“To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism.”
— from The End of Education, a 1995 book by Neil Postman.
In August, the CDC released figures on coronavirus death rates and comorbidities which right wing social media users chose to interpret as confirmation that only six percent of reported coronavirus deaths were ultimately due to the virus, leading the current president and his cult followers to howl that previously published death totals were wildly inflated, no doubt for no better reason than to make President Dumpster Fire look bad. Some misinterpreted the report out of ignorance, surely, but others who fanned the flames on social media chose to misinterpret it to suit their political agenda.
When a person gets stabbed to death by an attacker, the ultimate cause of death would be blood loss. That doesn’t change the fact that a knife wielded by a murderer caused fatal wounds to open up blood vessels which poured out the victim’s life. For that matter, every death could be attributed to lack of oxygen. But it’s not as if it’s an everyday occurrence that otherwise healthy people suddenly stop breathing and drop dead. There are contributing factors, and some less healthy people are susceptible to suffering catastrophic consequences from them when their body can no longer fight off an attacker. That attacker could be a coronavirus.
“Springtime for Hitler”, from the 1967 film The Producers, written and directed by Mel Brooks, and starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.
Social media consumers who jump on everything they see online that fits their distorted and often unreal worldview and then parrot it unthinkingly are not only a nuisance of the present era, but as the most important election of the era looms ahead such people are a menace to public safety. They read and digest vitriolic lies and then spew them out again, magnifying the reach of disinformation, much of it meant to cause harm. The most effective deterrents to the lies spread on social media by fools and evildoers are ridicule and facts. Hard as it may be in these times to keep a sense of humor, it is necessary not only for keeping one’s bearings, but for knocking down nonsense when facts alone won’t suffice.
Hypocognition – a term from psychology and linguistics meaning the inability to discuss or process a concept because of the lack of a word or words for it.
“Phubbing” is a portmanteau made up of “phone” and “snubbing”, and it describes the act of looking at one’s phone (presumably a smartphone) in order to avoid interaction with another person. It’s nearly always a rude action, and it can be dismissive and disrespectful when the phubber employs it to imply that whatever might be displayed on the phone’s screen is more interesting than the person in front of him or her. It’s a term that didn’t exist – and couldn’t have existed – before smartphones became ubiquitous.
People appear to have an ingrained reverence for the immediate demands of technological devices. Before smartphones, extricating oneself from an unwanted interaction in public meant having to invent excuses, such as an urgent appointment. Burying one’s interest in a book has never worked as well in closing off conversation as getting a phone call or even just looking intently at a smartphone’s screen. People will stop everything for someone who is on the phone, or nowadays only looking at one.
Detail of The Meeting Place, a 2008 high relief sculpture by Paul Day, on the concourse of St. Pancras train station in London, England. Photo by Patrice78500.
The concept of using one’s smartphone to rudely dismiss another person now has a name, “phubbing”, and therefore no longer falls into the category of hypocognition. There are numerous other fuzzy concepts that still qualify as hypocognition, at least for some people. The two groups at either extreme in their reaction to the coronavirus may be engaged in hypocognition, each of a different kind. There are the people who refuse to take public health measures seriously, and so endanger everyone; and there are the people who have allowed their fears to so intimidate them that they have imposed some unnecessary burdens on the rest of society in order to help them assuage those fears, as if they were unaware that everything in life carries an element of risk.
And then there is the matter of white privilege. African-Americans understand the concept of white privilege because they have to cope with its consequences throughout their lives. Most Caucasian-Americans do not grasp the concept because they swim in the currents of white privilege every day. It is the medium that envelopes them, and they cannot see how it protects them from the same dangers and insecurities faced by their African-American neighbors.
For example, say a white man is out jogging through a largely black neighborhood. This particular neighborhood is undergoing gentrification, by which everyone understands houses owned or rented by mostly poor blacks are being bought up cheaply by better off whites and then inhabited by them. The white jogger is new to the neighborhood, part of an influx of people who can afford nice things, and whose clothes generally reflect their status. But most folks would give this jogger a pass even if he wore old clothes with holes and tears for his exercise. No one in the neighborhood, black or white, suspects the white jogger is up to anything other than jogging.
Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks discuss the origins of some concepts in this clip from a portion of their ever changing 2000 Year Old Man improvisational comedy routine. This 1967 appearance is from the television program The Colgate Comedy Hour. Comedian Dick Shawn introduced them. R.I.P., Carl Reiner (1922-2020).
