Tag Archives: matthew crawford

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Don’t forget the torches — light trumps darkness: learning about politics and life from some imaginative protestors

Gambling is a scourge on our society. It seems to me that it’s one of a handful of social issues — alongside alcohol, domestic violence, our treatment of our indigenous peoples, and refugees — that occupies a similar blind spot for us Aussies that is similar to guns in the U.S psyche.

We Aussies sometimes like to look down our noses at the stranglehold the N.R.A has on gun control law in America, so this week it’s been revealing to see just how deeply enmeshed the gambling industry is in Australian life as a big-money horse race took over a national icon (paid for by lotteries), the Sydney Opera House. The manager of this cultural precinct didn’t want it given over to this modern idol of our culture, and a radio host with pretty strong links to the racing industry slammed her, leading the charge in such a way that our political leaders fronted the media to justify (and support) an industry that destroys lives (but lines the public coffers, and the coffers of our political parties), first the Premier of New South Wales, then the Prime Minister. Here’s what Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to say:

“This is one of the biggest events of the year. Why not put it on the biggest billboard Sydney has? These events generate massive economic opportunities for the state, for the city.”

It’s the economy. Stupid.

A federal government study on the deleterious impact of race betting on Australians found:

Among other things, survey data tell us that in 2015, nearly one million Australians regularly gambled on horse and dog racing. Most race bettors were men, and aged between 30 and 64. Their typical monthly expenditure on race betting amounted to $1,300 each over the year. Some 400,000 experienced one or more gambling-related problems.

Now. Like many Aussies — including the 290,000 who signed a petition against this advertising campaign that the New South Wales government refused to accept, I’m pretty disillusioned about Australian politics.

I feel helpless and on the sidelines while watching things like this unfold. Political action seems pointless.

I think there are plenty of dark times ahead for those of us who want a democracy built on making space at the table for one another, and pursuing civility and the ability to live well together. I despair about our treatment of refugees, and the unborn. I despair about much Christian advocacy in its misrepresentation of those we disagree with (so, for example, while I think it’s bad legislation, I don’t think the spirit of the new abortion laws in Queensland is to allow women to terminate pregnancies for whatever reason they want up until birth, and I don’t think the pro-life case is helped by painting the ‘other’ side this way).

I’m struck by how much responsibility and hope we give to politicians to solve our social issues, a phenomenon James Davison Hunter observed in his book To Change The World, and how much then we run to ideological camps where we can sling rocks at those opposed. He says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicization is the turn toward law and politics — the instrumentality of the state — to find solutions to public problems.”

This is the way our public conversations are framed — when there’s a problem we want others to solve it; specifically, the state. And we do our part by making lots of outraged noise on social media, and signing petitions (and there’s a place for this, of course). But what if this limits our imagination when it comes to other solutions?

Hunter says:

“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws, and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit… it is only logical then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily, through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them.”

Hunter also suggests this politicization frames our ‘common life’ so much that it gives birth to the sort of ideological posturing that has killed our ability to disagree well, or seek compromise. It also means there is no ‘public’ space or ‘commons’ that is not politicised (like the Opera House). He says:

“Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life, and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.”

Perhaps the only thing worse than the collapse of the public space into the political, is the giving over of public space — the commons — to the market, especially when that’s a political decision made for apparent political gain (it’s the economy stupid). Another book I’ve been particularly challenged by this year, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How To Flourish in an Age of Distraction, makes the point that the sort of paying attention is much harder when our public spaces are now places where we are bombarded with messages from private enterprise. He says clear public space — the ‘commons’ is necessary for ethical life together — for listening to one another long enough to escape ideological posturing, or the darkness of the world around us.

“The idea of a commons is suitable in discussing attention because, first, the penetration of our consciousness by interested parties proceeds very often by the appropriation of attention in public spaces, and second, because we rightly owe to one another a certain level of attentiveness and ethical care.”

Crawford uses the example of the airport to make his point — and its a tale of two lounges, the private airline lounges and the public lounges around the gates. In the public space companies have paid to bombard you with advertising material — billboards, TV screens, businesses, while in the private space you’re offered the luxury of distraction free comfort. The wealthy have the luxury of not needing the ‘commons’ to avoid the privatised messaging they don’t want — they pay for something not-so-common (and it’s perhaps, the same with the Opera House, I wonder what the outcry would be like if these adverts were projected on the curtains of the Opera before or after a performance). Here’s Crawford setting the scene:

Or do we? Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls, and no TVs. This silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax; after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts. Outside the lounge is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it. As the commons gets appropriated, one solution, for those who have the means, is to leave the commons for private clubs such as the business-class lounge. Consider that it is those in the business lounge who make the decisions that determine the character of the peon lounge, and we may start to see these things in a political light. To engage in playful, inventive thinking, and possibly create wealth for oneself during those idle hours spent at an airport, requires silence. But other people’s minds, over in the peon lounge (or at the bus stop) can be treated as a resource—a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to innovative marketing ideas hatched by the “creatives” in the business lounge.”

Ouch.

Crawford also talks about the mechanics of addiction, and the way the gambling industry (especially pokie machine makers) exists as a parasite with the express goal of having customers ‘play to extinction’… distracting us to oblivion with bright lights and pretty colours (and some other pretty nefarious techniques).

This outsourcing of decision making to our law makers means the stakes are impossibly high. If we think reducing gambling, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, or pregnancy terminations, depends on our politicians we lack imagination, and we over-estimate the capacity of our leaders to escape their own political interests and deliver actual results. If we put all our eggs in that basket then to lose the political battle is to lose the war…

If we want to stand against darkness, the answer is bringing light. It’s to stop outsourcing problem-solving to government and to start acting as citizens, forming institutions and movements, to model a better way forward. This is perhaps particularly true for Christians given the way light and darkness work in our story.

And there’s no better picture of the power of light to trump darkness than the way protestors standing in the Opera House forecourt tonight disrupted the projection of the gambling ads onto the Opera House sails. With torches. With light. They didn’t quite have enough torch-power to overcome the industrial sized projectors throwing the ads up, but they tried, they were noticed, and if more of us imagined non-political solutions to social problems that involved harnessing people power we might see changes to how public life happens… it’s this evocative picture of light starting to overcome even the brightest darkness.

There’s much that we Christians could learn about how to participate in a public that seems increasingly dark. We might stop putting our effort into political solutions to the problems around us and start shining light in such a way that the darkness is obscured. We might trust that eventually, though it feels like we’re pushing up hill, enough light shone on something dark will buckle it and break it… no matter how deeply enmeshed a problem is… And maybe we’ll bring a renewed sense of imagination to the task of ‘politics’…

Instead of standing outside abortion clinics, protesting to change legislation as ‘political speech’ (or just getting in the face of the ‘other’) in what our legislators have created as exclusion zones, we might keep building communities that are inclusion zones for vulnerable parents-to-be. Instead of just looking for political solutions on domestic violence we could start refuges and services to make escaping that darkness more possible for women. Instead of playing the same partisan ideological game where we want to win the political fight at all costs, at all times, we might try to make room in public for the people we disagree with to be truly seen and heard. Instead of making political arguments seeking a win over the other, we might seek to win the other over to the light (you know, by making Christian politics about Jesus…).

Hunter and Crawford are describing some things that I’d love to see transform the way we approach politics in Australia. It would be amazing and transformative if we stopped peddling the narrative that politics will solve everything, or giving the keys to the ‘public’ to these leaders who then rely on private dollars to hold on to power. It’d be amazing if we all took up our torches to bring light into these unseen problems in our psyche — our cultural dependancy on gambling and alcohol, and the violence that seems so endemic behind closed doors (62 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence this year, seven women in the last six days… while zero people were killed by needles in strawberries).

The downside to all this optimism about people power, of course, is the images from history of angry mobs with torches hunting down those on the other side. Here’s where I reckon the optimism of plenty of political activism breaks down — the idea that we could, or would, do a better job than those in power if we took the power off them.

There are plenty of iconic torch-carrying-mob pictures we could consider from some of humanity’s darker moments, but perhaps none are more iconic than this one.

So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. — John 18:3-5

People power can be harnessed for some pretty dark stuff.

Jesus, the ‘light of the world’, approached in the night by a mob carrying torches trying to outshine his light… but even in this moment, the start of his darkest hours, Jesus is triumphing by refusing to play the political game the world expects. It’s like the words of Jesus that John recorded back near the start of his story were prescient.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” — John 3:19-21

This is the uniquely bright light we have to shine on the problems of this world — the light of the world, Jesus, has much to offer when it comes to addressing violence against women, alcohol addiction, gambling, and how we treat the unborn. Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, isn’t just an alternative to worldly powers, but offers a rationale for rejecting the ‘politicisation of everything’ and the idea that human governments should be responsible for solving all the world’s problems. He’s the king who doesn’t sell us out for his own interests so that the ‘commons’ is turned against us, but who gives himself as a ransom to bring us from ‘the kingdom of darkness into light’. He invites us into the kingdom, he invites us to turn on the torches, knowing that even in those moments where it doesn’t seem we’re cutting through the darkness, or over-powering the bright lights of our cultural idols, his light is not overcome. He gives us a type of political action that isn’t pointless — the call to point people to God’s kingdom in our participation in the public sphere.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:14-16

Try Jesus. Today (an explanation for a new website)

Over summer I read two fascinating books that got me thinking about the role of the ‘physical’ commons; public space, and what it means that public space is now ‘privatised’ in that people pay money to bombard us with messages via outdoor advertising, and screens, and ever more invasive techniques to get us to buy things or see the world a particular way. This is never more truly pronounced than in an election campaign, but it’s actually much more sinister apart from those campaigns (which claim to be about the ‘public good’ of democracy and aiming to somehow help inform our choice as we ‘shape the public life’ of our community).

One book was about how to cultivate an ethic of attention via embodied practices and deliberation — Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, the other was a manifesto for public space activism (graffiti etc) called Advertising Shits In Your Head (free ebook)In one passage, Crawford describes heading to an airport and being bombarded, from start to finish, by advertising — even on the trays you put your odds and ends on as they pass through security — everywhere is ‘noisy’, space everywhere is ‘commoditised’, except where you pay for it not to be — the lounges…

“Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls, and no TVs. This silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax; after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts. Outside the lounge is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it. As the commons gets appropriated, one solution, for those who have the means, is to leave the commons for private clubs such as the business-class lounge.”

This made me think not just about what an uncontested, non-privatised commons would look like (Crawford says public space should ultimately be as freely available as oxygen), but about how to advance what I believe is the public good of the Gospel apart from these commercial pressures (or what I would put into public space to grab the attention of a passer by, for their good).

Advertising Shits In Your Head is a fascinating anarchist text that had me thinking of all sorts of ‘reclaiming the commons’ campaigns that would be, I think, basically illegal. I’ve often noticed sticker bomb campaigns on pedestrian crossing/traffic light poles in the city and wondered about a ‘sticker bomb the Gospel’ approach to getting Jesus into the public psyche, or conversation. I wondered for a while if appropriately submitting to authorities, if one believes that the commons should be free not controlled by private interests, is not to not claim a presence, but to pay the fine (or do the clean up time) for participating in a conversation aimed at reclaiming the commons. I think I’ve decided to err on the side of caution on this front… but it did get me thinking; what would I use to draw the attention of the average, distracted, passer by on the streets (or in the ‘virtual commons’ of, say, the Facebook news feed (though this one requires paying for presence, ultimately becoming part of the problem (though offsetting that by offering something that one believes is genuinely a source of ‘human flourishing’ or a social good (less than can be said for Coca Cola (and when I was at uni we were told their ‘outdoor strategy’ is to get the brand in someone’s face close to ten times a day because science showed that was an effective ‘implanting’ tipping point that would increase the chances of prompting a purchase).

