In preparation for a science fiction film class I teach, I recently watched the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. The movie’s famous anti-war message is more than “still relevant.” In no way has our species taken up it’s call to peace. If the film’s premise were real, our benevolent alien overlords would have justifiably obliterated us long ago.
However, it is another of the movie’s themes that struck me as utterly prescient. The film is saturated with depictions of mass media. The motif is introduced in a montage sequence at the beginning and carries through to the end of the film. The mass media are implicated in rumor-mongering, inciting fear and panic, and encouraging personal greed, and virtually all forms of media are treated with such hostility. Viewing this film for the first time in our contemporary age of mass and social forms of communication, I could not help but wonder what this film says about the message of our media.
The film opens with a flying saucer landing in Washington DC and its occupant, Klaatu, emerging with a gift. He is, of course, promptly shot by a panicked soldier. In the hospital, Klaatu informs a representative of the President that he has a message that he must deliver to the entire world; the message cannot be given to individual actors on the world stage. The leaders of the world cannot agree on a forum, so Klaatu is held captive at Walter Reed Hospital, from which he escapes and mingles with the humans of Washington. He eventually finds support from a single-mother and her son, and is able to deliver his message to a group of scientists and other dignitaries: Earth’s development of atomic power has drawn the attention of a federation of worlds. In the interest of security for all, the federation has developed a race of all powerful robots that will destroy any individual world that threatens the others. Earth must choose: either give up its warlike ways or be destroyed by Gort, the famous silver robot.
The rather naive idealism of the film’s message is further complicated by its seeming unwillingness to confront the obvious contradiction in its call for peace; the peaceful utopia of inter-planetary brotherhood that Klaatu offers is constructed on the threat of total annihilation. Nonetheless, the movie’s message retains its power and still captures the imagination.
But as I said, I think the film’s contemporary significance is its scathing critique of the fear-inducing capacity of mass media. In Earth, Klaatu, so desperate to deliver his message of ultimate importance, discovers a world utterly saturated in communication media. This overabundance of communication is, ironically, partly the reason why he cannot spread his world-saving message.
The film opens with a radar operator discovering the alien ship’s otherworldly blip. A phone call to a military command center reports news of this paradigm-shifting arrival. Every movement the ship makes is communicated, electronically, in real time. The Messianic event is translated to panic and shared with radio announcers across the world, first in India, then Italy, then England, until it reaches the eager ears of Americans, who luxuriate in the hyperbolic message sold by the media.
From there, television and newspapers take over, entering every home and keeping the world hanging on a suspense-filled string.
Important to note is that the information spread like wildfire in these sequences is not useful. No message has yet been delivered. In that absence of certainty, the media sell panic, and the public voraciously buys it.
The dissemination of newspapers in the film offers a key insight. With his “extra extra read all about it” singsong, the newsboy’s siren-call has him quickly surrounded by readers, eagerly exchanging money for “news.”
Engaged citizens they are, but engaged in what? He collects their money and that is the image that should haunt us today. Just as then, our media is big business.
The same question applies exponentially to our consumption of news on social media. Like the subjects of a fictional alien invasion, we too are desperate for essays, tweets, hot takes, sick burns, Facebook posts, and cell phone videos of people shouting at us about our fears. Or rather selling us our fears.
Business is booming. We’re buried under an avalanche of information, and just like the people of The Day the Earth Stood Still, we’re missing the actual message.
