If You Think DC Is Snobby, Wait Until You Read This

Did you appreciate that title? Well unless you are one of my subscribers, you had to click on it to get here, so we must suppose the answer is, “Yes.” As you‘ve taken my clickbait, let’s consider the issue of clickbait itself, in light of an article published this morning which is already causing commentary across the country. It’s a perfect example of why clickbait is so effective in achieving its ends, but also so ineffective in fostering higher standards of media creation and content.  

If you haven’t yet read the piece, today’s post from roadsnacks.net purports to list the “snobbiest” cities in the United States. Washington, D.C. turns out to be one of the worst offenders, based on the “science and data” which was reviewed in order to come up with these rankings. DC is the only city on the East Coast to make the top ten, coming in at #7 – just behind Irvine, California, and ahead of Costa Mesa, California.

A quick glance at the Road Snacks site reveals the sort of media content it produces. There are pieces such as “These Are The 10 Most Redneck Cities in Delaware”, which of course will encourage those individuals whom Road Snacks considers to be “rednecks” to read about how the places they live are terrible clichés. The same no doubt holds true for the residents of “The 10 Most Ghetto Cities in Florida”, who apparently also get their time in the sun. Not having taken the bait to click on these, or any of the other similarly titled pieces on the site, let’s return to the “Snobbish Cities” list in question.

In truth, the piece itself is a masterful example of what has come to be known as “clickbait”. By my reading about the controversially-titled piece on a mainstream media site, then clicking through to read the original post, and finally passing that post along to you, the owners of the site have made some dosh through my efforts, without their having to compensate me personally, and without their actually contributing anything whatsoever to a meaningful consideration of the question presented. This is, of course, precisely why these sorts of pieces are written.

The snobbiness or otherwise of Washington, D.C. is something which ought not to concern anyone outside of the D.C. tourism board, which no doubt will be preparing a press statement in response to the piece. True, the author states at the outset that, “[t]his article is an opinion based on facts and is meant as infotainment. Don’t freak out.” While I cannot speak for my fellow Washingtonians, I found little information and no entertainment in reading what, in the end, is little more than a Regina George “Burn Book”.

We may all very well say to ourselves, “Well, I don’t read clickbait,” and perhaps for the most part that may be true. Yet if a significant number of people did not read such pieces, at least on occasion, then they would not continue to be published. If we keep feeding it, we have an insatiable appetite for sensationalism, as evidenced by the media career of the entire Kardashian-Jenner family. And that nadir of media content, gentle reader, is most assuredly not a good thing.

Admittedly, taking the time to write about a piece of clickbait means that I, too, am contributing in some way to the cesspool from which it sprung. Yet perhaps by regularly questioning its value, we can at least try to recall what we are doing to ourselves when we break down and click. We may not be able to fundamentally alter human nature, but without holding up media providers to higher standards, we all end up rolling about in the gutter, however snobbish our zip code may be.


The Courtier And The Federalist: Seeing Sargent

I am pleased to share that today marks my first – and hopefully not my last – appearance in The Federalist, the well-known blog on culture, politics, and religion. In today’s post, “John Singer Sargent Reveals The Private Lives Of The Rich And Famous”, I take my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and their current exhibition, “Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent” as a touchstone, and invite readers to get to know the work of one of the greatest American painters. In the process, I ask that we reflect on what we think we see when looking at his art, and indeed at ourselves. My thanks to Ben Domenech and everyone at The Federalist for this opportunity to share my thoughts with their audience.

And now I must beg you a favor:

If you like or dislike what you read, gentle reader, please comment on the piece over at The Federalist site. If you think it a not-terrible bit of writing, do let the editors there know by saying so in the comments. Oftentimes the only comments one receives are criticism, but compliments can be just as helpful to the writer and his editors. Of course if you think the piece rather inferior, do please leave feedback as to how it could be improved upon. Interest drives page views in online media, and I can only improve as a writer if I am told what readers like and do not like about my work.

Thank you again for your support!


Science, Faith, and Controversy: A Look at France’s Most Important Building

If you have not been following the art and architecture comentariat of late – and after all, that’s what you read me for – then you may be unaware of a tempest brewing around the restoration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France. Universally considered to be one of the greatest works of architecture on the planet, the Medieval architecture of Chartres and its magnificent stained glass windows have inspired writers, artists, and composers, as well as many imitators. Beginning in 2008, the French government began to restore the building, and in the process has removed much of the soot, dust, and grime accumulated over the centuries.

