>Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?

>Continuing with some themes I explored last week, gentle reader, I had a very good and productive exchange via GChat last evening with a contact made through Twitter – not only about arranging an in-personam meeting later this week with a mutual friend, but also about the use of that particular branch of social media. As he has considerably more followers than I, we discussed some of the benefits, methodology, and pitfalls of Twitter, as well as some negative aspects of the behavior on the site. Following our conversation and before turning in, I was doing a bit of bedtime reading, and it so happened that I selected St. Josemaría Escrivá’s “El Camino” (“The Way”) off the shelf.

I should preface my next remarks by declaring that I am not now, nor have ever been a member of Opus Dei – let alone the Communist Party, the Bilderburg Group, or the Mickey Mouse Club. That said, Escrivá’s writing is appealing to me in its very Spanish directness, often quite blunt indeed. My shelf of spiritual books runs the gamut from St. Francis de Sales to Thomas Merton, but the shortness of the passages in this particular book makes them more easy to digest if you do not have a great deal of time available to you – or your eyelids keep closing.

When I do spiritual reading, I will sometimes choose to open to a page or a passage at random, and reflect upon what catches my eye. In this case, we can translate the passage I stumbled across as follows:

Better to burn like a torch, setting fire to all you touch,
than to glitter like a star in the heavens.

In other words, rather than seeking to become famous and shine from on high and far off, we should make more of an effort to burn strongly where we are, bringing light and heat to the world, or at least the corner of it which we inhabit.

How very well Escrivá’s thought ties in with yesterday’s mass readings, which talked about the importance of light – and not just the physical light by which we see with our eyes, but the light by which we not only see ourselves as we really are. We hear of Samuel discerning David as the future king of Israel through God’s instruction, not through his own eyes; St. Paul reminding the early Christians of the light of Faith and how their lives have been changed by that light; and finally the superb recounting in St. John’s Gospel of Christ opening the eyes of the blind man. As Monsignor Langsfeld pointed out yesterday in a very well-crafted homily tying all of the readings together, it is often that we think we see, when we are in fact blind to what is going on both in front of and within us.

Then through courtesy of a Catalan friend – also made through Twitter over the course of several months’ exchanges – this morning I read a very interesting interview with professor Jordi Llovet, a well-known Catalan critic, translator, and philosopher, on the occasion of the publication of his new book, “Adéu a la Universitat” (“Goodbye to the University”). While Dr. Llovet is a modern humanist, as is the case with any men of true intelligence he can not only see the trees, but the forest as well. His words immediately struck me, for he is casting light on why our society is faltering.

Dr. Lllovet writes that the university, in his experience as an academic and thinker, is in great need of reform, because Western civilization has collapsed from a lack of any values beyond those of materialism and the desire to be famous – or at the very least to be popular. He maintains that [N.B. please excuse my imperfect translation] what drove mankind in previous centuries – whether God, humanism, reason, etc. – has been replaced by a completely financial and profane motivation. Thus, even his own field of education “has taken the basic form of love for business, consumerism, the accumulation of goods, the illusion of “welfare” and, something new, a mentality and everyday culture derived from present-day forms of entertainment and new technologies.”

Dr. Llovet goes on to observe that

The new generations seek fame more than greatness, they want acclaim more than recognition, and build self-sufficient small societies through the mobile phone, chat and Facebook – all of which is ersatz social and political life, in a global sense. This all follows a law of present-day history, according to which the past is something discredited and any theory on the future leads to a likely scenario which it is better not to think about.

How very much I see myself, in my worst moments, as well as many people I know, in his observations.

The temptation to make ourselves little gods of our own universes is so great, and so easily achievable through manipulation of social media, that we now have the commonly observed example of someone becoming famous for doing very little. The question “Why is so-and-so famous?” has been beaten into the ground long ago, arguably starting with “The Real World” and picking up steam with “Survivor”, “The Simple Life”, and moving through to “The Hills”, the Kardashian sisters, the “Real Housewives” and so on. The question keeps being asked, but no one really wants to hear the answer: these people are famous because we want to be famous, too.

We willingly follow, like lemmings off a cliff, those who say, “This person is worth your time!”, suspending our disbelief and joining in the attention being heaped upon someone who is often either unintelligent, untalented, unattractive, or all three. We do so in the hope that we will somehow belong, or be thought cool, hip, and so on. We also hope that we, too, may become famous, or at the very least end up with more followers on Twitter, more friends on Facebook, and more contacts in our iPhone. The end result of that effort will, if we are honest with ourselves, therefore hopefully make up for the fact that our lives are marked by the accumulation of useless “stuff” and the pursuit of fleeting, sometimes immoral pleasures, which ultimately leave us unsatisfied.

