Sunday, May 20, 2018

Thinking the Past

We do not think in the same way our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did. We cannot. It is impossible. Our minds, their contents and their processes, are shaped by the times in which we live, and the same applies to our ancestors and predecessors. We have changed on every level that might affect our ability to think like them.

It is obvious that the contents of their minds and ours are greatly different. Many of the things we now accept as incontrovertible (assuming you are not a flat earther) are things like plate tectonics (completely unknown to our Civil War ancestors, and which still remained controversial and unproven among geologists during the Second World War). Some will of course reject it on religious grounds, but they are aware of the idea and are forced to adapt their justifications of scripture to account for it. Even in the most conservative aspects of our thinking and knowledge, we are living in a different thought world. Fundamentalists today accept pre-millennialism as an article of faith. Their pre-fundamentalist predecessors (Fundamentalism was given its name and was codified as a set of doctrines only around 1915) largely did not. Thomas Nelson Darby began to formulate and propagate the doctrine before the Civil War, but it was only toward the end of the century that it was popularized. On most of the main moral issues, and many basic points of doctrine,we have seen almost continuous change over the last two hundred years.

Our technologies have also changed what we think about and our perceptions of the world. That had already begun in the 1850s and has only continued like a metronome periodically reset to a faster beat. They have changed us in several different ways, even in the past few decades. We rarely think about this in terms of mind, but even the chemical composition of our bodies and brains are being changed. Consider just the proliferation of psychoactive chemicals that we take voluntarily and involuntarily (as they are now in both our water and food supplies). In 1860, excluding ethnobotanicals that were not widely known to Europeans and Americans, you could have taken alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, hashish, opium, or morphine. I suppose we might add coffee and tea to that. By the Second World War, that had been expanded to include heroin, cocaine, barbiturates, and amphetamines (which had a significant effect on the war at a tactical level), and experiments with LSD were underway in Switzerland. Compare that with the wider array of benzodiazepines, anti-depressants, and psychedelics we possess today, many of which may be having minor effects on us simply because of their environmental presence. And that is to say nothing of the many chemicals that we take or are permeated with that affect levels of hormones and levels of neurotransmitters as side affects. 

Of course neuroscience has shown that our brains are not the same as they would have been in the past. I do not mean that we have rapidly developed new structures, but, what the past two or three decades have revealed is that the media we use, how we use it, and how intensively we use it, stimulates the growth and development of different areas of the brain. This gives a physical confirmation and basis for the earlier arguments of Walter J. Ong, that modern media technologies had changed us from a literate culture to a culture of "secondary orality." These changes occurred between the Civil War and the Second World War, in fact partially between the World Wars, and constituted a new cognitive style. Were he still alive, I wonder if he would not be seeing the rise of another cognitive style in the past decade or two. 

This matter of  historical cognitive style is important, though it is often ignored. When I began exploring this thirty years ago, as I was writing my dissertation, there was a small literature on the subject, but little more has emerged since. What I came away with from my clumsy attempts to discuss it then were two things. One is that it is difficult to discuss in English; our language is not well equipped to talk or write about processes of thought. The other, is that we have to look well beyond media technologies, but also at our whole technological world, to understand the forces that shape cognition. For example, try considering not just how printing, but also things like clocks (and other clockwork devices like gunlocks) affected Renaissance and Reformation mental processes. If you change your basic perception of time, from a flexible, natural one, to an inflexible, mechanical one, as urban Europeans did in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, you have changed a major component of your perception of the world and how you can think about it. If you add in the extent that clockwork devices gave Europeans of all classes a more complex mechanical model for causation than they had previously, the changes in how Europeans began to understand their world in these centuries becomes a matter of the interplay between modes of thought and the technological environment. And of course, simply changing the times at which you rise, eat, work, and sleep, based not on clocks and not the sun, will have affected things like melatonin levels and how disrupted circadian rhythms may become.

