books


I have been reading Neal Stephenson’s essay “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” which is about the history of operating systems. Buried in the middle is this brilliant passage where he describes modern culture and mass media. The last time I read something so perspicacious was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Even more amazing is that he wrote it in 1999:

…If I can risk a broad generalization, most of the people who go to Disney World have zero interest in absorbing new ideas from books. Which sounds snide, but listen: they have no qualms about being presented with ideas in other forms. Disney World is stuffed with environmental messages now, and the guides at Animal Kingdom can talk your ear off about biology. If you followed those tourists home, you might find art, but it would be the sort of unsigned folk art that’s for sale in Disney World’s African- and Asian-themed stores. In general they only seem comfortable with media that have been ratified by great age, massive popular acceptance, or both.

In this world, artists are like the anonymous, illiterate stone carvers who built the great cathedrals of Europe and then faded away into unmarked graves in the churchyard. The cathedral as a whole is awesome and stirring in spite, and possibly because, of the fact that we have no idea who built it. When we walk through it we are communing not with individual stone carvers but with an entire culture.

Disney World works the same way. If you are an intellectual type, a reader or writer of books, the nicest thing you can say about this is that the execution is superb. But it’s easy to find the whole environment a little creepy, because something is missing: the translation of all its content into clear explicit written words, the attribution of the ideas to specific people. You can’t argue with it. It seems as if a hell of a lot might be being glossed over, as if Disney World might be putting one over on us, and possibly getting away with all kinds of buried assumptions and muddled thinking.

But this is precisely the same as what is lost in the transition from the command-line interface to the GUI.

Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces. Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself–and more than just graphical. Let’s call it a Sensorial Interface. It can be applied to anything in the world, real or imagined, albeit at staggering expense.

Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical or sensorial ones–a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney?

Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now–much more complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to cope with–and we simply can’t handle all of the details. We have to delegate. We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.

But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.

We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media. Apparently this actually works to some degree, for police in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it’s explained to them that they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of Independence.

A huge, rich, nuclear-tipped culture that propagates its core values through media steepage seems like a bad idea. There is an obvious risk of running astray here. Words are the only immutable medium we have, which is why they are the vehicle of choice for extremely important concepts like the Ten Commandments, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. Unless the messages conveyed by our media are somehow pegged to a fixed, written set of precepts, they can wander all over the place and possibly dump loads of crap into people’s minds.

Orlando used to have a military installation called McCoy Air Force Base, with long runways from which B-52s could take off and reach Cuba, or just about anywhere else, with loads of nukes. But now McCoy has been scrapped and repurposed. It has been absorbed into Orlando’s civilian airport. The long runways are being used to land 747-loads of tourists from Brazil, Italy, Russia and Japan, so that they can come to Disney World and steep in our media for a while.

To traditional cultures, especially word-based ones such as Islam, this is infinitely more threatening than the B-52s ever were. It is obvious, to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or “honoring diversity” or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and has this or that set of qualities.

The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is that, in order for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully on the globe (or even in a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I would argue) our suspicion of, and hostility towards, all authority figures in modern culture. As David Foster Wallace has explained in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” this is the fundamental message of television; it is the message that people take home, anyway, after they have steeped in our media long enough. It’s not expressed in these highfalutin terms, of course. It comes through as the presumption that all authority figures–teachers, generals, cops, ministers, politicians–are hypocritical buffoons, and that hip jaded coolness is the only way to be.

The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there’s no real culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macrame. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire it point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor, and begin pumping bullets into Westerners. They perfectly understand the lesson of McCoy Air Force Base. When their sons come home wearing Chicago Bulls caps with the bills turned sideways, the dads go out of their minds.

The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior, at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely–and that is actually a pretty good thing!

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And–again–perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you’ve got some tools.

In this country, the people who run things–who populate major law firms and corporate boards–understand all of this at some level. They pay lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness, but they don’t raise their own children that way. I have highly educated, technically sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa to live and raise their children, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves in New York where large numbers of kids are being brought up according to traditional beliefs. Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who think the same way.

And not only do these people feel some responsibility to their own children, but to the country as a whole. Some of the upper class are vile and cynical, of course, but many spend at least part of their time fretting about what direction the country is going in, and what responsibilities they have. And so issues that are important to book-reading intellectuals, such as global environmental collapse, eventually percolate through the porous buffer of mass culture and show up as ancient Hindu ruins in Orlando.

Brazil is a novel set in 1970s Brazil about a romance between Tristão, a poor, black boy from the favela, and Isabel, a (white) wealthy daughter of a government official. Their commitment to each other forces them to sacrifice everything and drives them across the convoluted landscape of a fast-changing society. Updike imagines Brazil as having one foot in the haunted colonial and indigenous past (in the Mato Grosso wilderness) and another in the mechanized, soulless bourgeois future (urban São Paulo).  I read it because I am traveling soon to Brazil, and I heard Updike was a good writer but had not previously read any of his works. The book was powerful in that it drew me into its world and I even had strange dreams induced by his magic realism style. However, I became frustrated because it seemed like the writer, who is a white male American, was making a lot of questionable (and offensive) generalizations about people and places distant from his own experience.

The central theme of the book is the implausibility of true love. The bond between the lovers is like the giant golden nugget Tristão uncovers from a mine in Goiás: its rarity makes it a beautiful, mesmerizing contrast to the dull, dirt-like regularity of the normal social matrix. Tristão and Isabel seem to have nothing in common, and almost all of the secondary characters question their devotion to one another, which after all is initially based merely on physical attraction. Isabel’s father, who is a jaded government official, tells her that “love is a dream, as all but the dreamers can see. It is the anesthetic nature employs to extract babies from us.” I appreciated the author’s ability to balance between skepticism and and admiration for romantic love, in its powers of both destruction and healing. While Updike’s apparent obsession with sexuality periodically overwhelms the narrative, he does suggest that it is but one of many ways the lovers express their affection. In fact, neither of the lovers are faithful in a physical sense, but that never seems to cast a doubt on the strength of their spiritual bond. This ambiguity makes the characters morally complex and therefore fascinating.

Updike’s ability to evoke an extremely wide range of emotions from the reader, from pity to joy, or from disgust to admiration, is a testament to his literary potency. For me, Brazil was like a mirror onto my soul that made me think about my own personal prejudices and actions in life. I realized I have some qualities of Tristão and Isabel, but also of many of the other characters who were cruel, greedy, or took advantage of others. This makes me think that who a person is really depends a lot on their social environment. When the reader finds himself immersed in such an unpredictable world that is almost, but not quite real, he cannot be too quick to assume he would not engage in the same beautiful or terrible actions, or accumulate the same fantastical superstitions as the characters of Brazil.

In conclusion, Brazil is simultaneously disturbing and empowering, tragic and triumphant. It is a fascinating, colorful story that reveals little about the actual country of Brazil, or Brazilian people. It instead illuminates the reader’s own inner contradictions of passion and corruptibility, which are universal to every human being regardless of race or nationality.