God is Watching, and So Am I: The Theology of Surveillance
Randy Lewis/University of Texas

Savior Protection

Mission statement from a sacred security firm’s website

I am writing these days about something I call sacred security, which is the business of selling video surveillance and other security measures to religious institutions. But it’s not just any old business. Sacred security is the work of a few dozen religiously-identified companies who market themselves to their spiritual brethren in a language that combines Old Testament metaphors with the anxious tropes of Homeland Security. What is being sold is the creeping militarization of the American church, in which ministers are literally being asked to “secure the perimeter” around their sanctuaries. From CCTV cameras above the altar to Sunday morning greeters trained to conduct a quick “threat assessment” on newcomers, surveillance culture has hit the American church.

The twenty-five companies that I’m following express little interest in the security needs of American Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, or liberal Protestants. Instead, most of the vendors, like most of the customers, seem to be white evangelical conservatives living in small towns and suburbs in the American south and lower Midwest. Envisioning themselves as “God-centered” capitalists on a sacred mission, these companies pitch their services to small rural congregations and suburban mega-churches alike—anyone looking for an electronic sentry to watch over the faithful like a “shepherd” or a “guardian” around the “Lord’s tent,” as the brochures and websites promise. Although these people are probably more “Moral Majority” than persecuted minority, I suspect that they feel exposed and vulnerable to attack when they are tempted to place surveillance cameras in their sacred spaces. And I am, above all else, interested in how they feel about the presence of these cameras. In almost two decades of writing about media culture, I have thought a great deal about what it feels like to look through a lens onto the world. I’m now beginning to think about how it feels to be the subject of that lens.

I’m interested in my own feelings about CCTV as well, even surprised by them. Until recently I didn’t know I cared about cameras in sacred spaces at all. Yet I keep returning to religious angles that I’ve never pursued in the past. I wonder who would want surveillance cameras above the pews glaring down at the worshippers? What could be so alarming to a room full of gun-owning, God-fearing middle-aged white people in a small town run by other white people? In other words, who really needs sacred security, and what is so damn frightening that you’d replace the free-flowing calm and compassionate welcome of the idealized church with an ominous sense of lock-down? Apparently, it is not enough that some deacons are literally carrying guns to Sunday services or that some pastors are literally clasping specially-designed bulletproof Bible holders at the altars. Something else is needed to assuage the fear.

Although I am only beginning to explore these questions, I can hazard this much: terrorism is not their demon of choice. Rather, it is the rank stranger outside the gate. It is the black cloud of evil that can settle anywhere, anytime, in their fretful vision of modern America. It is the vile nature of strangers, of difference, of heathens, but also the evil within: what the pastor might do to the organist, what the children might allege in the nursery—and if they don’t fear these things, the marketing of sacred security explicitly tells them that they should. Thank God—or Gideon Protect Services, or Watchman Security, or Savior Protection, Inc.—that video surveillance cameras, properly installed, will protect the innocent and ward off the wicked. Such is the sales pitch from the companies that I have been researching in this complex economy of fear.

What draws me to this topic is the sheer contrast between the ideal of hopeful refuge and shoulder-to-shoulder togetherness in a sacred space, and the insinuated, carefully marketed anxiety of the security business, forever amping up the threat of looming violence and the necessity of eternal vigilance. Must everything drip with fear?

I’m not sure that I qualify as a religious person with an obvious stake in these matters. I have so many qualms, detachments, even revulsions, but I have felt something else as well. Like Emerson, “I like the silent church before the service begins…” I get a charge in the sanctuary that I quite like, because I don’t get it at the mall. In moments of crisis and sometimes in moments of calm, I am shot through with peasant superstition and Irish sentimentality that says preserve this beautiful space, this ancient ideal of communitas, this relative openness to strangers in a world of enclosure, monitoring, and locked gates. Throw away the rest of the institution if Richard Dawkins appeals to you, but somehow keep the safe contemplation of the sublime and what Martin Luther King called the sanctity of the beloved community. Don’t spoil it with the paranoid lens of CCTV on every flat surface.

Church Surveillance

The view from above… Surveillance camera in church in Austin, Texas

So what rattles me about so-called “worship surveillance” is the vague feeling of violation. That plastic camera near the roofline seems out of place, almost seeming to function like a rival to the crucifix—and one just as alive with potentiality. My father’s old broken Catholicism, my mother’s stern Church of Christ, my own peevish teenage Lutheran apostasy, my surreal exile in Catholic boys school, all tells me that I’m looking the wrong way, that I’m responding to the wrong icon when I look past the crucifix to stare at the CCTV camera. But that camera is where I feel watched and judged. I want it to stop looking, to simply trust me not to harm, whether I’m in a church or The Gap. But it never sleeps, never closes its glassy unblinking eye.

Queasy as I am about the blurring of cameras and crosses, of old theology and new technology, I wonder if they have a certain affinity. Both emblems of judgment from afar, of an inscrutable downward gaze. Along with other forms of tracking human behavior, increasingly ubiquitous surveillance cameras represent yet another encroachment on our privacy and liberty—yet few Americans seem concerned about CCTV in churches or anywhere else. Perhaps we would find this encroachment more disturbing if the new eye of providence didn’t feel so much like the old one—that is to say, if ancient patterns of belief hadn’t prepped the ground for this new outgrowth of the security state? (( It is important to note that Christian scripture also been used to endorse an open door policy of trust and compassion in other congregations, and that some evangelical Christians express considerable hostility toward surveillance culture. Determining why fear takes root in some congregations and not others is an important question for me.))

I understand the desire to control, even to take on the responsibility of protecting a flock, but I worry that sacred security will make the American church feel like a post-9/11 airport (“please remove your shoes before communion…”)—or even worse, the MGM Grand. With the expansion of our “control society” into every realm of American life, I fear that we’re building a gaudy Las Vegas of the mind, a slick zone of mechanized distrust in which we’re always under someone’s watchful eye. In Scorsese’s Casino, Ace Rothstein, the savvy operator played by Robert de Niro, explains this culture of relentless scrutiny:

In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else. Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The box men are watching the dealers. The floor men are watching the box men. The pit bosses are watching the floor men. The shift bosses are watching the pit bosses. The casino manager is watching the shift bosses. I’m watching the casino manager. And the eye-in-the-sky is watching us all.

Of course, the “all-seeing eye” used to refer to the divine. Now it is a small lens linked to a video monitor in the back room of a church, casino, shopping center, or office building. And therein lies the dismal bathos of the contemporary moment in which the cross is not adequate protection even for believers: God’s not dead, he’s just been demoted.

Let me provide a specific example from the world of sacred security. Not long ago, ABC news broadcast a story about a woman in Houston who stole money from purses during church services, even after exchanging the “sign of peace” with her victim. She is a woman of color, part of a worrisome pattern in these widely circulated news stories and the sacred security marketing built around them. The news provides us with the POV of the church surveillance camera: we gawk in judgment from above as the petty thief helps herself to someone’s wallet. The ABC video footage, filled with standard-issue piety about Holiness debased (perhaps not too different from my own), is then used by sacred security companies to press their case. “Church leaders have been very reluctant to install church video surveillance systems because they believe it conveys distrust and sends a message of fear to the congregants,” a website called SmartSurveillanceTips.com tells us. “The truth is, properly installed church video security monitoring systems will never affect the feeling of openness and trust that most congregations wish to experience.” Phew, what a relief: there are no side effects to injecting another all-seeing eye into a small congregation. The marketers explain away all doubts, even as they gin up the fear with long lists of atrocities committed on church grounds. Separating media hyperbole from actual danger is impossible in the welter of emotions that sacred security generates: fear, outrage, guilt, anger, vigilance, hope.

So much of this business works on an affective level where religion flourishes as well. Because we have no compelling evidence that CCTV serves as a deterrent, churches are buying it “on faith” for the feeling of security that it provides (and perhaps for the satisfaction of being able to say after the next crime, “We did all we could.”). Thus the proposition “CCTV will make me safer” is no different in kind than “the Lord will provide” or even “everything happens for a reason.” In this sense, religious institutions may offer fertile soil for the new gospel of insecurity that the security industry is preaching.

The first commandment of sacred security is Thou Shall Fear Thy Neighbor, which is why the sales pitch seems designed to scare the bejesus out of complacent congregations. “Sense of Sanctuary Lost as Church Attacks Spike” is one headline in the litany of crimes against sacred spaces that is offered in almost every piece of sacred security marketing. “This will be the 32nd violent attack this year” [2010], another company reminds its customers, before listing many of these atrocities, often with links to news stories that emphasize the urgency of the crisis. Similarly, the Church Security Alliance features dramatic headlines on its website: “Pastor Shot In The Head While Hosting Youth Group Event… Man Drives Car Into Church And Sets Building On Fire… Murder-Suicide At Texas Church Altar…. Minister Beaten After Clashing With Muslims On His TV Show.” Or again in the Lone Star state, this time from a company called Safe at Church: “Gunman Kills Seven, and Himself, In Texas Church.” To keep these warnings from seeming anecdotal, a few vendors add a veneer of social science, such as the security consultant who publishes a “comprehensive list of Ministry related deadly force incidents.” His litany purports to describe hundreds of violent crimes committed on church grounds in the US since 1999. Although some churches have faced grave threats to their security, I’m not certain that CCTV is necessary or helpful in most cases, especially in light of its ambiguous effects.

It’s too early for me to say if CCTV eases or intensifies the fear of crime in a particular congregation. Perhaps security cameras will be perceived (paradoxically) as symbols of insecurity, as reflections of a history of violence and vandalism in a particular location. I’m interested in these perceptions as well as the other psychological baggage that accompanies the proliferation of CCTV. For instance, I’m curious if the addition of video surveillance enables a kind of comprehensive, unseen seeing that humans are not used to possessing, one that far exceeds the imaging technologies of the 20th century? Will the proliferation of small, powerful, and networked surveillance cameras represent an unprecedented expansion of vision, one that approaches certain aspects of the divine omnivalence described in Proverbs 15:3: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good”? The theology of video surveillance is my ultimate destination in this current project. ((Not much has been written on the intersection of theology and surveillance culture, but I would recommend David Lyon’s short essay (excellent but hard to find), “God’s Eye: Surveillance and Watchfulness in the Twenty-first Century,” Transmission, Summer 2010, as well as Eric Stoddart’s Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched (Surray UK: Ashgate, 2011).))

Billboard

Billboard in New Mexico

How we internalize video surveillance and the other imperatives of a control society is, for me, the heart of the matter. Well before Jeremy Bentham made this internalization of the guard’s gaze a key aspect of his diabolically clever Panopticon, the 15th century German monk, Nicholas of Cusa, disciplined an entire abbey with a single portrait of Jesus, whose eyes had been painted to appear to follow the monks wherever they went. ((Although it seems likely given the context, I’ve been unable to confirm that the portrait was of Jesus or someone else whose gaze would affect the monks so deeply. See Christopher M. Bellitto, Thomas M. Izbicki, Gerald Christianson, Introducing Nicholas of Cusa: A Guide to a Renaissance Man (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004) 389.)) As much as it inspired a greater degree of piety in the abbey, the constant gaze was also an irritant, an oppressive force for those who had to live with what I imagine as a bug-eyed Jesus. A perverse parable emerged for Nicholas of Cusa’s brethren, in which the hunger for security begat a new kind of insecurity, and I suspect that we will discover much the same thing in our mania for technologies of control. What should have offered comfort and calm (Jesus, CCTV) may end up provoking discomfort and unease, if not painful self-consciousness. Maybe we will feel clumsy and naked on this perpetual stage, or maybe we will revel in it as we embrace lives of carefree exhibitionism. Privacy be damned, some will say, relishing the sense of being watched as a way to give meaning to their lives. Perhaps our deeds, both petty and grave, will take on a greater depth of meaning that comes from our sense of being monitored.

Yet I’m also interested in the flip side: being the divine watcher must have its own perils. In his short story, “Human Moments in World War III,” first published in Esquire in July 1983, Don DeLillo imagined the God-like sensation that accompanies the rapid expansion of vision that an astronaut might experience:

Earth orbit puts men into philosophical temper. How can we help it? We see the planet complete. We have a privileged vista. In our attempts to be equal to the experience, we tend to meditate importantly on subjects like the human condition. It makes a man feel universal, floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world, a line as clear as a compass arc, knowing it is just a turning of the bend to Atlantic twilight, to sediment plumes and kelp beds, an island chain glowing in the dusky sea.

