Korean Billy and NAS Daily

I love both of these videos, and for a similar reason. Both of them illustrate that visual media is, by its nature, a sort of palantir. It accurately show us things and yet easily leads you to draw wrong conclusions, just as a palantir does.

Korean Billy speaks as an authority to people trying to learn about the various forms of English out there. The problem is, he’s Korean Billy and his authoritative take on Texan is, well, hilarious to any native speaker of American. (Yes, I said, “American”, it’s a distinct set of dialects of English that many English speakers, including the delightful Korean Billy, can’t speak very well.) H.L. Mencken got this, which was why his masterwork was called The American Language.

In some ways, he reminds me of the magnificant Pedro Carolino, the 19th century author of the immortal English as She is Spoke, a Portuguese/English phrasebook written by a man who did not know English. Of course, Korean Billy does know English, so the resemblance is only passing, but both guides to the American tongue are still great fun for native speakers.

And they point the lesson that NAS Daily does: everything depends on the messenger. When all you know of an alien culture is what some seeming authoritative middle-man tells you, it is really crucial that your middle-man get the story right. When I hear almost anybody reporting on the Catholic faith, I don’t disbelieve it necessarily. But I do take lightly until I am confident they know what they are talking about. Same with any other subject in which I am pretty well-versed. Serious journalists are not liars or they would not be working for serious media. The stupid mantra “fake news” that has been brainlessly accepted by the Party of Trump for shouting down obvious facts about their Dear Leader is too simple. Do media get the story right every time? Of course not. But when they get facts wrong, serious media retract and correct and they have, in fact, been scrupulous about doing so with the Liar in Chief. Meanwhile, Trump and his mob of gullible never retract or correct their lies.

But even with media that are trying to do a reasonable job, the problem is, as NAS Daily points out, that the nature of that media is to focus on conflict and controversy because, at the end of the day, you need to sell beer and shampoo. So the news tends to be about terrible people doing awful things, not on boring people living in community with love and harmony. It’s one of the reasons I say “Grace is dark matter”. Most of the world most of the time (even in the middle of war) is made up of ordinary people doing small kindnesses for one another or minding their own business. But that’s not a *story*. Stories depend on conflict. No conflict, not story. And the news is all about “finding the *story*.”

In addition, the nature of visual media (which Tolkien curiously intuits with his Palantiri), is that it shows facts but often leads us to draw wrong conclusions. Consider, for instance, the Zapruder film of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It is an absolutely accurate–even graphic–record of exactly what happened. And yet you come away both having no idea of what happened or, worse, absolutely certain you know and being completely wrong.

The Palantiri in The Lord of the Rings have exactly this deceptive quality. Every single time they are used, the user sees an accurate picture but draws the wrong conclusion. Saruman is seduced by it to believe Sauron is invincible. Sauron is led to think that Saruman has the Ring. Denethor is likewise led to think Sauron has the Ring. Then Sauron is further led to believe Aragorn has it.

None of this is, I repeat, to reinforce the tired and stupid lie that the media are “fake news”. I think, particularly in this hour when our discourse is so dominated by President and Right Wing Lie Machine at total war with reality, that the media are doing us a huge favor by refusing to be shouted down. But it is to say that we, as consumers of media, need to be catholic in our approach and listen, above all, to source who do not confirm our prejudices and tell us only what we already think.

That is one of the functions of that most important news, the Good News of the gospel. And that is one of the reasons I believe it so crucial for us to listen to the Magisterium and this pope: because he provides a profoundly counter-cultural witness to an American culture that has largely sealed itself off in to suffocatingly small cognitive bubbles terrified to listen to each other lest they become ritually defiled.

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