Hungry Ears

 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” — Matthew 7:10 -11

I watched a bit of the first national debate of the campaign season online between the four party leaders and candidates for the Prime Minister’s job a couple of nights ago — Justin Trudeau for the Liberals, Elizabeth May for the Greens, Tom Mulcair for the New Democrats, and Stephan Harper for the Conservative Party. For a student of communications, these debates are usually less interesting for what they say than what they don’t say, and more interesting for the public responses they generate than the actual content of the debates themselves.

Naturally, these debating formats are quite limiting. Candidates are far more interested in avoiding “stepping on mines” than in taking the risk of saying something actually meaningful and substantial. Consequently, a lot of cleverness and ingenuity is expended in making sure that as little as meaningful is stated but with a maximum number of words. Almost invariably, the prize in the pundits’ eyes goes to the candidate who uttered the greatest volume of words, but avoided “stepping on any mines”.

From the dialogical perspective, this is quite hilarious, almost Swiftian in its absurdity. And yet it is also a tragedy of great significance; quite fateful. A winner is declared by the public or the judges according to whether the candidates merely survived the debate by saying nothing whatsoever, but thereby avoided stepping on any mines. There seems to be no other objective criteria for assessing performance in the debates than that.

I watched the debates online at The Guardian website. Afterwards, The Guardian declared the Green Party candidate, Elizabeth May, the “winner”, followed closely by the Tom Mulcair of the NDP. Of course, other news outlets thought differently according to their own bias, and each crowned their preferred candidate with the laurels of victory for no other reason, it seems, than because they appeared to step on the least number of mines.

All in all, it reminded me of that Biblical verse I cited above — people ask for bread, but are given a stone; ask for fish, but are given a snake.

After the debate, and after The Guardian declared Elizabeth May the “winner”, I commented that the reason May seems so often to impress the public and the judges is not owing so much to what she says but the fact that she comes across as the most sincere. Surprisingly, a lot of people agreed with me. May always performs well in these debates, and is recognised as performing well, because of her sincerity. For that reason, too, she is generally recognised as being the most effective Parliamentarian as well.

The responses to these debates by the public and the pundits are usually more illuminating and educational than anything that is said in the debates. Stephen Harper retained his composure and “looked prime ministerial”, says one pundit. Another says “he looked rattled”. What matters are the appearances and semblances, whereas the real question is, is not whether he “looks prime ministerial” in the debates, but whether he is a statesman. The answer to that is “no”. I think the only man who thinks Stephen Harper is a true “statesman” is Benjamin Netanyahu, and that obviously for quite self-interested reasons.

The word “sincerity”, if you recall, is most likely derived from the Latin sin + caries — against or without decay. That gives a clue to its real significance. Insincerity is decadence. Cynicism is a form of insincerity. And if insincerity is a disease of speech, lip-service, which is cynical speech, is a form of decadence. Decadence, in turn, is an aspect of nihilism.

Our ears these days are hungry for sincerity, and they aren’t finding the nourishment they need in the contemporary political discourse. Politics instead has become something of a bloodsport. “Risk-takers” are praised, and no more so than by those who assiduously avoid risking themselves by truly investing themselves in the words they speak. The obverse of the coin of the “Age of Pretense” and of “faking it” is the crisis of credibility.

As Rosenstock-Huessy put it, the corrective for the disease of decadence is new inspiration. Inspiration is revitalisation, rejuvenation, revivification, regeneration, resurrection from the dead. Inspiration is what creates a future. It has survival value. Where are the hungry ears today finding new inspiration?

I find it pretty significant that the classical Trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic was dismissed as being the “trivial” by the the agents of the mental-rational consciousness. The real function of the Trivium was to frame the art and science of inspiration. In other words, it was really a science of sincerity. That was even the original use of the word “technology”. The “logos” of the “techne“, or reasoning about means or media or “the Art” as the word techne signifies, was originally used to describe grammatical speech — how to put together words and grammatical forms to represent “eternal truth” with high fidelity. The ecclesiastical and theological interest in “the resurrection” went hand in hand with the need for continuous re-inspiration of society, and especially of a society that was struggling to emerge from a Dark Age.

I think it is pretty meaningful that the first real inspired and inspiring voice to emerge from the Dark Age was that of the Troubadors of Provence. The historian W.P. Ker, in his book The Dark Ages, even named the first Troubador — William of Pitou, who came to notice in 1100 a.d. “Singing the world awake”, as it were. The Troubadors were, indeed, food for hungry ears. The cover of Ker’s Mentor book edition itself is kind of interesting in that respect, for it shows a monk seated at his lectern transcribing the Bible, apparently, into an illustrated manuscript, but right next to him is a lyre.

If so many today are concerned about the danger of a new Dark Age, it has a lot to do with this lack of new inspiration and of the search for new inspiration that they aren’t finding in the decayed discourses of politics and religion, or State and Church. That probably accounts for the popularity of these “self-help” books, which are often a poor substitute. The grafitti on the walls that reads “No Future. No Hope” really means “No inspiration”, and has very little to do with economics or with the promise of “jobs, jobs, jobs”. Where are the hungry ears to find this new inspiration that alone makes “future” possible at all?



7 responses to “Hungry Ears”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I might have said that “technology” began as the techne of the Logos (the Art of the Word) rather than the logos of the teche (or the reasoning about the means). That would be more accurate in describing it. For the same reason, the origin of the word “propaganda” in the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith) was connected to the Trivium as the art & science of inspiration, propaganda meaning “planting the seeds”.