This was not simply something that happened centuries ago, it has been an on-going process of development and change, just as it was long before the invention of clockwork and printing. An argument could be made that the course of the Second World War depended not just on the technical equipment of the various countries, but the degree to which the combat commanders had absorbed the characteristics of those technologies. This is perhaps most evident in France in the Spring of 1940,when the French, wed to their concept of the "methodical battle," their telephone lines, their slow-moving and short-ranted tanks, and their paucity of radios, could not comprehend the German mode of warfare, so dependent not just on the mobility of Panzers, but also on the flexibility that ubiquitous radio sets gave them, and on the sense of being untethered that the radio and their tanks conferred, that the telephone and the tanks of their enemies did not. It is interesting that the older German generals and Hitler, used to the static telephone war of their youth, were made nervous by the likes of Guderian and Rommel, who had thoroughly absorbed the world of speed of the internal combustion engine and the freedom of the radio.

Since the War, the computing revolution has changed our cognition not just through its transformation of media, but also through its central paradigms of feedback loops, and programming. One of the most significant things to come out of the latest round of scandals, such as Cambridge Analytica, is that there is a whole generation of entrepreneurs, engineers, and programmers who have so completely internalized the programming paradigm that they view it as the proper way for society to work and to describe human relations.

This takes us close to the realms of embodied and extended cognition. The former argues that we cannot think simply in terms of the brain but must situate mind in the body and its interactions with its environment,while the latter actually includes the environment and the individual into a single unit of cognition. These make it even clearer that our minds are qualitatively different from those of our ancestors. If  we take the idea that our thought processes are embodied, then we are affected by a whole variety of things, from chemicals to cars to computers, that have shaped our bodies differently from those of our ancestors. We would have to subject ourselves to a different physical and chemical environment, not just a media environment, to recapture cognitive styles past, but even that is not enough, if the actual unit of mind is our embodied brains plus the environment. 

There are a number of implications to all of this. For one thing, it means the past is more of a foreign country than we generally believe. It raises the question of what we can and cannot understand, because it raises questions about just what aspects of our humanity are universal and which are environmentally influenced. To some extent, we can get into the head of someone in the past to a limited extent, if we work hard enough to try to understand their environment and all of the environmental factors that influenced their development. But we simply cannot shed the baggage of our environment and development. We can, and do, of course, use those to throw light on how they thought and on the differences between their minds and ours.


But it also suggests that too many of our historical judgments may be ill founded or terribly incomplete. Historians are well aware of this,but the general public too often takes the opposite tack, acting as if historical judgments are immutable.There are subtleties that I think we have given too little attention. The comments I made above about the mental effects of motor vehicles and radio are the sort of thing that we need to develop more fully. The same sort of thing has played out time and again in human history and development. Trying to trace the mental, as well as the physical changes in the environment, is an area where we have barely scratched the surface.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Two Centuries of "Phantom Terror"

There are books you read and quickly forget, ones you think about for a while and remember, and those you reread and mull over for a long time. For me, one of those is Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848, Adam Zamoyski's 2014 exploration of how European elites came to be obsessed with wild conspiracy theories during and after the French Revolutionary Wars, how those beliefs contributed to a series of repressive ideologies and policies, which themselves were important in the creation of the modern state, and how some responded to oppression by creating revolutionary organizations modeled on those conspiracy theories. Put bluntly and simplistically, the thesis of the book could be stated as: conspiracies created the modern political world. The book is considerably more nuanced than that, but putting it that way makes it clear why it is so relevant in our present situation.

We do not like to face or contemplate the irrational strain in government or leadership, but it is there, and influential all the same. The beliefs of the power elites inform and dominate their actions. If they pass through a phase of paranoia, or dwell there year after year, that becomes encoded in their actins and the structures they create to govern. In the case of Metternich's generation, the one that fought the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and rebuilt national and international political systems afterward, it manifested itself as the desire for absolute surveillance, absolute knowledge, and absolute control of thought, word, and deed. For Metternich, and many others, it was the only way to ensure that the conspiracies they saw behind every lamppost and around every corner, and which they believed continued the hated Jacobinism of the Revolution, at bay. 