Advertising Shits In Your Head is a manual for ‘subvertising’, claiming “the modern subvertising movement has consumerism as its target. Many practitioners present their work as explicitly anti-capitalist and almost all object to outdoor advertising as a form of propaganda,” it quotes a guy campaigning to outlaw public advertising, Jordan Seiler, saying “Our acceptance of advertising is testament to how much advertising in general has infused itself into our lives and we consider it to be a medium that is inescapable and just inherently part of the capitalist system…” It says (and I find it hard to disagree):

“It’s not that propaganda, public relations, advertising, or the intersections of all three are inherently evil, it is rather that the system they have been so adept at promoting throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is responsible for economic crises, resource wars, widening inequality, and perhaps most alarmingly, environmental destruction on a global scale. Subvertisers can justifiably argue that propaganda is, once again, marshalling millions to their deaths.”

In short, in theological terms, public advertising is often a tool of ‘babylon’ luring us away from the flourishing life that is found in relationship with our creator, through Jesus, and towards idols that are disappointing and destructive. You don’t need that Tag Heuer watch; nor do you need to desire it.

In the political theology essay I posted yesterday I made the case that Christians should be disruptors of beastly systems — including, to some extent, the sort of ‘capitalism’ built on the idea that we should define our humanity in terms of consumption and the pursuit of happiness through products and services that we pay for and develop using technology (so that we become little cogs in an economic machine). It seems to me that advertising plays a pretty substantial part in keeping us there because it is so rarely, if ever, targeted at the public good rather than some agenda to serve a private good (even doing so by creating a perceived ‘public good’… and even public service announcement style ‘advertising’ from governments is so often coupled with the agenda of winning re-election not by leading a conversation about public good, but by jumping on board such a conversation once the political pulse has well and truly been checked). I’m also a former ‘propagandist’ (at least an ethical one, I hope, and perhaps not entirely ‘former’), and I think there are methods or techniques of ‘propaganda’ that can genuinely put to good use for the sake of the common good so long as they seek persuasion without manipulation or coercion (part of the topic I explored in my thesis about how to ethically and excellently communicate/engage in the public square with the Gospel).

So as I read these books I wondered: what would I do to ‘subvert’ the narrative of advertisers and their claiming of ‘public space’ for their private interests? If I was to invade that space in order to subvert those intentions for the good of my neighbours, what would I do? The answer, of course, is Jesus — who so utterly is at odds with the agenda of ‘Babylon’ or the self-gratifying propagandist, and who does offer, if the Gospel is true, ultimate satisfaction and the ‘abundant life’. I wondered, what would I turn into a sticker to slap up on public spaces, or use as a little ‘tear off’ poster on a community noticeboard? What would I hope might realistically evoke a sense of curiousity, and once evoked, how would I move that curiousity to action (or what marketers call ‘conversion’)? So I started trying to write a website inviting people to try Jesus, and to do it immediately. I wanted to explore the connection between Jesus and the ‘public good’ or the flourishing life, and so focus on the truth, goodness, and beauty of the life, example, and teaching of Jesus (the Gospel) and the life it produces; it’s not that I don’t want to talk about sin and judgment (those are inescapably part of that life), but I want repentance to be more about turning to Jesus than away from sin… and then I wanted the steps towards ‘trying Jesus’ to be more about experiences that give the Gospel plausibility, and more about the heart than the head (though not not about the head — given that those intuitions and emotions are also produced by the brain in response to stimulus and to some extent thought, and also the evidence for Christianity is quite compelling).

So I started a website: tryjesus.today

It’s not complete. It will hopefully evolve. I’d love it to include short video testimonies from people who’ve decided to give Jesus a try (maybe that’s you?), and I’d also love your feedback about what you reckon works, and what doesn’t… and how to do this act of ‘subvertising’ without undermining the message of the Gospel.