Orthodox Survival Course, Class 34: The Great Stereopticon, Session 1

You listen to a podcast of this class at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/orthodox-survival-course-class-34

Now let us talk some more about this project we discussed in Class 33, to “redefine” humanity, or, rather, to “create” a “new kind of human being” through various means. In the next few classes, we will focus on the mental world created by the big monster called the communications media, that vast machine which Richard Weaver calls the “great stereopticon” in Ideas Have Consequences.

I. Some Preliminaries

Before our class proper, however, I’d like to deal with a few preliminaries. From here on out, we are probably going to be doing a little preliminary section at the beginning of some classes, for two reasons: One reason is to do a reality check, to ask ourselves if we have acted recently on what we have been learning. After all, a “survival” course only works if you act on your knowledge in order to survive! Since I like short lists, I’ll just ask one to three questions at the beginning of each class: Have we done such and such this past week to fight the spirit of the age and live as human beings and as Orthodox? For example, this week, referring to an image from the previous class I could ask, “Were you been attentive [the first week of Great Lent] and lived prayerfully, or have you just acted like a ‘zombie’?”

The other reason for preliminaries is to make corrections to things I’ve said earlier. This is a work in progress, and it is in a sense a team effort. We have some well-read listeners who will find mistakes or, at least, defects, in my presentations, and as they point things out, I want to correct or clarify what I’ve said, in order to give us the most complete picture possible.

One housekeeping task we have is to point out that the link I gave last week to Ideas Have Consequences is not a good one. Thanks to one of our listeners for the head’s up! Here is a link that works, to get you a PDF of the book easily: https://www.portalconservador.com/livros/Richard-Weaver-Ideas-Have-Consequences.pdf . I have also fixed the notes from Class 33 to provide this link instead of the other one.

One correction, or clarification, is in regard to Michael Hoffman’s views on usury. I’ve mentioned his book twice, I believe, including last week. A correspondent from Romania who has been following our course wrote to remind me that the Orthodox Church in the East did not absolutely forbid usury, which I believe I did point out. Hoffman is writing from the viewpoint of the Western Church, in which canon law, going back to its Orthodox period, always forbade usury absolutely. It is considered a malum in se, an evil in itself and never permissible to a Christian. In the East, the Church and the imperial government took the approach of controlling usury. In other words, “It is going to happen, even if we don’t like it, and therefore let us deal with it realistically while trying to keep it to a minimum.” My point in encouraging anyone to read Michael Hoffman’s book is not to form a party agitating for our synod or any Orthodox authority to excommunicate a layman who lends someone money at interest. My purpose was to introduce our listeners to the historical process by which the modern banks arose in Western Europe and later came to dominate the global economy and to enslave the formerly sovereign national governments.

Another clarification involves Richard Weaver’s view of the Scholastics. My son has been reading Ideas Have Consequences, and with his fresh eyes he saw, and pointed out to me, that Weaver himself regretted the Scholastics’ overemphasis on Aristotle, something I completely forgot and failed to point out. Despite his emphasis on the figure of the medieval scholar, Weaver does express admiration for the ascetic struggle of the monk and the exploit of the Christian warrior, two exemplars of Christian virtue from the Orthodox period of the Western Church. But without having the Orthodox viewpoint, he does not “connect all the dots” and conclude that what we need to do is get back to Orthodoxy, that the Orthodox Church has the answers. Weaver’s solution is that we need to balance Aristotle with Plato, which is typical of Western Christian intellectuals, who simplistically call the early Middle Ages “Platonic” and the High Middle Ages “Aristotelian.” Of course, we know that the answer is to return to the Fathers, who always knew – throughout late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and into modern times – exactly how to balance Plato and Aristotle, and how to keep them in their place.

This is a good time to remind everyone that I am not an academic or a scholar or a specialist by any means. Just think of me as the older student leading a study group. I am learning a lot of these things just one step ahead of you, struggling with them, and sharing some insights. But even though you and I are not scholars, we are human beings and Christians, and we cannot shirk the duty to form an integrated picture of the whole in order to make choices and act in the world on the basis of what we know to be the truth.We cannot wait until we get all the details straight, and, frankly, the specialists themselves will never get all the details straight, and they will argue about them till the end of the world, each man being convinced he knows better than the other man. For the details, for in-depth study of this or that, I can refer you to people who know more than I do about this or that. My task is to take what I can from these various smarter and more informed people and weave it together, on the basis of the Church’s tradition, into a comprehensive vision, to help us construct that Orthodox lens we have been talking about, a lens through which to view the world around us. And, as I wish never to cease reminding you (and myself!), this is not strictly an intellectual task. It is pre-eminently a spiritual task, performed in the setting of purification of our intellects through the grace-filled activity of Orthodox life, life in the Church. We must grow in virtue if we hope to grow in understanding. We must cleanse the mind of the effects of the passions if our mind is to function properly.

Another caveat I need to make is to point out that, like most of my fellow insular Anglo-Saxons, I have this problem of not being able to read or speak other languages fluently. Most of the historical and philosophical subjects we have been talking about have in fact been dealt with by authors coming from an Orthodox background, writing in Russian, Greek, Romanian, and so forth, and the great bulk of their work has not been translated into English. (I’m not breaking new ground – better minds have been thinking about these things!) But I cannot read them, and therefore I am confined to English language sources. When I refer to authors who are available in English, and they are not Orthodox, it is simply to gain the knowledge and valid insights they offer, and then fit this into the puzzle of the overall picture we are creating – not to accept any non-Orthodox opinions or adopt a non-Orthodox viewpoint. We do have the Scriptures, the Holy Fathers and a lot of recent Orthodox spiritual writings translated into English – we have the basic tools and components to build the foundation of our worldview, which is of course revealed truth and authentic spiritual life. But there is a tremendous dearth of historical and philosophical works in English – not to mention literary works – from the Orthodox viewpoint, though a great corpus of these works exists in other languages that can help us today, especially beginning from the 19th century, when Orthodox self-awareness is awakened in traditionalist intellectual circles, both in Russia and in the Balkans. Thus my method: I use whatever good materials I can find in English from outside Orthodoxy, accepting what is useful and rejecting what is not. St. Basil famously said that anything that is true belongs to the Church. That is certainly still true today.

We do have some good Anglophone Orthodox scholars today, who are reading texts in the original languages by 19th and 20th century native Orthodox historians, philosophers, novelists, and poets, and making known their insights in their own writing for their fellow English-speakers. I hope to introduce you to some of them as we go along.

All right, enough preliminaries. Let’s get started on the Great Stereopticon!

II. Other People Creating Our Perceptions – the “Great Stereopticon” and the “Great Stereoscope” of the Media Machine – Part A, “All the News Fit to Print” – the Newspapers

Again, I have a correction to make: I thought, as I said in the last class, that the “stereopticon” was something you put to your eyes, like a kaleidoscope or binoculars, but it isn’t – rather, a stereopticon is what was also called “the magic lantern,” an early kind of slide projector. Using two lenses, the magic lantern could dissolve from one image to another, in order to allow the projectionist to go seamlessly through a story of some kind. So it is the precursor of moving picture, of the cinema. What I thought Weaver meant is actually called not the stereopticon, but rather the stereoscope, like those little View-Masters we Baby Boomers had when we were children back in the 1950’s and ’60’s. The stereoscope is the precursor, then, of “virtual reality” devices, as the stereopticon is the precursor of cinema. Let’s use these two metaphors to understand what the people in charge of the media have done to us.

The magic lantern/stereopticon showman would make the circuit of small towns in 19th century America and set up shop, inviting everyone to this amazing experience totally unlike anything they had seen before. They would enter a darkened room, where the real world was shut out from view, and the magic lantern storyteller would project wonderful, vivid images of faraway places and people on the wall. For that magic hour or two, the farmer or small town shopkeeper would enter a magical world of excitement. It is hard for us, jaded by every kind of visual stimulus, to imagine how wonderful this was to them, how this amazing “new world” seemed better and more inviting than their everyday real world. But it was.

Of course, this image of simple people sitting in a dark chamber enthralled by images on a wall recalls the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. As long as they were chained to their seats and facing the back of the cave, this dark cave was their whole world, and the people doing the shadow puppet play on the wall controlled their perception of reality. This is why Weaver chose the image of the stereopticon: the projectionist/storyteller controls the audience’s perception of reality. In the case of the great media powers – in Weaver’s time the publishing houses, newspaper magnates, movie studio owners, and the radio networks – the audience is not simply a few people in the room, but nearly everybody: all of organized society, the people at large, the body politic, the American people.

Let’s look first at the most “low tech” component of Weaver’s stereopticon: the newspaper. So here we are, back in 1948 when Weaver was writing Ideas Have Consequences. The “regular guy” gets up in the morning and reads his morning newspaper over breakfast, before going off to work. What is most important is not whether he agrees or disagrees with the stated opinions on the editorial page, where the newspaper is openly saying, “This is the opinion of our newspaper, and you may agree or disagree with us as you think best.” What is important is what is reported simply as “news,” as “objective information,” all of the “news fit to print,” as the “New York Times”claims proudly on the front page of every issue. The “regular guy” believes that “all the news fit to print” really does include everything of importance to him happening in the world today, but he does not realize that it is carefully chosen by the “New York Times” (or whoever) and insidiously written with unspoken assumptions and an unspoken purpose, in order to inculcate certain assumptions and reactions, to “hardwire” the reader, over time, with a certain mindset. The unsuspecting reader is guided carefully to learn about some things and not other things, and to think a certain way about the things he is allowed to know about. But he does not know he is being guided. He thinks he is simply “catching up on the latest news,” and since he wants to appear to his friends to be an informed, “with-it” guy, he diligently keeps reading the “news” and accepts it as reality. As we all know, unconscious assumptions are far more powerful than considered opinions, because they control us without our knowing we are being controlled. So Mr. Regular Guy newspaper reader is a prisoner in that dark cave of Plato’s Republic, but he does not know it.

To our young people today, of course, the print newspaper is in the same category as the wooly mammoth, a museum exhibit. But over the past 200 years, until the advent of the Internet – yes, even during the TV era – newspapers powerfully influenced public opinion. “The Washington Post,” for example, almost single-handedly brought down President Nixon in 1974, well into the TV era.

Another, far more important example, is that in the decade leading up to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, almost all of the newspapers in Russia were controlled by non-Russian non-Christians, who were attacking the Church and the Tsar daily, lying shamelessly about the conditions in the country, and promoting a spectrum of revolutionary ideas – all the way from liberal, Masonic republicanism to outright violent, Marxist anarchism based on mass murder. In reality, the vast majority of the people loved the established Orthodox order and had no desire to overthrow the Tsar or persecute the Church. And things were actually going well: By the beginning of 1917, Russia was in fact winning the war against the Germans and the Austrians, and food and supplies were more plentiful than at any time since the beginning of the war. But the educated city dwellers who lived in the centers of power, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and who read the newspapers to form their opinions, were convinced that the army and the country were in turmoil. Thus the newspapers confused and disoriented the leadership class, as well as influencing opinion abroad, and this greatly contributed to the circumstances that made possible the February 1917 overthrow of the Tsar and eventually to the 1917 October Revolution.

Examples like this could be multiplied over and over again.

Besides understanding the destruction wreaked by the propaganda content of newspapers, however, we should also look at the medium itself through our Orthodox lens and how it affects our minds. The very nature of a newspaper emphasizes constant feverish change, excites empty curiosity, and encourages everyone to hold violent and uninformed opinions which increase social discord and make the population easy to manipulate. Look at what a newspaper is: a sheaf of cheap paper you pick up on your front porch in the morning and toss in the garbage in the evening, containing a bunch of fragmentary, possibly false, data, along with brazen, shallow, and often outrageously idiotic opinions expressed at a low mental level. The mind formed by newspapers tends then, to a short attention span, shallowness of thought, feverish curiosity, and a coarse mode of spoken and written expression. It is easy to see how this militates against a healthy spiritual life, or even a healthy intellectual and emotional life. The Newspaper Mind is the diametrical opposite of the Attentive Mind described by the Holy Fathers as the normal mental state for a Christian.

Of course, in the present age of information overload through the Internet, this terrible assault on the mind has, as they say, “gone on steroids.” Instead of a limited dose of mental noise once per day from the newspaper, one gets addicted to “Tweets” and “Instagrams” and so forth all day long, flooding the mind with a constant stream of fragmentary, soul-numbing chaos. But the newspapers started it.

So how does one escape the Cave of the Newspaper Mind? What short list of practical suggestions can we take home from our class today? Obviously, we have to do our daily prayers, Scripture reading, and other spiritual reading. Let’s add a few more things to make a short list, say, a three point program:

1. Limit your media. For example, turn all media devices off by 8 PM and read books until it’s time for your night prayers. That’s right: read books. They still exist! Get the family together and read to each other. Try it; you will like it.

2. Do not engage in constant chatter or arguments about the latest manufactured controversy dramatized in the media. We must develop a way of looking at life sub specie aeternitatis, from the viewpoint of eternity. The Orthodox mind sees everything in perspective, from the viewpoint of the entirety of history and with the purpose of history in mind, which is an eternal purpose. We always remember that the sovereign God is in charge, that He loves us, and that He is working out His purpose in history. This makes us serene and confident, so that we can take meaningful, conscious action and not just react to stimuli like Pavlov’s dogs. Remember that all of these daily “news dramas” are phony; they are the shadow puppet show that keeps you in the cave. Reality is much bigger.

3. Spend real time with the real people around you and do the limited real good you can do for them. The person next to you is so much more important than a politician or a movie star or a pro athlete or a TV commentator! Shut off the devices and talk. Get to know your neighbors. For that matter, get to know your family! Spend as much time in the real world as possible.

May the Merciful and Man-befriending Lord, Who gave us this Great Lent of 2019 as the day of our salvation, grant us the grace to live in reality, to live in hope, and to do His holy will! Amen.


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