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How and Why Communication Media That Accentuate Sound Helped Engender Conservative Currents in the U.S. and Elsewhere

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) October 22, 2009. -- In the early 1950s, the American cultural historian Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), whose family name is English (probably related to the name "Yonge"), experienced a big breakthrough in his own thinking about Western cultural history. He devoted much of the rest of his long and productive scholarly life to developing that big breakthrough in his thinking. During his life he received numerous honors and distinctions. He was dubbed a knight by the French government for his contributions to French cultural history, elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, elected president of the Modern Language Association, and selected at different times to deliver the Terry Lectures at Yale University, the messenger Lectures at Cornell University, and the Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Fulbright Act, Ong was selected as one of about a dozen Lincoln Lecturers. He delivered lectures in Cameroun, Zaire, and Senegal in French, and in Nigeria in English. Those honors and distinctions were no mean achievements for a Roman Catholic priest in the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture of the United States.

In turn I was impressed enough with Ong's wide-ranging work that I wrote a book-length study of his thought, Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, the first edition of which won the 2001 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology conferred by the Media Ecology Association. The second edition is scheduled to be published in the near future by Hampton Press. Ong's work gives us the distance we need to understand Western culture, including developments in Western culture over the last half century or so. As a result, I propose to use Ong's thought in the present essay to discuss conservative currents in the United States and elsewhere around the world today, so that liberals and progressives today can better understand the conservative currents that we are struggling against.

In the election of 1960, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were liberal Democrats in the New Deal tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Like all other Democrats and all Republicans at the time, they were strong anticommunists. After President Kennedy's tragic assassination, the new President Johnson was eventually able to guide through Congress landmark civil rights legislation. But predictably enough, the new legislation helped generate a backlash reaction to it, most notably among white working-class men and women. About the same time, the war in Vietnam was also generating a backlash reaction to it, most notably among the younger generation of white people. In addition, about the same time, the women's movement was generating a backlash reaction to it, most notably among white housewives. Furthermore, the 1973 revolutionary ruling by the Supreme Court that legalized abortion in the United States generated a backlash, most notably among conservative Christians.

Despite protests against the war in Vietnam, both the Democratic party and the Republican party continued to be strongly anticommunist in their official stances. It is not clear to me that the antiwar movement helped increase the number of Americans who officially identified themselves as Democrats. However, the backlash against the antiwar movement did help increase the number of people who identified themselves as Republicans, as did the backlash against the civil rights legislation and the backlash against the women's movement and the backlash against the legalization of abortion. Combined together, those four backlash movements helped create movement conservatism, which led to the election of Republican presidents from Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush.

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However, the communication media that accentuate sound and imagistic thinking (television, radio, telephone, movies with soundtracks, audio-recordings, sound amplification systems) collectively help engender conservative impulses such as the four backlash movements just mentioned but also the worldwide rise of various religious fundamentalist movements, most notably in Islam and in Christianity in developing countries. For understandable reasons, liberals and progressives should find the rise of movement conservatism in the United States and the rise of religious fundamentalism in various parts of the world today troubling. With the widespread use of television in the 1960s, the communication media that accentuate sound reached a critical mass, a critical mass that has not diminished since then but that has spread to many other countries around the world since then. In Ong's understanding of cultural tendencies, the acoustic orientation of the human sensorium favors homo religiosus. (To avoid a possible misunderstanding, I want to spell out explicitly here that I am a theistic humanist, but I do not favor any established religious tradition.)

But didn't the communication media that accentuate sound also impact the people who participated in the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the women's movement? Yes, on all counts. We Americans collectively passed the critical mass threshold. We collectively were influenced by the deep, resonating cultural conditioning of the communication media that accentuate sound. But movement conservatives were moved to react to this deep sensory stimulation by trying to reinvigorate the old cultural paradigm as they understood it. By contrast, cultural progressives wanted to forge ahead in shaping new norms and attitudes. Over recent decades, these two large groups of Americans that emerged in the late 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s have been roughly aligned with the two major political parties. As political alignments go, it is curious to find cultural conservatives who are part of the Christian antiabortion crusade aligned with libertarians in the Republican party. Shouldn't libertarians of all people be pro-choice? But libertarians themselves hearken back to 19th-century attitudes and practices, which makes them conservatives in that respect.

More recently, we Americans collectively have undergone the photocopier revolution, followed by the computer revolution, followed by the Internet revolution. Photocopiers and printers and computers with Internet access may not yet be as ubiquitous in the United States as are the communication media that accentuate sound and imagistic thinking. But they stimulate reading phonetic alphabetic letters and the kind of non-imagistic thinking that had been stimulated with the use of the phonetic alphabet in the ancient Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament and in ancient Greek philosophic thought, most notably in the formal study of logic. In the spirit of cataloguing phenomena, I should note that the spectacular rise of Internet pornography involves imagistic thinking, just as television and movies do. As is well known, cultural conservatives today are opponents of Internet pornography, just as cultural conservatives in the past have been opponents of other forms of pornography.

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However, despite the size and scope of the communication media that accentuate visual representations of phonetic alphabetic literacy and presumably of non-imagistic thinking, we may wonder about the deep sensory stimulation these new media are engendering in people in the United States and around the world today. In the United States, the people who are most deeply invested in the paradigm of print culture initiated by the development of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1450s -- academics -- are adapting reasonably well to these new communication media that accentuate phonetic alphabetic literacy, compared to their characteristic lack of comfort with the communication media that accentuate sound, most notably with television.

