Tuesday, April 26, 2011

KEEPING THE BIG PICTURE WHEN CONFRONTED WITH 'ATLAS SHRUGGED'

"Sweep aside those hatred-eaten mystics, who pose as friends of humanity and preach that the highest virtue man can practice is to hold his own life as of no value."
- John Galt

"The awkward age is the worst time to [discover] Ayn Rand ... I stopped walking and started striding, taking care to turn my flat feet inward so I would look like an egoist instead of a duck. I kept my eyes locked straight ahead, causing myself a number of collisions and falls. I forced my jaw into a rational clamp, which broke the rubber bands on my braces and made me dribble down my front. In the name of individualism I quit Le Cercle Français. I longed to quit organizations right and left, but unfortunately, French Club was the only one I had ever joined. I gave some thought to ending my friendships, but having only two, it did not seem worthwhile. The architect who had designed Central [High School] was dead, so I could not help him blow up the school, and there was no way to locate the mad bomber, who in any case was probably not an idealist in the Howard Roark mold."
- Florence King (on first reading Ayn Rand in the Ninth Grade)

One of the greatest arguments for completely ignoring politics is the currently low IQ levels of most of the participants in the political public square. In a mass-media obsessed age, it's fairly obvious that short attention spans and less than 15-second sound-bites are not conducive to productive discourse. Add to this the divisiveness and violently partisan passions that are pitted against each other (often in talk shows by political talking hacks), and any sense of thought, decency or reflection long ago had its feet unceremoniously cemented into concrete blocks and its person rudely tossed in the sea.

My point of view is mainline conservative. But the problem with most conservatives today is that one's conservatism is currently defined by issues learned at kindergarten level. We're talking shallow. Shallow, not even as in kiddie pool levels, but more along the lines of the depth of a rain puddle. In today's politics, the word "conservative" designates a pro-free market, anti-abortion, pro-firearms, anti-tax raising, pro-war viewpoint, with an increasingly simplistic European phobia thrown in for good measure. Likewise, the word "liberal" designates an anti-capitalist, pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-government spending, anti-war viewpoint, with increasingly caricatured French envy. However, peanut gallery applause for tax cuts or raises ought not to be the same as cheering for the home team. At least, it didn't used to be.

It is high time we remembered the bigger picture. Conservatism is a political philosophy with a rich and diverse literary and intellectual tradition. Our roots have historically powerful foundations. Our roots ought to provoke self-education in the exploration into moral & political truths endeavored by the intellects of Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, George Buchanan, John Locke, Samuel Rutherford, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Milton, Oliver Cromwell, Charles de Montesquieu and Sir William Blackstone. They include an understanding of the term "classical liberal." They include a fondness for the nuances of Edmund Burke's speeches before the British Parliament in the late 1700s, including his principled distinction between the "trustee" and the "delegate" models of representation. They encompass an understanding of how John Adams' arguments in a Boston courtroom were philosophically opposed to Thomas Paine's pamphleteering (even if both were advancing the same end result). They involve an ability to discern the principle intellectual differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalist/Jeffersonians, along with the appreciation for why men like James Madison, Gouverneur Morris and Benjamin Franklin got a few more things right than men like James Patterson, George Clinton or Luther Martin. They recognize the philosophical reasons why Alexander Hamilton's predictions about the French Revolution turned out to be more accurate than Thomas Jefferson's did.

And all that hasn't even taken us out of the 1700s yet. Intelligent conservatism seeks to understand the genius of John Marshall and Joseph Story, cultivates an appreciation for the downright mulishness of President Jackson when he was suddenly stuck with Senator John C. Calhoun as a dinner guest, prefers the rhetoric of Senator Webster to that of Senator Hayne, tosses books about Abraham Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo in the same garbage can as books by C.A. Tripp, and can point out the half-truths embedded in the military histories written by Douglas Southall Freeman - in which honest historians, like Shelby Foote for example, refuse to indulge themselves.

The political conservative philosophical tradition revels in the energy of Teddy Roosevelt, enjoys the quiet confidence of Henry Cabot Lodge, willingly explains how Calvin Coolidge understood economics better than Franklin Roosevelt did, casually dismisses the pretenses for academic lecturing that Charles A. Beard foisted upon an unwitting public, differentiates between the triumphs and errors of both Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower, finds the animadversions of Albert Jay Nock lovable, exults in the poetry of Randall Jarrell & Gerard Manley Hopkins, and delights in the English prose of both Jonathan Swift & Dr. Samuel Johnson AND John Dos Passos & Mark Helprin.

It's not that there is a single creed you have to hold to. There are many different sorts of conservatives out there. But every single one of these guys in our tradition held particular truths in common. Thus, the word "conservative" in modern times does have meaning. Conservatives believe in a set of universal moral truths. And these truths are of a transcendent origin (like the natural inalienable rights of man, for one example). Claiming that "We hold these truths to be self-evident" leads to a few logical consequences. On the one hand, Liberalism just isn't as limited when it comes to objective standards for right and wrong. On the other, Libertarianism doesn't even demand that one admits to any particular origin of "inalienable rights." It's actually conservatism that is most strict by definition - and it is this political philosophy which originates from "natural law" theory, discussed by thinkers as early as Moses and Cicero.

So why go into the classical and historical origins of modern political conservatism like this? Because, with the film, Atlas Shrugged, in theaters right now, too many conservatives are settling for the ideas of a writer who does not agree with our intellectual tradition. Objectivism is not conservative any more than libertarianism is conservative. Now, why should you care? If you are a conservative, you should care because the ideas of Ayn Rand are fundamentally inconsistent with your political philosophy. If you want to be able to articulate and advance your political ideas successfully, then you can't join them with opposing ideas that deny the basic fundamentals of what you claim to hold to. I'm not asking you to not ever read Rand or see the film. But I am claiming that we ought to stop promoting this film and ought to cease and desist from associating ourselves in public with the Objectivist thought. It's inherently destructive to our reputation.

While I've listed some of the intellectual and historical foundations for conservative philosophy here, I haven't yet reached the most powerful conservative minds in our own lifetimes. In the 1950s, conservatism was in bad shape. Just coming out out of the New Deal years, the old guard conservatives were represented by a well-intentioned but waffling leadership who were incapable of elementary persuasive articulation of their position. Then, once upon a time, along came a group of brilliant thinkers and writers who were sick and tired of all the compromise and defeat - Willmoore Kendall, Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Frank S. Meyer, William A. Rusher, and, most famously, William F. Buckley Jr. No group of men had better articulated objections to the consequences of FDR's New Deal, and later to Johnson's "Great Society", until they arrived on the scene.