Friend of the show, Chris E. commented on our recent show:
Half way through the podcast and would like to make a few comments and push back a little: A comment on the book itself; I believe this was originally part of a trio of books commissioned at the same time, with the others to be written by Daryl Hart and George Marsden - so it would have been interesting to hear the book discussed in that context. I found much of the political discussion flawed as it centred on an American axis of what left and right constitute[*] - though at least Derick was a good dissenting voice at times (the only alternative to communism in the 80s was libertarian free-marketism? really?). On the dispensationalist point, I think your conspiracy episode got this right. Dispensationalism wasn't all, or even mostly, George Eldon Ladd, at the popular level it was basically the 80s version of infowars ('99 reasons why Christ will return by 1999', apache helicopters are the locusts of revelation and so on). So in that sense it was a profoundly anti-intellectual movement, even when there was a large amount of effort put into making it internally coherent. On Evangelicals voting for Trump - is this not simply a continuation of the politics of the Republicans during the Obama-era ? Where opposition on all points was the order of the day, and plenty of Evangelicals joined groups like the Tea Party. Finally - so far! - a point about the lack of Evangelicals on the bench of the Supreme Court. This was discussed at a level of political influence and legislated morality - but it wasn't pointed out that this illustrated the thesis of the book - Evangelicalism stopped producing the kinds of intellects likely to be promoted to the bench. * This is one of the flaws to me of the City of Man podcast - the 'left' isn't truly represented as such, instead there's a concilatory left of centre (in the American sense) voice opposite a more take-no-prisoners conservative. Reaching parody in the last episode where one side basically said that the subject under discussion didn't interest them at all!
I leave it to Coyle and Ed of the City of Man Podcast to respond to Chris's side note, but I do want to elaborate on his point about dispensationalism's relationship to the intellect.
At one point in the show, it was claimed that there is a great deal of intellectual work involved in End-Timesey thinking and publishing. To a degree, I suppose this is true. However it is not the kind of intellectual work that Noll prizes and laments the absence of in Evangelicalism. It is, as Chris suggests, of the sort found in Alex Jones' imagination. Conspiracy theorists (and do check out our show on that subject) put an amazing amount of thought in constructing their analyses, and the intellectual products they make are elaborate and often bound together with intricate logic. However, their theories are too often inwardly focused and divorced from an engagement with the actually existing material world.
This is how I see End Times prophecy as well. It isn't as though no thought or research goes into piecing together its elaborate structures, but rather that it is a house of cards built upon itself, not a deep engagement with the natural world.
I reached out to my co-hosts for the episode for their responses to Chris's email and Derek Varn took me up. I leave you with his words:
I'll bite Danny, "I vaguely remember the trio of books when I first read "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" in the early Bush years in college, and I have read Marsden's "Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism." I actually agree with the comment on the frustrations about left and right, and would have insisted a larger split between left-liberals and leftists, which is a fundamentally different thing. I am often more frustrated with what represents the left on podcasts like City of Man and thus is why I actually asked for Coyle to be on. In many ways, I would rather engage in conservatives who took fundamental problems of economics seriously, but the binary is frustrating. As I actually agree more with Coyle on some questions than I do the side that "represents me.." My point about Dispensationalism and the conspiracy mongering and Puritans should have been explicated more and that is my fault. Emblematic thinking in the Puritan context LED a very rich intellectual tradition down a contradictory path of paranoia and hollowed out the tradition in such a way that it made Unitarianism and Deism MUCH more appealing to New Englanders, even if some of that Puritanism remains in the US secular culture.' This was true in the degeneration of Dispensational thought to infowars style Hal Lindsey-ism.
I AFFIRM your right to wave your arms and scream "look at me!!!"
I DENY the social requirement to voice an opinion about it.
I AFFIRM the cleverness of counter-hashtags.
I DENY that hashtagtivism moves the wheel of history.
I AFFIRM that it feels good to join things that people are tweeting about.
I DENY that it gives you any more swag with the congregation that goes to your megachurch and already thinks these things.
I AFFIRM that it's OK to be mad at people for thinking the things.
I DENY that breaking social bonds with The People That Think The Things will change the world.
I AFFIRM that ten is an authoritative, round number.
I DENY that you needed more than five articles to say what you said.
Hello dear listener. First of all, if you subscribe to the show already thanks so much!
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After pretty much every episode, I regret leaving something unstated or at least under-emphasized. Even though this was a two-hour show, it happened again.
I'm not sure that I made it clear enough that I think that Evangelicalism's copulation with American patriotism is nothing less than idolatry. After the show posted, a listener emailed me about the show's relationship to the Dallas First Baptist Church "Celebrate Freedom" Rally in DC (which the great John Fea has much more intelligent things to say about than I do - click and understand). Our listener identifies the blind spot:
"After watching the rally, I had to wonder how it is that most mainstream evangelicals have no qualms about physically reverencing the flag and confessing their allegiance to it and yet are quick to denounce the Catholic/Orthodox veneration of statues and icons as idolatry."