As we increasingly scrutinize other people on CCTV in our churches, homes, and offices, or from small flying drones equipped with surveillance cameras, will we not feel this God-like perspective of gazing down from above, sitting in judgment, convinced that we are all-seeing “I”? ((“In such a world, deadly gadgetry is just a grant request away, so why shouldn’t the 14,000 at-risk souls in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, have a closed-circuit-digital-camera-and-monitor system (cost: $180,000, courtesy of the Homeland Security Department) identical to the one up and running in New York’s Times Square?”(http://www.salon.com/2012/03/05/the_cost_of_americas_police_state/))) (I say convinced because the all-seeing eye, whether technological or theological, is always fantasy: knowledge and visibility are never coterminous). Will we become God-like voyeurs in our desire to watch our friends and neighbors, co-workers and students, studying each of them with a Stasi-like efficiency on an ever-expanding surveillance system. A popular app already enables the fantasy of anonymous global voyeurism, allowing us to tap into live surveillance feeds from around the world. Look it’s snowing in Japan… a man is jaywalking in Sweden… a car has just parked in Florida. We can even move these faraway cameras, changing angles, rotating the view. Perhaps the next generation of the app will let us speak to the jaywalker in Sweden: Hey! You’re breaking the law. I see you! Shape up! And he will look up, suddenly flush with fear and trembling, scurrying away from this anonymous scolding. Eventually, if I may wax Ballardian for a moment, the peep-junkies may be able to direct small bursts of foul odor or electric shocks in order to hassle the wicked souls appearing on their CCTV monitors, thereby adding an element of “gamification” to the disciplinary regime. The possibilities are endless at the leading edge of the techno-theological.

Of course, more than petty scoldings are at stake when surveillance technology allows us to watch and judge in secret—we are also being tempted to assume an authoritarian mindset that seeks to categorize and control human behavior from above, rather than remaining in the democratic fray. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s incomparable novel about a genteel English family on holiday, includes a passage in which she described a young girl standing over a tide pool, playing God with its tiny marine inhabitants. As she becomes bored with the little universe at her feet, she begins to fantasize about her power over all that she surveyed:

Brooding, she changed the pool into the sea, and made the minnows into sharks and whales, and cast vast clouds over this tiny world by holding her hand against the sun, and so brought darkness and desolation, like God himself, to millions of ignorant and innocent creatures, and then took her hand away suddenly and let the sun stream down.

Herein lies the future of CCTV, a world in which every petty soul can play God over some private puddle. As we sit in private judgment, seeing without being seen, we have taken the “first step in the construction of God” as one of Bentham’s explicators has suggested. ((See Slovenian philosopher Miran Bozovic’s introduction to Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings (London: Verso, 1995) 11.)) In my bleaker moments, I imagine us increasingly hunched over a bank of surveillance monitors in the back of a high school, private home, or church, surveying some little world through a lens as we munch on salty snacks and scratch ourselves. We’ll spend the afternoon peering dyspeptically into every crevice of human behavior that can be displayed on screen, scouring the surface of things for the merest hint of danger. Dully obsessed with our seemingly limitless gaze, neither satisfied with our digital voyeurism nor able to give it up, we’ll simply be brooding over our own little kingdoms of insecurity, struggling in vain to remember what privacy, security, and community felt like before the advent of the plastic all-seeing eye. ((Or perhaps we will feel safe at last behind our banks of video monitors, luxuriating in our own version of Total Information Awareness, like primates content to scour the horizon for predators? My hope is that future ethnographic data will shed some light on this difficult question.))

Image Credits:

1. Savior Protection Ministries’ mission statement
2. Image from a church surveillance camera provided by author
3. New Mexico billboard




No Arguments for the Elimination of Anything
Randy Lewis/University of Texas at Austin

iPhone

iPhone Abacus

Before I complain about how incredibly lucky I am, technologically speaking, let make something very clear. I am a grateful occupant of the present moment. I am not interested in going back to the 1970s, to a childhood populated by stuck-key typewriters and televisions the size of Buicks, not to mention germy pay phones, tissue-paper airmail, and film strips with wobbly-voiced narrators. Even worse is the prospect of time travelling back to the 19th century, when booming 3D movies and sleek smart phones had not yet supplanted the minstrel show and abacus.

If anything, the recent holiday season has intensified—and complicated—my gratitude for the technological here and now. Like many of you, I am the proud owner of a new iPhone, the latest addition to an impressive electronic arsenal that keeps me from falling out of step with the slightest twitch of our culture’s nonstop media frenzy. Now more than ever, I live in a constant pirouette, spinning between news updates, push notifications, and urgent work emails flashing on the various screens that surround me even when I sleep. Websites, television programs, text messages—they barely register in my mind before I flit to the next jolt of electrons that might bring some flicker of joy.

It would seem a perfect match between product and consumer: the glittering wares of the postmodern media bazaar versus the anxious drudgery that characterizes so much of contemporary American life. But the more I stare into the expensive screens that I am lucky enough to possess, the more I feel a vague anxiety stirring. Why I am so stimulated but rarely satisfied by this orgy of electronic activity? Why does disenchanting reality haunt my fantasies of blissful connectivity? Why can’t I simply enjoy the show?

I’d write it off to the quirks of personal psychology, but I know that I am not alone in feeling something amiss in the emerging mediascape. How many of us have a secret or even unconscious longing to escape the constant looking and seeing, buzzing and Tweeting, of our seductive screen culture? The iPhone has barely celebrated its fifth birthday, but already it’s an addictive presence that follows us everywhere, even places where it should never be. For instance, our hospitals are now staffed with iPhone junkies, including, as the New York Times reports, a “neurosurgeon making personal calls during an operation, a nurse checking airfares during surgery and a poll showing that half of technicians running bypass machines had admitted texting during a procedure.” (( As if going to the doctor weren’t bad enough: “As Doctors Use More Devices, Potential for Distraction Grows,” New York Times, December 15, 2011 ))

Even if techno-mania doesn’t induce medical malpractice that will shorten my life, the incessant beeping of everything everywhere is driving me slightly mad—-so much so that I wonder what it would be like to live without it all (once again). I’m am not talking about a quick Internet holiday or a symbolic “TV turn-off” day, but instead something unthinkable in our present state of mind: the permanent unplugging of all media devices, from TVs to computers to smart phones to video games, in one big Luddite freak-out. To even evoke such possibilities seems wrong and dangerous, like something out of dystopian science fiction. Surely it would result in roving bands of Mad Max villains and Kevin Costner drinking his own urine on a sea of post-apocalyptic despair?

Mad Max

Mad Max reaches for his iPhone

Strangely, we’re willing to imagine such grim scenarios in general, whether it’s the Christian “rapture” of the Left Behind series or the apocalyptic landscape of I Am Legend or The Terminator—-but not in regard to our beloved consumer electronics. How can we account for the rapidity with which these devices have become forever superglued to our bodies? How can we explain our waning ability to imagine anything else? It is one of the great aporias of our times, a strange hole in our collective imagination.

Perhaps high tech is the only game in town, the only place where, as Charlie Sheen puts it, we’re winning. A friend of mine, the anthropologist Norman Stolzoff, made this point to me recently. As he put it, technology is the rare part of our society in which we have something concrete to show for all our bluster about innovation and amelioration. Taking away our greatest success story would just be cruel.

Yet… are we not curious about how it would feel to experience the “great unplugging”? Would we relish the ensuing silence as we restore the old ways of communicating and connecting with one another? Or would we lapse into a languorous funk without Google and HBO, Avatar and Annoying Orange? Would we feel permanently stuck in the isolation tank of our own boredom, marooned with the hideousness of our own organic thoughts? Would we start sketching the “Real Housewives” on the walls of our condos in crayon, breathlessly narrating their erotic adventures like an ancient bards singing the tale Odysseus and the sirens? Would we pine for our iPhones, laptops, and flatscreen TVs like postmodern amputees cursing the loss of our cyborg appendages? Would we grieve for our machines?

Probably. But what fascinates me is how loathe we are to even imagine this scenario. We are increasingly unwilling to contemplate the absence of the various screens that convey so much of our entertainment, sociality, and labor. Like Francis Fukuyama’s Cold War “End of History” argument in which capitalism’s apparent triumph over socialism foreclosed any discussion of alternatives, the new media juggernaut is so powerful that it has blotted out our ability to imagine anything else. We are all hopeless screenagers now.

Once, long ago, in a land just before TRS-80s and Colecovision, Americans could still imagine cutting the umbilical cord to mother media. In 1977, former ad-man Jerry Mander wrote an influential book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, which takes aim at what he deems “a totally horrible” and “irredeemable” technology; “we’d all be much better off without it.” His critique was blistering. “Television offers neither rest nor stimulation,” Mander lamented. “Television inhibits your ability to think, but it does not lead to freedom of mind, relaxation or renewal. It leads to a more exhausted mind.” (( Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (NY: William Morrow, 1978) 347, 211. )) Of course, Mander encountered resistance even then. “Are you really going to advocate its elimination?” he was asked repeatedly while researching the book, even by people who claimed to hate television. Much to his astonishment, even the haters were unable to imagine life without TV, prompting him to wonder, “why it is so unthinkable that we might eliminate a whole technology?”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3NBEurnIqY&feature=youtu.be[/youtube]

Recent interview with Jerry Mander

Today, Mander’s bold renunciation seems as much a relic of the 1970s as Billy Beer and Barry Manilow. As TV has been joined by a host of new media devices that offer endless distraction (and increasingly endless labor), we only hear tepid, partial calls for individual reform, never systemic abolition. In the first days of 2012, Pico Iyer wrote a searching piece in the New York Times about “trying to escape the constant stream of too much information,” but his solution was simply the occasional act of personal renunciation: a morning without email here, an unplugged week in a Benedictine monastery there. Although Iyer acknowledges that “all the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images,” he can only suggest that we leave our cell phones at home during a Saturday walk, or find some recompense in the organic rigor of “yoga, or meditation, or tai chi.” (( Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” New York Times, January 1, 2012. ))

Writing in a similar vein a few days later in Slate, Katie Roiphe wondered if we could even go back to an unplugged world:

If you ask any 60-year-old what life was like before the Internet they will likely say they “don’t remember.” How can they not remember the vast bulk of their adult life? The advent of our online lives is so transforming, so absorbing, so passionate that daily life beforehand is literally unimaginable.” (( See Katie Roiphe’s essay on the Freedom app ))

Literally unimaginable is the part that stuns me. Unless it’s just a shallow reflection of unfounded bourgeois certitude, a kind of upper-middle class Whiggism that assume that history moves in one direction—toward my comfy perch on a Pottery Barn sofa—Roiphe is describing a disturbing sort of cultural rigidity in the contemporary US. It’s what politicians used to call a failure of vision.

Of course, a few Americans are able to imagine themselves shorn of “all mod cons,” not just the latest iPhone. In his book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly looks at the Amish, whose rejection of modern technology seems impressively complete on first glance. Yet what Kelly discovers is that even the Amish remain dependent on the hidden benefits of technology for the kerosene in their lamps, metal in their tools, and cotton in their clothes, which means that their renunciation is dependent upon our system of manufacturing and high-tech distribution. In other words, the Amish renunciation is in symbiosis with our techno-lust. “The Amish lifestyle is too familiar to poor peasants in China or India to have any meaning there,” Kelly points out. “Such elegant rejection can only exist in, and because of, a modern technium.” (( Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, (NY: Viking, 2010) 231. ))

Kelly is a practical, adaptive sort: he wants us to use the tools that make our tasks easier, whether it’s a chainsaw or an iPad. And he is right. Atavism is not the answer to our technological woes: thoughtful adaptation is. We are in a transitional moment—when are we not?—in regard to the proliferation of new communication technologies in our midst. Their sudden omnipresence is a boon to the consciousness that homo sapiens have evolved over 100,000 years, but also, almost imperceptibly and certainly without fanfare, a splinter in our eye as well.

I think it is this both/and perspective that I would emphasize. I’m tired of well-funded techno-utopians shouting out a few ragged techno-Cassandras in an “either/or” battle for the soul of our culture. Instead of ignoring (or exaggerating) the downside of our proliferating screen culture, we could weigh the benefits and the drawbacks in the same thoughtful conversation. Ten years ago, in The Rise of the Image and the Fall of the Word, media scholar Mitchell Stephens gestured in this direction when he reminded us that all technology comes with a price. (( Mitchell Stephens, The Rise of the Image and the Fall of the Word (NY: Oxford University Press, 1998). )) Digging into the Greek origins of the word, Stephens noted that “techne” comes from the Greek for “knowledge about how to make things,” and that this knowledge is what Prometheus stole when he took fire from the Gods and passed it to humans. His punishment for sharing the intellectual property of the gods? He was chained to a rock where a vulture ate his liver daily (assuming your gin-bloated liver weighs a full pound—otherwise, the price is 6 ounces of healthy liver). For Stephens, the moral is clear: the price of any technological know-how is a pound of flesh. In other words, new technologies always come with a price, one that is often hidden or obscured in the hype that accompanies each new advance. Cultural maturity, I would argue, allows for this sort of both/and thinking in lieu of hysterical polarization.