Caught in an era of profound change in every aspect of life, much of w2hich they attributed to dangerous underground currents, they reacted by taking the idea of the police state, founded by Napoleon and his Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché, and creating the beginnings of western surveillance culture. Even those states, like America and Britain, that were lightly touched by it, and rejected most of the extreme trappings of Metternich's world, found it useful later when concerns about Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists grew after the Paris Commune. They likewise found it useful in governing their overseas empires, whether in Ireland, the Sub-Continent, Africa, or the Philippines. They developed tools there, just as the Continental powers honed the skills of their police and secret police at home, and then reimported them when business and financial elites felt threatened by real or imagined radicalism. In Britain, America, France, and Germany, surveillance culture grew in partnership  with, and driven by the rise and requirement of capitalism. 


It was also driven by fear of the Other; of the Black, or the Irish, or the immigrant, of those who supposedly lacked the Anglo-Saxon and German sense of self-control, or the French sang-droid, reflecting, one supposed, the fear of the elites of losing their own sense of self-control and bloody mindedness themselves. Over time, these beliefs became institutionalized and passed largely unquestioned. Those who were responsible for embodying them and enforcing them came to believe in them, in this country men like J. Edgar Hoover,  John J. McCloy, and Harry J. Anslinger. (One almost begins to wonder if using the initial "J" in one's name somehow makes one susceptible to belief in this kind of conspiracy and in the powers of surveillance - there is probably some wild conspiracy theory that would could hatch out of that.) Their subordinates came to believe the same things, and in following generations, it was more widely and deeply internalized. Now the mechanisms of surveillance, analysis, and control have become deeply integrated as a "necessary" aspect of government, and of an increasingly dominant business model and ethic, but their origins are in the wild ravings of certain authors written in the wake of the guillotining of the Bourbons in 1792, and of the willful gullibility of those who wished to uphold the old order, but who did so only by distorting it with new and irrational institutions of oppression. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Entire Universes

There is not room enough in the world for everything we carry in our hearts. There are entire universes in our souls. Yet we allow ourselves to be trapped in the narrowness of the everyday, the tumult of business and politics, and in the narrowness of false religion. The tragedy of history is that those worlds are lost to us, and we may catch at most the ghosts of them, veritable palimpsests of past being. We try to reveal, try to reconstruct, but we can do little more than dust them off, preserve what little is left, and imagine what they must have been, and what forces contained and constrained them.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Media Viruses


Twenty-odd years ago, I read Douglas Rushkoff’s, Media Virus: Hidden Agenda in Popular Culture (Ballantine, 1994). In essence, Rushkoff was writing about memes, a term coined in the 70s by Richard Dawkins, though serious study of memes was just beginning in the years Rushkoff was writing. It’s a book that has always stayed with me. At the time, I was given hope by it that we would be able to understand the power of media viruses and perhaps even turn them back on their originators. Things look much darker now that media viruses have come to thrive in a new ecosystems that few of us could have envisioned. Now Rushkoff, together with David Pescovitz, and Jake Dunagan, have produced a remarkable new view of the topic in a short paper, "The Biology Of Disinformation: Memes, Media Viruses, and Cultural Inoculation" (Institute for the Future, 2018, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 INTL).

The biology in the title is both metaphor and reality, but it is probably not meant in the way you are most used to thinking of biology. The authors are thinking in both environmental and phenomenological terms. "So, biology is best understood as systems acting within and in concert with other systems. This is true for brains and mental systems." (p. 24) Nor should we be thinking of these memetic viruses as just content, which is the tendency we have seen in the press; instead, the authors arguer, we must see them as having two parts, "a novel media shell" to carry it and "provocative memetic material" as content. (p. 10) Equally important, they argue that we must look at it very much like a biological virus, meaning that we have to look at its relationship to its environment, its hosts, and other memes. Essentially, they are arguing that we have been looking at parts of the picture, when we need to see the whole. 

The different parts include: (1) the content, which in the recent memetic attacks are not meant to convey a sophisticated meaning, but to act on the emotions and sow distrust and division; (2) novel ways of exploiting different kinds of networked media (not just social media); (3) societal and cultural problems that provide pathways for the virus; (4) the social and networked media themselves, of which there is too little understanding; and (5) human psychology, particularly our cognitive habits. Only by paying attention to all of them can we handle the onslaught.

Perhaps if we had paid more attention to the work of the original cybernetic pioneers, who were not just concerned with engineering and control systems, but all aspects of life and thought in an environment that included machines, we might be better placed to deal with our present situation, but we were lazy and left cybernetics too much to the engineers and scientists without sufficient exploration of its possibilities or its moralities. Rushkoff, Pescovitz, and Dunagan did not suggest that, but I do. Too much of our present troubles are rooted in the failure to understand context, relationships, and feedback in systems. By failing to do so, we have let ourselves open to exploitation through our technologies, have failed to humanize them, and have sacrificed too much of our own humanity. 

I am picking and choosing from the paper, not trying to summarize it, but I will leave you with one specific thought from it, one that we need to take to heart and adopt immediately: "But each extension of our social reality into a new medium requires that we make a conscious effort to bring our humanity along with us." (p. 30)



Friday, April 27, 2018

A Maelstom of Surveillance

Our world of surveillance began a little over two centuries ago in the secret police that Joseph Fouché created for Napoleon. Secret police were not entirely new, but they only assumed something like their modern form in the years of Napoleon's empire. They were soon copied with varying degrees of success, frequently with dark comedy, by most of the rest of Europe. We could tell much of the history of the last two centuries as the growth of surveillance, the building of files and profiles of citizens by governments and later by businesses, and the attempts to classify and pigeonhole every person and their every action.

We are in a golden age of surveillance now. Himmler, Beria, and Hoover never had the ability to collect, record, profile, and classify that any police department and many businesses have today. It took multiple streams to bring us to this pass today. Only a few of them grew out of the activities of the police or weaved in and out of their realm. The growth and expansion of banking and credit required the creation of fixed, fiduciary identities so that persons could be pinned down and tracked for monetary purposes. The police could more easily deal with someone who's identity changed as revealed by aliases, but the flow of credit, the creation of wealth, the identification of property, could not tolerate aliases. Neither could conscript armies, which again required the correct registration and classification of citizens for military training and service, or skilled work in munitions factories, etc. Armies and banks could be comfortable only when a person's identity was as fixed as a bug pinned in a collection.

Of course the armies also wanted to know something about the health of the citizen, so that had to go in the record too, but the medical profession was also doing more recording and classifying, trying to understand health and disease. Public health was the great medical triumph of the 1800s and early 1900s, and it increasingly relied on record keeping, classifying people, and making observations about their environment. That also merged into the activities of the early social scientists, and of the reformers who set out to help and educate the poor.

There were other streams too, technical ones. The growth of the size of the United States and the desire for more information about the country quickly overburdened the decennial census. That led to the origins of modern information technology in the form of the punchcard, key punches, punchcard readers, and sorters, all of this decades before computers. Parallel to their growth was that of card indexes, often looking like nothing so much as the library card catalogs that many of remember from libraries. Cards with written information on possible subversives, enemy aliens, and their cronies, were maintained by all major governments until they were eventually automated with punchcard and then computers. Fear of Anarchists and Communists made them seem vital to many governments and security firms.

Banks, mortgage companies, and business of all kinds found it convenient to keep records on their customers and employees with the same technological innovations. The time clock was the most visible manifesto on of this to employees, though the card indices were used to track and control them too. Customers were increasingly tracked by department stores and catalog companies so they could be better targeted for advertising.