In 1951, a young Buckley published his first book, God and Man at Yale , denouncing Yale's sudden advancement of socialism and moral relativism. In 1953, Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind , tracing the intellectual foundations of modern conservatism back to Edmund Burke. Then, in 1955, Buckley got together with Kirk, Kendall, Meyer, Burnham and Chambers to start the first "conservative" magazine in the United States. His introduction to the magazine is now famous:

"Let’s Face it: Unlike Vienna, it seems altogether possible that did National Review not exist, no one would have invented it. The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that of course; if National Review is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."

It took about 30 years of persuasion and debate, but then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President.



Their heirs at the modern day National Review - M. Stanton Evans, Richard Brookhiser, John Derbyshire, Dinesh D'Souza, Victor Davis Hanson, Kathryn Jean Lopez, Rich Lowry, and John O'Sullivan - still provide some of the best and brightest thought available for conservative interaction within the public square. They are the direct opposite of the shrillness and inanity that you will find with Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Rielly, or Michael Savage (all of whom seem to be mindlessly parroting each other's songs and praises for Atlas Shrugged).

For those of us aware of history, the book, Atlas Shrugged , isn't just famous for being Ayn Rand's best-seller, it's also famous for being the last straw with the smarter conservatives of her day. It was precisely by her publishing this novel in 1957 that made conservatives reject Ayn Rand's philosophy, ultimately kicking her outside of conservatism itself. William F. Buckley, writing in 1963, in his essay entitled Notes Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism , sums up what happened:

In 1957, Whittaker Chambers reviewed Atlas Shrugged, the novel by Miss Ayn Rand wherein she explicates the philosophy of "objectivism," which is what she has chosen to call her creed ... Chambers did in fact read Miss Rand right out of the conservative movement. He did so by pointing out that her philosophy is in fact another kind of materialism, not the dialectical materialism of Marx, but the materialism of technocracy, of the relentless self-server, who lives for himself and for absolutely no one else, whose concern for others is explainable merely as an intellectualized recognition of the relationship between helping others and helping oneself. Religion is the first enemy of the objectivist, and after religion, the state - respectively, "the mysticism of the mind" and "the mysticism of the muscle." "Randian Man," wrote Chambers, "like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world."

Her exclusion from the conservative community was, I am sure, in part the result of her dessicated philosophy's conclusive incompatibility with the conservative's emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral; but also there is the incongruity of tone, that hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism that is in itself intrinsically objectionable, whether it comes from the mouth of Ehrenburg, or Savonarola - or Ayn Rand. Chambers knew that specific ideologies come and go, but that rhetorical totalism is always in the air, searching for the lightning rod of the ideologue-on-the-make; and so he said things about Miss Rand's tone of voice which, I would hazard a guess, were it the tone of anyone else's voice, would tend to make it, eo ipso, unacceptable for the conservative ...

[Chambers wrote] - "... the book [Atlas Shrugged's] dictatorial tone ... is its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. It's shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal ... resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber - go!' The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too, in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture ... At first we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house."

As if according to a script, Miss Rand's followers jumped National Review and Chambers in language that crossed the i's and dotted the t's of Mr. Chambers' point. (It is not fair to hold the leader responsible for the excesses of the disciples, but this demonstration by Miss Rand's followers - never repudiated by Miss Rand - suggested that her own intolerance is easily communicable to other Objectivists.) ... What the experience proved, it seems to me, beyond the inacceptability of Miss Rand's ideas and rhetoric, is that no conservative cosmology whose every star and planet is given in a master book of co-ordinates is very likely to sweep American conservatives off their feet. They are enough conservative, and anti-ideological, to resist totally closed systems, those systems that do not provide for deep and continuing mysteries. They may be pro-ideology enough to resist such asseverations as that conservatism is merely "an attitude of mind." But I predict on the basis of a long association with American conservatives that there isn't anybody around scribbling into his sacred book a series of all-fulfilling formulae which will serve the conservatives as an Apostles' Creed. Miss Rand tried it, and because she tried it she compounded the failure of her ideas. She will have to go down as an Objectivist; my guess is she will go down as an entertaining novelist.


For Chambers' entire 1957 book review, see Big Sister Is Watching You.

Even Buckley's guess there changed after he finally read the book for himself.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

ON THE UNSAVORY INFLUENCE OF AYN RAND AND OBJECTIVISM

(AND ON WHY WE CAN GO AHEAD AND GENTLY PUSH ATLAS SHRUGGED BEHIND US)

If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others, do not call yourself an Objectivist. Give proper authorship for the parts you agree with, and then indulge any flights of fancy you wish, on your own.
- Ayn Rand

DO NOT review any book about Ayn Rand. Even if you rave it, her gremlins will find something to go bananas about and write you a letter: "Dear Social Metaphysician! Examine your anti-Objectivist premises and you will see that your epistemology stinks!!!"
- Florence King

... "Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders - what would you tell him to do?"

"I ... don't know. What ... could he do? What would you tell him?"

"To shrug."

- from Atlas Shrugged

The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.
- Flannery O'Connor

A significant number of my conservative friends are excited. On April 15th, a film was finally released based on Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged . They are excited, they say, because here, at long last, is a film that promotes conservative free market principles against socialist and paternalistic government. "If you want to understand the Tea Party, see Atlas Shrugged . It’ll help. If you ARE the Tea Party, see Atlas Shrugged . You’ll like it. A lot," announced one of my old college buddies. On the 15th, it opened "limited release" in 300 theaters across the nation. Yesterday, Rand's fanboys over at the Tea Party organization, FreedomWorks, feverishly announced that the film will now open in one thousand theaters nationwide. FreedomWorks is working with "THE STRIKE Productions" on the film's marketing. They produced the following trailer (try not to let the music get you too excited):



A couple years ago, the Ayn Rand Institute credited Atlas Shrugged as a primary motivation for the Tea Party. At the beginning of this year, the world premiere for the film was held at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) - a conference where many of the country's conservative leaders are invited to speak. Producer Harmon Kaslow has admitted that conservatives and the Tea Party became the main target demographic for the film. Elements within the Tea Party are now actively promoting the film. In spite of the mostly negative reviews the film has received from critics (currently sitting at only 6% at RottenTomatoes), they are still being forced to take notice of the significant grassroots support being raised for the film.