Now take the same circumstances and flip them 180 degrees, with a black man jogging through a largely white neighborhood. The black man lives in the neighborhood, and thus people don’t consider he has any gentrifying influence, no matter whether the neighborhood is working class or upper middle class. The black jogger wears neither very good nor very bad clothes for his exercise. All other factors being neutral, he’s just a black man out for a run through a white neighborhood. Think about what might happen. The black jogger does, all the time. The white jogger in the other neighborhood, he never has to consider the possibility of something bad happening to him, simply because of who he is. That’s white privilege.
Technology for helping people sleep appears to be a booming business, with everything from machines that mimic ocean wave sounds to sensors built into mattresses to adjust the sleeping experience for maximum comfort. Technology also is ushered out of the bedroom, in the form of light temperature filters for smartphones and electronic tablets. Sleep difficulties, especially for older people, are nothing to be taken lightly since lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can lead to all sorts of problems in the larger society, some of them dangerous, like driving a motor vehicle while deprived of good sleep.
One of the factors often ignored in discussions of sleep is how the natural sleep cycle of our species appears to broken up into two, and often three periods. The natural cycle seems to drop into the background during most of maturity for many people, giving rise to the common illusion that eight hours of continuous sleep from late evening through the night to early morning is the norm. Nothing could be further from the truth. The true sleep pattern for our species makes itself known in youth and in old age, when work schedules are less demanding. The young and the old typically sleep several hours from evening into the night, then are up for an hour, maybe more, and then back to sleep from late night into the morning. They also often partake of a midday nap.
Asleep, a 1904 painting by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947).
The introduction of widely available electric lighting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played a part in resetting humanity’s internal clock, particularly for those living in industrial societies originating from northern Europe. Southern European societies retained a more relaxed rhythm and honored the tradition of the siesta, or midday relaxation. But in industrialized England and America the norm became 12 to 16 hours of work during all of daylight and into twilight at both ends of the day, followed by 8 to 12 hours of some sort of relaxation and sleep at home before getting back at it the next day. Sleep had to be concentrated in those hours, or foregone. Sleep at home when you got the slim chance, or fall asleep at the wheel of some dangerously unprotected machinery, risking death, maiming, or at the very least loss of employment.
To have been an insomniac working in a factory of the last centuries in the industrial north must have been utter hell, as it must be today for those working in the garment and electronics sweatshops of southern Asia. Some of the devices advertised for sale to help the sleepless may seem ludicrous or indulgent, but for those afflicted it may not seem so. The question is whether those who truly need those devices can afford them or are even aware of them. Probably not.
Madeline Kahn, as Lili Von Shtupp, sings “I’m Tired” in the 1974 Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles. Warning: foul language.
The sound of waves crashing, the gradual transition of blue light to red on electronics invited into the bedroom, and the monitoring of sleep quality, as far as that may be possible, all are geared toward the middle class and above, the office workers who have followed the 9 to 5 mold set for their kind one hundred years ago. Many work more hours than that, usually appended to the end of the day. All the same, sleep for them is crowded into the overnight hours, and if they don’t get it then they will miss out. There’s nothing wrong with them if they can’t sleep all 8 hours in the time allotted; it’s the mold that is broken and needs remaking.
When it comes to net neutrality analogies, many people opt for the internet superhighway one where there may be fast lanes and slow lanes or, on a content neutral internet, all lanes are equal. Since it’s hard to bring in the gatekeepers who set the rules for the internet on that kind of analogy, it might be easier to think of net neutrality or non-neutrality as related to a toll plaza, where the gatekeepers, such as AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast, charge different amounts and cause varying delays to the vehicles attempting to pass through their gates.
On a net neutral superhighway, the gatekeepers at the toll plaza charge roughly the same amount to every vehicle and pass them all through with equal alacrity. On an internet superhighway that is not neutral and grants wide discretion to the gatekeepers at the toll plaza, toll charges vary a great deal from vehicle to vehicle, and the gatekeepers might also hold up certain vehicles, making them late to their destination.
The Great Belt Fixed Link toll plaza in Denmark. Different colored lights indicate different payment methods. Photo by heb.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, after going through the motions of a public comment period through the summer on his proposed, Orwellian-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” gutting of the 2015 net neutrality rules, announced today that the FCC board of three Republicans and two Democrats will vote on rules changes on December 14. The fix is in, as it has been since early this year when Mr. Pai expressed his intention to overturn the 2015 rules, and there is little doubt how the majority will vote on December 14. It is still possible between now and then to bring enough public pressure to bear on Congress for that body to influence either the FCC board vote, which is not likely, or put in motion legislation to override FCC rules on rescinding net neutrality, which is the more likely outcome, if there is to be a positive one at all for neutrality advocates.