The continuing unfolding to this day of the black civil rights movement and of the women's movement and of legalized abortion have continued to roil and animate movement conservatives in the United States. Thus far during the decades of the computer revolution and the Internet revolution no further comparable social and political movements have emerged that are comparable in scope to those three developments from earlier decades. Besides, after the time of JFK and LBJ, movement conservatism has enjoyed enormous political power. But movement conservatism seemed to run out of steam in the 2008 elections. Perhaps President Obama and Democrats in Congress will unwittingly do something to re-charge movement conservatism. In short, movement conservatism may be down at the present time, but it may not be out yet. Fortunately, the old guard who helped usher in movement conservatism is dying off. But many baby boomers who joined movement conservatism still live on. At least in certain Christian circles, movement conservativism has recruited some people in the younger generation into the Christian antiabortion crusade and into the Evangelical Protestant crusade against teaching evolutionary theory in public education. As a result, movement conservatism at the present time appears to be undergoing a leadership crisis. But it does not yet appear likely to die out as a political force.

If Ong is correct about the acoustic orientation of the human sensorium favoring homo religiosus, as I think he is, then perhaps we should not be surprised by the resurrection of certain old-time Christian and Islamic religious traditions or by the various kinds of New Age spirituality in recent decades. However, if Ong is correct, as I think he is, then the cultural conditioning of the communication media that accentuate sound has prepared us for the flourishing of homo religiosus on a scale and to a degree unprecedented in world history -- for the flourishing of spirituality and for the flourishing of us as human beings. That's the vision. When it comes to the vision thing, Barack Obama is not in the same league with Ong and me. (In the 1990s, I titled a collection of essays by diverse hands that I had co-edited Communication and Lonergan: Common Ground for Forging the New Age. I wasn't joking. I was serious.)

On the one hand, the members of the Jesus Seminar did an excellent job in the 1990s not only of uncovering the few things we can understand about the historical Jesus but also of calling attention to the fabrications about him in the greatest story ever told. But for deep psychological reasons, orthodox Christians cling to the orthodox doctrines about Jesus being born supposedly by a virgin and about Jesus being God and about Jesus having a divine nature as well as a human nature and Jesus somehow being the second person of a supposed divine trinity. Old fabrications are hard for conservative orthodox Christians to give up. Moreover, Republican politicians continue to skillfully exploit conservative orthodox Christians by paying lip-service to their antiabortion sentiments.

On the other hand, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette published five excellent books in the 1990s detailing the energy resources available in the human psyche for human flourishing. More recently, they have revised and expanded the most important of their five books, The King Within: Accessing the King [Archetype] in the Male Psyche (2007). (There is a corresponding feminine counterpart of each of the four masculine archetypes of maturity discussed by Moore and Gillette in the female psyche.) It is important to understand everything that their work enables us to understand about the energy resources of the archetypal level of the human psyche. Nevertheless, their work does remain mostly a blueprint for action. For they have not yet worked out a manual for practical application of their insights comparable to the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Orthodox Christians today can use those spiritual exercises to learn how to draw on the archetypal energies that Moor and Gillette discuss. But those spiritual exercises are not designed for non-Christians. Orthodox Christians can use the imagery of Christ the King to stand for the King archetype in the human psyche. In any event, when it comes to the vision thing, Obama is not in a league with Moore and Gillette. Nor are other Democratic politicians.

The vision thing is needed, but more than vision is also needed -- practical actuation of human flourishing is needed. In my estimate, Walter J. Ong, S.J. exemplified the actuation of human flourishing as well as anyone else in the 20th century did. When President Johnson invoked the imagery of the Great Society, he did not explicitly remind his fellow Americans of John Winthrop's famous imagery of a city on a hill. Nevertheless, President Johnson had the right idea when he challenged his fellow Americans to build the Great Society. The history of the United States justifies Johnson's challenge as well as Winthrop's imagery. The manifest destiny of the United States to be a great society, a city on a hill for the entire world to see -- an example of human flourishing. A country free at long last of claims about so-called "revealed" religions, where the human spirit of homo religiosus flourishes free of organized religions. Unfortunately, the Republican party in recent decades has exploited orthodox Christians to produce movement conservatism. Why even President Obama fancies himself to be an orthodox Christian. Over the last five decades, Republican politicians have been able to fire up the conservative Christian base and prevail in elections. Republican politicians clearly know how to energize homo religiosus to their advantage. But do Democratic politicians know how to energize homo religiosus well enough to evoke comparable spirit for their causes?

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The dangerous policies of the George W. Bush administration evoked powerful forces of opposition, resulting in Democratic electoral victories in 2008. However, with the advent of the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress, those old oppositional forces will probably subside. For the Democratic party and its policies to continue to prevail in future elections, Democratic politicians are going to have to energize homo religiosus by invoking imagery of a great society characterized by human flourishing. Oppositional energies are not likely to be enough for the Democratic party to prevail in future elections, because Republican politicians have a well-established track record for exploiting the energies of conservative orthodox Christians to their advantage. Democratic politicians are going to have to fight fire with fire.


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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