Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ceci n'est pas un selfie

By Kerry Mitchell

Part 1 of 2

France has recently seen its most significant social unrest in decades, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets since November 17. The “gilets jaunes” or “yellow vests” protests, named for the reflective vests that vehicles in France are required to carry, ostensibly erupted from the planned imposition of a new fuel tax. Designed to push people toward greater use of public transportation and the purchase of more fuel-efficient, lower-emission vehicles, this tax formed part of the administration’s efforts to mitigate climate change by helping France meet its emissions targets as per the Paris Agreement. French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to withdraw the planned tax and has offered other concessions, but protesters have indicated that their concerns are much broader than the single tax. They have called for Macron to resign among other more fundamental, wide-ranging reforms. While the protests have decreased in size from their original peak at around 300,000 people country-wide, they have also involved successively greater degrees of violence. Burned buildings and cars, looted shops, smashed windows, and general vandalism have accompanied the originally peaceful protests, as have battles between police and protesters. The ongoing protests, occurring predominantly on the weekends, have spread to six countries.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Georgetown Alumnius

 By Finbarr Curtis

One lesson we have learned from the current president is that an effective way to defend implausible statements is to make more of them. By the time your critics have earnestly debunked one false claim you've moved on to ten more. This becomes overwhelming. People get worn down as political debates lose focus and any sense of proportion. For that matter, when the investigators and fact checkers start to scrutinize every single thing you say it can look like a conspiracy of those out to get you.

Most importantly, doubling down on implausible assertions makes clear that you are not playing a truth game. You are playing a power game. A power game is a test of will. Harnessing the sheer force of bluster and a refusal to concede any point, you are playing to win.

Supreme Court nominee, archetypal 1980s high school movie villain, and semi-sentient beer keg Brett Kavanaugh followed this playbook before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Critics have begun to list the false claims Kavanaugh made in his testimony. These include his desexualized redefinitions of "boof" or "devil's triangle," his assertion that the society of vomiting enthusiasts known as Beach Week Ralph Club was about his intolerance for spicy food, and so on.

Rather than sort through all of the lies, I want to focus on one. I was struck by Kavanaugh's explanation of the words "Renate Alumnius" in his yearbook. Several classmates identified this as a cryptic reference to a group of boys who claimed to have slept with a student named Renate. After learning about the yearbook, the woman stated: "the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue."

Kavanaugh could have apologized. He could have agreed that the insinuation was untrue, and was instead a crude secret joke among boys pretending to have sexual experiences they never had. But he didn't say this. Instead, he offered the following explanation:
One of our good female friends who we would admire and went to dances with had her name used on the yearbook page with the term ‘alumnus.’ That yearbook reference was clumsily intended to show affection, and that she was one of us. But in this circus, the media’s interpreted the term is related to sex. It was not related to sex.
Wait. What? Stop. This is absurd. To believe Kavanaugh is to go to cuckoo land. It's not just the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who did not believe this; no one did. There is no way on God's good earth that these Georgetown Prep students used their blurbs full of innuendo about sex and alcohol to express their mutual admiration for the intelligence and good manners of a friend.

Kavanaugh's explanation for Renate Alumnius was not intended to persuade anyone. Rather, it is a useful public story. Such stories are often banal conventions that allow people to save face, as when powerful men who are pushed out of leadership positions explain that they need to spend more time with their families. No one believes these stories, but they avoid an indelicate subject in public.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Best People

Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, aka The Best People
By Finbarr Curtis

The "best people" are breaking lots of laws these days. It's not every day that multiple people from a sitting president's campaign team are found to be felons. August 21st was special, however. Michael Cohen, the Trump lawyer, porn-star whisperer, and wannabe Sopranos consigliere, fessed up to 8 felony counts of tax fraud, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations. Ostrich fetishist and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort got the bad news that a jury convicted him on 8 counts of tax fraud, bank fraud, and failing to report a foreign bank account.


All of this is ironic if you took seriously Donald Trump's boast that he hires the best people. The lawlessness of Cohen and Manafort, following on the catch-me-if-you-can brazen illegality of past appointees like Michael Flynn, Tom Price, and Scott Pruitt, would be yet more evidence of hypocrisy from a man who ran on a law-and-order platform.

But that depends on what you mean by law. The Trump team might be hypocrites if you believe that law should be a set of predictable, consistent, and transparent rules that apply to everyone in the same way. In American history, however, calls for law and order mean almost exactly the opposite of this. Rather than treat everyone equally, law-and-order advocates want to harness the force of law to maximize protections of their own security and property. Law that provides equal protection for all citizens requires the sort of methodical, bureaucratic administration that law-and-order proponents hate. This kind of law appears slow and weak to people who demand swift justice. It's the red tape that reigns in the would-be Dirty Harry's of the world.

Trump clarified what he meant by law and order when Lester Holt, the moderator of the first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, asked the candidates how they would heal racial divisions in America. Trump responded: "Well, first of all Secretary Clinton doesn't want to use a couple of words and that’s law and order. And we need law and order. If we don't have it, we’re not going to have a country." This answer was remarkable because the question did not ask how the candidates planned to address crime. Law and order was Trump's response to racial divisions.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Moore Values

By Finbarr Curtis 

In a recent twitter exchange, the former judge, current senate candidate, and perpetual sexual predator Roy Moore accused Jimmy Kimmel of mocking "Christian values." In response to Moore's challenge to come to Alabama and settle things "man to man," Kimmel said: "Sounds great Roy - let me know when you get some Christian values and I'll be there."

In the language of the internet, Kimmel's response is generally referred to as an "own." The ownage was only further compounded when Kimmel noted that he would make the trip but leave his daughters at home. 

In the politics of resentment that drives Moore and his supporters, however, this brief exchange was only further evidence of "Hollywood elites' bigotry toward southerners." By inviting Kimmel's condescension in order to stoke a feud between Hollywood and the South, Moore performed the rhetorical alchemy that transforms the content of all political criticism into nothing other than an assault on white Christian identity. 

