Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Catastrophic

October 23, 2021

This is the word Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor used to describe the Court’s refusal to block Texas from enforcing Texas Senate Bill 8 which went into effect in early September and made it extremely difficult – if not impossible – to obtain an abortion from either an abortion clinic such as Planned Parenthood or a licensed doctor’s office.

It’s a good word. But let’s flesh it out a bit.

Catastrophic can mean something that causes great damage and suffering. It can also mean extremely unfortunate or unsuccessful. It might also mean a sudden and large-scale alteration in state.

Great damage and suffering. Sotomayor means this to describe the suffering of women in Texas who are – at least for the time being pending Supreme Court review by early next month – possibly unable to obtain an abortion. Most statistics I found online indicate that there were in the neighborhood of 55,000 abortions provided in Texas in 2020. That to just under 4,600 abortions per month. For the sake of argument assuming numbers are constant, that means around 8000 women are potentially going to be prevented from obtaining an abortion from when the law went into effect until when the Supreme Court has promised an opinion on it.

That’s a big number. Then again, so is 596, the number of months since Roe v. Wade was finalized in January of 1972. I’m going to assume static numbers again, which I know is not entirely accurate since abortion numbers fluctuate by year, rising steadily from 1973 until 1996, when they began to decline. But since the fluctuation is similar to a bell curve it’s good enough for my broad brushstroke purpose here. 596 months of legal abortion, which adds up to – in Texas alone, and again based on generalized numbers – more than 2.7 million abortions in Texas. Think about that – 2.7 million babies legally killed in Texas alone since 1973.

I don’t know what Sotomayor’s rationale is for defending abortion. I don’t know at what point she believes the union of an egg and a sperm magically transforms from a non-human bunch of cells into a human being defended by other laws in our nation from being murdered. But if she thinks potentially delaying or preventing or causing greater cost or inconvenience to 8000 women who find themselves pregnant (despite presumably knowing that intercourse leads to a risk of pregnancy no matter what form of contraception you prefer to practice) is catastrophic, she hopefully can grasp how great a catastrophe over 2.7 million murdered babies in Texas is for those who based on clear science as well as religious conviction know that when that egg is successfully fertilized by a sperm, it is at that moment a new human life deserving of the full protection of our laws. Hopefully she can grasp that as catastrophic as she finds it that men and women should be inconvenienced by the biological results of their decisions, it is a far greater catastrophe to have redefined the meaning of life simply for the greater convenience of sexual liberty.

Extremely unfortunate or unsuccessful. Undoubtedly Sotomayor thinks of this in terms of the Supreme Court’s refusal to block S.B. 8 from enforcement until their review. However perhaps it should be used in this sense to describe the failure of a philosophy and culture of death that glorifies the sexual act but insists on stripping it of natural consequences and removing it from the sanctity of marriage. Nearly 50 years of Roe v Wade and undoubtedly for Sotomayor and those who share her philosophy and opinion it is catastrophic to think their way of thinking and their philosophy and their life choices could be found lacking, inappropriate, even illegal. There is the clear message from those who support legalized abortion that this is simply a fact of life now, a reality that must be accepted and protected as inevitable and unchangeable, even though it’s really just a legal decision rendered by a small group of people 50 years ago.

And legal decisions are capable of reversal. It is fully possible for a ruling to be recognized after the fact as inappropriate on any number of bases. In fact our judicial system is based on this recognition and insistence. People are flawed and therefore decisions can be flawed, no matter how passionately some people wish they were not. No matter how clearly science destroys the most fundamental arguments they use to support their position. The extremely unfortunate issue is that it has taken this long to threaten legalized abortion. That it has taken this long to begin to dismantle the idea that abortion is somehow some sort of human right the US government has an obligation to not just defend but actively promote.

Sudden and large-scale alteration of state. This is certainly true, and I suspect that Justice Sotomayor and I probably would agree in how we apply this definition. If Texas is successful there begins – because other states will follow suit – a formal recognition of the reality that has existed for 50 years – a huge portion of the US population believes abortion is morally wrong or intellectually indefensible. It means that supporters of abortion can no longer pretend it is a monolithic, universally accepted and desired option and that dissenters are outliers and a crazy minority.

Hopefully it will challenge the devastating effects of our liberal ideas about unfettered sexual behavior, though this is probably hoping for too much or, at the very least, will take a lot longer to come about. By continually denigrating the estate of marriage and the historic understanding of family, our country has fostered and perpetuated cycles and systems of poverty linked to unplanned pregnancies and pregnancies where the father is absent. The State has attempted to pretend the family and fathers don’t matter and that the State can replace these things with aid programs. It has failed miserably and those statistics are pretty quickly available. We’ve spent billions upon billions of dollars in the last 60 years on a philosophical and political model that has failed to save those it claims to save, and instead has consigned them and their descendants to a continuous cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible to break under current conditions.

Hopefully we can start to have dialogue again about the importance of understanding sexuality as something far too important to fling about casually with a disregard for consequences – something made possibly only by the continued support of legalized abortions and free or nearly free contraceptives and abortifacients. Hopefully we can begin to talk again about the value of human life instead of how to sacrifice some lives in order to make our lives more convenient.

Yes, the changes afoot – changes that hopefully will be sustained by the Supreme Court’s review – are catastrophic. But I’d argue in a good way, rather than the negative way Justice Sotomayor interprets them. That’s a lot of hope, but even for a realist like me, hope is critical. That hope is well worth the inconvenience of 8000 women. The lives of 2.7 million murdered Texan children deserve a little inconvenience by some at the moment, if the outcome could be the saving of 2.7 million Texans over the next 596 months and more.

A More Honest Defense

October 23, 2021

An article summarizing Bill Maher’s defense of David Chappelle. Nice to see some people are willing to talk about this situation honestly. Then again, Maher probably has less risk of losing his fan base than Jon Stewart does.

