Australia in the centre, Asia, Europe and Africa to the left, and the Americas down the right-hand side. Let alone turning the whole thing upside down. But why not?

Most of the images on the net are in copyright, but this one below is Creative Commons:

I remember seeing a TV documentary years ago about an experiment to change one’s ordinary perception. Some team had designed a set of ‘spectacles’ that you wore, a set of small mirrors that turned your visual world upside down, literally 180°. So you looked out and saw the same normal world, but the sky was at the ‘top’ and the ground at the ‘bottom’.

The remarkable thing was that after about 48 hours of wearing these mirrors, the volunteers involved in this experiment could function normally. Their brains had readjusted. One of the scenes showed them riding bicycles!

[Ann Karp, the designer of the image above, wrote the following: “This is an image I created for the back of a t-shirt. It was done for Cafe Campesino (www.cafecampesino.com), a wonderful fair trade coffee company. The upside down map is also the Peters version of the map of the world–notice the landmasses, accurate in area compared with your traditional Eurocentric map.”]

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I was on the verge of ending this blog. First, after pouring my heart out in a profound meditation on traffic management the other day, a friend put the following comment on my Facebook page:

You so need to get out more!

(I wouldn’t normally repeat personal comments, but this was already alarmingly public in the first place.)

Second, and much more seriously, I read this article by Todd Gitlin about the effects of using the Internet. Gitlin reviews Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a challenging thesis. It’s not just that the Internet dumbs information down (it’s easy to respond to this by pointing to the profusion of intelligent content on the net). It’s that the way we read and process ideas on the Internet is actually making us less able to think and reflect in any meaningful way.

So no matter how profound the ideas in this blog, it is just contributing to the cultural malaise of our times. That’s the suggestion. Do you agree? I don’t mean “is this blog in particular contributing to the malaise?” I mean “would we be better just switching off the computers and going to the library?”

It’s worth quoting a few paragraphs.

Carr grabs our lapels to insist that the so-called information society might be more accurately described as the interruption society. It pulverizes attention, the scarcest of all resources, and stuffs the mind with trivia. Our texting, IM-ing, iPhoning, Twittering, computer-assisted selves—or self-assisted computing networks—are so easily diverted that our very mode of everyday thought has changed, changed utterly, degraded from “calm, focused, undistracted” linearity into “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts.” Google searches, too, break our concentration, which only makes matters worse: “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction,” Carr writes. Because we are always skimming one surface after another, memories do not consolidate and endure. So we live in a knife-edge present. We turn into what the playwright Richard Foreman called “pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” We collect bits and the bits collect us.

Worse still, no one has dragooned us into the shallows. Nobody is forcing us from pixel to post. We are our own victimizers, because we crave interruption. When we grow up texting every few minutes, legato—which now feels like an eternity—yields to staccato. Taking a break during the writing of this review, while watching a recent Lakers-Suns playoff game, I observed a couple of women in four-figure courtside seats behind the Suns’ bench working their thumbs on BlackBerries as the camera panned over them. Maybe they were live-blogging, or day-trading on Asian markets.

With so many interruptions so easy to arrange, Carr argues, it is no wonder that we cannot concentrate, or think straight, or even think in continuous arabesques. Where deep reading encourages intricacies of thought, the electronic torrent in which we live—or which lives in us—turns us into Twittering nerve nodes. The more links in our reading, the less we retain. We are what we click on.  We no longer read, we skim. With Wikipedia a click away, are we more knowledgeable? Or even more efficient? Multi-tasking, Carr quotes the neuroscientist David Meyer as saying, “is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”

After all, the brain that has been re-wired online governs us offline, too. The more we multi-task, the more distractible we are. But aren’t we more sophisticated at “visual-spatial skills”? Sure, but at the price of “a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection,” writes Carr, quoting a Science article that reviewed more than fifty relevant studies.

And so we devolve inexorably into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” These sweet tidbits are rotting our mental teeth. This is so, Carr maintains, because “the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions,” and that consequently, “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

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