The reason that Moore's brand of white identity politics needs the Kimmels of the world is that there is nothing about Moore that is indigenous to Alabama. As a former Alabama voter myself, I can attest that Alabamans do not routinely attend formal political events dressed in cowboy costumes while waving a gun. Rather, Moore is a coastal liberal's caricature of Alabama. He has spent a lifetime imagining all of the things that liberals hate, and then crafted himself in this image. This negative identification gives Moore's political performances their hyperbolic, over-the-top quality. The more he offends liberal civility, the more he triggers the sort of condescension that validates his image of a spokesman for victimized white southern Christians railing against a shadowy establishment comprised of economic, political, media, and educational elites.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a remarkable number of commentators took these self-identifications of white victimhood at face value. This resulted in an array of stories that portrayed Trump supporters as fueled by "economic anxiety." But a lawyer and judge like Moore is hardly poor or powerless. Like many vociferous Trump supporters, Moore is best described as a local elite. Local elites are the district attorneys, small business owners, and insurance salesmen who make a comfortable living in places like Gadsden, Alabama.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hard Things

By Finbarr Curtis

Paul J. Griffiths is a very busy man. How busy is he? He is so busy thinking about the triune Lord that he is "thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread." Apparently, when you get thrumming-level busy you have no time for petty distractions like racism.

So when Griffiths, the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School, was invited to attend a Racial Equity Institute that hoped to provide "foundational training in understanding historical and institutional racism," he sent an email exhorting his colleagues to avoid what he confidently predicted would be "intellectually flaccid" event full of "bromides, clichés and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty."

Griffiths cannot be distracted by flaccid stuff like institutional racism because he is preoccupied with hard things like Christian theology. As he explains:
Our mission is to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Habermas Is Dead (He's Not, But Still)

Jürgen the Bear
 By Kerry Mitchell 

Ever since Jürgen Habermas, the public sphere has been pretty boring. I’m not talking about the drama that plays out in the public sphere. That drama can be as exciting as anything that happens. But the public-ness of the drama, the way in which the drama is given shape as public as opposed to private, that is a boring process. To be clear, I’m not talking about the process being boring. One can be excited to look at how that process works or not. Rather, I’m talking about the process doing the boring—not being boring, but boring. I’m talking about the process of making public as a process of boring.

Often such a line of thought highlights the civility of public discourse, the rationalization and sanitization of its subject matter, the seriousness and normalcy that it lends. Of course one could counter that making public often sensationalizes, shocks, or calculatingly manipulates to generate interest. To one who would argue in such a way I say, Jesus, God! Are you completely fucking stupid?

Notice how the counter to the counter does not bore. It excites with outrage, transgression, aggression, not so much appealing to the passions as slapping them—completely inappropriate for the public sphere. To employ such vulgarity does not bring the question into the public in an operable way. One can only leave those who utter such vulgarity to work out whatever issues they have with whoever volunteers to engage them further. But whatever and whoever are not the public. The public is everything and everybody. Vulgar exchanges are for private disputes, and their place in public is transgressive: the ones who shout death threats at each other beneath one’s window on an early morning city street. No, the proper counter to the counter, the counter to the counter made public, made appropriate for the public, belonging to the public, is the one that says yes, of course, the process of making public also excites, but within limits, is a balance of sanitization and excitement, but weighted more toward one side than the other.

Now that’s boring. Or more precisely, that bores. In the tradition of public discourse any tension that arises is enveloped and mitigated in a self-replicating and self-mollifying series of argumentative involutions. All of which brings me to the Badlands National Park Twitter Feed

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

We Apologize for Nothing Here

By Finbarr Curtis

In response to critics of President Trump’s executive order on immigration, White House Chief of Staff and Count Dracula impersonator Reince Priebus stated: “We apologize for nothing here.” While he was referring to chaos at airports, his statement follows a broader pattern of refusing even a potential apology. This is unusual. Human beings make mistakes. Apologies are ritualized practices that repair social damage and reestablish relationships among people. To never apologize is to be something other than fully human.

Priebus is aware that Trumplandia is out of the ordinary. His usage of “here” is one of a number of rhetorical moves where spokespeople have imagined Trump's White House as a new space set apart from ordinary politics, a zone where things work differently. Priebus knows that people usually feel accountable to each other, and what makes this administration exceptional is its aspiration to act without reciprocal obligations to the popular will or other branches of government.

The administration's efforts to rule by extraordinary means recalls Walter Benjamin's “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in which he wrote: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Following Benjamin's outline, the immigration order begins by citing the events of September 11, 2001 as grounds for suspending existing immigration policies. That 2001 was almost 16 years ago indicates that this emergency will last as long as Steven Bannon’s imagined war to defend “Judeo-Christian civilization” persists.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Not Just the Facts

Steven Bannon, Keeping it Fair and Balanced
By Finbarr Curtis

While Steven Bannon has problems with Muslims, he does seem to be cool with worshiping Satan, the Lord of Darkness. In an interview soon after the GOP's electoral triumph, Trump's chief strategist described his political worldview: 
"Darkness is good," says Bannon, who amid the suits surrounding him at Trump Tower, looks like a graduate student in his T-shirt, open button-down and tatty blue blazer — albeit a 62-year-old graduate student. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power. It only helps us when they" — I believe by "they" he means liberals and the media, already promoting calls for his ouster — "get it wrong. When they're blind to who we are and what we're doing."
While Satanists might take offense at their being lumped in with Trump supporters, Bannon's interest in power for its own sake and his willingness to toss aside concerns about good and evil might tell us something about his approach to publishing. His's penchant for fabricating news stories has made it one of the most visible examples of the internet medium in a era labeled "post-truth." From Bannon's perspective, his site provides a conservative alternative to liberal media. Rather than pretend to be nonpartisan, Bannon accepts that all news is biased and that the difference between his site and mainstream media like The New York Times or The Washington Post is that Breitbart happens to be conservative and the Times and Post happen to be liberal.