By thinking more dialectically about new media, we could even ask some useful questions: how can we minimize the pound of flesh that we sacrifice to our beautiful new devices? How do we prevent our employers from colonizing our spiffy new devices, sneaking in more and more work obligations where creativity, relaxation, and community might be found? How can we minimize the jolts to our psyche that we experience in a mediascape of constant interruption? How do we bring greater depth to the luminous surfaces of our iPhones and laptops?

I’m not giving up my techno-goodies: they’ll have to pry my iPhone from my cold dead hands. And I’m not volunteering to become an information hermit, vainly shutting out the noise of the world with fingers in my ears. Still, I’m glad that the Amish and other techno-skeptics are out there somewhere in our cultural imagination. Their quiet renunciation reminds us that we could, and perhaps at times should, live without these sleek machines that we find deliriously addictive, pleasurable, maddening, and exhausting. After all, our technology may improve and enliven our lives, but not without a price. We should never forget that pound of flesh.

Image Credits:

1. iPhone Abacus
2. Mad Max reaches for his iPhone
3. Recent interview with Jerry Mander

Please feel free to comment.




The Compassion Manifesto: Corporate Media and the Ethic of Care
Randy Lewis/ The University of Texas at Austin

Scottish cartoonist David Shrigley’s “Time to Choose”

Scottish cartoonist David Shrigley’s “Time to Choose”

During a recent Republican Presidential debate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was asked how he would apply his libertarian philosophy to the case of a gravely ill American who could not afford health care. Even before the candidate could answer the dramatic question, parts of the audience erupted into a small Roman orgy of ghoulish cheering that seemed to say, “Hell yeah! Let ‘em die.” ((Ron Paul was not unique in expressing and eliciting uncharitable sentiments in the recent presidential debates. When Gov. Rick Perry touted his record number of executions, some members of the audience clapped as if he had scored a touchdown. Then, at another Republican debate a week later, the audience astonished many viewers at home by booing an active-duty gay soldier who appeared on video from Iraq.))

TV pundits immediately seized on this apparent display of heartlessness. Much to his credit, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was incredulous about these lusty expressions of cruelty, which he saw as part of larger “hatred of people who are in trouble, who are vulnerable” in America today. ((Chris Matthews, Hardball, MSNBC, September 23, 2011)) However, Matthews and his talk-show colleagues seemed oblivious to the ways in which they are part of the problem: simply put, commercial television has increasingly skewed toward a meaner view of life in recent years.

Think about it: when was the last time you saw an act of charity on TV? In the strictly for-profit world of corporate media that dominates our nightly viewing, caring for strangers has lost out to macho indifference, consumerist narcissism, and paranoid stranger-danger. Except in rare circumstances, we are not permitted to witness ongoing suffering nor those who tend to it. This omission is one of the defining facts of our contemporary mediascape.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about those periodic moments of telegenic ruin when Anderson Cooper choppers in for a few weeks of sober glances at the problem. I’m talking about the day-to-day shit through which people slog and activists struggle: unsafe water, inadequate food, abusive institutions, cruel economics, uncertain prospects, epic despair. Where do we bear witness to that pain in the age of the screen? When do we imagine ourselves in solidarity with those who suffer?

Someplace Like America

Someplace Like America- UC Press Podcast

Maybe John Winthrop saw it coming in 1630 when he warned the new colonists in Massachusetts to remain “knitt together” like the “ligaments” of a body, and that “perticuler estates cannot subsist in the ruine of the publique.” For reasons both theological and practical, Winthrop put charity and interdependence at the center of his political vision, not the unfettered individualism and “dog-eat-dog” bravado that become dominant. The Puritan governor even sketched out the proper response to a “community of peril.” (Hint: he didn’t suggest that letting them die would be “Christian,” but instead argued for compassion and aid).

Not that his advice did much good. You can ask the Pequots who faced Puritan muskets in 1637, or Anne Hutchinson who was banished for heresy the following year. From the earliest moments of settlement, European Americans were unable to remain “knitt together” in a compassionate polity for very long.

The modern history of our republic bears out this view of a disconnected, distrustful populace. In recent decades, “social capital,” that sociological measure of goodwill between citizens, has performed as miserably as the financial capital now withering in our 401k accounts. Writing about the “waning of faith in our fellow citizens” in 2008, political scientist Eric M. Uslaner noted, “Trust in other people has fallen dramatically in the United States over the past four decades as Americans have become less engaged in their communities.” ((Eric M. Uslaner, “Truth and Consequences,” in K. R. Gupta, Prasenjit Maiti, eds., Social Capital (New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers, 2008) 58. According to some researchers, television “may exacerbate isolation and thus play a role in the decline of trust.” Jeremy Adam Smith and Pamela Paxton, “America’s Trust Fall,” in Dacher Keltner, Jeremy Adam Smith, Jason Marsh, eds., The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness (NY: Norton, 2010) 207.)) As has been widely noted and often debated, the age of television has also been the age of distrust, marked by a decreasing commitment to volunteerism, local charities, and other traditional forms of civic engagement.

I’m not suggesting that corporate media bear sole responsibility for this apparent culture of disconnection and uncaring. For this, we can thank a nerve-wracking economic landscape as well as deeper national mythologies such as a rampant individualism that makes us skeptical of anything except self-reliance; a “winner takes all” American dream in which first place is a Cadillac, second place a set of steak knives; and an endemic culture of militarization that enshrines vengeance at the expense of understanding. These stern ideas often conspire against our charitable instincts, something we might notice if we weren’t flooded with self-congratulatory rhetoric about own “exceptional” status. We are told, simply because we are Americans, that we are more giving, caring, and righteous than any other nation and that we need not sacrifice the smallest personal whim to benefit the commonwealth. In the brave new world of neoliberal cynicism, charity really does begin at home.

