Robert Louis Stevenson on the modern political era

June 10, 2011

The Robert Lewis Stevenson essay “Crabbed Age and Youth” has gotten more than a few references today among the commentariat. I think I know why.

The sentiments of a man while he is full of ardour and hope are to be received, it is supposed, with some qualification. But when the same person has ignominiously failed and begins to eat up his words, he should be listened to like an oracle.

How can you read that and not think of Rep. Anthony Wiener, he of the screaming match in the well of the House, and ten days of “I can’t say with certitude that it’s not me”?

Most of our pocket wisdom is conceived for the use of mediocre people, to discourage them from ambitious attempts, and generally console them in their mediocrity. And since mediocre people constitute the bulk of humanity, this is no doubt very properly so.

“Pocket wisdom”, an elegant phrase for talking points, dumbed down to the point of becoming a bumper sticker then repeated ad nauseam, deleting any nuance or meaning from the words and leaving them as mere slogan.  The section below makes the point more bluntly.

To have a catchword in your mouth is not the same thing as to hold an opinion; still less is it the same thing as to have made one for yourself. There are too many of these catchwords in the world for people to rap out upon you like an oath and by way of an argument. They have a currency as intellectual counters; and many respectable persons pay their way with nothing else. They seem to stand for vague bodies of theory in the background.

Robert Louis Stevenson knew their types

This essay was written in 1877.  But for the colorful and challenging language, it could have been written last week.  Which leads to one last point:  ‘Twas ever thus.  It is common to think of the modern age as facing more partisanship, bigger legislative challenges, greater financial crises than those faced before.  It may be bad now and the days may be dark and disheartening as we watch our current crop of politicians and elected officials flail away.  But we’ve been through it before and will go through it again.

P.S.  Anybody tells you that the internet and twitter are full of junk should be referred to this post and the originating twitter messages.  The RLS essay is one that I’ve never read and spent the day contemplating.  You can learn things on this gizmo, amid all the clutter.

On being Friends

June 8, 2009

facebook-logoAs we’ve talked with our kids about the dangers of posting of pictures to Facebook (as evidenced here), I’ve been thinking about how kids experience the intimacy of friendship in the web-based world.  My preliminary conclusion is that while they think they’re more connected to people, what they really have is the illusion of closeness rather than the real thing.

Six years ago or so (pre-Facebook–which feels like saying “pre-historic”), I went back to my basketball crazy college with a client to watch a game with a big rival.  It was a Tuesday night early in the season.  The home team won, an outcome was then a foregone conclusion, but not any longer.  It was an exciting game, with a capacity crowd roaring at fighter jet-decibel levels.  We left the arena and headed straight for the prime watering hole, expecting a similarly raucous crowd.  And…crickets.  “Where is everybody?” I finally asked the waitress.

“In their rooms chatting with each other on the computer,” she responded.

Fast forward to today’s Facebook, Twitter, text, web camera-enabled world.  My high school-aged daughter was studying for finals and told us that she was meeting with a friend to work on French.  I never heard anyone come in, and was sure she hadn’t left, so I walked in her room to see that she was video chatting with her French classmate.  The quality of the video was decent, but ultimately it was like a bad conference call with each of them talking over each other and having to repeat themselves and talk loudly–things that would never have happened had they been in the same room.  It looked like more trouble than it was worth and definitely wasn’t adding to the academic environment.  “Why couldn’t you two get together to study?” I asked.

“Because we have the video chat, Dad (read: ‘you moron’)”, my daughter replied.

Facebook has rendered the word “friend” meaningless in the same way certain other words have been neutered.  A friend of mine told me of a conversation with his high-schooler in which the kid said, “We’re ‘friends’, but we’re not friends.”

This technological interaction problem (hereafter referred to as “TIP”; I expect all royalties and credit for having coined same) isn’t limited to kids, of course.  Ever been behind someone in the line at the grocery store who treats real people with the same snarky sarcasm normally found in the comment sections of websites and blogs?  It’s almost like being in a foreign country and witnessing someone providing a living example of the phrase “Ugly American”.  These folks seem to either have forgotten or never learned society’s rules for interacting with others.  Yes, I know being rude is not limited to those raised in the digital age (those intent on making that point should get their own blogs) but doesn’t it seem like these non-social or anti-social creatures are more prevelant than they’ve ever been? 

So we now live in a world in which every random thought is broadcast to the world, every picture available for everyone to see, everyone is linked together, but no one knows anyone all that well.  I get the sense that we may be advancing technologically, but we’re moving backwards socially.  Turn it off.  Unplug.  Get outside.  Meet people face-to-face. Use your vocal chords and not your fingertips.  Become friends.

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