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Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Jonah Goldberg's New Book

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) April 26, 2018: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University Press, 1955) in English at Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). From the fall semester of 1964 of my junior year onward, I took five courses from Ong at SLU.

Now, because I find certain key details in Ong's account of our Western cultural history convincing, I published the article "The West Versus the Rest: Getting Our Cultural Bearings from Walter J. Ong" in the journal Explorations in Media Ecology (sponsored by the Media Ecology Association), volume 7, number 4 (2008): pages 271-282.

For related works that support certain key themes in Ong's sweeping account of our Western cultural history, see my online essay "A Concise Guide to Five Themes in Walter J. Ong's Thought and Selected Related Works" that is available at the University of Minnesota's digital conservancy:

But Ong is not alarmist, and he does not catastrophize (to use Albert Ellis' terminology). In my 2008 article about the West, I am not an alarmist, and I do not catastrophize.

In light of my interest in Ong's account of our Western cultural history, the conservative polemicist Jonah Goldberg's alarmist new book Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy (Penguin/ Random House, 2018) caught my attention. Jonah Goldberg (born in 1969) holds the Cliff Asness chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

In the past, William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008), Russell Kirk (1918-1994), James Burnham (1905-1987), Michael Novak (1933-2017), and Patrick J. Buchanan (born in 1938) have influenced conservatives by publishing books and articles. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether Jonah Goldberg's alarmist polemic will appeal to conservatives and conservative-leaning voters.

As far as I know, the late Michael Novak, who held the George Frederick Jewett chair at the American Enterprise Institute, is the only famous conservative polemicist who was familiar with Ong's work, but Novak did not attempt to use Ong's thought in any of his own publications. But why not? Evidently, Novak had certain reservations about Ong's thought. Moreover, Ong's thought tends to be irenic and contemplative in spirit. By contrast, Novak's publications tend to be conservative polemics. His most widely known book is The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (American Enterprise Institute/ Simon and Schuster, 1982). In 1996, SLU conferred an honorary doctorate on Novak.

In the book Right from the Beginning (Little, Brown, 1988), Patrick J. Buchanan discusses his alcohol-fueled years (1962-1965) of working for the now-defunct conservative newspaper the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (pages 263-264, 267-276, and 286-288). As a pugnacious undergraduate, he attended Georgetown University, the Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., where he grew up (pages 198-231). However, nothing in his book suggests that he knew of Ong at the Jesuit university in St. Louis.

Incidentally, I published a review in the weekend edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat dated November 27-28, 1971, page 4H, of Ong's book Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1971). The editors titled my review "Father Ong's Long View: How the World Today Got that Way."

But let me switch gears here. Before I retired from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2009, I used to teach an introductory-level survey course of Literacy, Technology, and Culture, in which I used Ong's thought as the basic conceptual framework. Briefly, among the required readings, I had the students read Ong's book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen, 1982), Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking Penguin, 1985), Postman's book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Knopf, 1992), Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, or, The New Prometheus (1816), Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

If we were to construct a technophobe/technophile spectrum with a mid-point, Postman would clearly be on the technophobe side of the mid-point, but Ong would be on the technophile side, although he is not uncritical of technology, as certain contemporary technophiles tend to be.

As Jonah Goldberg notes (page 338), in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985, pages vii-viii), Postman discusses both Huxley's novel and Orwell's. In addition to noting this, Jonah Goldberg himself discusses both Orwell's novel (pages 116, 334, 335, and 338) and Huxley's novel (pages 335, 338, and 343) -- and Mary Shelley's novel (page 246).

However, apart from Postman's discussion of Huxley and Orwell in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), it strikes me that Postman's book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (Knopf, 1999) is more related to certain themes in Jonah Goldberg's new book.

Postman and some of his faculty colleagues at New York University started the doctoral program in media ecology, in which graduate students studied both McLuhan and Ong. Lance Strate, a graduate of the NYU program, served as the supervisory editor of the Media Ecology book series published by Hampton Press, in which I published the following three books:

(1) Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, 2nd ed. (2015; orig. ed., 2000);

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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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