In doing so, experts working on the project claim that they are bringing back the building to something like its original appearance, based on the discoveries they are making as they go. “Non!” shout other experts, however, decrying the work at Chartres as a scientific and architectural disaster. Their complaint is that “new” Chartres is too clean, too white, and too speculative in appearance, and that the building is being ruined through irresponsible intervention. This fight has raged in the art press for years now, and shows no sign of abating.

Why should a single building, even a church, cause so much consternation among so many people? The answer comes from the particular importance of Chartres itself, which embodies fundamental changes in human experience which today might seem so commonplace as to be easily overlooked. For at the risk of over-simplification, which is inevitable in a brief article such as this, Chartres represents a turning point both in science, and in the Western understanding of man’s relationship to the Divine.

On a scientific level, Chartres is a major piece of technology. Today, when most of us live or work in buildings whose walls are composed either entirely of glass, or featuring significant expanses of that material, it is easy for us to forget that this was once a practical impossibility. Previously, a building’s walls were used primarily for the purpose of protection from the elements, animals, or other humans. The thicker and more impenetrable the wall, the better.

Advances in the study and understanding of engineering, physics, and chemistry, among other areas, made it possible for the builders of Chartres to alter the way that humans design and use a permanent structure. Instead of being a closed space designed to keep nature out, Chartres employs nature to achieve a greater purpose. In effect, the walls of Cathedral become a means to a double end.

At Chartres, the basic, utilitarian purpose of the structure – protection – is achieved, but at the same time this purpose is turned to a theological end – faith. The walls of the Cathedral still keep out the sun and the rain, the birds and the bugs, the Moors and the Huns, in order to provide a safe place for human beings to gather and worship. However in achieving this result through the use of copious amounts of colored glass set in comparatively thin walls, the builders of Chartres were able to achieve their purpose of persuading the visitor to fundamentally reexamine his own life. That is no small feat for a structure built 8 centuries ago, without the use of computers or modern machinery.

This purpose is highly important to keep in mind because, whatever its scientific glories, Chartres was and still is, first and foremost, a house of Christian worship. While it was not the first Gothic building in the world, let alone in France, it is without question one of the finest. As a major touchstone for the Gothic style, it represents on a theological level a significant shift in man’s attitude toward the Divine.

Recall that previously, houses of worship were often rather gloomy places, even if impressively sized on the outside and elaborately decorated on the inside. Structures like the Ancient Egyptian temples at Karnak, the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were designed to evoke the Divine as someone all-powerful, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable, but to a chosen few. Even on those rare occasions when light finds its way in to such structures, as in the Panthenon in Rome, it was usually somewhat limited in its penetration.

With the arrival of Gothic architecture, most notably at Chartres, God is still God, but man is no longer incapable of perceiving Him. This is a house of worship in which the visitor is meant to feel joy, both for being a part of God’s creation, collectively, and for being someone who God loves, individually, warts and all. Without denying Divine power, let alone judgment and ultimate punishment for sin – indeed, openly warning of it in its decoration –Chartres and the many churches which subsequently copied it encourage those who pass within its walls to live in hope, rather than despair.

No matter where you go inside a church like Chartres, light touches you. You are surrounded by and enveloped in it, as you move in and out of the structural elements which comprise the building. While the effect of being in such a space is still overwhelming, making you realize just how small you are in the scheme of things, at the same time you are also drawn to and embraced by the majestic beauty around you. Realizing that you are not forgotten by a distant God, tucked away somewhere in the dark, but rather known and cared for by Him, regardless of your station in life, is what sets Christianity apart. The same, jewel-toned light of Heaven that illuminates the priest or the king, falls equally upon the layman and the peasant.

Criticism of the ongoing program of restoration at Chartres will no doubt continue for years, as it has for other, significant restoration projects whose results have been controversial – most notably, that of the Sistine Chapel some years ago. The debate as to whether Chartres should be dirty and dingy, white and sparkly, or something in between will occupy the art and architecture comentariat for years to come. Yet regardless, the fact that people are once again looking at and talking about the importance of this monument to the Christian faith, is ultimately a good thing. Merely talking about this church may not fill up its pews, but as part of a rediscovery the rich treasury of Catholic culture and its influence on the world we inhabit today, it certainly cannot hurt.