The big, sprawling multi-season dramatic series that have received the greatest commendation in recent years — from The Sopranos to The Wire to Deadwood to Mad Men to Breaking Bad — have never seemed to me to be worth the enormous investment of time they require. The one that I followed the most closely, The Wire, is really fantastic — but I have to say, if a genie emerged from the lamp and told me that I could have all the hours spent watching The Wire back, and my memories of the show completely erased, as long as I used that time to read books, I would certainly take that deal.
That’s most emphatically not because I think written narrative intrinsically superior to filmed narrative. I don’t. It’s just that reading is the thing I do. Watching TV and movies, not so much. I’m far more likely to read about a TV show than to watch one; Breaking Bad is just the most recent illustration of than tendency. So sue me.
Exactly. The other night some friends were enthusiastically explaining why The Wire is the best television show ever. They kindly offered to let us borrow their copies of each season any time. This has happened lots of times with different people- usually it’s The Wire though these days the show not-to-be-missedis definitely Breaking Bad. And I’m sure they are very interesting, thought provoking, creative shows and I harbor no – zero! – condescension for their enthusiasts. But, like Jacobs, I love to read and have a really hard time imagining committing so much time to a television show. Maggie still thinks it’s funny and, probably, a bit strange that I petered out on Lost after sticking with it for a few seasons. I genuinely liked that show but eventually just couldn’t keep giving it my few and valuable recreational hours.
Of course, the downside of not watching the current “it” show is how many conversations I sit awkwardly through after admitting my ignorance.
Take the well-known slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday disbelief. The atheist bus says: “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognisable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t “probably”. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is “enjoy”. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare. This really is a bizarre category error.
But not necessarily an innocent one. Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm. The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being “worried” by us believers and our hellfire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing. Given that human life isn’t and can’t be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible. If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you’d think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you’d think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus, with the minor difference, in this case, that the man from the Gold Blend couple has a tiny wrinkle of concern on his handsome forehead, caused by the troublesome thought of God’s possible existence: a wrinkle about to be removed by one magic application of Reason™.
These plastic beings don’t need anything that they can’t get by going shopping. But suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are povertystricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. What the bus says is: there’s no help coming. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term. I don’t believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in. But let’s be clear about the emotional logic of the bus’s message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing “cruel optimism” 1,500 years ago, and it’s still cruel.
29% of blacks and 30% of Hispanics believe that reverse discrimination is now as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. 51% of whites believe this to be true along with 63% who sympathize with the Tea Party and 68% who most trust Fox News. When asked about problems facing the country, whites were equally likely (17%) to agree that discrimination and reverse discrimination were critical issues.
What do you make of these percentages?
Here’s what is noteworthy to me: Despite all statistical evidence to the contrary, there is a strong perception among many white people that they are experiencing the same discrimination as their fellow, non-white, citizens. The Newsweek cover story earlier this year on “The Beached White Male” illustrates how this perception plays out. Despite the disproportionate rates of unemployment among black and Hispanic people, the article instead focuses on the physic toll the recession exerts on unemployed white men, former CEO’s and executives struggling with their “manhood.”
How we come to these non-reality based perspectives is, not surprisingly, connected to our own race. More interesting is how important the news we consume is in how we understand the experience of our fellow citizens. While our media does not force us to think certain ways they are, apparently, good indicators of how seriously those of us who are white take the life experiences of our non-white neighbors. Trusting Fox News, in other words, says something about not trusting the experiences of black and Hispanic people who report that discrimination against minorities is a critical issue to them.
The survey also points out something that should be obvious: White people with regular contact with their non-white neighbors are more likely grant them more respect than are those with little or no contact. Additionally, the younger and more educated they are, the more likely these white people are to “have regular conversations” with blacks and Hispanics.
What might happen if those who believe reverse discrimination to be as critical as that experienced by minorities were to turn off Fox News and begin talking with their black and Hispanic neighbors? Would the flimsy “Beached White Male” narrative stand up to the real world experience of those who have known very real and very painful discrimination? Would claims of victimhood crumble in the presence of resiliency born of painful struggle?
A conviction that the Gospel provides a strong alternative to the divisive realities found in this survey is a driving force for those of us involved in multi-ethnic churches. Surely the reconciling Christ has provided all we need to bring us from isolation and discrimination into genuine, diverse relationships. Such relationships are an antidote to the fearful narratives peddled by cable news.
The fact that younger Americans are more likely to interact cross-culturally is, for me, evidence of a more hopeful future; one in which those of us in the majority culture take seriously the experiences of all our country’s citizens. In the meantime, however, it appears that we have plenty of partisan division and cultural stereotyping ahead of us. The upcoming election season will provide plenty of this evidence.
As always, I welcome your charitable comments. What am I missing? How do you interpret this survey?
The latest Urban Exile column has been posted at Out of Ur. In this column I ask questions about the reticence of many churches to talk about race and racism. I’m grateful for the helpful suggestions made by the Leadership Journal editors about the content I submit; I’ve learned a lot about writing from those guys. Here are the first two paragraphs. You can read the rest and comment at Out of Ur.
Stephen Colbert doesn’t know his own race. The host of The Colbert Report, a satirical television news program on Comedy Central, claims to be colorblind, unable to discern his skin color. “People tell me I’m white,” he said during one episode, “because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffet albums.” The colorblind approach to race and racism makes for amusing television but is the height of naïveté in real life. Yet for many churches this seems to be the preferred method of talking—or not talking—about all things related to race.
The beauty and peril of our diverse culture is impossible to miss. A quick snapshot reveals a president who shares a heritage with both Kenya and Kansas, a New York Post cartoon of a dead chimpanzee that stirs up memories of racist stereotypes, and teenage pop star Miley Cyrus photographed pulling back her eyes in an attempt to “look Asian.” Stephen Colbert isn’t the only TV personality who finds comedy in this racially charged atmosphere. Michael Scott, the hilariously insensitive manager of The Office, manages to repeatedly offend each of his diverse staff—no one is safe from his absurd stereotypes. A more nuanced primetime treatment of race can be seen on Lost where the island’s castaways epitomize the global, ethnic, and class diversity and divisions of our day. In a society increasingly conscious of race and ethnicity, the silence of our churches grows more notable by the day…
I subscribe to a few different podcasts that get automatically downloaded to my mp3 player. One of these is the public radio program, This American Life. It is hard to describe TAL to those who’ve never listened to the one hour program. Each week the host, Ira Glass, introduces a theme. Over the next hour the listener hears a handful of stories that touch on this theme. A quick glance at the themes from August reveal Unconditional Love, The Spokesman, and Blame it on Art among others.