Support for the film, along with Ayn Rand's ideas, isn't limited to tea partiers and libertarians. The Heritage Foundation is supporting the film. Glenn Beck was endorsing Rand's book earlier this year. The film's currently being heartily recommended by Sean Hannity on his show almost every day as the movie "liberal Hollywood doesn't want you to see." GOPUSA praises the film adaptation of "Ayn Rand’s masterpiece" and gushes how "you will be amazed at how accurately it describes the political situation in America today." Jack Hunter, from The American Conservative explains: "If you’re a film fan looking for a great movie - Atlas Shrugged probably isn’t it. If you’re a conservative looking for a great movie - Atlas Shrugged will likely be it" meaning this in no way to be the insult to conservatives' aesthetic tastes that it appears to be. Jim Beach, writes in The Entrepreneur School Blog - "I would encourage everyone to see it and to take Democrat friends. Tell them in advance it is not a masterwork, and that you are supporting the cause ... Millions of people’s core beliefs were changed by the book. Hopefully, this movie will make people want to read the book. And, with the book currently at number 19 on Amazon, we can credit the movie for raising awareness and interest in one of the top 3 books ever written ..." The editors over at ThinkProgress happily conclude: "By all accounts, Ayn Rand is now one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party."

If I were politically liberal, this is an idea I would try and encourage. Why? Well, if you were unfortunate enough to attend one of those schools that Professor Digory Kirke would not have approved of, let me summarize for you. Ayn Rand was a philosopher who advocated ideas that have become known as "Objectivism." Her most famous books she published would probably include The Fountainhead (1943), Atlas Shrugged (1957), and The Virtue of Selfishness (1964). That's right, you read that right - that's the virtue of selfishness. This is an idea Rand takes oh so very seriously ... and there's a reason she supports capitalism over communism. And there's where we run into trouble. Capitalism is better than communism, or even socialism for that matter. This doesn't mean we ought to throw discernment to the winds whenever anyone comes along supporting one of our ideals. If we reduce our support for free market principles to a mere crass materialism, then our arguments lose all moral value.

Selfishness is not a virtue. It's a part of our corrupt and sinful human nature. I've been told by friends who like Rand that, well, you see, Rand's just using the term "selfishness" in a different way than we usually do (translation: different than the English dictionary defines the word). In the free market system, the "prime movers" who act in their own self-interests in order to make profit end up creating wealth, and this helps the poor people (or the "looters" as Rand likes to call them). What Rand really means is that one ought to be self-reliant. And you have to do selfish things in order to be self-reliant, but being self-reliant is the first thing you have to do if you don't want to be a burden to everyone else.

I might have bought this explanation ... maybe. The problem is that I actually read Atlas Shrugged and some of Rand's other plodding self-important writing, and she actually says that we aren't supposed to care for others. Her philosophy is diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ, who commanded us all to "love thy neighbor as thyself" and taught that"greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Rand writes instead, in Philosophy: Who Needs It, for example:

"What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value ... Now there is one word — a single word — which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand — the word: 'Why?' Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it — and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.

It is only mysticism that can permit moralists to get away with it. It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify it — or, to be exact, to escape the necessity of justification. One does not justify the irrational, one just takes it on faith. What most moralists — and few of their victims — realize is that reason and altruism are incompatible."


Yes, Ayn Rand was an atheist. Honestly, I wish there were some more concise & compelling quotes I could find from my Rand reading that summed up her ideas better. Actually having to quote her in order to demonstrate her ideas is going to make this poor essay of mine twice as long. Unfortunately, conciseness has never been a characteristic of Rand's writing.

Try out a few excerpts from The Virtue of Selfishness for size:

"In popular usage, the word 'selfishness' is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word 'selfishness' is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions ..."


Actually, the rich tradition of history, philosophy and theology that we have the privilege of exploring established, long before Ayn Rand came around, that selfishness is, quite frequently, used to the detriment of others. Putting oneself first, being concerned with one's own interests has been one of the primary motivations for evil from the history of time. But, please do go on, Miss Rand -

"... Since selfishness is 'concern with one’s own interests,' the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense ... The attack on 'selfishness' is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other."

We sinners wouldn't want to have low self-esteem or a low view of our own self-worth, now would we? She continues:

"Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut. In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues."

I'll admit it. Often I have difficulty following Rand's line of thought, much less difficulty caring enough to keep reading. I'm pretty sure this is still elementary stuff however. Christianity teaches selfless, unconditional love. Rand teaches self-interested, conditional love.

She has her "Superman" John Galt make a number of long, ponderous declarations in his speech. I'll expose you to two of them. Take a deep breath. Clench your fists and grit your teeth, and go -

"The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A — and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational."

Whew. See? That wasn't so bad. Except for that bit about discounting Divine law, she's saying that thinking for yourself and self-reliance are good. Doesn't that make her a good intellectual basis for conservatism? Of course, we could just go with the guys like Thomas Aquinas, John Milton, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Samuel Rutherford who didn't discount the Divine. But let's dive back in just one more time for the moment. Ready? Go -

"Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None — except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality. I deal with men as my nature and theirs demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice. It is only with their mind that I can deal and only for my own self-interest, when they see that my interest coincides with theirs. When they don’t, I enter no relationship; I let dissenters go their way and I do not swerve from mine. I win by means of nothing but logic and I surrender to nothing but logic. I do not surrender my reason or deal with men who surrender theirs."

Who is John Galt? He's a long-winded fellow who has quite a bit to say, who takes his time saying it, and somehow tries to sound inspiring while talking about how good it is to owe zero moral obligations to your fellow men except perhaps you owe them an obligation to care for your own self - because, well, you know, if you didn't focus on all your own self-interests all the time, then who would? The government? We can't have that. That's the problem with the majority of the population. They're all damn moochers who let the government look after their own self-interests. Except, didn't you know, it's not really in your self-interest to ask the government to look after your self-interest?

Raises hand. Yes, we knew that. I believe it was guys like Plutarch and Cicero, if not even Plato and Aristotle who established these ideas long, long ago. In fact, one's even reminded of Moses warning the nation of Israel about the problems that would inevitably arise once they insisted upon having their own king to look after them. Self-reliance and the corruptibility of power are basic Western philosophy 101. We don't need Ayn Rand in order to advocate them to the historically ignorant. Ayn Rand was an intelligent and principled lady. But you can respect her without following her ideas to their logical conclusions or using her writing as a basis for conservatism, of which she wasn't a part.

A number of bright and witty people have been commenting on Rand's ideas and the currently released film. Their sense of humor wouldn't have been appreciated by the humorless Rand, nor is their cultural commentary being appreciated by those currently infatuated with her ponderous book. If a you want a few healthy laughs, just read some of the 90% of reviews written by film critics who actually care about cinema as an art form.

Roger Ebert is one -

"I feel like my arm is all warmed up and I don’t have a game to pitch. I was primed to review "Atlas Shrugged." I figured it might provide a parable of Ayn Rand’s philosophy that I could discuss. For me, that philosophy reduces itself to: 'I’m on board; pull up the lifeline.' There are however people who take Ayn Rand even more seriously than comic-book fans take 'Watchmen.' I expect to receive learned and sarcastic lectures on the pathetic failings of my review.