When Trump supporters decide that mainstream news organizations are full of liberal lies, they are capable of believing a lot of things. In response, websites like politifact evaluate whether various claims correspond to the real world, an exercise known as "fact checking."

I believe that fact checking is valuable, but I think that fact checkers are doing something different from what they think they are doing. For one thing, there are no bigger fans of facts than Trump supporters. This might sound like an odd claim after Kellyanne Conway's touting of "alternative facts." What I mean by saying that Trump supporters are fact obsessed is that they subscribe to a common sense literalist view of language that presumes that facts are self-evident certainties. One of the biggest contributors to the post-truth dispensation is not a devaluation of facts, but an all-too-fervent faith in facts understood as self-contained, self-evident pieces of information that exist outside of social contexts or human interpretations. This leads to the uncritical consumption of information as well as the refusal to do the work that goes into thinking and the dismissal of the perspectives of people who do such work. When I accept the reality of global warming or evolution, this is not because I am convinced by the facts. Rather, I trust the work that scientists do. I share their conviction that rigorous processes of verification and falsification are useful in evaluating knowledge about the world.

Friday, January 6, 2017

And He Doeth Great Wonders, So That He Maketh Dumpster Fire Come Down From Heaven On Earth In The Sight Of Men

By Finbarr Curtis

If you type "81 percent" into google, you will find a number of stories about white evangelicals who voted for Donald J. Trump. Like all poll numbers that measure religious affiliation, 81 percent is a deceptively simple summary of a diverse set of motives and identities. One could argue that few people identify themselves as "white evangelicals" and that this category is an interpretive fiction invented by pollsters. But while 81 percent might not necessarily measure what analysts think it measures, interpretive fictions still measure something. It seems that a lot of people who meet pollsters' criteria for white evangelicals agreed with Franklin Graham when he explained: "Even thought Donald Trump has some rough edges, there's something inside of him that desires the counsel of Christian men and women, and I don't know one Christian on Hillary Clinton's team."

Evangelical Trumpophilia has perplexed observers who have wondered how an impious sexual predator from decadent New York City captured the hearts and minds of the Bible Belt. Many concluded that Christians hypocritically abandoned their religious principles. Laments about evangelical hypocrisy assume that evangelicalism is a belief system. It seems so obvious that evangelicalism is defined by theology that it hardly needs to be argued. The idea that religions are internally coherent sets of beliefs is part of common sense about world religions. Self-identified Christians, therefore, are accountable to a religious tradition whose central figure endorsed poverty and humility. Once you decide that the Sermon on the Mount is the essence of Christianity, then you can demonstrate that evangelicals betray their own beliefs when they vote for Trump.

While the charge of hypocrisy might be useful for theological finger wagging, it is analytically empty. It tells you what you think white evangelicals should do rather than explaining what they do. It might be that confusion over Trump support is a sign that an analytic framework that relies on Christian theological convictions is not effective in explaining how social actors behave.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Literati for Trump

By Finbarr Curtis

This week's election of Donald J. Trump did not surprise me as much as it did those who predicted an easy win for Hillary Clinton. The county in which I live voted 59.9 percent for Trump and so I had some idea of the intensity of his support. I watched the final debate next to a man who said he liked Trump because he "talked like a regular guy" and a few seats down from a woman who exclaimed that anyone who didn't vote for Trump was an "idiot" and yelled "You killed those people in Benghazi" as Clinton appeared on the screen.

The Saturday before the election, I was talking to someone who didn't meet the profile of the archetypal Trump supporter from the rallies. He was a financially successful college graduate who was well-traveled and happy to engage in conversation with African Americans, Latinos, and liberal college professors.  He agreed that Trump was a horrible person and had no interest in fabricated scandals about Benghazi or emails. Mainly, he liked Trump's tax cuts and promises to deregulate banks. I asked him if he was such a free trader, did he worry about Trump's call for a 40 percent tariff on China and trade wars against Mexico. He responded: "Trump cannot actually do any of that stuff. There is no way that he could get that through Congress. That's just what you tell the illiterates."

After hearing this characterization of the mass of Trump supporters as "illiterates," I realized I was talking to someone who echoed the views of the Southern bourbon aristocracy that maintained power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through a divide-and-rule strategy.  In towns in the South, you still meet these members of old families whose names you recognize from the local streets named after their grandparents. Wealthy southerners discouraged economic populism across racial lines by helping to persuade working-class white voters that the greatest threat to them was posed by African Americans, and that big government was a tool of northerners who used minorities to exploit southern white men and women.

My interlocutor's conviction that Trump would not actually do most of the crazy stuff he promised appears to have been the conventional wisdom of Wall Street in the week after the election. In an election night post, I had attempted to imagine the economic effects of a Trump presidency if he enacted his policy proposals. But investors are gambling that this will not happen. If the markets believed that Trump would follow through on his protectionist platform, they would have plummeted. Instead, investors are convinced that Trump will be good for business. After all, Wall Street denizens are well aware of Trump's decades of outlandish promises. Trump financed every building project by making fantastic claims to rope people in and then daring his investors to sue when he did not deliver. Wall Street might be okay with this approach to the American voter

Friday, November 4, 2016

Reviewing The Production of American Religious Freedom

By Finbarr Curtis

Some people have things to say about The Production of American Religious Freedom

Sarah E. Dees in Religion in American History
The case studies that he presents—nodes in a complex web that transcend time, space, points of view, and specific social concerns—are themselves impossible to neatly tie together. Yet the book does offer a compelling contribution to the conversation about religious freedom in America, a contribution that uniquely highlights economic structures and concerns, notions of personhood, aesthetic and affective works and workings, and ideas about private property and public good. Furthermore, The Production of American Religious Freedom—with its analysis of data at the micro and macro levels and its focus on how particular beliefs structure actors’ engagements with others—exemplifies the unique type of interdisciplinary research that is possible within the field of religious studies.
 Michael Graziano in Religion in American History
After thinking with this book for several weeks now, I have come to think of The Production of American Religious Freedom as a toolbox with which you can tune-up your own ideas about religious freedom, regardless of the time period or geography in which you’re working. Those of us thinking about a turn toward institutions, especially public ones, should pay attention. I found myself slowly taking apart how I’ve used religious freedom in my own work, and then putting it back together, to see what Curtis’s economy of religious freedom might do for me. Readers should investigate what it might do for you, too.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Is Donald Trump a Human Being?

