April 12, 2011

THE MESSAGE IS THE MESSAGE:

King James Bible as a catalyst (The Monitor's Editorial Board, April 12, 2011, CS Monitor)

Ironically, the king, as head of the Church of England, commissioned a translation that gave the people a direct connection with the Bible – and made a priesthood (and a national church) less necessary. Faith became more individual. Americans found the word choices brought out the Bible’s original emphasis upon Christ as sovereign king. This led them to a greater sense of what it is to be governed by God, and to be self-governed under the laws of God.

By the time of the American Revolution, the colonists proclaimed they would have no king but Jesus. The translators rendered Paul’s words: “[W]here the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

America would go on to become a beacon of freedom. A fine Bible translation had touched humanity.


So I just read Douglas Coupland's short and appropriately idiosyncratic biography of Marshall McLuhan, the gist of which seems to be that McLuhan is most interesting for being incredibly similar to Mr. Coupland himself. McLuhan had a variety of pathologies, from some level of Asperger's/autism to hyper-sensitive hearing to clinical or casual ADHD to actual strokes and brain tumors. As a result his lectures and writings were notoriously scatter shot, obscure and contradictory. Moreover, since his intent was to provoke listeners/readers he confessed that even he didn't believe many of the things he said. So it's an exercise in futility to analyze his "thought" seriously. For every seemingly profound or prescient statement there's a matching one that is grotesquely wrong and not infrequently the latter undercuts the former. But such is the nature of aphoristic philosophers that they only need to nail a few good sound bites and they will be mistaken for great minds. McLuhan scored his with "the medium is the message."

As Mr. Coupland explicates it, what was meant is that the manner in which we communicate matters more than the content of our conversations and that manner effects certain changes in us (he's less clear here, as his subject was.) For all that McLuhan became a cult hero in the computer world, Mr. Coupland shows that he was not celebrating new media but warning us about it. He was something of a Luddite and longed for the days when communication was simpler, less of an assault on the senses. One of his favorite stories was Edgar Allan Poe's Descent into the Maelstrom, the narrator of which escaped the eponymous predicament. McLuhan saw this as a metaphor for his own work, which was about trying to keep your head above water in the midst of modern life.

Here's the thing though, while the medium has changed over the past 600 years, the message has stayed the same. Our advances in media have just served the wider broadcast of Judeo-Christianity/Western Civilization, allowing it to triumph globally. Indeed, one of McLuhan's other coinages is "the global village", but globalization represents nothing but the triumph of Western--specifically Anglo-American--values.

Roman roads were ultimately the conduits via which Christianity was spread to barbarian Europe. Gutenberg's press was used to print the Bible in the vernacular, the King James translation ending up in nearly every home in early America. Newspapers and coffee houses became focal points for the revolutionaries and when they wrote the Declaration they were able to rapidly spread it throughout the former colonies. Its message: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Radio, especially the BBC, and television, mainly American, diffused our culture across the world. Whatever life may have been like outside your door, in your living room you were part of Anglo-American families. The psychic tension of Apartheid South Africa embracing the Cosby Show is an exemplar of how the message could not be contained for long.

When Boris Yeltsin and his allies thwarted Gorbachev and the coup-makers of the USSR they communicated with the world via fax machine. When protestors gathered in Tiananmen Square we saw them on our tv screens, but they were gathered around their own Statue of Liberty. The current Arab Spring is being texted, tweeted and facebooked, but all of those media are just different ways of spreading the same message, that the people have a God-given right to consensual government.

Well might we say that the medium is significant only to the degree that it allows wider dispersion of the Message. The former changes. The latter doesn't. McLuhan need not have worried so much.

And what's odd is that Mr. Coupland reveals that McLuhan was a devoted Catholic convert, having been influenced by that great aphorist, G. K. Chesterton. So McLuhan accepted Christian certitudes about eternity and the overarching direction of our lives, yet fretted about trivia like the specific media we were using to communicate with each other, never recognizing that the message being shared was basically the faith he'd found.

One of the complaints of those, unlike McLuhan, who are opposed to Western civilization and the way it has become globalized is that it is a disease. Certainly it is as contagious as one and we could view it epidemiologically and show that it has spread like one. But no one would ever say that "the vector is the disease," would they?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2011 4:05 PM
  
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