Still Watching Netflix

October 21, 2021

On the heels of my post last week regarding the controversy between Dave Chappelle and the transgender/LGBGQ+ community I took the opportunity to watch his special at the center of the storm entitled The Closer.

This is not for the faint of heart. Ever since my one – and only – live stand-up comic viewing nearly 30 years ago I’ve never understood the need to resort to the basest language and the exploitation of all manner of sex. Chappelle, while clearly far more intelligent and insightful than the average comic trying to win cheap laughs from an intoxicated audience (thanks to the drink minimums comedy clubs at least used to require in addition to cover charges), is not above snagging some easy laughs from simple crudeness. Likewise, if you’re averse to race-related language and criticisms you’ll likely not enjoy this either. Although I knew this all going into it and considered it more a research exercise than the sort of entertainment I would naturally gravitate towards, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. The man clearly knows his art.

The issue is what is that art? I’d argue Chappelle’s art is cultural analysis and critique. One may agree or disagree with his conclusions and assertions but that’s what he’s doing under a thin, and I mean very thin veneer of comedy. Much of his material is designed to elicit not just a laugh but the follow-up internal examination why did I laugh at that? Should I have? Is there something wrong with me? Am I part of the problem?

Everything about the show should clue the viewer in that Chappelle is up to more than simple entertainment.

This is the last of his contracted Netflix specials. He’s very clear that he feels not only the freedom but the obligation as such to say some things people aren’t going to like. He’s choosing specifically to be controversial in this special. And the entire special is bracketed within the somewhat comedic narrative arc of issues related to a black rapper named DaBaby.

Chappelle begins with commenting on the curious fact that DaBaby was involved in a Walmart shooting that left a man dead. He slapped a female fan who he claimed took a cell phone photo too close to his face with the flash on. He has an arrest warrant in Texas for a charger of battery. And he and his associates allegedly jumped a concert promoter they believed paid only 2/3 of the money agreed upon for a performance in Miami. In this altercation they stole a credit card, $80,000 in cash (almost 3 times what was originally agreed upon and far more than the $10,000 they were allegedly shortchanged) in addition to beating the promoter.

None of these events slowed down DaBaby’s career in any regard. The Walmart altercation where a man was killed eventually saw DaBaby pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon. The other situations all saw DaBaby posting bail and walking free within a matter of hours.

However DaBaby made a series of homophobic comments at the start of one of his concerts in July 2021 and at the demands of the LGBTQ+ community he was dropped from several concerts, a fashion collaboration, and his contributions on a popular song were edited out of the song, resulting in his removal of credits for the song. Effectively, as Chappelle notes, his career has been destroyed.

Destroyed not because of his violence and even killing a person, but because he hurt the feelings of the LGBTQ+ community.

This provides the crux for most of the material that follows. In this material Chappelle calls out the LGBTQ+ community for their power, and for their hypocrisy. He has garnered little love and much animosity from that community over the course of his career because of his insistence on mocking some of their ideological tenets (biological gender is a social construct rather than a biological fact, etc.). They’ve accused him of punching down on their community – a term that implies a level of superior social standing or other advantages inherent by Chappelle personally.

His counterargument – provided rather powerfully if often offensively – is that the LGBTQ+ community has achieved far more, far more quickly in their march towards equal rights than racial minorities in America. In the span of a few short decades it has become possible for this community to destroy the careers of multiple people opposing their demands not just for legal equality but for preferred treatment and depiction. Meanwhile Chappelle argues, minorities in America continue to deal with racism and discrimination.

The show closes with where it began, with his appealing to the LGBTQ+ community to lay off of DaBaby – and by extension Chappelle and anyone else who happens to simply disagree with them.

He defends his relationship to actual LGBTQ+ individuals while maintaining his stance in opposition to many of their ideas. He affirms his support for the biological reality of gender. And he observes that things have reached an unhealthy place when no dialogue is possible on these issues anymore. That any resistance to the increasingly wild assertions of the LGBTQ+ community simply results in financial ruin for the opposition. In such a toxic environment Chappelle maintains, there is no dialogue and therefore things are dangerously unhealthy. As such, he vows to make no more transgender or LGBTQ+ jokes in his shows until some sort of healthy dialogue is restored. It is not a cease fire so much as a refusal to engage with an enemy who insists he has no right to his opinion (or scientific fact) while he must not only agree but endorse every opinion offered by literally anyone within the LGBTQ+ community. Until this is rectified and acknowledged he will not pretend there is healthy dialogue when there clearly is not.

That’s a lot for a comedy special!

Unsurprisingly, the very situation he criticizes in this special – the inability to speak on the issue at all except in complete and total support and enthusiasm for LGBTQ+ assertions – is demonstrated through demands from LGBTQ+ employees of Netflix to not only remove Chappelle’s program from Netflix’s lineup but for Netflix to actively invest in more content that agrees with and furthers the ideas and demands of the LGBTQ+ community.

Ironically, the LGBTQ+ community claims this is not an example of cancel culture. They argue, hilariously, that this isn’t an example of cancel culture because they invited Chappelle to rupudiate his statements and embrace their ideals and demands and he refused. Therefore they’re justified in attempting to not just figuratively but literally cancel him.

Uh, somebody should explain the definition of cancel culture to these folks!

Friends of Chappelle struggle to not abandon him while not incurring the wrath of the LGBTQ+ community and facing very real financial and professional challenges as a result. Jon Stewart is reduced to simply asserting his love for Chappelle and his necessary belief that this is all just somehow a miscommunication. This is hilarious and pathetic all at the same time. The problem is not miscommunication, the problem is that Chappelle has dared to communicate too clearly and directly. And Stewart – who’s no slouch when it comes to mocking those he disagrees with – is reduced to simpering on the sidelines instead of calling this what it is, a hostage situation.