    The secularisation of these terms illustrates the danger of the “concretion of the spiritual” as a potential corruption. In some ways, technology, propaganda, and the Trivium were turned upside down and inside out by secularism. Indeed, “the spirit descended into matter” in quite obvious ways. But that also represents an opportunity.

    The Troubador likewise cut an odd figure, an intersection of the mystical and the carnal — a monk with a lyre, as it were — who sang of the mysteries of Love but in quite carnal terms. They were, at first, held in suspicion by the Church, and later branded as heretics. Not coincidental that the Albigensian Crusade was against the land of the Troubadors, Provence.

  2. davidm58 says :

    The campaign season has begun in the states as well, with a very similar feel. The Nation reports on the first Republican presidential debate, chock full of shouting matches, bald-faced lies, and ad hominem attacks.characterized as “good television, chock full of shouting matches, bald-faced lies, and ad hominem attacks.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, quite “cringe-worthy”.

    • Scott Preston says :

      After reading a little about the GOP debate and the controversy around Trump, and hearing about the resignation (or firing) of his strategist Roger Stone,

      I read up on Roger Stone’s curriculum vitae in an article from June 2, 2008 edition of the New Yorker called “The Dirty Trickster”. This just gets crazier and crazier, especially considering what Trump said about Stone then and yet retained him as his “strategist” for this go-round.

      My thoughts on reading the NY piece were “what’s the connection between this guy and the Conservative Party of Canada?” Because it all sounded so familiar, all-too familiar.

      How much lower can a human being actually descend? This seems completely rock bottom. And what’s even the defence against this kind of aberrant conduct? Surely it has an absolute limit?

      This situation is even more insane than I thought, more decadent than I even considered. I have to admit it. I’m quite shocked.

  3. davidm58 says :

    Sorry, my reply above posted before I had finished, and I got some garbled repetition in there. To continue, see also John Michael Greer’s insightful commentary on The Suicide of the American Left.
    I like your concluding thoughts about troubadors – “monks with lyres.” The role of art and artists is important. For some reason I’m reminded of Jeremy Johnson’s presentation at the last Gebser society conference on “The Penumbra of Electronic Light.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      I like the way Greer writes, and what he writes about. There’s a good deal of wit there.

      Monks with lyres and a healthy eroticism. The Church didn’t like that last bit much, but by then the Christians had become confused about a lot of things that would later come back to haunt them, and eventually bite them too.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    I first learned the term “ratfuckers” from Mark Bourrie’s book Kill the Messengers. He used it to describe some hacks in Stephen Harper’s Conservative party. I was a little confused by that at first, until I learned that “ratfucking” was what the devious men in Nixon’s CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President) called what they did to Nixon’s political enemies. Apparently, those on Nixon’s famous Enemies List were the “rats”. But blowback being what it is, this cabal came to be known themselves as “ratfuckers” — probably not what they had intended.

    Ratfuckers are political operatives whose powerlust carries them beyond the limits of decency and propriety into sleaze and sewer politics. Nothing is off limits — fraud, extortion, blackmail, deceit and duplicity — you name it and they’ve probably done it, and are damned proud of it too. Anything that will make them feel like a “winner” (or make a lot of money). A ratfucker is, in effect, not just a partisan hack, but a hack that goes even beyond hackery. I would call it “orcery”. A ratfucker is an orc.

    The term surfaced again yesterday when I was reading about the Republican debate, Trump’s disgraceful showing, and the subsequent resignation or firing (depending who you believe) of his strategist, Roger Stone. Stone, it turns out, was one of Nixon’s “ratfuckers”, along with Karl Rove.

    Stone certainly seems to fit the profile of the model “ratfucker”, and that influence seems to be quite evident in Trump’s campaign, at least until now.

    Matt Labash has a chapter on Stone in his book Fly Fishing with Darth Vader. It seems to rely on much in the New Yorker piece, but also includes more. Labash hung out with Stone for a while, and his chapter is just as revealing of the state of politics today as the New Yorker piece. If these are our “movers and shakers”, and the chief influence behind “the conservative movement”, we are really living in the sewer today. Some of Labash’s book can be read online,

    It seems the ratfuckers weren’t discredited or disappeared after the Nixon debacle, but went on to hone their “skills”, such as they are, even more, even mentoring a new generation of ratfuckers. Stone even boasts of having Ukrainian clients. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Canadian “ratfuckers” were influenced or mentored by him.

    Stone certainly seems the Jekyll and Hyde type, but in this instance, Hyde is the dominant aspect of his personality, Jekyll a mere mask. That’s reflected in one (and more) of “Stone’s Rules”

    “Unless you can fake sincerity, you’ll get nowhere in this business”

    Ah yes. Finally. There it is. Explains quite a bit of how the ratfuckers have taken over the public discourse. But my question is, what’s the price of this bargain with the devil, not just in individual terms, but in social terms as well?

    “Ratfucker” is a very useful term for someone who has gone over to the Dark Side and is given to complete debauchery. And I think you can learn quite a bit about Huntington’s “power operating in the dark” from reading these two pieces on Stone, because Stone is just as much a symptom of the times.

    Labash even, in some ways, approves of Stone’s methods. Perhaps not unexpected from a writer for The Weekly Standard. Why? Because Labash, like Stone, believes politics is war by other means. But if you start with a corrupt and perverse definition of politics, it’s not unexpected that you come to a perverse, debauched, and corrupt conclusion about the acceptable means of “winning”. Whereas, if you define politics as “synchronisation of antagonistic distemporaries” — ie, the art and science of how different people can live together harmoniously despite their differences, you come to completely different conclusions.

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