Computers began to add more and more power to these kinds of systems, but it would take the Internet to make possible the kind of data harvesting and exploitation we see now. Meanwhile cameras, CCTV, audio recording, the bugging of phones, but also just tracing what phone numbers were called and what credit transactions made, and later GPS began to allow governments and businesses build up more detailed profiles and gather ever more data.

Meanwhile the sciences were given us more and more to track and profile. Fingerprints were long the most full-proof means of identification, but blood type, hair, and other means were used as well, until DNA and biometrics began to dominate identification, fixing our identities ever more effectively. Psychology was also hard at work in these years, testing, diagnosing, classifying, and profiling. They were creating psychographic methods that could, when given enough data, describe and anticipate the behavior of individuals or groups.

All of these streams have begun to coalesce in the past two decades. The needs of government, business, finance, and medicine to identify and classify, to detect and predict; the technologies for collecting, sorting, and communicating; the psychological techniques for profiling and controlling have all come together into the nightmare world of modern surveillance. It took us two centuries to reach this point, two decades to Brian the disparate streams together into a mighty ocean, and about two years to begin to comprehend the consequences. Around the world the shape of the future is taking shape, whether in the Social Credit scheme being imposed on China, the commoditization, monetization, and weaponization of psychographic profiles in America, the attempts to put the brakes on in Europe, the targeted use of false information for internal control and external warfare by Russia, or scores of other experiments by government and business that are barely on our radar in every corner of the globe, sweeping us up in a  maelstrom from which their seems no escape and in which direction seems to become meaningless. The ideals of those who created our world of surveillance have created a world that even Orwell would scarcely recognize, in some cases it seems to give those in power more control, but the truth may be that it is spinning out of control at a rapid accelerating rate. When it spins off its axis no one can say where we will be left, or with what.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The End of Gutenberg

The quincentenary of Gutenberg's earliest publications, those of which we are certain, occurred in the midst of the television revolution of the 1950s and was accompanied by the commercialization of computing technology. We know from the studies of Walter Ong, and others, that literacy had already begun to change in the preceding decades, under the influence of radio and talking pictures. The printing press itself had done much to change the nature of literacy in its early centuries. It facilitated, though did not cause, the spread of silent reading, of standardized spelling and punctuation, mass literacy, and greatly expanded the descriptive power of illustrations, maps, and diagrams. In the early years of electronic media, the changes perhaps had less effect on reading habits, but provided both alternatives and competitors, and possibly changing some aspects of the way our brains dealt with written and visual information. 

Still, the world we knew in the last century had plenty of space for books as we had known them for hundreds of years. If, by the 1960s, we were beginning to conceptualize tablet-like devices for reading and writing, we still tended to think of them as pretty well rooted in the world of print. What we actually got was something a lot more complex. Think about Star Trek for a moment. They had computers, or specifically they had huge computers that were coterminous with starships and building complexes, they had some sort of tablets (PADDs) which just seem to be digital clipboards in the original series, but seem more adaptable in TNG, they had Tricorders, which seem to have had a lot of memory (based on what Spock was able to recover from his in City on the Edge of Forever), and they had Communicators. 

What they did not have was a single, unified device. Roddenberry and company simply could not conceptualize a device with more computing power than any machine that existed in the 1960s, that could fit in the palm of the hand, display any type of media, have built-in sensors and cameras, could be connected and communicate basically anywhere, and be cheap enough for almost anyone to afford. They continued to fail in this regard in the 1980s, but then so did the more advanced cyberpunk writers. William Gibson is humbled by the fact that he failed to anticipate wireless and cellular. He assumes students who study his early writings today will think that the need to be plugged in was a deliberate plot device. 

When we reach the next centenary of Gutenberg's invention, which is still a few decades away, we cannot anticipate what books will be. We truly do not know whether paper books will survive, recent trends indicate they might be alive and well for decades to come, or what kinds of other devices we might have. Will we sit and read with our glasses or contact lenses (in an odd visual parallel to people walking down the street with nearly invisible earbuds talking and gesticulating to thin air), or perhaps we will have implants that allow us to bypass the eyes all together. 

I really have no clue, but we can be sure that the changing technologies of reading will lead to more changes, more evolution of our minds, how we balance visual, auditory, and linguistic realms of knowing (not forgetting the tactile, and perhaps even involving taste, smell, and even proprioception) to allow us to experience the world differently. How we consume media, and the kinds of media we consume, has a lot to do with how we perceive the world, and what kinds of constraints are placed on our cognitive abilities. 

We have co-evolved with the written word for about 5000 years. Successive kinds of writing and media have colonized our brains and our minds. Just as language shaped us over millions of years, writing has shaped us for  fifty centuries. It became more than the exteriorization of memory that Plato had Socrates fear. It became the exteriorization of imagination, of logic, and of emotion. It is arguable that peoples using alphabets, abugidas, abjads, syllabaries, and logographic systems all produce different mental worlds, and represent a great deal of the differences we see in the world between major blocks of culture. We are only just beginning to understand how writing and reading have affected us as a species. Now we are having to learn to comprehend a world where writing and all other forms of communication are running together. We do not know what it will do to us. We do not have any idea where it will lead, but then who could have predicted where moveable type, or phonographs, paintings, photographs, maps, prints, movies, or any of the other communication technologies would change us. What is certain is that we are encountering the very end of Gutenberg's epoch. 

I will hazard a few predictions. Neuroscientists will see changes in the organization of the synapses and distribution of white and gray matter in the brain as our means of reading and consuming media change. Religious interpretations will change a great deal as holy books move beyond being stand-alone texts and are perceived in different relations to one another and through more and more media. That could lead to a backlash and a greater fundamentalism, to greater religious understanding, new religious movements, or, more likely, all three. Politics, policy, and law will be unable to keep up. Our current ideas of intellectual property and privacy will be radically changed, as the political and legal world struggles to cope. This will create dynamic tensions that may server to both stifle and encourage creativity. And just as the modern state was transformed as more and more men and women learned to read and write, and then had access to cheap media, so will the shape of the post-modern state be molded and carved into new forms.


The end of Gutenberg is not then the end of the world, nor of a given culture, but it is a major part of the path of our evolution. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

First Amendment Conflicts

Earlier today I attended a panel discussion at the Unbound Book Festival( http://www.unboundbookfestival.com/panels) on: "Is the First Amendment in Crisis." It was a good discussion and covered a number of topics, but in 2018, a title like that covers a lot of ground, more than the panel could touch on in the time allotted. Not surprisingly it focused on free speech, with some reference to freedom of assembly and protest, but nothing on the other, and increasingly contested part of the Amendment, freedom of religion, which is actually the first part of it:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

There was an interesting bit where Lee Wilkins (MU School of Journalism) began talking about how social media is inherently divisive. This was echoed by David von Drehle (Washington Post). Drehle did make note that this was not a new phenomenon, talking some about the political fragmentation of Victorian newspapers. Had the session lasted longer, perhaps there would have been more on this. What struck me, though, was that there was no discussion of how freedom of religion, and freedom of speech and the press, have helped create the underlying fragmentation and tension that have facilitated the rise of division. I had not considered this before, at least not in this way, and I want to explore it for a moment.

For much of the past half-millennium, religion has been the most divisive force in Europe and America. We were taught at mid-century to think of it as a unifying force, but that is largely illusory, an assumption made possible by the corporate and government-sponsored civic religion of the 1950s and early 1960s. The divide between Black and White Protestantism was always largely ignored. That, in itself, would have given the lie to the portrait of unity. The mid-century revival did manage to paper over some of the differences of Catholicism and Protestantism, and it at least made anti-Semitism unfashionable and publicly unacceptable. What it did not do was to erase the divide that had appeared between liberal and conservative Protestantism decades earlier, a divide that had largely been invisible with the withdrawal of fundamentalists and other conservative Protestants from the public arena after the Scopes Trial.  