Regulation of internet access is too vital to leave up to the unelected five member board of a regulatory commission. The current FCC board has also recently demonstrated its irresponsibility to the country at large when it did away with rules preventing monopolization of local media markets by a single company, recklessly opening the gates to allow Sinclair Broadcasting to consolidate its control across the country.
In the 1974 film Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks, the citizens of Rock Ridge set up a toll booth to slow down the bad guys coming to destroy their town. Warning: foul language.
Congress could put an end to FCC favoritism toward big business by passing legislation, instead of allowing the FCC board to vote on rules after the formality of a meaningless public comment period, since the board Republicans will almost certainly vote against net neutrality despite the majority of public comments in favor of it. Congress is also beholden to big business, but at least it retains some ability to bend to the public will. As it stands now, after the December 14 vote the new rules will likely get challenged in court, and the legal struggle will eat up years, and all the while the internet gatekeepers will make fortunes extorting internet users who need to pass their toll booths.
The pejorative expression “liberal media” has become a time-worn truth for some people after it has been repeated often enough, mostly by themselves. To them, attributing a news story to the “liberal media” is as good as saying the story is worthless. Their listeners are meant to take at face value the assertion that the media has a liberal bias, because they themselves never question the phrase. Of course the media has a liberal bias, because everyone says it does.
At least everyone within a certain circle says it does, and the people within that circle repeat the formula ad nauseum. Citing facts to these people about how the major media outlets are controlled by as few as a half dozen corporations, all of them concerned with promoting business rather than any leftist agenda, has no effect on them. They are addicted to the drug of blaming the faults of their right wing leaders on a mythical “liberal media”. Individual reporters within the big media corporations often lean to the left, but it does not follow that their personal views find their way into print or onto television or radio. The editors, who have their ears tuned to the desires of their corporate bosses, would not allow it, and they set the parameters for what will be in a news story and, more importantly, what will not.
Chuck Colson (1931-2012), officially White House Special Counsel in the Nixon administration, but unofficially the director of dirty tricks. After being sent to prison for seven months for his role in the Watergate scandal, he got religion.
Consumers of news media have no idea what is being left out, what questions are not being asked, and what assumptions are not being challenged. It is what a news organization leaves out that determines its political bias, more than what it releases for consumption. Yes, a newspaper may endorse the Republican or Democratic candidate for office, but what about the idea that neither candidate represents with sincerity any interests other than those of the business class that donated the largest sums to their campaigns? What about in the run-up to war in Iraq in 2003 the reality that there was very little skepticism of the Bush administration’s reasons for going to war from supposedly liberal media outlets like The New York Times and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)? To persist in labeling such organizations “liberal media” belies not only a willful ignorance of the facts, but a bent in political philosophy that is so far rightward it makes Rush Limbaugh appear centrist.
Before the 1950s, major media outlets were seen for what they were then and still are today – centrist or right-leaning organizations that were interested in a healthy bottom line, without investigating too deeply into the feathered nests of the owners’ wealthy friends in government and business. Starting in the 1950s with critical reporting of racial atrocities in the South, and continuing through the 1960s and 1970s with critical reporting on the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the CIA, the major media strayed from it’s generally cozy relationship with the powers that be. It was an anomalous twenty to thirty years, and the Nixon administration sought to rein in the press using, among other tools and dirty tricks, the “liberal media” propaganda lie, repeated often. By the 1980s and the Reagan administration, a cowed press corps had reverted to previous form. By 2003, it would be difficult to distinguish the uncritical cheerleading among the press corps for the Iraq War from the rah rah press reports at the beginning of the Spanish-American War a little more than a hundred years earlier.
Harvey Korman and Slim Pickens brainstorm on the kinds of people they need to help them destroy the fictional western town of Rock Ridge in Mel Brooks’s 1974 film Blazing Saddles. No mention of any “very fine people” among them, however. Warning: foul language.
The “liberal media” excuse is a handy one, and some people will cling to it no matter how badly the current Oval Office occupant behaves or how heinous the words coming out of his mouth or from his Twitter tirades. Anyone who continues to excuse him by blaming the “liberal media” for slanting the words the president himself uttered in response to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, is in denial about the situation and is suffering from cranial rectumitis so severe that no one else should have to listen any longer.
At the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, which can be dated to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, there was much talk in the West of a “peace dividend” on account of the anticipated reduction in military spending. The dividend never amounted to anything as far as average Americans were concerned, particularly since the Gulf War came along a year later, and then through the 1990s the US involved itself in flash points around the globe in its self-appointed role as world police force. In the new century, the so-called War on Terror has preoccupied this country and dragged it into middle eastern quagmires ever since 2001. That peace dividend looks like it’s never going to show up.
Counting minor skirmishes and interventions, America has been in conflict with enemies foreign and domestic for most of its history. Always in the past after a major conflict, the military would draw down its personnel and weaponry and return to a reduced level that was considered the peacetime military norm, even if small conflicts were bound to flare up. Again after World War II, it appeared the armed forces would follow the pattern and draw down, and indeed they did for several years in the late 1940s. But then the Berlin Airlift happened, heightening tensions with the Soviet Union, and more or less beginning the Cold War. Shortly after that came the Korean War. The country has pretty well been on a war footing ever since, a condition President Eisenhower warned against in his 1961 farewell address when he spoke of the military-industrial complex.
From The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1948, an article in the magazine described the trials of a young family making ends meet. Here the father balances the family books while the mother irons clothes. No doubt they juggled income and expenses in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, not billions or trillions.
In a 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama anticipated a peace dividend from reductions in American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dividend he said he would use to pay down the national debt and put Americans back to work repairing and improving infrastructure at home. Like the Cold War peace dividend, the dividend that was supposed to follow from over a decade of middle eastern wars also proved illusory. For one thing, our enormous military spending, larger than the military budgets of the next eight biggest spenders combined, has been done with borrowed money. Claiming a reduction in military spending would yield a dividend from the balance is like a homeowner taking $20 out of the household budget meant for repayment of various debts and calling it a windfall. Not only will the homeowner have to repay the $20 next month, but he or she will have to come up with an additional $20 to make up for the shortfall.
The other thing about this country’s huge military is that some interested parties in the military and in the defense industry like to keep it sky high. That is what Eisenhower was warning us about in 1961. These are people who, while they may not like war exactly – when it comes to actual military service, for instance, a good many of them seem to have other priorities – nonetheless have acquired a taste for the profits and power of the military-industrial complex. They are the friends of Halliburton and Blackwater, and they are in high places. They are the people who will see to it a peace dividend never gets beyond their own sticky fingers into the wallets of the American people who have paid for all their boondoggles.
From Mel Brooks’s 1974 film Blazing Saddles, with Harvey Korman and Robyn Hilton, and Mel Brooks himself as the Governor, this scene could just as well be depicting activities in the modern day Oval Office as in a fictional governor’s office in 1874. Warning: foul language.
There will not be enough money in the federal budget for fixing the nation’s infrastructure, moreover bringing it up to 21st century standards, until the obscene amounts spent on the military-industrial complex are drastically reduced. There will not be enough money for health care, for public education, for Social Security, for fighting climate change by ditching the fossil fuel industry in favor of renewable energy, for doing all the things we want to do to improve our society as a whole, and not merely improve the fortunes of the oligarchy, if we do not come to our senses regarding our budget for interfering around the world and in some unintended ways making it a more dangerous place. Throwing all that borrowed money into the war machine for the past 70 years has bought us a grand house, with a grand mortgage to match, and meanwhile the termites have been busy at the foundations.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
― Jesus Christ, quoted in the Gospel of Mark, 8:36, King James Version.
For many Americans in the growing lower class and shrinking middle class, the American Dream of their parents and grandparents no longer means the same things or presents the same possibilities. How can it, when they have been either treading water or slipping beneath the waves for over a generation now? In 1971, the middle class was 61 percent of the population, and the lower class was at 25 percent. In 2015, the middle class had slipped to 50 percent, while the lower class had increased to 29 percent. What group had increased it’s numbers the most at the expense of the middle class? The upper class increased from 14 percent in 1971 to 21 percent in 2015. Those numbers reflect population shifts within income groups; the shifts of actual income have been proportionally even greater.
We hear a lot lately about American Exceptionalism, as if it was somehow tied in with the American Dream. But that is an unfortunate misconception. American Exceptionalism, as invoked by modern politicians, isn’t much more than the Manifest Destiny of the nineteenth century or the pushy nation meddling and nation building of the twentieth century. We’ve got a lot of crust, telling everybody else what to do and how to live just because we think we’re special. Of course, all that political proselytizing is merely a cover for corporations to grab resources and exploit cheap labor abroad. They don’t “hate us for our freedoms”, they hate us for our hypocrisy and our meddling.
Back home,where we belong, the American Dream is a noble sentiment when it refers to a better life through hard work, education, and civic virtue. According to the Gospels, those are values Jesus Christ spoke of many times. The American Dream has not historically meant “grab all you can and the Devil take the hindmost”. It is truly amazing how many wealthy Americans profess Christian values, yet in their actions do little or nothing to uphold them.
Croesus Showing Solon His Treasures, a painting from the 1630s by Claude Vignon (1593-1670) and his workshop assistants. Croesus was the famously wealthy King of Lydia in the sixth century, BCE, and Solon was a renowned Athenian lawgiver.
Those wealthy hypocrites, the money-changers, are the ones who need their taxes raised to 1950s levels. They are the ones whose overseas tax shelters and corporate headquarters need to be brought back home, where they belong. They are the ones whose profiteering from the military-industrial complex needs to be severely curtailed by bringing the troops back home and closing down the more than 1,000 military installations overseas. Those troops could be put to work in this country repairing infrastructure, and then given a proper GI Bill for their education. There is a long laundry list of other things that need doing to return this country not to when it was “great”, which bespeaks the hubris of the American Exceptionalism that has caused so much trouble for us and the world, but to when the middle class at least was okay, and with a prospect for the lower class of getting better. To start, stop glorifying the wealthy. They don’t need your help, unless it’s to carry their water.
A scene with Harvey Korman and Mel Brooks from Brooks’s 1981 movie History of the World, Part 1, depicts his vision of France before its revolution in the eighteenth century. Twenty first century America is not there yet, but we’re closing in on it. Warning: foul language.
― Vita Special note: To learn more about this subject, watch the 2015 documentary Requiem for the American Dream, featuring Noam Chomsky, or read his book by the same name.
“When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.”
― Vice President Dan Quayle, speaking at a luncheon for the United Negro College Fund on May 9, 1989, mangling the Fund’s slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Is the internet making us dumber? stupider? how about less bright? Listicles like this one could be one reason why we might not be that smart anymore. Maybe they’ve helped make us smarter than we used to be. Did listicles ever exist outside the internet, meaning a long, long time ago? Maybe in magazines, most of which were not meant for serious people, the way newspapers were, way back when.
Mel Brooks shows us an alternative past involving lists and tablets in his 1981 movie History of the World – Part 1.
Anyway, enough history. Here we go ―
Before the internet, you needed to know and remember stuff, because you couldn’t just look it up online at the drop of a hat. You maybe could find out from a book, if you knew where to find one.
Because you can look up practically anything now on the internet, some people think it’s making us smarter, especially about what our favorite celebrities have been up to lately.
Without the internet, we couldn’t check on what our friends had for dinner and all the cool places they’ve been out to eat, unless we called them, which we don’t want to bother with, just text. Everything would have to be texts, which is probably okay.
Spending lots of time playing computer games is good because it trains you for a good job with the military remotely piloting drones to drop bombs on terrorists over in their country from an undisclosed location somewhere else, and that’s really smart because otherwise they’d be over here blowing themselves up.
Knowing a lot of internet and computer stuff is also a smart way to get a job with the National Security Agency (NSA) looking into everybody’s business.
There’s no need to develop social skills when there are social media networks like Facebook and Twitter around.
The internet is also good for getting things off your chest by commenting online, and you don’t have to worry about being nice about it, because on the internet no one knows who you are, unless they’re with the NSA.
It used to be that before the internet you could be bored a lot. Now with smartphones and tablets that you always have with you, you don’t ever have to be bored and think about stuff, because you can do other things online, like Facebook or Twitter again.
According to Hebb’s Law, which you can look up online, when your brain spends a lot of time doing something, it gets smarter doing that thing. Even though the brain is mostly fat, it’s like a muscle that way.
Your brain is wired just like the internet. Well, actually, since your brain was here first, especially if you were born a generation or more ago, the internet is wired like your brain. Not that any central authority planned it that way, it just happened. If you’re an old person, that’s probably why you might not understand everything about the internet, because you have to think about it, instead of being wired up ready to go from early on.
Mike Judge shows us a possible future in his 2006 movie Idiocracy. Okay, it might be more than just a possible future and might be closer to now than is comfortable. Warning: foul language.
Okay, that pretty much wraps it up. It was fun. Now you know the internet isn’t necessarily making us any dumber, just different, but don’t think about it too hard or your brain’ll seize up and crash like you drank something really cold really fast. You can’t email Microsoft tech support about that.