... I suspect only someone very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel could understand the film at all, and I doubt they will be happy with it. For the rest of us, it involves a series of business meetings in luxurious retro leather-and-brass board rooms and offices, and restaurants and bedrooms that look borrowed from a hotel no doubt known as the Robber Baron Arms.

During these meetings, everybody drinks. More wine is poured and sipped in this film than at a convention of oenophiliacs. There are conversations in English after which I sometimes found myself asking, 'What did they just say?' The dialogue seems to have been ripped throbbing with passion from the pages of Investors’ Business Daily."


John Serba is another, who titles his review, "Piling on 'Atlas Shrugged': horribly boring movie sharply divides critics, audiences" -

"The critical fervor surrounding 'Atlas Shrugged: Part I' is fascinating. I've learned all kinds of new synonyms for 'boring.' And just as I had to see 'The Happening' to truly understand why it was such a cinematic travesty, I sat through the first of a proposed trilogy adapting Ayn Rand's famous Objectivist novel.

My impression? Toothpicks. To prop open my eyelids. The film is as dramatically compelling as a furnace-repair manual. If it contains a political agenda - it's apparently an extension of Tea Party principles - I barely noticed it, since I couldn't get past the overly talky tedium to even attempt to suss out any subtext.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

TEN WAYS TO DESTROY THE IMAGINATION OF YOUR CHILD (2010) - by Anthony Esolen (Book Review - Part 1)

Every so very rare once in a while, a writer writes a book of cultural commentary that turns classic. One thinks of Utopia by Sir Thomas More, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, or even Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Also incredibly rare are actually satirical works of great literature. One ought to remember the comedians Horace and Juvenal of ancient Rome, The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and even Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell. I am still rather excited to announce my belief that we have been given another of these works. Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is a work of absolute genius. I have never read his writing before now, but Anthony Esolen's English prose is beautifully constructed. His writing flows with an easy pleasantry to the ear upon which both James J. Kilpatrick and William F. Buckley Jr. (God bless 'em) would both smile upon.

This book is a MUST read, no matter who you are (of whatever sex, race, age or creed). If you are a grandparent, you should immediately demand that your children read this for the protection of your grandchildren. If you are a parent, you'd better read this quick, because Esolen will give you particular insights - into how modern culture and modern educators are currently in the business of eating your children's souls - that no one else has to offer. If you are a young career minded 30s-20s something, you have to read this if you don't want your future family to be a bleak, conformist, dull, dumbed down, miserable counterfeit version of the family that you someday hope to raise. If you are a college student, I'd be hard pressed to find a better modern book with which to arm yourself with questions for your mind-numbingly boring professors. If you are a high-school student, this book could rise up within you and your friends such a moral and righteous indignation that it could set fire to your entire high-school. If you are an elementary school student ... well ... any family member who loves you will carefully ensure that there is a copy of this book waiting for you, just as soon as one of your parents, elders or teachers bucks the system and actually opens the door for you to the vast new world of good healthy reading that is out there just waiting, like a hidden fairy land, for your discovery.

The title is perfect, but don't allow it to cause the assumption that this is only another guide to parenting book. Neither should you allow my above paragraph to make you think it's all doom and gloom predictions. Esolen wittily attacks so many soul destroying traps embedded within our culture that his book applies to far more than just parenting and education. His new book is occasionally prophetic, cheerful, hopeful, sad, nostalgic, hilarious, enchanting and discerning all rolled into one healthy and rollicking read. I can see future generations fondly referring to Esolen's Tormentarians just as we may occasionally refer to Jonathan Swift's Lilliputians today. This book ought to be a classic for years to come. I currently want to make every single one of my friends read it.

The very first paragraph of the very first page, immediately demonstrating that the author cares about things our modern culture no longer cares for, begins thus:

"A few years ago, a vandal seized some forty or fifty thousand books from my college's library. He didn't want to read them, or even to sell them. He wanted simply to get rid of them, on the grounds that nobody would read them anyway. Some of the volumes he had branded for destruction were irreplaceable. I know, because I went into the back room where they were being held temporarily before the trucks came to haul them away. From that room I saved several dozen, including a definitive dictionary of medieval Latin, and the first great grammar book for Anglo-Saxon - you know, the language that Beowulf spoke on the night when he was tearing Grendel's arm off ..." (pg. ix)

Esolen describes our culture's decline in demand for books, particularly for good books, and notes that a good book is a dangerous thing. This is because it can change you. "It carries within it the possibility - and it is always only a possibility - of cracking open the shell of routine that prevents us from seeing the world. Our days pass by with the regularity of a conveyor belt at an airport, which we duly get on, and make our way with bland uniformity." (pg. x) But that bland uniformity is interrupted by great works of art and beauty within literature. Good books open new worlds for us, provoke us to think, and turn us into different people.

"Consider what happens to people whose night skies are spanged with constellations like The Master of Hestviken , or Moby-Dick , or The Brothers Karamazov ," Esolen asks us. "These people are hard to fool. They are also hard to enlist in pursuit of the trivial and ephemeral. It is as if we had given them a powerful telescope atop a high mountain, and shown them how to use it, and directed their attention to the Orion nebula, and once they had learned to do so and to love the beauty they found there, expected them to look at light bulbs on a marquee. Or, if not a telescope, a magical device for seeing deep into the human heart; and then expected them to watch American Idol , or to be impressed by the maunderings of the latest political hack." (pg. 100)

Esolen then points out that we are presented with a problem. We've been slowly eliminating and replacing books with technological social-networking non-stop mass-marketed entertainment to dull our senses from ever being awakened by anyone like Charles Dickens, Plato, or Thomas Aquinas. But there's one thing in the world we have not got rid of, and that's children. The most noticeable thing about children is how incredibly different they are from us grownups.

"If we loved children, we would have a few. If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little ... We would want children tagging along after us, or if not, then only because we would understand that they had better things to do. Now that simply is intolerable. For the first time in human history, most people are doing things that could never interest a child enough to make him want to tag along. That says less about the child than about us." This means that children haven't lost certain ideas about the world that we have. They ask questions we don't ask anymore and reject assumptions we have long accepted decades ago.