I have great admiration and respect for the men and women I have come to know through social media who are not only very competent in what they do, but use social media to its best ends: the establishment of contacts and the exchange of information. Their behavior is that of the adult, who does not need the adulation of others in order to have fulfillment. Those such as the manufacturer, the writer, and the photographer, for example, can reach an enormous potential market base through social media networking.

For his part, the individual who does not use social media either primarily nor secondarily for professional efforts, can use it to find others who share their interests far more easily than was ever possible before. It is also, no doubt, an extraordinary opportunity to reach out for charitable and philanthropic purposes. All of these are rational, adult methods for the proper use of social media. And most of us, dare I say so, who are active in social media fall very short in our efforts to remain adults in our activities online.

So the challenge that I present to you, dear reader, and one which I am going to try to take on for myself as well, is to make my use of social media more meaningful. Those of you who read these pages know that I do not generally produce the written equivalent of fast food in my work: I hold not only myself to a higher standard, but also my readership. I do not assume your ignorance, but rather your intelligence. You would hardly spend any time here if you were incapable of reflection on issues which cannot easily be addressed in a sound bite or a single 140 character statement. And that leads us to our point: it is time for those of us who employ social media to grow up, and to be a man. (Or lady, as the case may be.)

If Escrivá is right, if it is better to set others aflame and illuminate truth through one’s efforts and example, then the well-placed thought, even a brief one – such as, indeed, he himself often wrote – can do a great deal of good, if it is handled in an adult fashion. Yet at the same time Dr. Lllovet’s criticism of Gen X, Gen Y, etc. is well-founded, in the manifestations of our use of social media that are so easy to observe. The adult solution to this seeming dichotomy, and the childishness of social media as it clearly is employed at present by alleged adults, is to continue to employ it, but with more discernment and discretion. It may be that we should not seek to glitter like the stars, but we should not seek to behave like toddlers on a playground, either.

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Social Networking, 16th Century Style

On the 4th of July, during an evening spent in convivial company, I was fortunate enough to take part in an interesting conversation with a few friends regarding social networking in our present age, via sites such as Facebook and Twitter, while discussing what earlier writers might have thought of them. The subject arose in a conversation about the purpose of this blog which, as regular readers know, was inspired by “The Book of the Courtier” by Baldassare Castiglione. This led to a comparison between Castiglione’s views and those of his contemporary, Niccolò Machiavelli, who these days is probably far better known, if the average man can even recall one Renaissance thinker. If you have ever engaged in a discussion on “realpolitik” in a political theory course, you have probably read Machiavelli.

Arguably, Machiavelli is a man more in tune with the (often regrettable) zeitgeist of this age than is Castiglione, at least with respect to social networking. It seems to me that while Machiavelli would be that fellow on Facebook with over two thousand “friends”, and hundreds of followers on Twitter, Castiglione would more likely have a select group of Facebook friends and not use Twitter every ten minutes. This is idle speculation, admittedly, but speculation based largely upon the two men’s respective attitudes toward the role of man in society.

Machiavelli, as is well known, thought that deception and flattery would get you everywhere; he openly advocates, in “The Prince”, that he who would rise, must be a deceiver. While he admits to many of the qualities of nobility advocated by Castiglione, Machiavelli’s purpose is, to my mind, that of a social-climber and rather tasteless, if not to stay reprehensible:

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

Ultimately, Machiavelli thought that by manipulation of social contacts, one could achieve improved government – and no doubt increased power for one’s self.

Compare this to Castiglione, whose Courtier is “never thrusting himself before others to reach the first and most honored places.” For Castiglione, as he himself writes in the Introduction to “The Book of the Courtier”, was also aware of his own limitations: “I am not so lacking in judgment and self-knowledge as to presume to know all I could wish to know.” Castiglione’s courtier knows who he is, is confident in what he does well, strives to be better in areas where he is not as knowledgeable or accomplished, and gathers around himself people who will help him to become better. This is not only good common sense, but also reflects a far less jaundiced and positive view of society in 16th century Urbino, than did the scribblings of his grasping contemporary down the road in Florence.

Many things have changed since the Renaissance, but the desire to have friends and influence has not. The means have changed, and Machiavelli famously held that the ends justify the means. Again, there is no way to know for certain, but I believe that Castiglione would reject the internet phenomenon of social networking as a tool for proving one’s popularity to oneself and others, in favor instead of using these sites as a way to keep in touch with distant friends, and to cultivate new ones with shared interests – not for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. After all, Ashton Kutcher may have the most followers on Twitter, but does that mean that he has any real socio-cultural relevance?

“Portrait of Count Baldassare Castiglione” by Titian
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin