Archive for August, 2005

Intelligent Design of Propaganda

Tuesday, August 30th, 2005

A lot of people are coming out having to defend evolution from the propaganda
campaign that is intelligent design. Confusion abounds. Daniel Dennett penned
an NYT
with several good points.

no intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival
explanation of any biological phenomenon
. This might seem surprising
to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis
of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent
design proponents do, "You haven’t explained everything yet," is
not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn’t explained
everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn’t
yet tried to explain anything

Instead of spending more than $1 million a year on publishing books and articles
for non-scientists and on other public relations efforts, the Discovery Institute
should finance its own peer-reviewed electronic journal.

The sad truth is that you don’t really need truth or evidence or studies
or ethics or history on your side. You merely need a good marketing campaign

I personally like the UFO analogy Dennett gives: that the idea that we are
the results of ancient alien experiments being a more scientific idea than intelligent
design. When I was an undergraduate at UNT I had an instructor who made paintings
in homage of our supposed alien ancestors. It was so amusing I used flying saucer
images in my drawings and paintings for several years afterward. I thought of
them as symbols of projected meaning: we could use pretty much anything - might
as well be an artifact of the cold war fears and 50’s sci-fi.

Intelligent design, rather than a topic in a science class, should be a topic
of a philosophy or theology or politics class, as Dennett suggests. Better yet,
a class on persuasion, propaganda, and perception management. But that would
go against the role of public K-12 education: to create dutiful workers and
consumers. No wonder somewhere near 50% of Americans think the world is less
than 10,000 years old. In Texas, about that same percentage failed to graduate
from high school. Yeee Haaaw.

Evolution is no more a threat to Christianity than subatomic physics or the
paintings of Picasso. The intelligent design folks have basically given up the
territory already. You are saying that the basic presumptions of the scientific
view of the world are correct. That the right way to spread and defend religion
is through the methodology of science, rather than through faith.

Needing to "prove" anything religious is like claiming you
need to have "faith" in the periodic table.

Religion and faith are not, to my understanding, about logic, reason or evidence.
That is the realm of philosophy and science, respectively. The Bible doesn’t
say the real is rational and the rational is real, that was Hegel. And even
most scientists don’t exclusively believe that. Those that do commit the same
error as the fundamentalists: they fail to understand that theirs is merely
a way of describing certain aspects of experience. In other words, there are
multiple ways of describing things (or as I like to say, frames for experience
and possibilities for experience).

Science does not provide a value system. On the one hand it generates awe at
the scale and grandeur of the universe but on the other it makes us feel insignificant.
As if the world in our heads were but an insignificant blip on an insignificant
speck in an indifferent, unimaginably huge universe. It doesn’t really have
anything to offer us in the way of personal purpose or meaning.

Evolution doesn’t "disprove" Christianity. It has no interest in
it. Maybe it should go both ways.

Consumerism: A Common Battleground?

Wednesday, August 17th, 2005

My Sunday DMN Column “Model Citizen or Model Consumer” drew a fair number of responses. Interestingly, most of them were from conservatives - and supporting at that. Of course this is not particularly surprising. Consumerism as a would-be religion/ideology is a threat to other, more substantial value systems right and left, hence the crossover.

It seems some in the religious community are up in arms about the consumerist/materialist threat. And rightly so. I had been wondering about whether local churches were dealing with this issue. Some are, as I’ve received letters from pastors and religious activists of various stripes. I still am curious how / if this issue is approached in the larger mega churches, if at all (please send me a note if you are aware of anything).

I also received letters from those looking for answers, solutions.

A reader writes “if consumerism is our new religion, how and when do you think we can find a new religion? What can make us better? (Perhaps that will be your next column?)” Next column perhaps, and the next few years obsession most likely. And I’m not sure “religion” is the right term, unless it is in the sense that theologian Paul Tillich meant: one’s “ultimate concern.” In this sense we just need to make sure consumerism is not our ultimate concern. But of course
it is not so simple as that. At this level of discussion it is a philosophical/religious matter. Some think we’ve simply lost our way and need to reclaim the past. Others want contemporary, secular solutions.

A certain part of the cultural right is awake to these issues and they have an obvious solution on the personal side (traditional Christian values). I’m not so clear about what they would proscribe on the public side, if anything. Would they allow restrictions of marketing to youth? Fund more not-for-profit (hence no advertising) public media?

It’s very interesting to see the common territory here. Rod Dreher, editor of DMN’s Points sent me this cover article he wrote a few years back for the National Review. Take a look and see what you think.

“…we are citizens before we are consumers”

“A child who grows up in a neighborhood built for human beings, not cars, may think of man’s relation to his world differently from one raised amid the throwaway utilitarianism of strip-mall architecture. One’s sensitivity to and desire for beauty, and its edifying qualities of order, harmony, “sweetness and light,” has consequences for the character of individuals and ultimately for civilization. It’s perilous to forget that.”

And Jane Jacobs? Kunstler? Organic veggies? Very crunchy. Not everyone on the right shares these opinions. Pity, because there is a great deal of shared concern.

… more to come on the “solutions” side over the coming months.

Model Citizen or Model Consumer?

Sunday, August 14th, 2005

Reprinted from the Dallas Morning News August 14, 2005

Parking LotIt comes as no surprise that Americans are under severe stress due to crushing debt levels and a savings rate that is basically zero. It’s not surprising because we are encouraged to over-consume by nearly every facet of culture and media. Worse, we have internalized consumerism to the point where it has become our value system.