Esolen points out that "If someone should say to us, 'How would you like to spend most of your waking hours, five days a week, for the next four years, shut within four walls," we should go mad, that is if we had an imagination left. It is only by repressing that imagination that many of us can stand our work. Some years ago, American feminists, in their own right no inconsiderable amazons against both childhood and the imagination, invented something called Take Your Daughter to Work Day. 'See, Jill, this is the office where Mommy works. Here is where I sit for nine hours and talk to people I don't love, about things that don't genuinely interest me, so that I can make enough money to put you in day care.'" (pg. xii)

So this is where Esolen decides to follow the Screwtapian writing method, and argues for our modern culture and its goals of protecting ourselves from the undue influence of children. "The real danger is to ourselves: that we will look upon their world, a fallen world no doubt, but a world still touched with wonder and gratitude, and choose to allow those childlike virtues to enter our hearts. 'Suffer the little children to come unto me,' says Christ, 'for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.' Which He might have rephrased, and did rephrase, thus: 'He who would save his life must lose it.'" (pg. 66)

So Mr. Esolen mockingly takes it upon himself, for most of the book, to voice our modern day culture's viewpoint, arguing that we, indeed, do not want to lose our comfortable "grown-up" ways of looking at, and living in, the world. Therefore, our priority should be to destroy the childlike wonder with which every little one is endowed. We have all the weapons of modern culture with which to accomplish this goal - our education system, increasingly socialized government, the internet, video games, television, etc. - and we've actually been fairly successful just over the last couple decades. (Not to say that we still can't do better.) We just have to mold their young minds into accepting the trite and the banal. "Cliches are easy. So we bring up our children on cliches." (pg. 101)

Modern culture wants to educate our children towards political ends, and there may be no better way to eliminate their imaginations than by teaching them with this goal in mind. This will color our and their entire view of history. Thus, if we must use any history books at all, we'll use ones like A History of US by Joy Hakim.

"Time and again, Miss Hakim - who is by far the best of a weak lot - is out to teach students that the Story of Us is reducible to the Story of the Triumph of the Correct Way to Think about Everything ... So, for example, when Hakim discusses Jefferson's Declaration of Independence - a tract she sincerely admires - she pretends not to know what Jefferson meant by the statement, 'All men are created equal.' 'He didn't mention women,' she notes, despite admitting that 'we do know that in the 18th century the words 'men' and 'mankind' included men and women.'" You see this renders actual thought among students being taught history unnecessary. "Instead of assuming that Jefferson knew what he meant, and that he still , for instance, did believe in the universal franchise, and then wondering how he could reconcile his belief in equality with his denial of the vote to women, we take the easy way out, declaring that the ideas in the Declaration have 'take[n] on meanings that go beyond what the writers intended,' namely, meanings that we ourselves approve of, and so do not have to think about." (pg. 109)

This also involves eliminating the parts of history that are actually interesting to children. Esolen's snide modern tone explains how "Old history textbooks used to be full of battle plans; people had the quaint notion that the outcomes of battles like Salamis, Lepanto, and Waterloo changed the course of history. One argument for getting rid of those plans was that they were dull. Actually, they were dull to the teachers, many of whom didn't care a rap about the structures of battles, but they could be dynamite for the young." (pg. 7) He notes how he was acquainted with one family who allowed their sons to get their hands on, study, pore over and memorize old battle maps. But the danger of battle strategy filling their minds cannot be cautioned against too strongly. It will increase their intelligence and tactical thinking in ways that could threaten our comfort zones.

Instead, Modern Culture prefers that we discourage this sort of thing. War, battle and soldiers need to be frowned upon. We need to keep "belittling the intelligence of the soldier, by preaching an easy and self-serving pacifism, and by reducing the military to a career option open for everyone, regardless of physical prowess or even sex." (pg. 147) "What we want to do, then, is see only the misery that war brings, and never ask such obvious questions as, 'What would Europe look like, had Britain surrendered to Hitler and Mussolini at once?' Or, 'What would Asia look like, if the Americans had come to terms with Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor? ... Instead, we should instill in our children the sense that they are virtuous simply because they have adopted the opinion that other people - particularly, the ones who agree to go off to war - are not virtuous. They fight; we are wiser than they are, and favor peace. It is a virtue for which we need not sweat a drop, or scratch one finger. We practice it in a warm cocoon of safety, and are praised for it." (pg. 149)

What if boys still have a desire for violence? What if they remain fascinated by the solider and his weapons? Easy, fill their minds with violent video games. Ignore military history, just let then eat away all their curiosity with hours staring at the florescent video screen, deadening their souls with safe and fake virtual violence. This is prevent them from looking up to ancient heroes of battle.

The same thing goes for the old tradition of memorizing poetry.

"Adults scoff at remembering things, because they have - so they say - the higher tools of reason at their disposal. I suspect that they also scoff at memory because theirs is no longer very good, as their heads are cluttered with the important business of life, such as where they should stop for lunch and who is going to buy the dog license. But educators of old, those whom we now recognize rightly as mere drillmasters, exposed children to a shocking wealth of poetry and music, and indeed would often set their lessons to easily remembered jingles, as did Saint John Bosco, working with the street boys of late nineteenth century Turin, and as Marva Collins in Chicago did more recently, with unnerving success. The memorization and recitation of poetry was one of the hallmarks of the so-called Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, in the late 1960s, under the direction of the Renaissance scholar John Senior. The intensely personal encounter with poetry, which memorization requires, began to change so many lives that the trustees of the university, appropriately alarmed, shut the program down ... To have a wealth of such poetry in your mind - a wealth of knowledge about man, set to music - is to be armed against the salesmen and the social controllers. It allows you the chance of independent thought, and independence is by nature unpredictable." (pgs. 13-14)

Thus, we need to affirm our modern world where no one memorizes old poetry anymore. "Teaching is a political act" declared one history teacher that Esolen met on a panel discussion that met on how to eliminate its college's program on teaching Western Civilization. Quite so. Political teaching is ham-fisted by nature and has no room for rebels and questioners. Someone who spends all their time on social networking and video games is less likely to resist state social programmers than someone who commits Shakespeare's best monologues to memory. In fact, our modern culture is dead set against anyone enjoying Shakespeare at all.

Cultivating an appreciation for English poetry is bad enough, but learning the difference between good and bad English prose also needs to be eliminated. Thus, the philosophy of teaching basic English grammar in our schools has changed. Forget about the ancient languages, in which our words have their roots and original meanings. Forget graded teaching on the parts of speech. In fact, ask anyone on the street today to name the 8 parts of speech. They won't know what you are talking about, and this is a good thing if we want the communicative levels dialed on "low." (FYI, the eight parts of speech are nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections ... and you better not have to look the definitions of any of those up.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

STORYTELLING

Sometimes a good story can brighten your day. Most people forget that storytelling is a art form that demands joy, enthusiasm, proper voice inflection and a good and inspiring moral. After reading the anthology that he compiled, Tell Me A Story, when I was young, I became convinced that one of the greatest modern storytellers of the last century was probably actor & director, Charles Laughton. You need do nothing but simply to listen to his voice in order to be enchanted with what he has to say.

