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How Do We Know How To Live? ... How Adulting Schools Arose

Storied skills and a musical analogy might help us update the logic of "virtue ethics." In life, as in jazz, freedom without skills results in a lot foolish noise. 


1. How do we know how to live? What to aim for in life? Ways of life vary, but all need storied skills (and their life-structuring logic).

2. Each culture’s “storytelling resources… are of great political and moral importance,” says Alasdair MacIntyre (they’re a “chief means of moral education”; morals = co-living norms; politics = public morality).

3. The “moral of” a story retains an older sense of “practical lesson” taught, from Latin moralis, translating Greek ethikos, “pertaining to character” (neither language had “a word correctly translated by our word moral”).

4. Prior character-forming stories (e.g., from religions or philosophies) face newer story-making agendas e.g., lifestyle vendors, or art-serving and self-serving artists (sometimes oblivious to art’s life-structuring effects).

5. Shifting story-practices caused “something like a mutation in human nature” ~400 years ago. Lionel Trilling says that‘s how once socio-centric, role-and-relationship driven Westerners “became individuals."

6. Harold Bloom amplifies Trilling (over-dramatically)—“Shakespeare… invented the human” (characters narrating inner lives in “modern” ways).

7. Novels spread this “mutation” (they’re a “sophisticated technology of selfhood"—Vikram Chandra). Novelists became “engineers of the soul” (Stalin), transmitting the “big stuff” (Obama).

8. Philosophy once explicitly shaped novels. D. H. Lawrence called Plato’s Dialogues “queer little novels,” lamenting that “philosophy and fiction got split.” Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein notes that Middlemarch and Moby-Dick were, like her novels, philosophy-fueled. Likewise for Atlas Shrugged (once reportedly 2nd in influence to the Bible).

9. However unfashionable it seems to some artists (e.g., Nabokov didn’t “give a damn about public morals”), stories and art embody and enact moralities, philosophies, and psychologies (often folk not formal, naive not schooled, often tacitly/unwittingly). 

10. But “the only art that escapes social, or ethical, or political effects is art with no audience. Part of what art does is preach… intentionally or not.” Its glorying power often focuses now on what’s prestigious or fun in art (but can be ruinous in life).

11. Soul-engineering is shifting again; MacIntyre notices “new kinds of storyteller and story.”

12. Text-centric “Gutenberg minds” are waning. Ambient ads spread consumerism’s glamorizing how-to-live stories ad-nauseum (with “hidden brain” learning effects). Video game patterns separate players “from their humanity” (Ian Bogost).

13. Economists also preach life-and-world-structuring stories that sometimes increase selfishness (+ untrustworthiness, + see Fiction vs. Economics on Human Nature; + short history of individualism).

14. MacIntyre prefers life-structuring stories leveraging Aristotelian virtues—seeking rationally educated desires, above non-rational appetites/emotions (see, feelings = fast thinking, + Plato’s Pastry).

15. MacIntyre’s “virtue ethics” needs an updated vocabulary. Virtues are logical life skills, and virtue ethics teaches practical ways to avoid low-skill living (some need “adulting school,” or The Marines to teach successful adult" skills—JD. Vance).

16. A musical analogy might resonate—in life, as in jazz, freedom without skills, is just foolish noise. How could unskilled freedom be desirable?

 

 --

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
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  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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