By Finbarr Curtis

Donald Trump will likely win tonight's presidential debate against Hillary Clinton. By win I do not mean that he will make more cogent arguments or demonstrate a superior grasp of political reality. He will certainly not do that. Rather, Trump can consider his performance a victory if he can convince 2-4 percent of American voters that he is merely plausible.

The reason he needs only to be plausible is that his critics have warned of his monstrosity. Commentators have struggled to find a language that can communicate the outlandish quality of the preternatural threat he poses to American democracy. It seems unreal that someone can insult the disabled and prisoners of war, can make overtly bigoted statement after statement, can believe something as extreme as birtherism and disbelieve something as obvious as global warming, can funnel campaign donations to his own businesses, can pattern his campaign after a fantastically corrupt Ukrainian oligarch who made no pretense of seeking power for anything other than his own enrichment, and can inspire a general atmosphere of fascist violence throughout his campaign performances. We are repeatedly reminded that this is not normal.

But this begs the question of what one means by normal. After each time Trump says or does something that goes too far, you think this cannot be happening. But it does happen. The news cycle goes on, and you get used to it. What was previously shocking then seems like no big deal when the next outrageous event happens. All of this is either terrifying or thrilling depending on who you are. It is possible that the Trump phenomenon is as unbelievable to Trump's supporters as it is to his detractors. He inspires such messianic devotion because he redeems people who felt like they had to code or conceal their racism and sexism, and now cannot believe their own freedom to speak their minds openly without shame or apology.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Fear and Safety at the University of Chicago

By Finbarr Curtis

On a short trip a few summers ago, I decided to visit the University of Chicago. As I looked for directions on the university website, I found routes by bus and light rail but noticed that it said nothing about the elevated subway that stopped close by. As I was staying close to the Green Line, it seemed like a quick route was to ride to the final stop and walk a few blocks north. This worked fine and I was on campus within a few minutes after getting off the train.

It later occurred to me that it was possible that the reason for omitting the L from the website was that University of Chicago administrators presumed that the neighborhood south of campus would make prospective students and visitors feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Therefore, the two mass transit suggestions directed students east of campus to the Hyde Park neighborhood. In other words, the University of Chicago is a literal safe space within Chicago's South Side.

This institutional commitment to safety is ironic in light of a recent letter from the Dean of Students to the incoming class of 2020. In the letter, Dean John (Jay) Ellison asserts that the university does not support "safe spaces" and warns students that they need to get tough: "You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort." While the Dean's letter welcomes incoming students as they "continue on their intellectual journey," it does not recommend that this take them through the areas west and south of campus

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Extremist Common Sensism

Rudy Giuliani is afraid that you are not scared
By Finbarr Curtis

If you see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, then you are feeling pretty affirmed right now by this week's Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Various and sundry sitcom, soap opera, and reality television stars have taken turns warning us of a dualistic battle between "common sense" and "political correctness." The nominee's son, Donald Trump, Jr., extolled the wisdom of those who avoided fancypants schools like Harvard and Wharton (from which his father graduated in 1968) in favor of an education culminating in a "Doctorate in Common Sense."

One advocate for this linguistic theory was former New York mayor and current world-record-holder-for-breaking-blood-vessels-in-his-face-while-he-yells Rudolph Giuliani, who denounced anyone who refused to name the "enemy" of the United States as "Islamic extremist terrorism." According to Rudy, shirking this label denies the obvious violent threat that lurks everywhere. It is this assertion of obviousness, of simplicity in the face of apparent chaos, that gives common sense its force. Rather than accept self-evident reality, those imprisoned by political correctness cannot speak the truth because of their paralyzing fear of hurting people's feelings.

That the truth is apparent to everyone is what makes it common. This idea has its roots in eighteenth-century Scottish Common Sense Realism. In response to idealists and skeptics who offered complicated explanations for how people came to know and talk about things, thinkers like Thomas Reid argued that people's ordinary sense of the world was trustworthy. If you had a table right in front you, then you knew it was a table because you touched it and saw it, not because you had some idea of a table in your head. If intricate philosophical arguments seemed to contradict people’s ordinary sense of reality, it was overthinking that was at fault. As Reid asserted in his 1764 An Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense:

Poor untaught mortals believe undoubtedly that there is a sun, moon, and stars; an earth, which we inhabit; country, friends, and relations, which we enjoy; land, houses, and moveables, which we possess. But philosophers, pitying the credulity of the vulgar, resolve to have no faith but what is founded upon reason.
Idealistic philosophers offered unnecessary confusion and doubt. For Reid, it was absurd to throw out one’s ordinary sense of the world because theories could not explain it:
But if indeed thous hast not power to dispel those clouds and phantoms which thou hast discovered or created, withdraw this penurious and malignant ray; I despise Philosophy, and renounce its guidance: let my soul dwell with Common Sense.
Reid did not despise philosophy as such, but only philosophy that required a choice between abstract thought and everyday experience. Rather than disproving what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch, philosophy should take this sensory data as the foundation for further inquiry.

When convention speakers appeal to common sense, they reassure you that Islamic extremist terrorism is an easily recognizable thing like a table sitting in front of you. This feels good if the world seems to be a confusing and scary place. But this raises a question of what "sense" allows you to see social identities like religion or extremism, or what allows for common sense pronouncements about ethnicity or gender or race. These are not things you can ordinarily see unless what you mean by "seeing" is confirming whatever your initial intuitive impressions are. In other words, what Rudy means by common sense is a visceral, precritical response to new information, what we often call a gut reaction. He relies on immediate, intuitive reactions as a necessary preparation for sudden threats. Refusals to act on common sense leave people vulnerable in an insecure world. 

