Some of a great writer’s deepest thoughts might pass under the public’s radar simply because they appear in an academic journal.  I hope this won’t be the case with the eye-opening observations of Marilynne Robinson that appear in a special issue on her work of the journal Renascence, published by Marquette University (Vol. LXVI, No. 2, Spring 2014).

Robinson is a renowned, prizewinning novelist (Gilead, Home, Housekeeping).  She is also a serious and challenging essayist, author of Mother Country, The Death of Adam and When I Was a Child I Read Books.  My interview for Renascence focuses on her nonfiction.

In the interview, Robinson offers readers a challenging insight about today’s culture—our tendency to undervalue ourselves as souls.  You might suppose that her perception—given her essays on the Calvinist faith tradition—would apply only to people who believe in souls.  Hardly.  I find it purely metaphysical at heart, because it is all about what kind of attention we give one another.

In When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson comments that we have “a painful and ongoing history of undervaluing ourselves and exploiting one another.” I asked her by what means this takes place, and how we could counteract this influence.  Robinson answers, in part, that “the great world tells us that life is all a matter of marketing,” and that “shoddy cultural goods are supposedly justified by the fact that people buy them.”  The same goes for shoddy political goods, she says, and when the public accepts and perpetuates “these condescensions” they “endorse cynicism,” which is “a kind of damp shadow that blights the flourishing of the better things we want and need.”

Shoddiness in culture can be anything from tv shows and commercials to rap lyrics, movies, magazines, pop art, and unverifiable cyber commentary.  It ends up being shoddy to the extent that whoever generated it did not give it full attention, which implies respect for its subject matter.  When rap lyrics refer to women as sexual objects to be violated and tossed aside, the men who write and sing them are not, of course, applying their attention to the humanity of women.  They are selling macho swag at the price of women’s dignity.  And that blights our culture by casting a damp shadow on women’s hopes for better relationships with men, and those men’s relationships to the children they father.

Cynicism is the driving force behind politicians who disparage social programs that help the poor and provide educational opportunities, among other government efforts of clear benefit to society.  Their distorted and often fabricated claims are part of a cynical agenda to reduce taxes on the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.  No need to argue how far this blight has spread in today’s world.

The shadows of cynicism hang over billionaire industrialists whose factories and refineries pollute our environment.  They try to pour millions anonymously into political campaigns whose goal is to remove government safeguards against industrial pollution.  If they were publically identified, the people whose lives are harmed by such pollutants could apply the powers of their own attention to these cynical machinations.  Result: such condescension to the wellbeing of others would be thrown into the light of justice.

In the world of religion, the blight of cynicism is associated with sin and evil.  In the secular world, let’s just say it’s an enemy to be reckoned with.  Today the reckoning has to consist in not only paying full attention to the threat, but speaking out and exposing it to the light of others’ attention.

As any attending metaphysician would tell you, personal attention has the power to change personal lives, culture, and politics.


Attention Lurking in the News, #4: On Content Providers, a.k.a. Journalists


Maureen Dowd’s column, “As Time Goes Bye” in the New York Times, Sunday, 3/10/13, starts with a delightful reminiscence about her salad days as one of a handful of female cub reporters at Time.  She captures our attention evoking those “Mad Men” style years, when Time’s founder, Henry Luce, wanted the magazine filled with catchy items for, ahem, “busy men.”

The “Bye” Dowd refers to is Time Warner’s decision to cut the once-powerful magazine loose to fend for itself, while hanging onto more profitable ventures in television and film.  Time and other print media are “bleeding ad revenue,” Dowd notes.  As print journalism loses market share to digital media, it is “spooked by rumors of its own obsolescence.”

Dowd’s main concern is revealed at the end: the value of “content providers,” formally called journalists.  She’s got quite a point, but this attending metaphysician feels compelled to take it further.

Not just the world of journalists is spooked.  Readers of the NY Times are appalled that the nation’s premier paper of record has cut its ranks of reporters, reducing its news items noticeably, especially from foreign locations.

Equally spooky is CNN Cable News’ recent elimination of its foreign news offices, not even hiring freelancers to cover international news.  These efforts aren’t seen as “profitable” to the parent company, Time Warner.  Unfortunately for those who like their news straight, the most-watched TV news channel in this country, Fox, makes no pretense of in-depth news reporting.  That might offend the huge corporate interests that Fox’s owner, News Corp., represents.  Why should CNN continue to set a higher, more responsible standard?  Because it can?  Because it wants to provide news that is actually–rather than cynically, as in Fox’s motto–fair and balanced?

It’s worth asking, Who can be “fair and balanced” without spending time, energy, and attention to people’s experiences and viewpoints, here and abroad?

As one consumer of content, I find that the finest news now comes from non-profit sources: National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.  Rather than have ads constantly interrupting their attention, their listeners and viewers would rather pay for reliable news reports.  WNYC, New York’s public radio station, is receiving enough donations to expand its news staff!

Now is the time, Dowd recommends, that readers of content – digital or print – and those who provide it, do some serious reckoning.  Instead of losing faith in the value of quality reporting, people should realize that digital platforms are “shiny sacks with bells and whistles” that, without content, are empty. It’s not about how you’re reading, she concludes, it’s what you’re reading.  And of course she’s right–if the how is limited to the means of delivery, such as print, TV or digital ‘platforms’.

But something deeper than information or content may be at stake.  The what of reading has two other ‘platforms’ besides digital or print media.  One is planted on how well information is gathered and presented.  The other, more deeply structured, rests on how carefully and thoughtfully the content is read.  Both boil down to quality of attention—the how of content that is not concerned with cool-looking encasements, doctored photos on glossy paper, and smart-talking commentators.

Followup: After I’d written this, Michael Mudd, a former executive vice president of Kraft Foods, spoke out in the Sunday, 3/17/13 NY Times: “How To Force Ethics on the Food Industry.”  Based on first-hand experience, he informs us that, despite claiming only to provide what the public asks for, the food industry has for years made “relentless efforts” to “increase the number of ‘eating occasions’ people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.”  In their pursuit of shelf life and profits, food companies ignored warnings of the dangers of obesity and potentially toxic preservatives.  Mudd urges action:  Tax sugary drinks, snack foods, candy and sweet baked goods; use the revenue to subsidize healthy foods for the poor and educate people about healthy eating and exercise.  Make mandatory federal guidelines for marketing food to children.  Display the calorie count of all menu items in chain restaurants and vending machines.

Excellent suggestions, from an expert.  But will legislators be able to overcome food industry lobbyists armed with big bucks for campaign donations?  We wish them—the legislators—courage and perseverance.  Meanwhile, we can thank the content providers, and apply the information to our own lives.  Psychologists call the latter action executive attention.  It has an authoritative ring, don’t you think?  I like the fact that the executive here is simply the one paying attention and acting upon it responsibly.  It puts things on a more manageable scale.

See my next post for a personal followup.