My own sense about this is that patriotism is both more immaterial in nature as well as part of the cultural hegemony of our society. It essentially "feels natural" to the Evangelical American's cultural experience, unlike the veneration of icons, which is now largely counter-cultural in American society, and thus easier to identify.
Recall the vile Pulpit and Pen's excoriation of Hank Hanegraaff's conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy (click). Jeff Maples utter alienation from Eastern Orthodoxy's traditions (due to his own bad-faith engagement with them) turned everything he saw (and smelled, apparently) into Satanic idolatry. The middlebrow Evangelical has no such alienated perspective when it comes to patriotism and Christian nationalism. They are so immersed in it, they cannot see it.
On Twitter, another listener noted that the "Evangelical Quadrilateral" Coyle Neal and I discussed suffered in interpretation:
What Seth identifies here is a failure of imagination. If, for example, Biblicism can only and forever mean a form of literalism, then the Evangelical imagination is impoverished, thereby damaging its ability to observe and correct its own cultural assumptions.
I'm reminded of Matthew Arnold's observation about mechanical, routinized English culture:
"Where was the hope of making reason and the will of God prevail among people who had a routine which they had christened reason and the will of God, in which they were inextricably bound, and beyond which they had no power of looking?"
Perhaps the Evangelical Imagination is damaged in a similar manner?
If you're like me, I'm sure you love listening to endless requests to go to your favorite podcast's Patreon page and give money. Better still are the <insert favorite curse word> commercials that are increasingly ubiquitous in podcastland.
To poke a little fun at this sad capitalist invasion of the medium, we at the Sectarian Review are hosting a little contest.
The concept is simple: listeners will write advertising copy for a phony product that Danny will read during upcoming shows. Listeners will then vote on their favorite, and the top two vote-getters will receive a custom-made Sectarian Review coaster (crafted by friend of the show Josh Mozug of Mozug Custom Woodworking - click to learn more).
Be creative, keep the cussing to a minimum, and let's have some fun mocking the monetization of podcasting! We're supposed to be losing money on this thing.
One thing we love is to hear back from our listeners. In this case, Danny's brilliant wife, Kim, was nice enough to give us the what for about some of our blind spots when talking about Corporate Feminism. Please read her response below, and if you'd like to chime in about this (or any other episode), consider yourself encouraged to do so.
I listened to your recent podcast regarding the Fearless Girl statue and I felt like there was a very different lens from which you could have viewed it. A big part of what struck me was what seemed to be this complete distrust of corporations throughout. Particularly, this conversation at the end.
Danny: Should we be cutting them some slack here or is it just an entirely a crass means of getting into our pocket books?
Megan: “it is also a big Wall Street Corporation with billions of dollars at their disposal to actually forward the rights of women. I am more likely to celebrate the baby steps of individual people who are working to recognize and support women in their everyday lives. I have a student who writes a paper pushing back against sexist language “you play like a girl.” I will celebrate the baby steps of those students. I am not inclined to celebrate the baby steps of corporations who could take much larger ones.”
Earlier in the podcast, you had discussed the Dove beauty commercials and had (I feel skeptically) talked about howeven though these commercials might be good, the company in the end is doing it to get their name out there. My question is this: what baby steps would you accept from a company with the so-called millions of dollars at their disposal?
First, I ask you to step back and consider that a company is not a faceless entity but is rather made up of living, breathing individuals. Second, consider that they are a system with an ingrained culture. That each of those individuals needs to change (and change is slow) in order for the larger corporation to change. And that the corporation is functioning within a society that has norms and values that are ingrained into each of us that are often slow to change as well. Those individuals might very well have good motives but be slow to change. Changing one individual is easy (or is it?). Changing thousands of individuals within a corporate culture can be difficult and slow. Not that this is an excuse.
But back to my original question of what would you consider a baby step for a company like State Street Global Advisors? Asking this question led me to wonder why would a big bad Wall Street corporation with only poor motives put up a statue of a fearless girl if that were the ONLY thing they were doing to promote diversity within their organization. So, I googled “State Street Global Advisors diversity.” And this is when this post is going to start sounding like a commercial for SSGA. I ask you to consider completely changing your world view (which I realize I am only inferring from the comments made in the pod cast) that corporations do everything only for profit and that they can’t do anything for good.