Overthinkers who challenge common sense, especially those who Rudy calls politically correct, suggest that these immediate reactions are not reliable sources of information but are instead shaped by prejudices and assumptions produced by social forces. Or to say this in a less fancy way: Trump is the candidate of common sense because common sense is where racism comes from. Common sense offers a visceral feeling of satisfaction that comes from learning that your intuitions, prejudices, and assumptions were right all along. Assuring people that political violence is an inevitable outgrowth of a scary thing called Islam affirms a view of security that cautions against waiting around to analyze complex social problems. Making generalizations about people you don't know is one way of feeling safe in a world that you don't understand. Political correctness, therefore, poses an existential threat to those hoping to "Make America Safe Again."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Trump Campaign Is Not Taking Place

Jean Baudrillard/Donald J. Trump

By Kerry Mitchell

I have replaced "simulacrum" with "Trump campaign" in the following: "The Trump campaign is never what hides the truth—it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The Trump campaign is true." Ecclesiastes

By this I mean not, of course, that the Trump campaign is speaking the truth, but that the truth of his campaign—what his campaign is—is true: it is what it is. And what it is is nothing. There is no campaign. There is only Trump.

The absence of a conventional campaign was the subject of a recent MSNBC exposé that wondered whether the Donald could triumph while lacking a proverbial "ground game":
Donald Trump is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem. Republicans working to elect Trump describe a bare-bones effort debilitated by infighting, a lack of staff to carry out basic functions, minimal coordination with allies and a message that’s prisoner to Trump’s momentary whims. "Bottom line, you can hire all the top people in the world, but to what end? Trump does what he wants,” a source close to the campaign said.
For Trump supporters, the MSNBC report can be dismissed as a hit piece, a takedown. The article argues largely that Trump’s is a lousy version of a campaign, just as some suggest that Trump is a lousy version of a leader (but without the original, what can you do?). But there are threads within the article and other media that are much more threatening than disapproval, which is easily celebrated or dismissed depending on one’s leanings. These threads suggest not that Trump is being a bad leader, but that he is not being a leader at all. He is just being him. This suggestion is so much more threatening than disapproval as it removes the foundation upon which both approval and disapproval rest. Without such foundation political statements do not so much speak truth or falsehood as flash images that affirm or negate. Such statements are immune to argument, gaining their strength from the sense of confidence, joy, and invincibility with which they are asserted. If Trump has no campaign, if Trump is not a leader but just Trump, then the attacks on him will simply affirm this reality, breaking the feedback loop of claim and counterclaim and coming back again and again to the negation.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tell Me About the Bunnies, Simon

President Cuddle Bunny
By Finbarr Curtis

Simon Newman, the president of Mount St. Mary's University and academia's own incarnation of Martin Shkreli, recently made a public splash when the school newspaper reported on his proposed plan to improve academic retention rates by encouraging some students to drop out of college. He wanted to administer a survey, identify students with lower scores, and then dismiss these students before the University had to report its enrollment numbers. Newman's theory was that students with lower scores were more likely to eventually drop out and hurt retention rates, so he might as well get rid of them sooner rather than later.

Predictably, this plan met with opposition. While specific details are fuzzy, it appears that the program was never enacted as faculty did not produce names of students to dismiss in time for the deadline. When emails discussing the program were leaked by his critics, Newman promptly sought the resignation of the Provost and fired a couple faculty members who opposed him.

Newman was capable of outside-the-box thinking because he is no educator.  His professional biography cites his master of business administration degree from Stanford followed by an illustrious 30-year business career that started at Bain Co and and LEK Consulting.  This career appears to have taught him that human suffering is necessary "collateral damage" of profitable business practices.  Newman informed educators that their desire to educate students was a sign of weak will. As he explained, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

Saturday, January 16, 2016


By Finbarr Curtis

Everyone understands that Ted Cruz is a terrible human being.  Even Ted Cruz seems to think that Ted Cruz is a horrible person. You can see it in the knowing smirk he makes when he says some outlandish thing designed to offend do-gooders, the twinkle in his eye he gets when he talks about carpet bombing civilians, the wry chuckle he lets out when he makes fun of women who cannot afford contraception, the sense of smug satisfaction that oozes from every pore when he calmly informs the American public that he will reduce economic inequality by cutting taxes on the wealthy, and the look of serenity that appears when he nourishes his soul by informing a nervous working woman that he would happily deport her.

Cruz is a representative of a peculiar species of conservative often found sporting bow ties on the debate teams of Ivy League schools.  This breed of conservative cites his argumentative prowess as evidence of great intelligence.  What this means in reality is that they have just enough intelligence to formulate arguments that are perfectly designed to get people to hate them, but do not have enough intelligence to do the more difficult work of persuading anyone.  Designed to provoke rather than convince, the pontifications of Ivy League Young Republicans produce a feedback loop of ubiquitous loathing that perpetually confirms their elite superiority.  Nothing makes them happier than their being hated.

Cruz's grin was stretching ear-to-ear in Thursday's GOP debate when he was asked about his accusation that Donald Trump represented "New York values."  Answering a question from Brooklyn-born Maria Bartiromo, Cruz stated: "I think most people know what that means." When Bartiromo said she did not know although she was from New York, he explained: "You might not know because you are from New York."

At first glance, this is a paradox.  Common sense would tell us that New Yorkers, those who have the experience of the Big Apple in their bones, would best understand New York values.  But Cruz is not one to shirk from logical contradictions.  Right after saying that Bartiromo might not understand because she was from New York, he upped the ante from his claim that "most people" know to "everyone" understands.  According to Cruz: "Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal, pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, focus around money and the media." There is a literal paradox here as well.  A dictionary definition of "everyone" as "every person" would include people from New York.  But New York values are comprehensible to everyone except New Yorkers.