Perversely, media corporations ask us to empathize with strangers who don’t need our help. As we watch highly rated reality programs like Celebrity Apprentice or The Real Housewives of Orange County, we are invited to feel a kind of aspirational solidarity with Donald Trump and other millionaires whose ranks we supposedly expect to join (and thus must not tax). It’s not just Megan Wants a Millionaire. Everyone in TV-land is encouraged to share this “natural” desire to put glamorous self-interest above boring, old communitas. ((On this concept, see Paul and Percival Goodman, Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947).)) And not surprisingly, we seem to have a much harder time envisioning ourselves in solidarity with less fortunate people, especially when racial or cultural difference is a factor. ((For more on this topic, see Courte C.W. Voorhees, John Vick, and Douglas D. Perkins, “‘Came Hell and High Water’: The Intersection of Hurricane Katrina, the News Media, Race and Poverty.” Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 17, no. 6 (November 2007): 415-429. I should also note that elitism is another obvious problem in getting to people to recognize their common humanity. I remember working as a union organizer in California universities in the mid-1990s, trying to get graduate student employees to join together for better wages and health care benefits. The greatest obstacle was convincing them to sign a card with the UAW emblem in the corner. I was often asked, what did an aspiring software engineer have in common with an autoworker? I should have flipped it around to ask: what sets apart the hard-working factory worker from the future cubicle slave? Little more than a smug fantasy of superior laboring.))

Let’s be frank. While we are constantly told that we are a caring people, that even the stingiest miser can call himself a “compassionate conservative” with a straight face, we spend countless hours in a mediascape that circulates cruelty, competition, consumerism, and snark. How often are we asked to care about civilian casualties in our endless wars, or poor neighborhoods in New Orleans where people are still reeling from Katrina’s wake? Hollywood cinema, reality TV, and even cable news flit past these continuing stories, barely allowing them to register. ((“Whether it wishes or not, television has become the principal mediation between the suffering of strangers and the consciences of those in the world’s few remaining zones of safety,” wrote Michael Ignatieff in a powerful 1985 essay about the ethics of presenting victimhood and suffering on television. “For if we cease to care, not merely about their fate, but also how their fate and our obligations to them are represented in our culture, then it is they—the victims on the screens—not us, who pay the heaviest price.” See “Is Nothing Sacred? The Ethics of Television,” Daedalus. Vol. 114, No. 4, (Fall, 1985) 76-77. This essay remains one of the most thoughtful explorations of compassion in the age of television.)) Does the nightly news focus on the one-in-four rate of child poverty in Texas as it much as it marvels at Rick Perry’s cowboy swagger? ((http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/02/04/173771/perry-children/)) Even if sociological reality intrudes on our narcotic dreamscape (and scholars of print media have shown that this happens mostly around Christmas), we can simply tune it out. ((William Burns, Angela Yanuk, and David A. Snow, “The Cultural Patterning of Sympathy Toward the Homeless and Other Victims of Misfortune,” Social Problems 43:4 (1996) 391.)) Dancing with the Stars is calling our name.

David Shrigley Cartoon

David Shrigley Cartoon

How stark is the contrast with a book I read over the summer: Rebecca Anne Allahyari’s Visions of Charity: Volunteer Workers and Moral Community. A gifted qualitative sociologist, Allahyari “illuminates the construction of caring selves in the work of feeding the urban poor,” suggesting how “moral selves” develop in the process of caring for those in need. Using The Salvation Army and Loaves and Fishes as her case studies, she examines how people volunteering in soup kitchens find themselves improved, even transformed, through the process of helping others.

What is striking about this book is not the careful insights of good scholarship, especially when rooted in a scholar’s own ethic of care. Instead, it is how much it exists in contradistinction to the ethic of uncaring in commercial media. After reading Allahyari’s work, I worried not simply for invisible victims of hunger, poverty, or homelessness; I became increasingly concerned about the rest of us who tolerate (or tune out) these often unseen ravages. I began to wonder if corporate media discourages us from seeing the structural pain in our midst, if its consumerist agenda is dominating what could be an important forum for “moral selving.” When it comes to unsensational forms of suffering, the enduring structural binds into which millions of Americans are born, corporate media seems unable to visualize it (or its relief) in any but the most superficial and fleeting forms.

Of course, compassion does receive some lip service on cable television. For instance, we have the “two minute care,” the sanctimonious inversion of the Orwellian “two minute hate.” Usually shoehorned into the end of an evening news program or a morning talk show, these brief “human interest” stories display some small act of decency before returning us to the cruel torrent of commercial media. This grotesque system has even spawned a celebrity commentator who cares so much that she shakes with a demented fury. Nancy Grace’s nightly outrage about victimized children is really a call to vengeance, not a moment for understanding (and preventing) the structural factors that are ultimately responsible for the horrific cases that she addresses. Perversely, Nancy Grace offers “caring” in the form of Old Testament punishment: she sells the moral superiority of the vengeful media mob, the cleansing furies of self-righteous blather.

Some observers might expect to find an “ethic of care” woven throughout our television dramas and movies, where we are occasionally invited to identify with characters in need. But for every thoughtful investigation of human misery like The Wire, we can find a dozen problematic depictions of suffering and its relief. Consider the unctuous do-goodism of Netflix’s most popular rental ever, The Blind Side (2009), a movie that shows how wealthy white Southern women can bring semi-mute, homeless, African American male teenagers to the promised land of white suburban mansions and Christian private schools. The lesson is clear: with sassy blond saviors (who are never to be touched), athletic prowess, and an extra helping of Jesus in their corner, impoverished African American men will make out just fine. In other words, privatized, individualized, and racialized compassion is the best we can imagine for ourselves.

Or consider the depiction of traumatized victims in Law and Order or CSI-Wherever. In these ubiquitous crime dramas, horrific suffering is presented only so that our high fashion detectives have something to brood over in their sun-drenched, pastel-themed crime labs. A child slavery ring or Saw-quality domestic abuse is little more than an occasion to whip out improbable crime-solving gizmos, fish around for semen and blood, and make self-righteous speeches about justice and “finding closure.” And let’s not forget the conceptual cornerstone of these crime dramas: the graphic vivisection of the victim. Perhaps I’m bending Winthrop’s metaphor too much, but it seems to resonate in the current craze for dismemberment. We can’t visualize being “knit together,” but with the help of CSI’s vivisection aesthetic, we can easily imagine being sawn apart.

It’s not all that bad. Occasionally, something humane slips past the slick machinery of corporate media. I am always genuinely moved to see Brad Pitt talking with Ellen DeGeneres about his home-building efforts in New Orleans. I am delighted that Sesame Street and a few other children’s programs celebrate kindness, giving, and compassion. And I am very grateful for the surprising exceptions to the uncharitable rule, such as the brilliant satire of Louis CK.

In one of the richest moments in recent television history, Louis CK began his eponymous show on FX with the comic standing in a crowded New York subway among a group of strangers. Teetering between existential ruin and an awkward embrace of his shared humanity, Louis studies his fellow passengers on the dirty train. Eventually his attention comes to rest on an African American woman recoiling from a vile mystery liquid on a nearby seat. Suddenly, Louis does something unexpected: he removes his shirt and begins to mop up the mess before it reaches the woman. Gazing at him with reverence, his train-mates marvel at his kindness and generosity. Why? Because Louis is breaking the code of mutual distrust and tending to needs of strangers, an uncanny echo of another bearded, bawdy talker from New York City. In the 1860s, Walt Whitman volunteered to help the wounded in Union military hospitals, caring for men with broken bodies and practicing his philosophy of loving “adherence.” Nowadays, Louis CK’s anguished humanism is the closest we come to Whitman’s unfashionable overflowing of unironic connectivity. But, of course, Louis CK has taken us into a hopeful fantasy, a dream sequence shot in melancholy black and white to mark its social implausibility. Wouldn’t it be nice, he seems to wonder before sliding back into an alienated stupor. Kindness is the new surrealism.

There is another partial exception: the big O. When it comes to charitable giving, I marvel at the deus ex machina that is Oprah Winfrey (as well as the overnight house fixer-uppers who run Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and similar shows). But I worry that Oprah is simply flipping The Blind Side on its head, racially speaking. Aside from a more progressive racial dynamic, Oprah still teaches us to assume the position of media serf, waiting for our celebrity overlords to dole out trinkets from magic TV land. It is the logic of the lottery.
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fH4O5ymzzEs[/youtube]

Extreme Makeover’s “branded giving” in action

I don’t want to sound like Scrooge McDuck. Of course, I’m glad Oprah handed out those Caribbean cruises, “Nikon D3100 Digital SLR Cameras,” and “Judith Ripka Eclipse Earrings.” But highly branded, spectacular giving is too idiosyncratic and ultimately too much about burnishing the nobility of the giver, whether it’s the corporation who donated the goods or the celebrity who’s doling them out. In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, a brilliant new book on Oprah and spirituality, Kathryn Lofton describes how the talk show host encourages her viewers to live charitably and compassionately, yet always “under the banner of self-love.” As Lofton points out, Oprah teaches us that charity and compassion are really a reflection of the giver’s greatness, and that her viewers’ “spiritual election correlates to their donating abilities.” ((I can recommend a few sources on the politics of compassion. Natan Sznaider’s The Compassionate Temperament: Care and Cruelty in Modern Society  (NY: Rowan and Littlefield, 2001) which takes the contrarian position of associating compassion with modernity, whose alienating forces are usually thought to have weakened social bonds. Secondly, for a useful examination of compassion in political theory, in particular Rousseau’s championing of the concept, see Jonathan Marks, “Rousseau’s Discriminating Defense of Compassion,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 101, No. 4 (Nov., 2007) 727-739. Finally, and most generally, see Dacher Keltner, Jeremy Adam Smith, Jason Marsh, eds., The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness (NY: Norton, 2010).)) While I would gladly take narcissistic charity over no charity at all, Oprah’s approach does seem to taint the “ethic of care” with a strong whiff of self-interest. The greater problem, of course, is the question of proportionality: big as it is, Oprah’s charity is rare in the overall mediascape. So, even if we accepted her work, prima facie, as a compassionate exception to the meanness of the media torrent, the cruel flow of normal programming still waits for us on almost every other channel.
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf5sU4SBKVs[/youtube]

Oprah’s Favorite Things

For compassionate analysis, we must turn off corporate media and look elsewhere. ((I don’t mean to utterly discount the possibility of finding something that instills an “ethic of care” among reality programs, dramas, soap operas and other cable offerings; I simply am pointing to its relative rarity.)) Scholars, social workers, activists, novelists, serious journalists, documentary filmmakers, alternative media, and playwrights ask the deeper questions—you can learn more about suffering in three hours of Chekhov than in month of cable television. ((You might even learn more in a few hours of so-called “serious gaming” that is designed to change the world, one byte at a time. For instance, see the game “Armchair Revolutionary”))

Yet I don’t blame television as a medium. I blame the gilded turd of corporate capitalism, our real American idol in a Biblical sense. Pitiless competition, not community, is the essence of corporate capitalism in the age without limits or accountability. Big media apologists sometimes claim that TV only holds a mirror to our desires, that it’s only giving the people what they want, no matter how dismal and cruel, Idiocracy-style. We are told that even if compassion and charity are social goods that we’d like to disseminate, they are not marketable goods that can compete with the Home Shopping Network or Spike TV’s 1000 Ways to Die. ((Media corporations will actively block dissenting views from their networks, even if you are willing to pay for airtime (Adbusters learned this the hard way when they repeatedly tried to purchase air-time for their “Buy Nothing” PSA).))

But the prime mover in all this isn’t ordinary people whose tastes are mysteriously becoming callous, but an utter disregard for social ethics on the part of big media producers. Simply put, corporate television reflects an underlying economic system that is increasingly divorced from humane, democratic principles, if not basic human decency. ((In her widely seen Ted talk, NBC Universal executive Lauren Zalaznick claims that television provides a national conscience that mirrors our social anxieties; she ends by thanking “the incredible creators who get up everyday to put their ideas on our television screens…” In some ways her bio says it all: “Now the tastemaker who brought us shows like Project Runway, Top Chef and the Real Housewives franchise is applying her savvy to the challenge of creating a truly multimedia network.”)) In the famous televised hearings in 1956, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was shamed with this question: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Now the question could be turned on the corporate masters of an increasingly coldhearted medium.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIqABIcKIvs[/youtube]

TED talk by smug TV executive

Of course, a corporation is never devoid of feelings. In fact, its marketing department is often quite skilled at manipulating anxiety, hope, desire, fear, and resentment in the ads that bludgeon our consciousness. But the multinational corporations that rule our world have no interest in our yearning to feel “knitt together” as a democractic culture, no real concern for our communal or even national well being, unless those feelings edge us toward particular brand identity or consumption constellation. My new VW makes me at one with the hipster twenty-somethings with interesting eyewear. My Hemi-powered Dodge Ram truck unites me with the steak-chomping Real Americans who hate Obamacare. Why be banded together in common cause to fight homelessness or hunger when we can be branded together as customers of a vast corporation?

With a knack for shameless sophistry, corporate apologists often hide behind the mantle of traditional values, even religious ones. But you are not “thy brother’s keeper” in the corporate mediascape: you are his rival for invidious distinction and lifestyle status points (or more likely, her rival, given increased poverty rates among women). ((In Someplace Like America, his new book with the writer Dale Maharidge, the photographer Michael Williamson returned to some of the homeless people he had met in his classic documentary work in the 1980s. Noting the similarities between the suffering of the 1980s and the present time of “The Great Recession,” he wondered what we had learned collectively about the misery in our midst. “What’s the lesson?” he asked a family that had been homeless for years. “Are we our brother’s keeper?… We’re not ‘every man for ourselves.’ We won’t survive as a country if we keep that attitude.” John Winthrop couldn’t have said it better. In the age of electronic media, we may not need to visualize charity in order to become more charitable people—but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. See Dale Maharidge and Michael S. Williamson, Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2011) 124.)) Instead of exposing us to compassion, charity, and the possibility that we might be “knit together” as a nation in a form that doesn’t involve shopping or war, we are primed to indulge the constant, anxious re-fashioning of the self that encourages trips to the shopping mall and meetings with private security companies. To witness suffering, and valorize charity, would be a dangerous distraction from our identity as “citizen-consumer.”

But don’t we have a choice to turn the channel? Can’t we flip to something better, something more illuminating? Not really—and that is precisely the problem. As is so often the case with the “free market” illusion of choice, the rapid proliferation of channels has done little to alter the ideological consistency of the privatized mediascape. We simply get more of the same no matter where we look. I see plenty of it on my own TV. Because each month I am willing to mail off the equivalent of a used car payment, my friendly neighborhood media conglomerate grants me access to an infinite number of channels, almost none of which breaks the pattern I have been describing. Even the religious channels are often filled with a rhetoric of private salvation and harsh judgment, not collective responsibility or communal love (God forbid!).

What we need are real media alternatives, not the illusion of choice. We need the liberation network, the volunteer channel, the compassion hour. We need frequent invitations to feel and act in solidarity with people in need. In some ways, the conditions are ripe for an explosion of kindness, both in representation and actuality. Psychologist Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that cruelty and violence are at an all-time low in our evolutionary history. In some macro sense, we’re living in very kind times, even compared to our recent ancestors. ((Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Viking, 2011).)) Some observers have even worried that we’ve gone too far in the direction of compassion. In the last few months, one New York Times writer wondered if we’re “becoming compassionately numb,” while another asked if we were reaching the “limits of empathy.” ((David Brooks writes about “the limits of empathy” ; science reporter Benedict Cary takes a similar approach)) A third asked if we had gone beyond “compassion fatigue” to some state of “pathological altruism” in which our giving knows no end. ((http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/science/04angier.html))

Maybe there is some validity to this “compassion boom” in the real world, but if so, why is it so absent from our media culture? No doubt, our real lives can require serious empathetic investments in child rearing, eldercare, and volunteerism, but these acts are rarely visible in our corporate media. If anything, I fear that corporate media will alienate us from our own more magnanimous instincts. It will blot out altruism with anxiety, compassion with competition.

There is an alternative where we can find a small but proven audience for compassionate media. Independent documentary has spoken to it for decades. While commercial media races to the bottom of dumpster of sensationalism, independent documentary has served as a powerful site of affective engagement, political mobilization, and aesthetic pleasure, often at the same time. For example, Marlon Riggs’ 1994 film, Tongues Untied, is a beautiful work of art that invites us to feel a connection to a community (gay African American men) that was traditionally disrespected or ignored in the mainstream media. Rigg’s film invites our empathy, compassion, and understanding, which lead to other forms of solidarity essential to a democratic culture. But you’ll never see it on cable television, not when the premium movie channels are running American Pie II, Indecent Proposal and Land of the Dead for the fifth time this week. Even PBS was fearful about running it when the film was first released.

I am worried about the affective states that American media culture generates, but also know that I am a part of the problem. I watch a great deal of violence and bile under the guise of entertainment (did I really need to watch Predators last night?). And I understand the reluctance to engage the stranger with compassion, even on screen. Growing up in grimy 1970s New Jersey, I was raised to fear the stranger, to watch from the window, and to flee solidarity. My poor Anglo-Irish grandparents were illegal immigrants who taught us to dread the informer’s eye, and to hide from “outsiders” of every stripe. You learned to horde, not help; you learned that charity was neither taken nor offered. No productive politics could take root in such a bitter soil, only a kind of Death Wish dread of the monsters disguised as “citizens” and “neighbors.”

That grinding skepticism of the social was a daunting inheritance, one that I’ve struggled to leave behind, often with the help of documentary film and other compassionate forms of creative expression. Certain films encouraged me to rethink what I knew as a teenager and to contemplate an ethic of care. For my younger self, documentary provided a safe place for Whitmanesque “adherence” (of a disembodied, postmodern variety), a contact zone that presented little risk but often led to more tangible forms of solidarity. The subterranean homeless in Dark Days, the mentally disabled in Best Boy, and the striking workers in American Dream were a crucial part of my sentimental education, encouraging me to pivot from bitter isolation to compassionate connection in my politics and teaching. Indeed, compassionate media was an important chapter in my moral history, and for this reason, I mourn its absence in the commercial mediascape where Americans spend so much of their non-laboring lives. ((Some scholars might suggest that depicting suffering (or charity) is a poor substitute for (or even a distraction from) more meaningful forms of compassion. See, for instance, Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Thanks to Scott Pryor for recommending this book.)) What I came to realize in my callow twenties now seems obvious: a democratic culture cannot thrive in a climate of cold-heartedness and disconnection. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued, we need to embrace the stranger, to open ourselves to a non-reciprocal ethics that expects nothing in return—-to enter the dream-sequence with Louis CK on the subway, if you will, and then to make it real. After all, how we treat the least among us is the truest measure of our society’s worth. And by this standard, the corporate media is a foul tutor indeed.

Image Credits:

1. “Time to Choose” by David Shrigley
2. Someplace Like America podcast
3. David Shrigley Cartoon
4. Extreme Makeover’s “branded giving” in action
5. Oprah’s Favorite Things
6. TED Talk by smug TV producer

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