Below is one good example that we are lucky enough to have online:





Saturday, April 9, 2011

WHY BEAUTY MATTERS - Roger Scruton

In total, this is just under 60 minutes, but it's worth the time.  Contemporary British philosopher, Roger Scruton, here advocates for what is now an unpopular position. Most people think art is only subjective. Scruton disagrees and asks the viewer some interesting questions about how the Arts can possess meaning. (This does not yet seem to be available on DVD.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

ADDICTED TO MEDIOCRITY (1981) - by Frank Schaeffer (book review)

Frank, or "Franky" Schaeffer is quite the interesting fellow. His very first book, Addicted to Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts, explores and attacks the currently low view with which most, who hold to Christianity, still look upon the Arts. Written back in 1980, Schaeffer's criticisms of modern Christianity's interaction with the Arts are still legitimate today. Even some of the cartoons Kurt Mitchell illustrated for the book have proved weirdly prophetic (like one of a "Holy Land" amusement park which is now really being constructed in real life by "Ark Encounter LLC" and "Answers in Genesis."

Son of famous theologian, Francis Schaeffer, Frank had to have been given one hell of an education. Just imagination the nonstop conversations at the dinner table. While his father certainly understood some things that he didn't, it's also fair to say that, growing up as he did, he understood some things that his father didn't. After the publication of this book, Schaeffer gave both filmmaking a try (and failed badly) and further writing a try (successfully writing a number of satirical novels and other reasoned criticism of modern day evangelicalism). Some try and describe his writing as shrill or angry, but 30 years later, I can't help but find his writing ring more true, perhaps, than he even realized it would at the time.

Judge his writing for yourself:

... in this small volume I have pinpointed one particular area which has had an outsize influence on our ability as Christians to communicate to the world around us and, more important, our ability to truly enjoy God and our fellow human beings. This is the area of appreciation, activity, thought and action, which I loosely describe as "the arts." (pg. 11)

Today, Christian endeavor in the arts is typified by the contents of your local Christian bookstore-accessories-paraphernalia shop. For the coffee table we have a set of praying hands made out of some sort of pressed muck. Christian posters are ready to adorn your walls with suitable Christian graffiti to sanctify them and make them a justifiable expense. Perhaps a little plastic cube with a mustard seed entombed within to boost your understanding of faith. And as if this were not enough, a toothbrush with a Bible verse stamped on its plastic handle, and a comb with a Christian slogan or two impressed on it. On a flimsy rack are stacked a pile of records. You may choose them at random blindfolded, for most of them will be the same idle rehash of acceptable spiritual slogans, endlessly recycled as palabrum for the tone-deaf, television-softened brains of our present-day Christians.

The airwaves as you leave the shop are jammed with a choice avalanche of what can generally be summed up as rubbish, ready to clog your television and radio set with "Christian" programming. The publishing houses churn out (measured by the ton) a landslide of material which can scarcely be called books, often composed of the same themes which are viewed as spiritual, rehashed by writers who would be better employed in another trade.

In fact, without making the list endless, one could sum up by saying that the modern Christian world and what is known as evangelicalism is marked, in the area of the arts and cultural endeavor, by one outstanding feature, and that is its addiction to mediocrity.
(pgs. 22-23)

Unfortunately, things have only grown worse. We now live in a time when the word "Christian" is a legitimately derogatory term when used to describe films, books, music or just about any other art form. Heck, even the cartoon series South Park currently makes fun of how easy it is to sell entertainment of poor quality to Christians as long as you throw the word "Jesus" in there somewhere.

The behavior in the area of the arts and the media has caused some intelligent people to reject Christianity outright on their observing of this phenomenon. (pg. 25)

This hasn't changed. If you are not a Christian, the garbage currently being sold in today's Christian bookstores is reason enough to honestly decide that you just don't have any reason to be interested. Music on the Christian radio stations is currently so bad, that if I turn to it accidentally I start immediately remembering some of the worst ideas advocated by Friedrich Nietzsche with fondness. Creed, The Devil Wears Prada, Planetshakers, or Lust Control are almost enough to make me turn to atheism.

... we must actively resist the avalanche of mediocrity coming to us in the form of Christian "arts" and proppaganda. Why is there so much of this stuff? Simply because man, Christian or non-Christian, is created in the image of God, and a vacuum, formed in his soul by denying the God-given arts their proper place, has to be filled with something. He has an inward emptiness. But without proper base, man fills the void with only twisted, pale shadows of what art could be. This is why we face a torrent of mediocre media-artistic propaganda. (pg. 41)

... There are only two kinds of art, good art and bad art. There is good secular art and bad secular art. There is good art made by Christians and bad art made by Christians (and all the shadings in between). There is no such thing as Christian art any more than there are Christian bricks for the house builder. (pg. 62)

Unfortunately, most of the art modern Christians make is bad art.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU - FILM REVIEW (2011 - directed by George Nolfi)

The answer is yes if you were wondering, The Adjustment Bureau is both a romance and a good date movie. But, there is also something about this film that makes it distinctly different from the majority of Hollywood fare. Ignore the advertisements which are all pretending that it's just a science-fiction version of a chick flick. Writer and Director George Nolfi (and former college philosophy major) has added an intelligence to his film that you won't find inside the theater nine times out of ten. The Adjustment Bureau is a story designed to ask you to think.

This is evident early in the film, when the protagonist is forced to sit down and listen to a group of other-worldly agents who explain to him that everything he has ever believed about his own life and choices has been wrong. He has been living under the illusion that he is free. In reality, the important choices he has made in his own life have been carefully directed by a higher and unseen power. In fact, he is told that there are behind-the-scenes powers who keep him on a path he is meant to travel. These forces purposefully cause little things, usually seen by us as mere chance or accident - a spilled cup of coffee, a chance meeting in a hallway, an early bus, a missed cell phone call - that result in life changing consequences.

David Norris (Matt Damon) reels at the prospect that there are even thoughts in his own head that are not his own, planted there by outside powers. His understandable reaction is both a feeling of revulsion and a sense that this is wrong.

"What about free will?"
he asks the agents who have been clearly violating it. The answer he is given is that, because of human nature, when man is given free will, man does not usually choose what is good. Evil, pain and suffering regularly result from whenever man is allowed the power to exercise his own will. This is even proved by David's own life, where parties, bar fights and prison have resulted from his own natural tendencies when left unchecked - left to his own devices, David would not be in the position of ability to help other people in need (that he has been purposefully placed in). He would be too immersed in his own self to be capable of channeling his abilities for good or any higher outside purpose. In other words, while violating human free will, the higher power working a design in our lives is a Benevolent power.

And yet ... and this is where The Adjustment Bureau rises another level above regular films ... there is still something wrong with this. David cannot accept the fact that he does not possess free will. David, and later in the story his love interest Elise (Emily Blunt), both rebel against having their wills, and therefore their lives, controlled by an outside power, even if that power is acting for their own benefit. Accepting that choosing to live out their love for each other will hurt them, accepting that being together is going to force each of them to sacrifice personal dreams and desires, and accepting that focusing on each other instead of just their careers is going to severely limit them, they both still decide to be together.

I doubt that it's a coincidence that love is the reason David decides to fight against the forces that are working to force his life towards a predetermined goal. Before you dismiss the film as just another "true love conquers all" or "soul mates" type of romance, consider this: Isn't love a thing that is only possible when we have free will? C.S. Lewis thought so. In Book II, Chapter 3 of Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote:


God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata - of creatures that worked like machines - would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

So it's not necessarily that cliched to make a couple's love for each other to be the driving force behind rebellion against predetermined outcomes. While we're on this, let's also settle another question. In discussing this film with a couple friends, a few of them didn't think that the higher power controlling the predetermined outcomes of everyone's lives was necessarily denying them free will. In other words, each person in this film could exercise his or her own will, but outside forces would then just force each person onto a particular path. This explanation just misunderstands the nature of "free will."

I would respond that this understanding is on the level of handcuffing a man to a chair and then telling him that he is free to choose whether to stay or get up out of the chair. Sure, mentally he's still free to make the abstract choice to get up out of the chair, but as long as he's handcuffed to it doing so will be physically impossible. Apply this to David's situation in the film. He may still be mentally free to choose to love and pursue the girl. In that sense you might say he still has the ability to exercise his will. But, he is really not free to pursue and marry her, because outside forces are exercising their powers to make this impossible. This makes any idea of his being free a joke. If you really have free will, you have the ability to choose (and act upon) one of at least two different options.

SEARCHING FOR THE REDEMPTIVE


Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
- The Apostle Paul, Philippians 4:8
______________________________________________________________________________

Most people think of entertainment as something that helps them relax.  Most people seek entertainment as an antidote to the utter boredom of the routine and monotony of their lives.  This is only natural.  But, the majority of consumers take their desire for entertainment too far.  This includes you and me.  Over ninety percent of that which is produced for our entertainment is absolute garbage ... because garbage is what we demand.  Entertainment garbage is specifically designed to discourage you from thinking, to deaden your senses, to enable you to forget for a few hours the tediousness of your own life, and to lull you into a sense of escape from having to make any effort to do anything at all.   In this essay, I'm going to argue that our allowing this is listless and needless submission.  You don't have to settle for bilge when there are things of worth out there for you instead.

Rest and relaxation are healthy for the soul. But there are different kinds of relaxation.  There is a difference between being refreshed and being numbed. Entertainment, enjoyment, laughter, amusement and other miscellaneous diversions have the capacity to deaden you as they have the capacity to strengthen you.  Historically, art was created to stimulate the viewer to appreciate, to reflect upon, and to desire that what is both noble and beautiful.  But, in our modern culture, most films, TV shows and music do not direct us towards these ends.  We have lost our appreciation and cultivation of beauty in modern times.  Our standards have lowered to the lowest mass-marketed common denominator and the result is a counterfeit replacement for art - a counterfeit that devalues your thinking ability and your comprehension of that which is true, ennobling or beautiful.

So here’s the thing.

If you make the choice to set higher standards for yourself, suddenly a whole new unexplored and adventurous world opens up before you.  Yes, relaxation can be a pursuit that is healthy for the soul.  It can enliven you, waken you, open up your eyes to see beauty where you never even thought to look for it, cultivate a deeper understanding of what is worth spending your time upon, and even change you for the better.  In other words, film, television and music (among other art forms) ought to be redemptive. You can enrich your free time if you so choose to.  It ought to be refreshing.  It ought to be capable of making you into a better person.  It ought to encourage you to be good.  If you decide to listen to music, to read a book, or to watch a film, you have the opportunity to choose between that which will enchant, educate and edify your soul and that which will desensitize, warp and deaden your capacity to think and to feel.

And here’s where things can get exciting, because this type of art within entertainment does, in fact, exist.  It takes effort and a little self-education to be able to find it, but it is out there. Films and TV shows that inspire are being made by a small collection of artists who do actually take the time to think.  A minority of thoughtful and creative people have been producing entertainment for the small collection of consumers who do set higher standards for how they spend their free time.  These are the artists & musicians, authors & filmmakers that you need to seek out.  I promise that spending time with them and their works will be a rejuvenating experience.

Forget about pop culture.  It’s not worth the time.  The trendy, the popular and the fashionable are, most often, not the edifying.

It is time to take extended breaks from your life of social networking. For every four or more hours per day that a person spends texting and blogging and youtubing and emailing and myspacing and facebooking and twittering, you could read one life stretching book, or watch two entire films, either of which could make you look at the world around you with new eyes.  It is high time to raise your standards and to make the effort to spend your time with that which is of both depth and worth. Am I repeating myself here yet?

There is a flood of consumer entertainment media that is begging for your attention.  For the rest of your life, there will be a vast distractingly attractive collection of hyperlinks and advertisements trying to convince you to spend your time on meaninglessness and triviality.  In this flood, the good and the worthwhile will be lost if you do not know how to seek it out.

If you walk into a music store, the music that takes greater skill to create is going to be mixed in and lost in the middle of a majority of low quality mass-marketed copycat noise.  If you walk into a Blockbuster, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, The Coen Brothers, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Akira Kurosawa, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Wim Wenders, Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenneth Branagh or Terrence Malick will most likely be difficult to find.  If you walk into a modern bookstore, you are going to have to know precisely where to look to find anything at all of the quality of writers like Frederick Buechner, Patrick O’Brian, William F. Buckley Jr., G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, David Foster Wallace, Clyde Edgerton, Mark Helprin, Richard Price, Marilynne Robinson, Dorothy Sayers, Roger Scruton, Charles Portis, Shusako Endo or Flannery O’Connor. In any Borders or Barnes & Noble, the “Great Books” section will be one of the smallest sections in the entire bookstore if it, in fact, exists at all.  In other words, seeking out that which possesses virtue will always be just like a treasure hunt.  It requires work and effort, and its reward can be magical.

Why not strive, with your friends or family, to begin the hunt?

When I was attending undergraduate college, my standards for entertainment were low.  My friends and I would settle.  We just wanted anything gratifying to our appetites or that would distract us from the boredom of our class assignments.  We wanted to make as little effort as possible in seeking for anything that would serve.  We spent countless hours on poorly made TV shows.  We spent countless hours on antisocial video and computer games.  We spent countless hours going to see anything that Hollywood studios rightly thought we would be willing to waste our money on.   And we spent countless hours filling all our free time with the addictive vast new world of technological social networking, succumbing to the peer pressures of our age, and always conforming to the ever changing tastes of celebrity pop culture.  I acted like one who was asleep. I acted like I was drugged.  I didn’t like the work it took to stretch or think for myself.  I dallied over and discussed the meaningless and transient fads and fashions obsessed over by my own generation.  I chose laziness.  I chose self-gratification.  My eyes were closed and my mind was ignorant of very much of anything outside my own little self.  I'm not saying I'm past all this by any means.  This is still my natural inclination.