As media critic Mark Crispin Miller told me recently, we have been reduced to being “receivers of messages that constantly tell us that the only thing that matters in life  s to go shopping and then stay home with your stuff.” Which is, as he says, “profoundly anti-democratic.”

We have replaced the model of “citizen” with the model of “consumer.” The citizen model encouraged group involvement, debate, and community. The consumer model encourages immediate gratification and personal indulgence. It replaces the real empowerment of civic engagement with a fantasy of empowerment enabled through consumer products.

And not only has the role of consumer become our primary function in society, it has, in large respects, become our religion.

The new Ikea is like the big blue consumer cathedral of Frisco, dominating the landscape like the pyramids (except much uglier). And the hype surrounding its opening is like any new blip on the shopping landscape: its novelty arouses us for a short while, but then we’re on the hunt again for the next promise of material salvation.

And if consumerism is our new religion, one aspect is conspicuously absent: the ethical one. We shop without considering the larger ramifications of our purchases. How and where was this product made? Who and what am I supporting by paying for this thing? How are the workers treated? (The difference between Wal-Mart and Costco, for example). We are encouraged to isolate the buying experience into how it will make us feel in the moment and to ignore the larger effects.

These days the effects reach all around the world.

And as Americans we like to think we have a system and ideas worthy of exporting to the world. If the American Dream has degenerated in to a consumer dystopia, we might want to do some rethinking. Here in the wealthiest county in Texas we serve as a kind of model. It is an unsustainable ideal. Our hyper consumptive, supersized lifestyle is a disastrous example for the rest of the world. Especially in booming places like China, where if everyone drove the aptly named Suburban and bought oversized houses the environment would literally collapse.

Some say “personal responsibility” is the answer. True enough when it’s a fair fight, but it’s not. As individuals we are grossly outmatched by enormous propaganda campaigns, market studies, Ivy League psychologists, and “perception managers” who do just that – manage our perceptions
of everything. Sadly, they also manage the perceptions we have of ourselves.

This is especially offensive when it comes to our children. The marketing most of us were subjected to growing up seems quaint compared to the industry that is aggressively targeting the youth of today.

Our kids are being trained to be good consumers, which is certainly not the same thing as being a good person, or a good American. Girls get shopping mall games and boys get mini-Hummers, the very symbol of excessive, wasteful consumption.

And everything is branded. Few well-designed toys exist that are not cross-selling something else: sugary snacks, sugary pop idols, animated characters.

Walking through a mega toy store you get the sense that life is nothing but a series of acquisitions. That basically childhood is a matter of working your way through the different departments, front to back. Then you get to head to the big box stores and the SUV lot. Then you get a starter castle. Your identity is defined by what you have, even if it’s the same thing everyone else has.

If consumerism has replaced citizenship, then the more stuff you have the higher your status. And as long as status is equated with stuff our personal, financial, and civic lives will continue to deteriorate. It’s good for the marketers, but it’s bad for democracy.

The American philosopher William James said that worship of success was our national disease. The problem is, in order to cure the disease, we have to admit that we are afflicted in the first place.

Photo from the film Subdivided courtesy of Jim Wark / AirphotoNA

Dallas Video Festival Catalog Essay

Thursday, August 11th, 2005

The following is a short essay written for the catalog for this year’s
Dallas Video Festival. My friend Laura
kindly invited me to write it.

A War Worth Fighting

The arguments over whether artists are obligated to respond to contemporary
events are as old as art itself. And though the pressure to deal directly with
political issues is often intense, filmmakers and artists need not feign being
political, nor should they feel obligated to become so. In an age of suffocating
political and commercial propaganda, simply telling a story that rings true,
where the characters are honest and the situation feels authentic is in itself

Media viewers are so accustomed to a high level of artifice and simulated sentiment
that authenticity strikes us as jarring. The depiction of richly felt, complex,
even contradictory emotions is effectively revolutionary, radical even. And
when you deal in deeply felt human emotions, not their cartoon counterparts,
you speak to everyone, not just those of one political party or another.

Failing to question one’s assumptions may win elections, but makes for
poor art. The propagandists can’t stand it when we’re honest, meaningful,
and complex - where things are often grey, murky, undetermined. Clarity comes
from the truthfulness of the experience as interpreted by the storyteller, not
from a focus group tested slogan. Where the bad guy has more than one dimension,
and where the “evil” is spread around, as it always is.

The biggest insults are movies that attempt to comment on the current political
situation with a few throwaway lines, and then quickly return to the wooden
dialog and simulated explosions. And waste a hundred million dollars in the

Independent film and video makers have an obligation, in my mind, to not do
what Hollywood or Washington are doing. And they can start by being authentic
to who they are, by telling stories that make sense of their corner of the world.

Simply refusing to deal in stereotypes and cliché’s in our own
stories is political because it flies in the face of most political speech.

We know now there really isn’t a difference between fiction and nonfiction,
because there is no objectivity, and all stories are manufactured. But there
is a difference between authenticity and propaganda. They are enemies. And that
is a war that is worth fighting.

hey hey a new blog

Thursday, August 11th, 2005

Hey folks this is my new blog. Alt7 was too much to keep up with without help.
Maybe next year I’ll re launch but for now this is the place. Besides, here
I can post all manner of ramblings, notes, complaints, ephemera, photos, art
scraps, and accidental typing.

I know it looks like shit right now with the default template and all - but
I know a great designer