For whatever reasons (and there are plenty that should be examined) the LGBTQ+ community is in a position to financially and professionally and personally smear and destroy anyone they decide to if that person disagrees with them or fails to meet their expectations. Despite being a tiny percentage of the overall population, they are in a position to dictate to Hollywood to portray LGBTQ+ characters in huge disproportion to the general population. Judging by commercials and movies and other forms of entertainment, you’d likely come to the conclusion that LGBTQ+ folks comprise close to half of the general population, instead of under 5% (although recent studies indicate an uptick of reported LGBTQ+ affiliations by young people – hardly a surprise when this is actively taught in schools to developing minds and personalities).

Chappelle has indicated a willingness to talk with the disgruntled Netflix employees. He has also promised to launch a 10-stop American tour if his show is removed by Netflix. Chappelle appears more than willing to go toe-to-toe with the LGBTQ+ community on this issue. A man who has been vocal about the racism he perceives in our culture is equally willing to stand against and speak out against other forms of abuse. Whether you agree with his perspective on racism or not, he has a lot to say and is very capable and willing to say it, though in language some of us find distasteful and offensive. I’d be fascinated to sit down over a drink with Chappelle and just talk with him.

Netflix in the meantime seems to be wavering, with the CEO apologizing for mishandling the situation. So far they haven’t removed the special, and the disgruntled employee group has dropped that demand from their list of demands. Chappelle is one of the few people willing to speak out actively against these tactics though, and perhaps one of the few voices able to be heard by a large cross-section of people. It’s a shame it has turned out this way, but apparently everyone else has too much to lose, or is too afraid of losing what little they have.

That’s definitely an unhealthy situation, no matter how you feel about LGBTQ+ ideals.

Watching Netflix

October 13, 2021

I’ve watched very little Dave Chappelle. A few YouTube clips at most. I don’t have a feel for his comedic style or where he might be coming from in life. The little I know about him is just that – little. So I don’t have opinions or perspectives on the controversial material that has thrust him into the spotlight again. Opinions and perspectives expressed in comedic observations, but which directly conflict with or challenge the prevailing championing of transgender issues.

This has earned him the ire of those who once felt he was on their side. A small group of Netflix employees have demanded Netflix remove the show. Netflix has thus far refused to do so, claiming it supports the creative license of content producers, and noting that Chappelle’s work as a whole has been some of the most widely viewed material Netflix has produced. No official word on whether this latest offering from Chappelle, entitled The Closer, follows in that lucrative and widely viewed path.

Personally, I wonder what Chappelle is up to. Either he’s boldly taking a stance contrary to the currently dominant vocal minority, or he’s orchestrating a larger-scale comedic event, where he’ll reveal at some point down the line how he was trolling those folks who cheered his countercultural stance. In the long run, I’d argue that it doesn’t matter.

What does matter, and what we should all be watching for carefully, is whether Netflix caves to that strident but very, very small minority of voices within the company insisting Chappelle’s show should be removed because it conflicts with their personal opinions and ideologies. The rest of Hollywood appears to have mostly caved to such voices long ago, and set about dutifully creating content that supports and encourages the sorts of lifestyles and world views championed by this minority. Upcoming new releases include a son-of-Superman comic line where the titular character is bisexual. Another includes a reboot of the awful 80’s horror franchise Child’s Play, this time serialized on cable channels and involving the main character (other than Chucky) just figuring out he’s gay.

Certainly there are a few voices like Chappelle’s willing to challenge this tidal wave of gender confusing material aimed squarely at children and adolescents ill-equipped to make healthy sense of it. But those voices are few and far between, or at least sparsely covered. When they are covered countering opinions overwhelm the actual material the article is allegedly about.

How ironic that those who champion inclusivity and diversity are adamant that any voice out of step with their own ideologies should be silenced. That was one of their complaints when other voices were reflecting or directing our cultural opinions.

What’s at stake here is creative license, to be certain. The reality is that approval and assent to gender and sex redefinitions is nowhere near unanimous. The minority of liberal voices seeks to create the appearance that their views and ideas (which are always in flux) are the majority view. If contrary material is made available to the public and is commercially successful it will demonstrate this is not the case, threatening the control these voices now exercise.

I commend Netflix. Not for their ideology necessarily, but for being a company instead of an ideological power. Their job is to create content and earn money for doing so. The market determines whether they continue to produce certain kinds of content. I don’t personally like slasher films like Child’s Play, nor am I much of a fan of most comedians today, Chappelle included. The question is whether people should determine what is produced by spending their money on it, or whether companies should determine what people like by only producing a certain kind of material.

So far the latter approach is holding sway, and I believe history will judge that trend harshly – both as a business model as well as a sociological movement. In the meantime, be aware of what your kids and grand-kids are watching, and don’t be surprised if they come to some conclusions about the world and right and wrong that are starkly different from your understandings and beliefs.

Book Review: Live Not By Lies

February 2, 2021

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

I was looking forward to this book a great deal, remembering how I found Dreher’s earlier work, The Benedict Option thought provoking and important. Having finished his latest work I’m conflicted in my reactions.

First off, pay attention to the title. This book is primarily a political work. It has to do with resisting totalitarianism (soft totalitarianism, as Dreher describes what is gradually taking over in America and the West). This soft totalitarianism will likely (at least for the near future) rely on non-military, non-violent means to continue to shape public opinion and perspectives both through positive affirmation techniques as well as punitive efforts such as banning web sites, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds or Facebook accounts. Dreher sees in the history of Western Europe and Russia under both Stalinism and Naziism valuable lessons about how to endure this coming darkness in American culture. Granted, this darkness will hit the faithful Christian pastors, congregations, and families first and foremost, but it will affect all of American society and culture. Barring a miracle, Dreher doesn’t think this can be avoided, therefore we must learn and prepare now how to endure it and outlast it.

