Comment on Swedish Radio's Sunday show, Godmorgon världen, February 20, 2017
Donald Trump and the Culture of Writing
I have not yet got used to an American president who tweets before he thinks, or even worse, who tweets whatever he thinks, with spelling errors, factual errors, irate exclamation marks, fuming capitals, unfinished sentences and everything that goes with that. It is one thing to note that not very much can be thought and said in 140 characters, but a wholly different thing to discover that the 45th president of the United States has made these 140 characters his main tool of communication, and thereby the poorly conceived, the badly written, the disturbingly egocentric and the falsely simplistic message, the foundation of his power.
What has the president tweeted tonight, or in the wee-hours, or a minute ago? is the question to which the US and the world now must wake every morning in order to try to understand what the world’s most powerful leader for the moment wants to communicate.
In only a few weeks though, I at least have come to understand that what Donald J. Trump wants to communicate is not what matters any more. Besides, what he communicates is mostly too linguistically bizarre and factually off-the-wall to be taken seriously. No, what matters most is the form in which he has chosen to communicate. In Donald Trump’s world of communication the tweet is more important than the memo, social media more important than “old” media, entertainment more important than information, the image more important than the word. Consequently, the White House has rapidly been refurbished as a television studio for the production of the daily reality-show “The President Makes Yet Another Historic Decision”, where the border between reality and show remains unclear, to say the least. Whatever is written on the paper that Donald Trump is signing and showing to the cameras in each segment, the backdrop is always a carefully selected studio audience whose task it is to sport a happy smile and thereby communicate to the world that whatever is written on the paper shown, the president has made yet another historic decision to make America great again.
What matters is what the eye can be made to see, not what is written on paper.
Donald Trump has thereby, as no other leading public figure, in a very short time managed to dramatically illustrate the rapid breakdown of the culture of writing in our time.
I am not saying that the written word is about to disappear, even a tweet consists to a certain extent of written words, but as I see it, the culture is going.
By a culture of writing I mean a culture formed by the possibility and ability of an increasing number of people to use the written and printed word to formulate and communicate complex ideas and thoughts. Also those we may call abstract. Also those in need of several steps of reasoning, demanding several sentences and an occasional subordinate clause or two. Which presumes the possibility and ability to go back in the text to better understand it and evaluate it and check if the thought is coherent, the idea consistent and the fact a fact.
Modern science cannot be imagined without a culture of writing, and of course not modern literature, art or philosophy, and in fact not the rule of law and democracy.
When we now seek to explain how a culture of unabashed lying, alternative facts, bizarre conspiracy theories and unreal reality perceptions, suddenly has come to set the terms for political life in the world’s oldest and seemingly most entrenched democracy, I don’t think we can avoid looking at the rapid weakening of the culture of writing.
Whatever name future historians will assign to the culture of tweets and trolls which made Donald Trump possible, and whatever factors will be said to have brought it about, it is a culture that seems to lack the capacity of the culture of writing to communicate complex thoughts and ideas over time and to make possible the kind of critical scrutiny and informed debate that is the unwritten fundament of what we like to call the Western Civilization.
What we are witnessing is thus an emerging clash between two cultures of human communication, one evidently capable of bringing a man like Donald Trump to presidential power in a democracy, the other hopefully still capable of putting up a fight against the human circumstances that made his ascent possible.