First, it took me about five seconds to find out that SSGA put the statue up in conjunction with the announcement that the company is advocating not just for the diversity of their own company but also gender diversity of the trillions of dollars of assets that it manages (which amounts to the assets of about 3,500 companies), many of whom have NO women on their boards. (You cited statistics about the number of women in leadership at SSGA and I did not take the time to compare these numbers to others in their industry but that would be a good exercise. I am willing to guess that of the top Wall Street firms, their numbers are actually pretty good. I digress.)
The statue was not just a hollow gesture but a symbol celebrating a movement within their company to impact (press, even) the leadership of thousands of companies whose assets they manage. I think that is a noble effort. And whether or not they are doing this for their own profit or for the greater good of society (more on that later), I think this is a bit more than a baby step. (1)
Further research on this topic lead to an article stating that “SSGA found in a study it conducted that 35% of public companies in the US have zero female directors on their boards, compared with 36% in the UK and 45% in Australia. The firm has a new set of guidelines giving 3,500 public companies about a year to increase diversity on their own before SSGA starts influencing their selection of board directors at the proxy level.” So, SSGA is attempting to influence the leadership of these firms not only through telling them it is a good thing to do but also by impacting the actual votes about their boards.
At this point, you might still be skeptical that maybe they are just doing this for publicity. But this is not the first time that this company has taken a stand on doing what is right for the long-term sustainability of the companies it manages- and the world they impact. Since 2014, it has been pushing for corporate responsibility on an environmental level as well. As the third largest manager of assets in the world, they are positioned to have a big impact on the way businesses function around the world. Recently, they have increased these efforts as well. Their CEO, Ronald P. O’Hanley, sent a letter to “companies in the US, UK and Australia reinforcing the importance for boards to consider the impact of environmental and social sustainability issues on their long-term performance. Included was our framework for boards to evaluate and communicate how these risks and opportunities can affect long-term strategy.” In the letter, he encourages the boards to consider ”board leadership and board composition, diversity and talent development, safety issues, and climate change. (2) Just think if you read between the lines you find a mix between “this is good for business” and “this is the right thing to do for everyone,” and by everyone, I mean the world.
So, in summary, it is easy to be skeptical about companies and their motives. But there is a growing movement within corporations to focus on corporate social responsibility. And this must start at the top. I don’t know anything about Ronald P. O’Hanley, but I certainly would like to have dinner with him. Because his company put up a statue that people are enjoying taking selfies with, sure. And maybe that seems like a hollow gesture both on the part of the selfie takers and the company. But if you take a few minutes and look a bit deeper, you see the 3rd largest asset manager in the world (who we all like to criticize because of recent corruption) who has investing responsibility to advance economic prosperity and social progress as their mission. And they have taken a stand and are working to influence not only the diversity and environmental impact of their own company but also that of 3,500 other organizations around the world. Companies who, in turn, employ millions (or more) of individuals, donate money to community organizations and have an impact on the communities in which they operate. I consider this much more than a baby step, which they seem to take very seriously.
Having a couple of dozen episodes under my belt, it has become blantantly obvious to me that Franz Kafka explains this show better than anyone. Interwoven in the many subjects we've covered is a persistent obsession with institutions and the control they have over our actions and desires. Now read Kafka's short parable "Leopards in the Temple:"
"Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony."
Kafka, in devastating brevity, describes how succeptible our institutions are to outside influences. The Temple is defenseless against the leopards that fundamentally alter its practices. At the same time, however, the institution retains powerful influence over those who worship there. The tale's heretic leopards, through insinuation and repetition, become sacred to the temple's worshippers.
The parable goes far in explaining contemporary Evangelicalism, which has adapted itself to sanctify the voracious political appetites of neoconservatism. In our recent episode about Political Correctness, I (perhaps reductively) defined Evangelicalism as "theocratic libertarianism." The leopards' intrusion has profoundly altered that institution. Similarly, our show entitled "Against Praise Movies" focused on exploring the corruption of Christian doctrine by a particular aesthetic made popular by the marketing of the Christian entertainment industry.