He writes to and for Christians, without a doubt, but this is a political book. The darkness of totalitarianism he rightly warns about are certainly nothing new in world history or Christian history. Christians have endured, outlasted and at times thrived amidst cultures that were directly opposed to them. And, also very true, countless Christians have and continue to lose their livelihoods, their health, their freedom, and their lives in such contexts. This is no small matter. But we must be clear that Dreher’s primary concern is political rather than religious.

Roughly the first third of the book is dedicated to supporting and illustrating Dreher’s assessment of our current situation in America and the rising tide of soft totalitarianism that will soon displace everything we’ve enjoyed in terms of freedoms and liberties. Much of this will be accomplished through socially active corporations and businesses rather than at the point of a government military bayonet. Americans already conditioned to value first and foremost personal achievement and comfort are increasingly unwilling and unable to endure even the thought of discomfort or adversity, and will willingly sacrifice more and more of their freedoms to ensure they maintain their comfort and are accepted as socially relevant and culturally admirable.

The next two thirds of the book cover the major points of Dreher’s outline for resistance – value the truth, cultivate cultural memory, create and maintain strong families, engage deeply in a faith, seek solidarity beyond faith boundaries, and embrace suffering as a necessary and sometimes valuable part of life. These are broad brushstrokes filled in not with specific how-tos but rather illustrative historical anecdotes gleaned firsthand from those who survived (or didn’t survive) the brutal repressions under Communist or Nazi governments.

The proof that this book is primarily political rather than religious struck me most fully on p.176 where, while emphasizing the importance of building and maintaining relationships and cooperative efforts with others who have not succumbed to the totalitarian state even if their beliefs differ markedly from your own, Dreher states “The Christian activist’s point: be kind to others, for you never know when you will need them, or they will need you.”

This might be a good activist motto, but it is patently unChristian and unBiblical. I’m not accusing Dreher of being either of those things, but it’s clear that his focus in this book is on resisting, enduring, surviving and ultimately triumphing over repressive political regimes that are hostile to Christians and others who do not accept their agendas. If I had thought more about the word Dissidents in the subtitle that might have surprised me less than it did.

My main disappointment in this book is that it is mainly ideological rather than practical. His many Eastern European and Russian anecdotes and interviews definitely support his major premises but do not provide anything close to a Manual. It is not a how to so much as you ought to do this. It is a manifesto rather than a manual, a call to awareness rather than instructive to those already seeing what Dreher sees or already convinced by his arguments.

This is not a bad book but it is mainly a political book. Christians should read this book as a means of recognizing just how bad things might get, whether by soft means or hard means. Prisons, torture, solitary confinement, economic marginalization and executions were all hard means by which Soviet and Nazi regimes attempted to force conformity to and acceptance of their ideologies and agendas. In the West it may never come to such harsh, crash measures when so many people are obsessed over their careers and maintaining a social media image dependent on continued purchases, extravagances, and travel. How many people in the US – Christians even – would be quick to accept whatever was told them in order to ensure their Twitter feed stayed up and their YouTube channel remained monetized and their Facebook account was never flagged as offensive or deleted as such. Additional pressures such as banks choosing not to do business with certain individuals or groups branded by the larger culture as offensive makes it even more complicated. In short order – and without the threat of violence or government interaction at any level someone could find their career ended and struggling to make ends meet. Does it sound far-fetched? Read the headlines more carefully. It’s already happening.

But there’s an element of truth in saying it has always happened. Or perhaps the roots just go back farther than we like to think. At one Dreher uses as support for his premise of the onslaught of soft totalitarianism a very practical litmus test – have you ever held your tongue and not said what you really thought because you were afraid of the consequences? It sounds like a water-proof demonstration of Dreher’s assertions. Surely most if not all of us at one point or another at some point in our lives has decided it was more prudent to remain silent.

Is this anything new? I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird to and with my family. I read it as a high school freshman but don’t remember the book at all beyond the character names. It’s fascinating to read it essentially for the first time and appreciate how good the book is on a variety of levels. It’s not easy to read, as some of the explicit language that was commonplace at the time has been judged never appropriate by anyone other than African Americans themselves. We have to check to make sure the windows are closed and the doors are closed so neighbors don’t overhear something and misinterpret it.

A side character we’re introduced to in the book is a white man who lives with a black woman and has children with her. His preference to live in the black community is a source of consternation to the white people in town, but they dismiss it because they believe him to be an alcoholic. However we’re told as the book unwinds that he actually isn’t an alcoholic – doesn’t even really like the taste of alcohol. But he maintains the appearance of a drunk – reeling when he walks and never to be seen without a brown paper bag that he drinks out of. His explanation for cultivating such a bizarre persona is that it allows him to live life the way he prefers without the outright ostracism or even violence of the white townspeople who, were it not for his alleged alcoholism, could never permit him to carry on his life with a black woman. Because he doesn’t hold the same prejudices as his white neighbors, he finds it more convenient that they dismiss him as a drunk rather than attempt to reform his unorthodox opinions, or punish him for them.

In other words, it’s undoubtedly true that in all times and in all places people have had to hold their tongues or curate a particular public persona that may not fully reflect their private beliefs. That this is the case has not always been indicative of a totalitarian agenda or regime, a fact others have noted. One might easily argue from the Bible that Christians should at all times feel as though they have to be careful about what they say and do because the world and popular culture will naturally be antagonistic to the full weight of the Gospel.

Dreher maintains the suggestion first voiced by Neil Postman that while Americans were busy vaccinating themselves against the evil external threat of Communism as articulated by George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm, we have actually fallen prey to the dystopia described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a situation where people don’t need to be imprisoned or threatened to behave a certain way because they’ve been conditioned to think the desired behavior is the behavior best for them and everyone else. I think this is a fair assessment. I think that people who continue to voluntarily sacrifice their rights and privacy for an illusory safety and convenience will ultimately be rudely disappointed with their choices. How long it takes them to wake up and realize that – if ever they do – is hard to say.

Finishing this book makes me want to go back and reread The Benedict Option (and I will), as I feel it was more specific to Christians and the life of faith not as a means to a political end but in and of itself.

Tell All the Truth

January 28, 2021

In high school I worked on the school newspaper. I wasn’t cool enough to work on the yearbook so I put my budding writing aspirations to work writing and editing news stories. It was a great experience and I moved quickly into the role of News Editor, responsible for making sure reporters got their work in on time and it was edited well, had photos with appropriate (and accurate) captions as necessary and that the copy fit the space available.

It wasn’t hard work. The essentials of good journalism as I learned them were to answer the what, when, where, why, who and how of a situation. Preferably within the first two paragraphs. Additional information could follow later in the story, but it was essential to give readers (our national literacy level is described as 8th grade) the main facts quickly so they could absorb that if they didn’t have time to read the bulk of the article. Not rocket science.

In fact, my first year on the paper I found out the staff was going to a convention of high school newspaper staff from around the state. I had never heard of such a thing but was more than happy to miss a day of school. We sat through various presentations and sessions I don’t remember a thing about. What I do remember is that I was informed there would be a contest for newswriting and I should participate. Again, nothing I had heard about. I was shown a room with dozens of typewriters (yes, I’m that old). We were apparently given some amount of information about a hypothetical event and told to write a news story about it. How unprepared was I? I had to borrow a sheet of paper from the person next to me, who was clearly disgusted with my complete lack of preparation. Mea culpa.

It took me about 15 minutes to type up the story and turn it in to the rather startled proctor, further irritating the person still typing away next to me. It wasn’t very hard. Tell the facts then fill it in. I won third place in the state. I’m sure that irritated the person who had sat next to me even more.

All that to say writing a newspaper story shouldn’t be complicated. Give the facts. But, give all the facts you have. Failure to mention facts can skew a news story into something else. Something that doesn’t just inform and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions from the data you’ve provided, but something that nudges (or shoves) the reader towards a particular response. Not necessarily an intellectual response – it can be emotional as well. Once you begin this (and it’s easy to not be conscious of it, depending on how you were taught to write a story or what the purpose of a news story as opposed to an op-ed piece or the purpose of a newspaper as a whole is) you’re not writing a news story, you’re writing something else. You’re guiding the reader towards a conclusion you either expect they already have or you think they ought to have. Sometimes the danger is confusing those two things or not seeing them as either distinct or intrinsically problematic.

I know writing for a high school newspaper doesn’t qualify me as a journalist. My top reporter went on to get her journalism degree and today writes and edits for magazines and other publications around the country. That required a lot of additional education and training. But the foundations were laid there in a high school journalism classroom, under the tutelage of a kindly and uncharacteristically patient old lady who put up with the crap routinely dished out by some of the cooler people in the class who clearly understood better than she what The Times called for in terms of journalism. She was a good teacher and as such was not properly appreciated. She taught me a lot about writing in a short period of time.

It rained here today.

It rained yesterday as well and is scheduled to rain a fair bit of tomorrow. The rain has been nice and steady and blessedly even. Only one short downpour. I live in a coastal desert so rain of this kind is pretty unusual. It’s also desperately needed. Our state was in a multi-year drought often described as the worst on record. And once the rest of the state received better rainfall levels our particular county remained drier and at greater risk longer. We reactivated a saltwater conversion facility that was built and mothballed decades ago at a cost of millions of new tax dollars. That’s how bad things were.

Then things got worse.

We received torrential rain right after a devastating, massive forest fire. A catastrophic mudslide decimated wide swaths of a community just outside town, literally washing houses off their foundations. Over twenty people died in the span of a few hours. The community is still rebuilding and recovering from that event and in places the landscape is permanently altered.

As such, some people here get nervous about large quantities of rain over prolonged periods. Understandable. But the fact remains that rain is a natural and necessary occurrence and that if we don’t get rain during our very brief November to February rainy season our water resources can run dangerously low. Rain is a good thing. A blessing from God. A necessity. Not simply a source of fear.

But you’d never know that from reading the news story about it.

The headline announced how drenched we were by heavy rainfall, and the subtitle recited flood advisories, high wind advisories, high surf advisories and beach hazards. The opening paragraphs (some of which are only a single sentence) scream out about all the possible dangers and warnings and advisories the county is under, and almost grudgingly admit that no actual problems beyond some minor road flooding have arisen. Then the story moved on to recount each of the major fires in the past four years and the unusual danger associated with those burn areas and the higher risk of debris flows and mudslides in those areas.

Then it detailed how warming centers were open and available for the homeless during this storm. Rain totals were provided but given no context (what those levels mean compared to our average annual rainfall totals). Then the story once again reiterated all the various warnings and advisories issued thus far and concluded with a summary of all the areas where flood warnings were in effect.

Now all of that is true, of course. But what’s the cumulative effect of a story like that, where the event – a natural if somewhat unusual event – is described and portrayed in nothing but negative language with nothing but warnings and alarms the topic throughout? It is an article of fear. Fear of what happened in the past. Fear of what might happen in the future. The reader should be aware, on alert, on edge.

Not a word about how badly we need this rainfall given how dry our rainy season has been thus far. Not a single observation regarding how much rain we’re getting but how gentle and gradual it is. Not a single word about how the air quality improves dramatically after a rain, or encouraging readers to appreciate the brightness and clarity of light that will follow. I know, I know, some of those things aren’t news, per se. But they are true. They provide a balance to the story that reminds people there is more to rain – even large amounts of rain – than fear.

The assumption seems to be people should be worried and afraid of this rain. The news story is validation of that assumed pre-existing fear. All these different weather advisories have been issued! Your fear is justified and healthy! No matter whether the advisories actually come to anything. Fear is appropriate! And as such the article contributes to an emotional state it presupposes or, worse yet, seeks to inculcate.

A single article on the weather may not contribute much towards this end. But couple that with all the other articles about politics, the threat of right-wing extremist terrorists, the existential dread that is COVID and the worries and concerns about whether the vaccines will be enough or will be taken by enough people.

The only positive news stories have to do with new administrations and changes of direction. There is unrestrained joy and optimism in those articles as things that a very large percentage of our country’s population apparently approved of are repudiated and gleefully dismantled.

Rain is natural. It’s uncontrollable, yes. But it’s natural. It isn’t something we do or manipulate. It is something we simply have to deal with and sometimes that means dealing with too much or too little of it. That’s fearful. Like viruses. Again, natural things. Sometimes very dangerous to us, to be sure. But things we don’t (generally) create ourselves and that our abilities to manipulate are decidedly ill-equipped for. So these things are scary as well. Live in fear of them, we are told. The only hope is that someone will come along and fix them for us. A pill or an injection – something we do and we control. That’s where our hope is. In ourselves. In what we can do and control. Anything else is fear.

Don’t live your life in fear. Live your life in a proper context. But don’t simply walk around being afraid of everyone and everything except for the narrow sliver of things and people the media claims will help and save you from your fear. They won’t. They can’t. Their intentions might be good or not, but they cannot save you from the uncontrollable. From the natural. They can’t save you from death, or from the gnawing fear and anxiety inside you they have helped create in order to ensure they retain control.

Only in understanding you are a creature and not a creator – just like the scientists and politicians and social activists so glorified in the media, and just like those same categories of people excoriated in the media for disagreeing, for contributing alternative assessments of the situation and alternative avenues of dealing with issues. All creatures. Hopefully doing the best they can, which sometimes is wonderful and sometimes completely awful. Sometimes doing the worst they can, because some people are like that, just like little pieces of ourselves are like that. Black and darkened with fear and anger and hatred and jealousy. We point the fingers and make the blames for those things inside us but they persist. And they persist in no small part because we feed them. Left or right, blue or red, we’re apt to feeding those ugly things inside of us with justifications and material that encourages them rather than weakens them.

Use the brains God gave you. Read, but also evaluate. Listen, but also reflect. Hope, but put your hope in the one place that can support it – the Creator of the Universe instead of fallible and broken creatures good and bad like yourself. And a key part of all of this is telling the truth. All the truth. As much as we’re able to see it and understand it. And in doing so reject the culture of fear that rapidly swells and grows around us at all times. Look for the details and then come to your own conclusions. A good news story should help you do that. A good community will help you do that. And a good baseline will give you the starting point to make comparisons and evaluations and conclusions.

Make sure your baseline can hold, even when the rain is heavy.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

~ Emily Dickinson ~

Contemplating Failure

January 13, 2021

At what point is it reasonable to contemplate failure? At what point is it reasonable to consider helplessness? Does the post-modern philosophical landscape even permit such an option? Or must everything be a strident, insistent-even-if-delusional declaration of eventual success and dominance?

I wonder this as I watch COVID numbers continue to tick upwards. Our state has been among the most strict in the United States in regards to limiting business operations and attempting to mandate personal behavior. Yet our state has been the media spotlight over the past month for skyrocketing cases of COVID-19, particularly in the greater Los Angeles area.

Nine months of devastating economic restrictions have put who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses at risk of failure. Nine months of unending doomsaying and worst-case scenarios have battered our collective psyches. Masks are the norm now inside buildings. People are literally afraid to get too physically close to anyone they don’t know. A cough or a sneeze sets an entire grocery store on edge.

Yet despite all of these mandates and what seems to be – at least anecdotally – fairly good compliance with them, COVID continues to rage, numbers continue to tick upwards. Case numbers are what catches our eyes. Mortalities are on a far smaller level, though of course no mitigating contextual data is given to determine whether these mortality rates are unusual or unexpected for any sort of respiratory infection. California struggles with a growing case number despite some of the strictest protective policies in the country. Neighboring states where people can still eat at restaurants or have a drink at a bar don’t seem to have as severe a situation.

Is it possible to admit our attempts to outsmart the virus have failed? Is it reasonable to do so? At what point – if any – do we resign ourselves to the reality of a contagion we can’t contain? Are we capable of saying our intentions were good but ultimately of uncertain effectiveness?

Perhaps this isn’t possible to a Western culture where scientism is fast becoming the official religion, where God is presumed dead or non-existent and we are the determiners of our own fates. In a culture where the State is presumed to have all the answers it becomes rarer and rarer to admit that efforts were unsuccessful, let alone misguided. Everything must have a patina of success to it, even if the core is considerably tarnished. We must constantly slap ourselves on our collective back for our ingenuity and resourcefulness and tenacity even if we can’t prove that what we did or didn’t do actually had much of an effect.

My Biblical Christianity, in contrast, does allow for this. Allows for us to do the best we can but also admit that our best efforts may be, definitionally, not only inadequate but misguided and ultimately even, at odds with an authority higher than our own. My Biblical Christianity allows for a world in which we are not the eventual victors by our own efforts, but rather rescued from our good intentions that are fatally flawed and marred by sin, including our ability to admit our inabilities and limitations.

Some might see this as a fatalism of sorts that destroys the importance of striving for better. Historically though, this is obviously patently untrue as Christians have been at the forefront of working to make the world a better place for everyone. Rather than resign ourselves to God’s uncontrollable and largely unknowable divine workings, we rest in his love and grace and forgiveness and take seriously his original commands to us to be caretakers of his creation (Genesis 1:28). Biblical Christianity both conveys the truth that we can and do and should take seriously that we can effect positive changes in the world, but also that there are limitations both to what we are intended to accomplish and what we are able to accomplish. This emphasizes not so much our failures and limitations as the goodness and grace of God. We are forbidden from seeing ourselves as the ultimate authority and therefore do not labor in vain under that burden. Rather we are free to apply ourselves the best ways we can conceive of. It should also mean we are free to admit when our efforts have been incorrect or ineffective without stigmatizing ourselves or others for it.

Perhaps our efforts to contain the Coronavirus have not been successful. Perhaps they’ve even been somewhat pointless. Perhaps rather than trying to keep it from spreading at all we should focus our efforts on protecting those who are most vulnerable while allowing the younger population in work and school to shoulder the difficult but necessary work of gaining some sort of herd immunity that alone will ultimately render the virus less dangerous to everyone.

This is the long-game point of view. I believe it is the point of view of most scientists and immunologists. Someday COVID-19 will be no more dangerous or feared than the common cold or flu. This means it will still be dangerous to a small population group and that will likely never change, but the vast majority of the rest of the population will not be unduly threatened by it. Some experts hope vaccines expedite this process. But we also have no idea whether a vaccinated person who does not develop the symptoms associated with Coronavirus is capable of carrying the virus and infecting other people. We have no idea how long immunization to the Coronavirus lasts, and evidence seems to suggest it doesn’t last more than a few weeks or months at the most. The net result is an approach to the virus that demands fearfulness even when following all the proper protocols.

Perhaps this isn’t the best approach. Perhaps this only draws out the damage a new virus causes not only physically but psychologically and emotionally and socially. I just wonder if anyone is capable of admitting this might be the case and exploring that possibility intelligently, or if any such admission would immediately be silenced as traitorous unless backed with clearly defensible data. I tend to suspect it’s the latter option. In which case I guess the only thing we can do is pray for continued strength and healing even with potentially flawed policies in place. And we can keep an eye on places where alternate approaches are being tried in hopes those prove more successful. And we can continue to speak our truth about our proper role in creation. Caretakers, not owners. Creatures, not gods. We can encourage one another to continue doing our best and we can also consider a variety of options rather than insisting on a single approach.

Irony

November 30, 2020

Our state is once again under lockdown. Nearly almost as strict as when we all began this back in March. Not quite as strict though. You can still go shopping pretty much anywhere you want, but churches aren’t allowed to gather indoors for worship even if we’re all maintaining the exact same precautions as retail businesses – or more. Churches are too dangerous, apparently. (As a follow-up edit, I found an article rating various activities from least dangerous to most dangerous on a color-coded graduated scale. The last [and therefore presumably most dangerous] activity listed in the category of highest risk was going to a “large or crowded” religious service. No definitions of those terms – is a worship service at 20% capacity more crowded than Costco at 20% capacity? Also no justification at all for assigning worship to this highest risk category I certainly haven’t seen many reports of churches as epicenters of COVID transmission in the last nine months, and the one that was cited extensively at the start of COVID turned out to not really be a worship service at all but a choir practice for a group not associated with the church itself.)

So it was not without a bitter sense of irony that I read an article in our local “Independent” weekly news magazine, where one of our county health officials quoted Galatians 6:9, And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. The reporter didn’t bother to look up the exact location of the quote but was astute enough to at least mention it came from the Bible.

Of course, the context is all wrong. It is not a verse about protecting ourselves from physical harm but rather a verse about protecting ourselves from spiritual harm by continuing to engage in those things which benefit us spiritually while avoiding those that are detrimental. A good argument could be made this verse is dealing specifically with care for those who are preaching and teaching the Word of God (v.6). At the very least it has to do with caring for one another and especially those who are brothers and sisters in Christ (v.10).

What that looks like in the age of COVID is tricky to define. A great deal of grace and respect must be given, and those amounts and forms vary almost by individual. What is loving for one person is insulting to another, and visa versa. But it’s safe to say that allowing people to get their nails done and their hair done while prohibiting the people of God from gathering under equal or even safer conditions as part of their life of faith probably doesn’t intent of Galatians 6:9.

We will one day reap what is sown. The habits we fall into or are forced into have long-range repercussions on our lives of faith which in turn affect our eternal life. All this should be kept in mind as our elected or appointed officials seek to do good. Hopefully the recent Supreme Court decision in regards to banning worship in New York will have wider ranging impacts even here on the opposite coast. Our leaders will one day have to answer to more than the CDC or the WHO or the press for their decisions.

Education & Family

October 20, 2020

Here’s a fantastic speech by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I find it interesting that despite scathing attacks by critics, and by a White House characterized more often than not as an unstable regime, DeVos has remained in her post since Trump appointed her in February 2017.

As our culture grapples with the need for reform on any number of fronts, family is the first place reform take place if any other kind of reform is to be successful. Repriortizing family as the fundamental unit of all the rest of society rather than usurping it through increasing governmental intervention and substitution is crucial. This means the gradual unraveling of the Gordian Knot our culture created in the turbulent revolutions of the 60’s. It means acknowledging that a two-family income is not the best way to improve families and that public education must serve the family rather than replace it.

A tough row to hoe, without a doubt. But it’s heartening that some in positions of influence see what needs to be done. I pray they – and we the people – are able to remain steadfast in accomplishing it!

Mobs and Justice

September 25, 2020

Once again there are mobs floating around major cities in our country demanding justice after the decision of a grand jury not to indict any of the police officers involved in the tragic shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The range of these protests is typically broad, from peaceful protests to more violent protests. The Los Angeles Times reported about two cars that “plowed” through protestors, implying guilt on the part of the drivers, though when you actually read the article it’s far from clear that’s necessarily the best characterization of what happened.

First off, a reminder that protests which block traffic are illegal, though some states allow protestors to block streets if they obtain a permit in advance. But a mob of people arbitrarily deciding to block traffic is in itself an illegal act – pretty much all the time as far as my limited Internet research shows. I’m happy to be proved wrong with appropriate links in the comments section. This document from the ACLU indicates as much. Blocking traffic is in itself illegal, an irony somehow lost in the shuffle of cries for justice, which clearly then are cries for justice in certain situations rather than others, problematic in the least. And needless to say, attacking vehicles and their drivers is very, very illegal, very much against the idea of justice the protestors claim to be demanding. At least one of the vehicles in the LA Times article received extensive damage from protestors who were angered it didn’t want to stop. The car that struck one of the protestors is also said to have damage on it, damage the driver claims was inflicted on the vehicle first and which caused the driver to try and escape the crowd.

Complicated stuff at best, though the headlines certainly wouldn’t lead the casual reader to that conclusion. I don’t think they intend to, frankly.

The cry for justice in this situation is also problematic. The death of anyone is a tragedy, and certainly the death of someone in their own home at the hands of public agents of any kind is additionally odious and should call for investigation. However, investigation actually did happen. The cries and protests for justice come after a grand jury determined no criminal charges were appropriate against the officers involved for Taylor’s death. The officers weren’t cleared of wrong doing by an internal investigation but by a grand jury. A grand jury is a means for determining possible offenses in a situation and lodging official charges to be pursued in a court of law. A grand jury is made up of private citizens, similar to the jury in a court case. They are assembled and tasked with determining to the best of their ability whether a crime has or hasn’t been committed.

So the crowds blocking roads and attacking motorists in a demand for justice are ignoring the fact that justice has already been applied. Typically 16-23 people are assembled for a grand jury and a majority of them must agree a crime was committed and indicate which law was broken. So the majority of the people on the grand jury for this case determined the police officers did not violate a law.

That doesn’t mean Taylor’s death isn’t tragic. It doesn’t mean that perhaps the existing laws might need to change, and already there is discussion towards that end regarding the serving of no-knock warrants, where police can enter a home without prior notification or warning. Of course there are also reasons why such warrants exist, such as protecting officers from a coordinated, deadly response to their ringing of the doorbell or knocking on the door. In this particular case the man they were looking for – an ex-boyfriend’s of Taylor – was not there. Yet her current boyfriend was there, and he was armed, and he opened fire on officers first.

I don’t hear the protestors talking much about that. Clearly, this is a more complicated situation than some people would like it to be. Some details don’t contribute to a story of an innocent young woman shot to death in her own home by reckless and uncaring agents of the State. Apparently the majority of the grand jury realized this as they explored the facts of the case.

So what is justice then? If the due process of the law is inadequate, what do the protestors suggest as an alternative? Is it a matter of mob justice, so to speak, where if enough people scream and yell and threaten and destroy property, they determine the appropriate verdict in a trial? Is this justice? Do what we demand or we destroy things?

Grand juries have been around for over 800 years and are part of a cherished and celebrated legal process and set of protections against mob justice or the arbitrary whims of power. They’re intended to provide as much assurance as possible that a crime really has – or hasn’t – been committed, regardless of which persons or powers demand an outcome to suit their own preferences or interests. Against this what do the protestors suggest as an alternative?

Deadly force is deadly serious, without a doubt. That’s something police officers are trained to recognize and to which they are at least theoretically held accountable. They are also responsible for performing dangerous work like serving warrants on premises or for people that are known to be dangerous and capable of killing them. That’s a lot of pressure to be under, even for professionals, and something the law seeks to take into account. I also assume the man who fired on those police officers when they entered the home understands that deadly force is deadly serious, and if you’re going to pull a gun and start shooting immediately rather than waiting to assess the situation a bit better, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re probably more comfortable with deadly force than the average person. Cries for justice ought to reasonably include why this man opened fire immediately.

Bad things happen. Sometimes bad things happen because of bad people, and in those situations the bad people should be held accountable. But not all bad things are matters of injustice or a matter of bad people. This is something that should be – and is – evident regardless of your ethnicity. Yet even ethnic minorities are denounced and vilified if they question or disagree with the mob justice mindset that insists on a particular verdict. Do the mobs have all the details and information the grand jury did? Is their shouting and blocking traffic a superior insight into the happenings of that fateful day? Does their anger somehow trump whatever facts are available?

Should it? Is that how we want verdicts reached – by whoever screams the loudest or makes the most intimidating threats?

Are the protestors demanding an end to grand juries? Are they demanding that police be disbanded? Are they demanding an end to no-knock warrants? Are they demanding a particular charge and conviction of murder in this particular case? Are they demanding other things not specific to this case but part of a larger agenda of change? And how will they respond if a larger or more vocal or more violent group of protestors shows up and demands just the opposite? Who decides who is right? Is it just a matter of starting to shoot and stab each other and see who is left at the end of the exchange? Or do we rather place our faith in a good albeit imperfect system of law, knowing that sometimes injustices will go unpunished, but that far more often than not justice will be done, and can be relied on to be done without protests and threats and violence?

If the laws need to be changed then work for change. But that change involves not simply making demands under threat of violence but wrestling with the difficult realities of a sinful and broken world where many bad people exist, and where most of them probably don’t wear a badge. If you want to agitate for change then know what it is you’re agitating for as well as what you’re agitating against. Because tragedy happens every single day. This doesn’t make it less tragic. But compounding tragedy with riots and threats of violence does make it more tragic, especially if you don’t really understand what it is you’re asking for or protesting against.