Friday, October 16, 2015

It's Not the Size of the Tent; It's How It's Constructed

By Finbarr Curtis

Elections are in the air.  Alongside the far more colorful contests for the American presidency, the American Academy of Religion put forth David P. Gushee and R. Kendall Soulen as candidates for the vice presidency of the organization.  While lacking controversy of Trumpic proportions, the AAR did face criticism here and here from scholars who noted that the two candidates both advocate for more theological reflection in the study of religion.  In his statement, Gushee expresses concern that the "AAR is seen as not particularly hospitable to, say, confessional or constructive theology, or more conservative religious viewpoints."
Gushee and Soulen reopen some old debates in religious studies and appeal to American senses of fair play and inclusion.  In their view, the AAR should be a big tent that includes lots of different perspectives.  I am not persuaded that their tent building requires any changes in organizational direction, however, because it strikes me that the AAR is a big tent right now.  Ironically, this means that everyone feels excluded.  Evangelical theologians lament that secular approaches to religious studies have squeezed out faith while critical theorists see Christian theological categories everywhere.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Coddling of American Think Pieces

By Finbarr Curtis

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt want to protect you.  Or more precisely, they want to protect you from people who are harming you by trying to protect you.  Their recent piece on the coddling of American students warns of political correctness on college campuses.  In its recent incarnation, political correctness damages young people's psyches by protecting them from the inevitable harm we all must face in the harsh real world.  Hypersensitive students invent increasingly subtle forms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism, and then seek to protect themselves by asking professors to make these threats visible through markers like trigger warnings on course syllabuses.

Critics of political correctness are not just talking about college. Victims of hypersensitivity nationwide have found their most prominent spokesman in current Republican front-runner Donald Trump.  When questioned by debate moderator Megyn Kelly about his disparaging comments about women, Trump responded that the "big problem this country has is being politically correct."  Trump is the perfect anti-trigger warning.  Liable to say anything at anytime, his supporters are drawn to his honesty, his willingness to tell it like it is, his refusal to cower in the face of fraudulent liberal niceness, his insistence on giving offense as a much needed lesson to losers who take offense.  Speaking truth to sensitivity feels liberating to people tired of having to politely self-censor in order to avoid charges of racism and sexism.   The Trump-For-President Movement is a twenty-first century free-hate commune where you can express all your deepest, darkest, pent-up frustrations and everything is groovy and there are no judgments.

Many who decry political correctness on college campuses are mystified by Trump's rise.  There seems to be a difference between Lukianoff and Haidt's attacks on hypersensitive students and Trump's attacks on hypersensitive journalists.  But it is worth considering whether people making the same arguments for the same purposes might have similar motives.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Kind of a Big Fake

Some cool looking data from LaCour and Green's study
By Finbarr Curtis 

In a scene from The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the journalist Brian Fantana anoints himself with a special cologne made with "bits of real panther." The cologne's pungent gasoline aroma does not shake Fantana's confidence in its seductive powers.  As he explains, "They've done studies, you know. 60% of the time, it works every time."  Fantana's data make no sense, of course, but this is beside the point.  What matters is that "they" have done "studies."

The seductive magic of studies hit the interwebs this past week when it was revealed that a graduate student named Michael LaCour faked the data in an article entitled "When Contact Changes Minds: An Experiment on Transmission of Support for Gay Equality."  The study showed that canvassers working on behalf of marriage equality could change people's minds after relatively short conversations.  The essay also compared the persuasive power of straight and gay activists, suggesting that contact with gay canvassers produced longer and more sustainable changes in political attitudes.

LaCour co-authored the article with a professor of political science named Donald Green.  While Green helped to write the study, LaCour gathered all of the data and snookered his co-author into thinking it was real.  Green was not the only one fooled.  The findings made their way to Ira Glass's This American Life, which discussed the article in a story entitled "The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind." The study was appealing because it confirmed liberal ideas about the sources of social conflict: that social divisions are caused by personal prejudices that can be dispelled if only people could get to know each other.  In addition, LaCour's data assured us that people are persuadable.  The takeaway from the study is that voters might be a lot nicer and reasonable then we might have thought.

None of this necessarily means that the findings have been proven wrong.  Ironically, activists who worked to pass a recent referendum for marriage equality in Ireland used the LaCour and Green study as a template for their own political strategy.  If LaCour had not been a quantitative social scientist, he could have simply written the study without the data.  If he was delivering a TED talk or writing an op-ed column, he could have said the same thing and possibly received critical acclaim and invitations to lucrative speaking engagements.

But LaCour inhabits an academic universe in which faking data is a cardinal sin.  Some have concluded that the current scandal proves that the system worked and confirms the importance of reliable data gathering.  As David Brookman, one of two UC Berkeley graduate students who discovered to the fake data when they tried to craft a similar study, explains:
The nature of the work that we do as quantitative researchers is that you allow the data to tell you what you think the truth should be. You don’t take your views and then apply those to the data; you let the data inform your views.
Brookman's faith in data is itself an interesting datum.  The LaCour affair seems to show that data themselves aren't what persuade people.  LaCour recognized that he just needed to have some data, that if he could produce sophisticated charts, graphs, and numbers it was unlikely that anyone would check.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

RFRA's Rocky Slope

Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Wishing for a Vacation
By Finbarr Curtis

While Americans are divided about the meaning of religious freedom, at least everyone can agree that Governor Mike Pence has had a bad week.  When Pence signed into law the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), he explained that he wanted to protect the religious freedom of "every Hoosier of every faith." This seemingly innocuous proclamation was met with a flood of objections from voices ranging from the Hoosier-bred David Letterman to the Hoosier-beloved NASCAR.  The critics worried that the law would give Indiana citizens a religious right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.  Some Christian bakers, florists, photographers, and pizzeria operators confirmed these fears by announcing that they would refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings.

In response to the national uproar, Pence insisted that the act be amended to make clear "that this law does not give businesses the right to discriminate against anyone." One irony is that the amended Indiana RFRA states more clearly than the federal or other state RFRAs that it cannot be used for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (this is not to say that such discrimination is now against state law, however, as it was not outlawed in the first place).