The Sectarian Review Podcast seeks to draw our attention to such situations. Often we will undoubtedly be unfair or make generalizations that are too broad. But the task of noticing the influence of our subtly altered institutions is, to me, an important one. And the concurrent task of injecting uncertainty and chaos into those received institutions (such as in finding theological and ethical merit in horror films) is a part of the vocation that Saint Kafka has laid before us.
Like millions of other people during the final week of the 2016 election, I compulsively checked Nate Silver’s http://fivethirtyeight.com/ (by far the best thing about ESPN). Silver’s success in the last few election cycles helped establish polling science as a dominant form of journalism and by this election it became ascendant.
The shock of Trump’s election is no doubt tied to the titanic failure of our pollster-gurus to live up to their reputations. Silver himself emerged from this election relatively unscathed, as his models gave Trump a legitimate chance at winning the election. The data revolution he inspired, however, was heartily adopted by the liberal establishment, which used it as part of its shame-based rhetorical strategy. This form of reporting meshed nicely with “woke” late night talk show host poking fun at Trump and his electorate (usually reduced to caricatures). “These people think Trump might win! Ha! What doobs!” And their scorn for apostates was eventually directed even at Silver himself for not being triumphant enough. The Huffington Post for example accused him of all sorts of nasty things.
Alas. Lesson learned, right HuffPo? Probably not.
I hope you’re still with me, because I want to publicly shame a particularly galling example of Big Data hubris. Like many others, I was intrigued by the Slate collaboration with a startup called Votecastr. The premise was as such:
1). Smarty Pants People in skinny jeans did a bunch of polling before the election.
2). Technocrats in track suits assigned humans into data-mining categories.
3). As votes were cast, the techno-utopianists lifted the “embargo” on data and told us who was winning, live. As it happened.
And wow they did great, eh? According to their calculations, Clinton mopped the floor with Trump, HuffPo style. Imagine their horror when the Blind Seer of Thebes revealed the truth to the world.
Let me conclude by proposing that maybe human beings are more complicated than algorithms can always predict. As much as Trump’s election offends me, I must admit that, odious as he is, he is a transcendent figure. By this I do not mean to compare him to Barack Obama’s ability to move the wheels of history. I simply mean that his appeal was not fully detectable by our computers and our institutional systems. He spoke to people about things the numbers couldn’t track.
The Democratic party’s supreme confidence in “demographics” was part of its undoing. The party and its surrogate institutions (like Slate) became utterly deluded by the previous success of its machinery. That led to a hubris straight outta Greek drama. The party was so sure of its math, it had no curiosity about the people behind the numbers. The liberal faith in numerology therefore correlates to its contemporary tendency to reduce the flyover states to a collection of bigotries.
So the post-election autopsy begins. As liberals try to recover in time for 2018’s mid-term elections, I hope they realize that human beings are not data sets, nor can they be categorized with such blunt instruments as “racist or not.” The KKK voting block notwithstanding, even if the voters Democrats lost this time are racist and sexist, they are not ONLY those things. What else do they care about, and might we speak to those desires as well?
For more (including pictures!) click here to visit Sectarian Review's Medium Publication
Over at the Sectarian Review publication on Medium, I just put up a little rant about the Chicago Cubs and their pretensions. Here's an excerpt:
Who else but the great Bill Murray, the pretty awesome Eddie Vedder, and the intolerable John Cusak (along with some financial advisers and lawyers) could fill Cleveland’s stadium with so much droopy Cub-boosterism? This is a team supported by — and which ultimately supports — the upper echelon of urban elitism.
Today’s identity-politics liberal is always on the lookout for privileged people performing the sin of “cultural appropriation.” Well I’m using that here. When the Cubs’ upper-crust fandom frames its devotion in terms of a working class experience, that’s cultural appropriation. They’re performing working class identity without actually living that life. The “lovable loser” persona is a mask that lets rich and famous folks pretend they aren’t obnoxiously privileged. “Oh woe is me. I’ve been a Cubs fan my whole life they they haven’t won anything. This lets me virtue-signal sadness and heart-felt devotion.”
Read the whole thing here:
And please. It's meant to be a little jokey.
The Sectarian Review Podcast is hosted by Danny Anderson, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA.