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The Modern Tower Of Babel

December 5, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By SHAUN KENNEY

The Tower of Babel has always been one of my favorite stories of the Holy Bible. A bunch of people literally build a skyscraper in the desert only for God to confuse their speech, thus rendering the project useless for the simple reason that no one can communicate.
Of course, Google Translate isn’t perfect, but the degree of interaction we enjoy by means of the Internet has certainly edged us closer to the idea of a Babel.
Perhaps this is where the interest in the story becomes the interest of the modern day. Babel was the birth of nations, and perhaps was even the birth of the ancient city of Babylon where the Ziggurat — a 300-foot-tall structure eventually destroyed by Alexander the Great — was by legend built upon the ruins of the tower.
Today’s ziggurats carry different names, of course. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and a host of other social media outlets flood the senses. Antiquated news, fake news, 24/7 news all filter through the senses as well, thus leaving the reader with precious little time to reflect and placing them in a constant position to act, judge, proscribe, and above all else to level judgment at people reduced to objects.
As we near the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, it is perhaps worth noting what we have gained and lost during the rise of the modern Babel. We have more information at our fingertips today than ever before, yet we are no more moral than in years past. Abortion has gained a currency of social acceptance resisted only by the generations most victimized by it. Marriage is cheapened. Sexual mores wilt before the all-empowering anesthetic of self-gratification.
None of these things are helped by a culture of mass consumerism, which many of us are about to participate in a very direct way this Christmas season. Twelve days of Christmas spent on presents rather than people; time otherwise spent with family burned away to pay down a credit card; the logos become flesh shed for the irrationality of — what precisely?
Yet for all of the poor substitutions we carry for a common language of things, we fail to understand one another in even the most rudimentary exchanges. Just as e-mails were always misinterpreted 50 percent of the time (and 90 percent of those instances to the negative), such a dynamic has now become exponentially worse with the proliferation of online arguments, deliberate misunderstandings, and selfish exchanges designed to puff up a sense of self rather than a sense of understanding.
Such is the culture of death within the Tower of Babel.
Obviously, this is no call for us to give up on that grand experiment known as Western Civilization. Certainly, one will be reading this on either newsprint or the Internet, either of which is a technological marvel compared to 500 years ago. Antibiotics are pretty neat. Not to mention being able to eat steak, drink coffee, enjoy spices, read books, watch movies, heat and air condition my home cleanly. Let’s face it, this modern-day Babel does have some nice amenities.
This is perhaps where the problem lies. I grew up in a generation that knew how to code a website, clean a carburetor, change our own oil, feed a chicken, play chess like it was going out of style, and know precisely what it was to be bored.
Today? Websites are plug and play, automotive repair is something the other guy does, oil is changed by a technician (not a mechanic), chicken comes wrapped in plastic and sold at a grocery, Call of Duty or Wolfenstein II have long replaced Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, and fidget spinners and smartphones have all but banished boredom.
Yet within boredom were the seeds of leisure, if one is a close student of the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. Leisure enables us to reflect, to consider and enjoy, to educate and be educated for its own sake. Today, even in our preoccupations, we like to be mindlessly entertained to death rather that sit at ease.
Not too terribly long ago, our grandparents might have listened to mere silence as they looked out a window with a cup of coffee. Today, the soft whir of electronics and the high-pitched whine of electromagnetics and radio remind us that we are not truly alone. Babel surrounds us, reminds us, and works us.
In Genesis 11, it is important to remember that the key to Babel was not that it was merely being built, or that God sought to confound our speech for fear that mankind might become gods unto themselves.
Rather, the tower builders worked, labored, worked some more, and labored again in the pursuit of something they could never attain. In the end, God probably didn’t have to do much to confound the speech of the builders. They mindlessly worked themselves to death in the pursuit of folly.
In a postmodern world where Huxley and Orwell seem to hold both ends of the string, reminding our children and grandchildren that the rat race is best suited for rats would be a far better conversation to hold than politics or sports. After all, we are called to hold vocations — not the mere jobs or occupations that atomize. This materialist society that demands we sacrifice on the altar of consumerism should be questioned vehemently by those who seek a truly Catholic society. We don’t have to pick up the bricks for Babel 2.0.

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This week will be the first week that I did not receive correspondence from readers of The Wanderer — which to be honest, is more of a testament to my predecessor’s wonderful readership than any other tribute one could imagine.
To those who have reached out, thank you so much for your thoughtful additions and commentary. Sincerely, it is wonderful to know that some folks are pondering the very same things that we are. (See my contact information below.)

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Of course, I am succeeding (but not replacing) the inestimable Mr. James K. Fitzpatrick for the First Teachers column. Please feel free to send any correspondence for First Teachers to Shaun Kenney, c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Rd., Kents Store, VA 23084 — or if it is easier, simply send me an e-mail with First Teachers in the subject line to: svk2cr@virginia.edu.

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