So all good, then?  Well, not so fast.  Amending RFRA might actually highlight its power to erode the liberty of religious minorities.  What Pence's amendment shows is that the legislature can clarify what counts as religious liberty.  The problem is that what the legislature giveth the legislature can taketh away.  In theory, constitutional religious liberty claims would be inaccessible to legislative meddling.  As a state statute, RFRA would leave religious protections up to the whim of democratic majorities.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kids Today

By Finbarr Curtis

During the controversy surrounding the 1995 film Kids, I remember seeing my Uncle Eamonn on television defending the movie's release.  While he wanted an R instead of an NC-17 rating, he did warn that "This movie isn't for kids." The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave the film an NC-17 rating because of its "explicit sex, language, drug use and violence involving children." My uncle's objection was not based on his desire to get kids to see Kids; the problem was that movie theaters would not show NC-17 films.  This amounted to de facto censorship because many people would not be able to see the film and it would fail to make any money.

One remarkable feature of this controversy is how unremarkable Kids would be today.  While its ability to shock still holds up, it now exists in a media landscape with such a proliferation of explicit sex, language, drug use, and violence that it would be hard to imagine its release making national news.

This observation seems to be at odds with a slew of recent essays that tell us that the current generation of college students are fragile, protected, and sheltered.  Judith Shapiro calls this phenomenon the "self-infantilization" of students.  Laura Kipnis worries about how students "cocooned from uncomfortable feelings" will deal with the harsh realities of the real world.  Judith Shulevitz reports that students in the past were "hardier souls" who would have resisted intrusive supervision:
Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like.
One feature of this current climate are requests for "trigger warnings" on course syllabuses.  These warnings alert students to content that could cause psychological harm.  A trigger warning is not unlike the MPAA's movie ratings.  Trigger warnings do not for the most part require material to be removed from the course; they alert students to some themes and give them the choice about whether they want to expose themselves to this content.  It is this request for an exemption that feels like a kind of de facto censorship to professors.  It offends our sense of free inquiry and the necessity of confronting difficult subject matter.

Concerns about overprotection are not all that new.  Many generations have lamented that kids today are spoiled and need to toughen up.  For this reason, I tend to be suspicious of theories about generational essences.  Such theories often draw heavily on nostalgic recollections of youth and tend to generalize about an entire era based on personal experiences.

Nevertheless, trigger warnings on college syllabuses are a novel development that asks for an explanation.  I wonder, however, whether we can do a better job of analysis than we find in jeremiads against kids today. My goal here is not to defend or criticize trigger warnings, but to try to offer some more satisfying explanation about what is going on.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Pardon the Interruption

Governor Scott Walker, Thinker

By Finbarr Curtis

Defending his recent proposal to cut 300 million dollars from higher education in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker instructed professors to work harder to make up the difference.  Many tried to correct the governor by noting all of the work that college professors do.  For my part, I have already written about how an education in the humanities is useful because it teaches students how to work.  The reason that I won't repeat this here is that it seems beside the point in the Wisconsin kerfuffle.  That is, when Governor Walker says that college professors need to work more, he doesn't mean that they need to spend more hours in the office.  As someone who did not do much work in college, Walker is aware that it takes a lot of effort to succeed in school.  Indeed, the students who became college professors were the kind of nerds who worked a whole lot harder than him.

What Walker really means is that the work that scholars do might be interesting to them but doesn't perform any practical economic function.  The harder that professors work, the lazier they are.  The lazy professor is destined to become an austerity archetype in the tradition of the surfing food-stamp glutton or the welfare mom.  Archetypes like welfare abusers or lazy professors persist not because they explain anything about social reality, but because they provide assurances that difficult structural problems can be fixed by reforming the personal habits of people who depend upon public resources.

I could list the many reasons why Walker is wrong.  But in this post I want to consider why his image of the lazy professor resonates with so may people.  It seems to me that the way that professors talk about their own work might contribute to popular perceptions of their laziness.  To this end, I would like to revisit the portrait of professorial labor found in Professor Laurie Zoloth's 2014 address to the American Academy of Religion.  In her address, entitled "Interrupting Your Life: An Ethics for the Coming Storm," Zoloth called on the AAR to take an occasional sabbatical by canceling its annual meeting.  Her hope is that by canceling the conference every seven years, the AAR could reduce the carbon footprint caused by thousands of academics flying from around the world to stay in hotels and eat meat.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

It's a French Thing

We readily imagine that we are a very tolerant civilization, that we have welcomed all forms of the past, all the cultural forms foreign to us, that we welcome also behavior, language, and sexual deviations.  I wonder if this is an illusion. - Michel Foucault
By Finbarr Curtis

The proliferation of essays following the Charlie Hebdo massacre confirmed Roland Barthes's observation that "Every national shock produces a sudden flowering of written commentary."  Most rallied behind the slogan "Je suis Charlie," but some offered other views.  In this vein, I wrote something that resisted conventional wisdom.  While I supported Charlie Hebdo's right to free speech and protection from murder, I was less convinced that I needed to applaud Charlie's heroism.  Many lamented how hypersensitive, humorless Anglophone academics like me ignored the French context. As Olivier Tonneau explained, if Brits and Americans knew more we would realize that these cartoonists were precious friends and allies:
Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.
In Adam Gopnik's description, the French have a "savage tradition" of satire that would shock most American sensibilities:
The staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, massacred in an act that shocked the world last week, were not the gentle daily satirists of American editorial cartooning. Nor were they anything like the ironic observers and comedians of manners most often to be found in our own beloved stable here at The New Yorker. (Though, to be sure, the covers of this magazine have startled a few readers and started a few fights.) They worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy.
These reported national disagreements recall the 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, which began as a discussion of human nature and developed into an argument about justice, inequality, and freedom. Except in this case, the parties have switched sides.  The French line up with Chomsky to defend enlightenment ideals while some Americans see freedom through the lens of discursive power.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

By Finbarr Curtis

In the wake of the recent mass murder of the contributors to Charlie Hebdo, we have been awash in calls to decry violence and affirm commitments to free speech.  These sentiments are reasonable and should be widely embraced.  But one notable feature of this discussion has been the rise of the affirmation: "Je suis Charlie." This slogan asks us not only to denounce violence, but also to sympathetically identify with the writers of Charlie Hebdo. We are asked to applaud their heroism and courage in the face of extremism.  This sympathetic identification is remarkable in that people in democratic societies do not usually need reasons not to be murdered. Furthermore, identifying with Charlie poses a challenge because the publication's cartoons gleefully traffic in bigotry. In particular, the murderers took offense at insulting portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad.

