Monday, July 24, 2006

When "I See" Doesn't Mean "I Hear"

I wasn’t born yet when Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to the nation’s fears and hopes in his radio “fireside chats.” Nor was I old enough to appreciate the influence of the first wave of radio journalists who made their reputations covering World War II and the early post-war years. But I am old enough to remember sitting in front of the radio on Sunday evenings (if I had completed my school homework) listening to “The Green Hornet” and “The Lone Ranger,” among other “action” radio programs.

The operative word in all the above is “listening” – something that we as individuals and a people seem to have trouble doing. True listening is an art – and like all arts, can be learned if one puts effort into the process. And the art of listening, once learned, opens another critical faculty – imagination – that also seems to be in short supply today, both as an adjunct to leisure (e.g., listening to the radio) and as the ability to think beyond the usual paradigms and the trite or conventional categories when confronted with seemingly intractable conundrums.

The “golden age of radio” was all too soon cut short by the “golden age” of television. In terms of television news, the golden age for me was the thirteen years between 1964 and 1977. These were the years Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid were at CBS reporting and commenting on world and national events in an era when these were not necessarily the same. These also were the years when trust in government declined perceptibly and the public looked to other sources for facts and interpretation. Thus Cronkite’s 1968 broadcast from Vietnam in which he said that war could not be won is now regarded as the final blow to Lyndon Johnson’s re-election hopes. Perhaps because he did not have Vietnam as his visual backdrop, few today remember that in 1966 Sevareid, just back from a trip to the war zone, said that the war could not be won and a negotiated settlement was the only way out.

I find missing from both radio and television today a single news broadcast that offers this same combination of fact and reflective interpretation that both demanded attention and stimulated imaginative thinking. (This may explain, in part, why John Stewart’s “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central has such a strong viewer base; his interpretations of the major stories of the day usually are quite trenchant and pinpoint the core issues.)

With the incessantly repetitive 24 hour cable news channels blaring their “breaking news,” it is now possible to be where the action is” anywhere in the world and to have “instantaneous” – and frequently incomplete, inconclusive, and inaccurate – interpretation.

There are a handful of programs that provide in-depth, intellectual commentary on current – as opposed to breathtakingly “breaking” – news. One such is Bill Moyers’ latest series on “Faith and Reason” in the U.S. A guest on the program aired July 21 was essayist Richard Rodriguez, a man who, like Sevareid, understands the importance of words and their ability to both incite and to offer insight

In the course of their conversation, Rodriguez, who is planning to retrace an earlier journey he made to the Middle East, noted that survival in the inhospitable terrain of the desert depends on mastering and comprehending the meaning of what one hears in the desert. On the seeming endless expanse that is the open desert, the sun is so blinding that most people unused to desert life cannot keep their eyes open for more than a few minutes at a time. Moreover, in the desert, sight can be fatally deceptive – shimmering heat waves become mirages that lure the unwary and unaware ever deeper into an inhospitable land.

At the same time, however, from this same hostile environment emerge the great personages and teachers of the three great western faith traditions – Abraham, Isaac, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, Mohammed. The Hebrews enter Canaan after 40 years in the desert; Jesus fasts 40 days in the desert; mystics seeking physical solitude and spiritual community go into the desert, for in the desert, says Rodriguez, they can hear, interpret, and understand the voice of God as nowhere else.

“As nowhere else” in today’s world, perhaps. I am reminded, however, of John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, the account of the life and times of the Lakota visionary, spiritual interpreter, and healer of the 19th century as told by Black Elk himself. The visions, which began when Black Elk was nine, and his power to heal were invariably tied to the thunder spirits of the west whose presence was heard more than seen. (By the time Neihardt recorded Black Elk’s narrative in the early 1930s, the Lakota no longer heard the spirits from the west, possibly because the spirits no longer heard him.)

Similarly, much if not most of today’s turmoil is caused by an acute insensibility not simply to what others are saying but to the very fact that others are speaking. Invariably, the more inanimate the messaging mode, the more likely the messenger will be cast aside before the message is heard. And with no message, there is no communication, lei alone interpretation, imagination, or innovation.

That is the fearful, seemingly hopeless, world of today in Lebanon-Gaza-Israel-Syria-Iraq-Afghanistan-Iran-U.S. relations. Everyone asserts that they “see” the problem and the “solution,” but this “seeing” is blinkered and thus, like desert vision, unreliable. What the region needs is for everyone to step back simultaneously, to return all the captured and imprisoned, to quiet the deafening roar of guns so that, in the desert’s enveloping silence, each voice can be heard, each message interpreted, and new, more permanent resolutions proposed that do not dissolve like desert mirages.

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