I am not an historian of American religion, so what follows may be a bit sketchy and off in some details, though I believe the main outline is correct. Before, during, and after the Civil War, there had been a thriving religious press of newspapers and magazines in this country. These continued to thrive up through at least the First World War. Freedom of press and religion had interacted in these. In their pages, and also in religious conventions and conferences held regularly, as well as in books and seminaries, what amounted to new doctrines were introduced and worked out. New religious movements were emerging. One of these gave rise both to conservative Evangelicalism and to Fundamentalism, while another gave rise to Pentecostalism. Fundamentalism itself was largely the result of Bible conferences and the press, culminating in the publication of an important series of pamphlets (gathered up in book form) during the first part of the World War, called The Fundamentals. These gave their name to the movement. These writings and conferences also began a trend that later grew more important, certain words and phrases began to take on specialized meanings within the group. 

The First World War was a religiously shattering experience for much of the world including the United States. Millennial expectations came into play, as did prophecy, and a real sense that Christianity was under attack in the West from Social Darwinism (with which the Germans were held to be especially enamored) and Bolshevism, and, in the East, by the Ottoman onslaught as the Armenian Genocide and the destruction of many of the oldest Christian communities in the world was revealed. The groups on the Protestant right moved further in that direction, splitting ever more decisively with the liberal Protestants in the mainstream churches. 

The Scopes Trial subjected these groups to public ridicule on a national stage, particularly from the barbed pen of H.L. Mencken. (The Mencken character in Inherit the Wind was played by Gene Kelly in the film version; suffice it to say that it is the least sympathetic role he ever played, and certainly the most cynical.) The ridicule stung, I suspect it still stings today. It also showed how far from the religion and beliefs of the urban elites they had come. These groups moved ever more to the right and largely kept their own counsel. Their thoughts, beliefs, and means of expressing themselves became more insular and difficult for liberal Christians and others to comprehend. It would be decades before they would emerge into the political arena in a meaningful way. 

What I want to point out is that all of this occurred through the interplay of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. It is possible it could not have played out in any country outside the British Common Law and constitutional tradition. In the 1600s, such conflict had torn England apart and led to what used to be called the English Civil Wars and are now more commonly referred to as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the bloodiest and most tumultuous period in modern British history. The slow emergence of these key freedoms was an evolutionary result of those wars, and their aftermath a generation later, the Glorious Revolution. 

But to return to my main theme, the interplay of these three freedoms both helped created a serious, long hidden or dormant divide in America, but when that divide did become visible, slowly in the 1960s and 1970s, and then became a major preoccupation in the 1980s and after, it was driven by these three freedoms interacting, so that the difference became magnified and solidified. We lived in a world where liberal and conservative Protestants no longer easily understood one another, where liberals could become incensed over Biblical literalism, while conservatives (and even not so conservatives) fumed over John Lennon's lyrics. Television and the other media found them to be good press, and sometimes good comedy (I especially recall a couple of episodes of WKRP built on the differences), but almost always the emphasis was on difference and rarely on reconciliation or understanding. As with most things, pundits found it easy to get good ratings by exaggerating differences and manipulating the biases of audiences. 


If we now find ourselves divided into camps on social media, I would like to suggest that this has a long history, a history rooted in religion as much as politics, of the need for newspapers and television for profits and ratings, and in the difficulty of basic communication that arose from the history of different religious movements, on both left and right, that developed their own meanings for words and phrases, so that free speech itself came to divide instead of uniting us. Social media may be dividing us more, but it magnifies existing fissures; it did not create them.