Many defend such bigotry, however, on the grounds that Charlie Hebdo was an "equal opportunity offender." These defenses have insisted that the cartoons in question were not Islamophobic because they also insulted Catholics, Jews, and everyone else. Furthermore, images that appeared to be patently racist were really just profanations of religious figures.  Whereas racism would be unacceptable to secular liberals, anti-religious invective is okay.  In this way, the label "religion" performs magical work. Comparisons between religions take disparate images and transform them into the same thing.  A caricature of the Pope becomes no different from an stereotypical image of the Prophet Muhammad.

Such magical thinking, however, forgets that the intelligent use of comparison depends upon discerning differences.  In his classic essay "In Comparison a Magic Dwells," Jonathan Z. Smith reminds us:
Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the "gap" in the service of some useful end.
The apologists for Charlie Hebdo who celebrate equal opportunity offenders offer comparisons that make no difference. By accepting that anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic slights are the same thing, this rhetoric asks us to forget everything we know about European history and politics.  Rather than a form of social criticism, Charlie Hebdo's habit of offending everyone in the same way marks the absence of intelligent analysis.

Instead of speaking truth to power, equal opportunity offense erases the realities of social power. This is partly why the role of equal opportunity offender appeals disproportionately to white men. Charlie Hebdo's cartoons voiced white Frenchmen's sense that their political and aesthetic freedom was under threat by a Muslim minority. Consistent with calls for race or gender neutrality, equal opportunity offense celebrates its commitment to equality and freedom in ways that distract attention from existing social inequalities.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Devil in Mr. Wilson

By Finbarr Curtis

If Dorian Jackson perpetrated a fraud in his grand jury testimony, he did a remarkably good job.  While not all of the details in Jackson's story are clear, someone crafting a self-serving narrative designed to frame a police officer would not usually volunteer that his friend had committed a crime, that they planned to get high, that he had been stopped by police before, that he did not comply with an officer's order, and that both the officer and his friend could not remain calm.  Jackson describes a familiar, ordinary confrontation between two human beings, both headstrong, both physically assertive, both feeling disrespected and instinctively suspicious of the other, but only one with the will and the power to initiate and conclude a confrontation with deadly force.  An incompetent liar would have told a story with less nuance.  We could imagine testimony in which Jackson insisted that Michael Brown did nothing wrong, that a police officer assaulted them without warning and for no comprehensible reason.

In other words, if Jackson was trying to lie he would have told a story like Darren Wilson's.  Wilson's testimony has none of Jackson's complexity and ambiguity.  His is a simple morality tale of angels and demons, of an innocent baby in the grip of a furious giant.  Wilson does not describe an angry encounter between human beings, but instead tells of an inexplicable assault by a mysterious force of diabolical fury.

There is a telling difference in how Wilson and Jackson describe the motives of others in their stories.  While Jackson recounts his shock, he does not portray Wilson as extraordinary and unintelligible.  According to Jackson, Wilson spoke in the familiar tones of disrespect and infantilization that a condescending father might use when talking to children.  Jackson observes that Wilson was not "stopping us or telling us anything like we were committing a crime so much as chastising from a father to a son, like you are doing some wrong.  Hey, put that down or don't touch that, it came off like that, that's how he said it."  Commanded to get out of the street, Jackson and Brown ignored the order because Wilson did not accuse them of a crime but merely cursed at them in the way that people do when they talk down to others who are less powerful.  This was nothing out of the ordinary in Ferguson, Missouri.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Newt Gingrich Does Not Want to Party Like It's 1899

Newt Gingrich, Innovator
by Finbarr Curtis

It's not clear why Newt Gingrich hates the 1890s so much.  Maybe he's still seething over the decade's proliferation of agrarian populists and urban progressives.  Maybe he has been too busy to revise speeches he wrote in the 1990s that employed a familiar rhetorical trope of attacking policies by denouncing them as a century out of date.  Whatever the sources of Gingrich's 1890s loathing, his love letter to innovative education focuses mostly on how much the schools sucked.  As he explains:
Teachers lecture, students sit and some listen. Class happens at the same time, with the same material, and at the same pace for everyone. This is an 1890s model of education -- teaching to the "average" student, rather than the individual.  In an age when most information and knowledge is transmitted digitally and is increasingly personalized—think about how Netflix, Pandora, Twitter and Facebook work— we should be able to do much better than that.
Well, I'm thinking about Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook, and Gingrich has a point that these work nothing like education in the 1890s.  Now that I think about it, they work like no model of education anywhere at anytime because these corporations do not do the difficult work of teaching.  Some of you might object, of course, that a lot of important conversation happens in these spaces.  You could probably get pretty snarky and note that the only reason you are reading this piece right now is that you followed a facebook or twitter link posted by yours truly.  And you'd be right.  People can make all sorts of interesting uses of different media.  What Gingrich cites as worthy of emulation, however, is the most anti-intellectual quality of Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook: the apocalyptic promise of "increasingly personalized" knowledge.  While we have access to more information than in the 1890s, our social media habits sort through all this to help us live at the center of our own mediated worlds.  By using your tastes to shape what you see, networks of surveillance and distribution bring you information in familiar narratives that confirm your biases, assumptions, and prejudices.  The leviathan is you.