Russell and Duenes

Paragraphs Change People: The Triumph of the Supermarket

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Books don’t change people, paragraphs do — sometimes sentences.  ~ John Piper

I have found this to be true in my own reading. John Piper surely proves the point with his sentence: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” There’s a sentence by which to head into eternity. Piper’s little aphorism came home to me as I thought back upon a book I just finished, The Abolition of Britain, by Peter Hitchens. You may think this a strange title for a Yankee on this side of the Pond, but having thoroughly enjoyed Hitchens’ The Rage Against God, I was eager to read his thoughts on Great Britain, thoughts which I take to be a cautionary tale for Americans. Anyway, back to the paragraphs changing people bit, I certainly found many great paragraphs in Hitchens’ book, and thought I’d share some of them over the course of several posts. I take the first paragraph from Hitchens’ Introduction, where he provides a general overview of the changes that have blasted the gourdes of his country:

Other physical changes have propelled and exaggerated these new ways of thinking. The atomization of society by new types of housing has broken up the old sense of belonging. The crazed over-use of private cars and the triumph of the supermarket over the personal service grocery store have kept us from meeting our fellow-creatures as effectively as any strict regime prison, and often reduced us to the level of objects rolling along someone else’s production line. Greater than all these is television, which has replaced individual imagination with images provided and selected by others, but also, and perhaps more importantly, destroyed the old forms of social sanction, a fear of the neighbours’ opinion or the even greater fear of upsetting the family. Television provided new judges of our behaviour, who were wittier, cleverer and more open-minded than anyone we knew in person. It also transformed child-rearing and narrowed the horizons of childhood itself. (p.7)

I remember once flying into LAX. On final approach, one can look out the plane’s window and see houses jammed together on grid-like streets for miles and miles. And I thought, “Think of all these strangers living right next to each other.” Rarely do we ponder how vastly our lives have been altered by this “atomization of society” of which Mr. Hitchens writes. I often wonder about the nature of lives where we rise, go to work, come home, shut the garage door, and don’t come out again. My old home town, Los Angeles, is the epitome of the “crazed over-use of private cars.” You can’t get a public transportation system into L.A. because people must have their cars, and must be free to drive them wherever and whenever they want, because this is “freedom,” even if it takes two hours and an increase of twenty numbers in your blood pressure to get across town. As children, we played outside unsupervised with our neighbors, who were our best friends. Virtually all of the adults on our street knew who we were. But this was before cable TV, and I believe that were I a child on my street today, things would be radically different, even if my neighbors had kids.

Many have critiqued the influence of television, but rarely have I heard the claim that “television provided new judges of our behaviour.” In other words, television has had a massive “conformist” power in the moral and social spheres. (see p. 9) We are not to think and speak in ways contrary to the ways approved by and conveyed to us through the TV. Hitchens observes this conforming phenomenon in Britian in the “unshakeable . . . certainty that personal righteousness is reserved for those who share [the politically correct] views about South Africa, landmines and the homeless,” which constitutes “the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation.” (p.3). Here in America we are witnessing television’s conforming and judging power by its portrayal of the “inevitability” and “rightness” of gay marriage, the gagging and denouncing of dissenting views. We are seeing TV’s conforming power in the Zimmerman trial as well, where the “officially approved” viewpoint was fed to us 24/7, before the arrest and trial even began. If you’re not in line with the latest Time/ CNN poll, your moral bona fides may be in question. But all of it goes down so easily, and we seem to be missing any alternatives. We might just think the alternatives weird anyway.





Written by Michael Duenes

July 22, 2013 at 9:48 pm

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