On How To be Dogmatic

This week, for the first time in, let’s say, a “long” time, I attended a mid-week bible study. I’m now an official Reader/Lector at the church I’ve been attending, so I thought I might actually reflect on the stuff I’m supposed to read. The study itself was fine enough. We talked about the parable of the tax collector’s prayer, which is, if you recall, compared to that of the Pharisee. Humility vs. pride. The error of hypocrisy. Obligatory liberal note that we shouldn’t conflate the Pharisees with all Jews, and that the Gospel ware written during a particularly ticklish period, so emotions were a little heightened. Etc. My favorite part of the conversation was when the group began comparing the hypocritical Pharisee to conservative talking-heads on tv. I did not find this so much as curious as silly, and ended up confessing that I’d never watched Bill O’Reilly, and continued with the suggestion that perhaps their moral indignation might be better directed if they stopped watching 24/7 news channels.

Now, I have not done any solid research to substantiate the claim that the following is any more true now than anytime before, but it seems to me that Americans are far more eager these days to rush headlong into the living embodiment of a caricature. You have these people on tv–Rachel Maddow as the representative caricature of a do-good liberal, and Bill O’Reilly as the representative caricature of a dog-eat-dog-world conservative–and for all our so-called cultural sophistication w/ respect to media, the political discourse of the masses (such as it is) seems modeled on these personalities/caricatures. This is not a novel observation, I know. But what’s interesting to me is that this kind of behavior is supposed to be the very thing a super media-savvy culture has moved beyond, what with our much-ballyhooed sophistication and post-ironic investment in what happens behind the camera, in the editing room, in the marketing meeting, etc. (I observed a similar thing when my niece visited me last summer: it felt like I was watching the tv-version of what a teenager is supposed to do & say, as though she wasn’t even there. Just a slightly less sexed-up Glee cast-member.) We are today, we’ve been told repeatedly, the smartest consumers of culture ever.  On some level, I’ve no doubt this is probably true; and yet, perhaps we’re damned all the more for it being so. I say this because media infiltrates nearly every facet of contemporary culture–including even our reflections about how media infiltrates contemporary culture. Waxing theoretical about irony on this point seems profoundly unhelpful. To my mind, it’s not that everything today (particularly as it relates to our political discourse) is fake: it’s that sincerity itself has been distorted by the untold layers of glass piled all around it. (Note A: No, this doesn’t speak to an inherent problem with “progress” that can be resisted by picking up Milton every now and then.) (Note B: You’ll just have to trust me when I say that I don’t necessarily believe there is a Zero-Ground of “Sincere Human” that has been sullied. This point of perfection, and indeed the entire conversation about it, i.e., whether there is one or not, is a nuisance of ontological proportion. On this point, I diverge mightily from my many of my most philosophical friends, including myself not too long ago.) Continue reading “On How To be Dogmatic”