A few years ago, I was deployed in the United States Army for a year to Iraq. Going on a series of combat missions, if there was anything I learned while out underneath that huge Middle Eastern brightly star-studded night sky, it was (a) that life is short, and (b) that the truism that one ought to “stop and smell the roses” was just a trite cover for something of far more meaning than I had ever realized.  Most of us don't pause to really look at the Creation around us.  We take things like the night sky, the wind, the trees, or the rain all for granted. And, worst of all, we take most of the people walking around us for granted.

Consider this.  There are more great works of literature out there for you to read than you will have time to read in your lifetime.  There are more great films out there for you to see than you will have time to see in your lifetime.  There are more beautiful, haunting and inspiring works of music out there for you to listen to than you will have to time to listen to in your lifetime.  Your life just isn't long enough.  You do not have enough hours in the day.  I could go on and on trying to emphasize this point - there are more perfect works of sculpture, beautiful paintings, structures of intricate architecture, provocative reflections in theology, philosophy, history, literature, etc., etc., that exist than you will have time to experience in your short life time.  So why do we settle?  Why do we spend time on that which does not have value?  Why rest or relax with entertainment that will never affect for good who you are as a person, when you could instead relax and be refreshed with works of art and culture designed to speak to the innermost parts of your soul?

If I had read the above paragraph five or six years ago, I still wouldn't have listened.  I'd just have asked something along the lines of “What’s the harm with killing time with some harmless amusement?” and then I'd just have kept doing what I'd been doing.  When you are young, you aren't that worried about wasting some time here and there. Time is a luxury.  And luxuries are opportunities with which to indulge ourselves.  Boredom is our enemy, and therefore, any weapon handy with which to fight it is good enough.  Or so we think.   I'll address the very concept of “boredom” a little later, but for now let me just flat out declare that “killing time” is never a habit you should ever encourage within yourself.  It reaps certain and particular results in who you are as a person.

Fighting boredom by killing time is just another modern idea for an overly self-centered, self-focused and self-indulgent people. Modern day psychology may tell us to focus on ourselves.  Modern day social networking may intensely focus us on the little trivial details of every facet of our own self-thoughts and feelings and fears and random quirks.  But this way leads to death.

Just over the last couple decades, television has become a prime example of a hidden and unseen world closed to a majority of unquestioning consumers.  Quite recently, a few filmmakers decided that the TV show medium did not have to stay in the dumps as only a mass-marketed lower art form.  There was no reason age old stories of redemptive value could not be wrestled with and explored by a filmmaker ... if he was just brave enough to ignore the majority of the self-satisfied consumers' demands.  There was really no reason that the quality of the cinematography, script-writing and acting could not be raised to the same level as that of an Oscar worthy film.  In fact, the TV show medium offers a great filmmaker the unique opportunity of developing his story and characters far deeper than he could in a regular two hour film.

So along came a small band of guys like Steven Spielberg, David Chase, Joss Whedon, David Simon, Daniel Knauf, David Milch, Bruno Heller, Matthew Weiner, Bryan Fuller, Terence Winter, and yes, even Martin Scorsese.  They decided to collect writers like George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane to write their scripts - and suddenly there are now a whole number of different TV shows with redemptive worth to them available to those who willing to use a little effort and discrimination.  If you do not yet know who these men are, I envy you the experience of discovery that you now can make.  You have a whole new fascinating world waiting for you whenever you decide first ask yourself what TV would be like if it was created by a modern day William Shakespeare or a contemporary Charles Dickens.  I'm asking you to be a questioning consumer.  Ask questions about what you are offered as entertainment.  It's not that hard, and if you start demanding something of higher quality, your demands will be met.

Let’s also make something else clear. Do not take this essay of mine to be promoting artsy-hipster-yuppie excuses for pseudo-art appreciation.  I’m not trying to convince you to begin watching only art-house indie flicks.  One quickly tires of criticizing the schlock that Hollywood puts out for us every week but then being asked, “Oh ... so you like those independent indie/mumblecore films then?”  For every one indie flick with some depth to it (like oh say, Pieces of April or Lars Von Trier) there are ninety-nine other cliche ridden, self-absorbed, pretentious and trite exercises in narcissism out there masquerading themselves as alternative film.  There’s no reason to appreciate self-important pretentious melodramas on the troubled lives of yuppie existential angst anymore than there is to appreciate the latest Hollywood version of Rob Schneider in drag or Tyler Perry in a fat suit.  Much of art house cinema’s pretense at depth usually amounts to celebrations of what is supposed to be either culturally trendy or politically offensive.  I’m sorry, but I find nothing deep about the latest low-budget overly-sentimental slop about some guy who is so in touch with his feminine side that he’s able to have all the emotional problems of an immature pubescent.  Neither do I find anything of redemptive value about the latest quirky film provocateur who begs for attention with abnormal or condescending transformations of traditional subject matter (like gay cowboys).

It’s the same in music or any other art form.  Just listen to the drivel being written today as lyrics for your average indie rock crooner.  There’s just not even any comparison between most modern day song lyrics and anything written by back when song writers used to have talent (from Isaac Watts to Johnny Cash). What music today is near the skill-level and technical bad-ass artistry of guys like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Van Halen, Slash, Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton, let alone geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Tchaikovsky or Handel?  While Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, P!nk, Eminem or the latest popular winner of American Idol sit at the top of our music charts, we all know that there is a vast treasury of great music out there (of almost any genre) that we can spend time listening to instead.   So again I ask, why listen to that which is demonstrably of poorer and lower quality?

Don't get me wrong, lighter comic fare is not to be avoided or condemned.  I enjoy a good Jim Carrey comedy or Bruce Willis action flick as much as the next man.  Both Carrey and Willis have a certain genius within their particular genres.  You don't need to limit yourself to only entertainment of epic or somber proportions.  Judd Apatow has been producing comedies of redemptive worth since his first TV show, Freaks and Geeks (which is entirely about a bunch of teenagers sitting around in high school).  You can relax and laugh at Apatow's humor, but if you aren't completely unthinking, you shouldn't be able to help but notice that there's a method to his madness.  Unlike many other American comedies, the comedies of Apatow always seem to explore and affirm particular ideas ... ideas that go a little deeper than we'd expect them to and teach lessons in ways that comedies were originally meant to.