Wed, 30 Jun 2004

Demagoguery: Click

Amen to Jeff Jarvis' and others' pleas to marginalize the extremists, left and right, who are taking over responsible discourse in the west.

It's time to treat Michael Moore as the extremist that he is. Simple-minded, simplistic, mean, venemous, a hate-monger who does nothing to advance the debate and aims instead to divide. Add your nominees on the left.

And the same goes for Rush and Jerry Falwell and others who spew their hate and half-facts and bile and intolerance. Add your nominees on the right.

They are extremists.

We're not.

And media are their dupes or, worse, coconspirators.

Do you want to defend, overlook, or adopt Michael Moore's tactics because you want to oppose the Bush Administration or the war on terror? Go ahead. Someday, if you're lucky, you'll be ashamed of yourself. In the meantime, I just tuned you out. Click!

Do you want to quash, overlook, or distort legitimately bad news because you want to support the Bush Administration or the war on terror? Go ahead. I hope you regret it sooner rather than later. Until then, click!

I am tuning out a lot nowadays. I stayed up late June 28 to watch Nightline on the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq. What I saw was a template, not a story. Click. They've lost me, just as the American auto industry lost me in the seventies. Twenty-five years later, I drive a Honda. If Ford or ABC News wants to win me back, they're going to have to work hard for it – and be very, very patient.

This upsets me. We all need responsible reporting and responsible commentary, and we aren't getting much of it. My diet of news is not a very healthy one, and it continues to shrink, because it is hard to find a place where the signal-to-noise ratio is good enough to be worth investing my time. There are millions of people like me who also have better things to do than sift through and deconstruct all the stuff out there. This is what editors were for, remember? Well, most editors aren't doing their jobs. They're failing at network news divisions, at big-city papers, at small-city papers, and on cable. The amateur editors and pundits in the blogosphere compensate somewhat, but they aren't up to the job, either. They weren't supposed to have to be!

Believe me, I don't want to be ignorant about current events. But thanks to the demagogues and their dupes and coconspirators, the alternative just isn't worth the trouble.

Do you remember the conservative pro-war crowd lamenting the hyperbole among the anti-war crowd a year and a half ago, and calling for better quality arguments against the effort? Whether or not they really meant it, they were right. There were good anti-war arguments out there, but they were usually drowned out by the din of the poor ones. Similar things can be said of the pro-war side, which hid its true (and more persuasive) motives too much behind WMD scare tactics. The anti-war side – at least the part that was listening – needed to hear better pro-war arguments, and there were good arguments out there, but they too were rarely heard. Our sloppiness then got us to where we are now, each side demonizing the other and wallowing in its own propaganda to feel confirmed.

(Despite the balanced treatment here, I still think today as in the eighties the problem is worse on the left, just as the problem was worse on the right during the Clinton/Gingrich years. There is something about being out of power that makes the temptation harder to resist. Conversely, there is something about being in power that makes succumbing to the temptation harder to excuse.)

A similar dynamic has afflicted the Church for decades. There is too much noise and not enough signal in Christian rhetoric. Irresponsible revisionism, naive (if not dishonest) apologetics, and self-indulgent devotional literature dominate the bookshelves at both mainstream secular and evangelical Christian bookstores. The problem seems even worse from pulpits and 'Christian' electronic media. As a result, thoughtful and busy people are practically forced to tune it all out.

I don't want the world to be ignorant of the good news. Maybe most non-believers don't want to be ignorant either. But thanks to the demagogues, many consider the alternative more trouble than it's worth. Click.

It's time for opinion leaders – and above all church leaders – to take seriously our responsibilities as researchers, writers, editors, and publishers of truth. If we don't, we go from being the demagogues' dupes to being coconspirators. And this won't just embarrass us someday; it will judge us.

14:33 (file under /topics/politics)

Fri, 25 Jun 2004

Fear Not

In the past few weeks I have had a series of conversations with people deeply worried about the election. Some of these are conservatives panicking at the prospect of a Kerry victory that will mark a retreat, then a surrender, on the war against Al Qaeda and militant Islamism. More of them are liberals panicking at the prospect of a Bush victory that will cement the transformation of the United States into a fascist dictatorship. (Many in both camps will be all the more stressed after this weekend when they indulge in Michael Moore's latest propaganda.)

Here is why I think both camps need to relax:

Not because there is nothing to worry about. A lot of terrible stuff could happen both domestically and abroad in the next four years.

Not because there is little at stake in November. Much is at stake – not least how America will officially respond to the crises that will inevitably come.

Not because the two candidates are "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," as radicals like to claim. The two candidates' constituencies, policies, visions, and personalities are quite distinct (though the policy differences will be minimized as both move to the center between now and November).

Rather, first, because the hyperbole from both sides is designed to scare – to scare people into buying a paper, staying tuned, joining a constituency, supporting a candidate, and voting. I remember a conversation from almost fifteen years ago at a journalism event I was attending. "What have you been doing lately?" someone asked an L.A. television journalist. "Same old thing," he replied, "just scaring the hell out of people." He spoke for his whole industry. Are you letting opinion-leaders and their audiences petrify you about the possible future? Then you're playing into their hands.

Second, because the leaders on both sides of the issues are more competent than either side can probably imagine. I'm not talking here about the crowds of people who casually follow current events (er, like me); we may be catastrophically wrong about all sorts of things. But the folks who end up in charge generally do their homework, follow the issues, make judgments, and take actions that flow out of a wellspring of experience and practical wisdom. Yes, some are more experienced than others. Sure, some of these actions inevitably turn out to be wrong. Moreover, some camps are practically and philosophically equipped to do better than others – and here is where we want the best camps to be in position when those times come. Nevertheless, our own perspectives invariably blind us as truly as they give us eyes to see: and what they blind us to most profoundly is often the insights and possibilities that other perspectives afford. The hardest thing to see from where you are is something that can only be seen from somewhere else. Here is some advice for riding out the campaign: Think of someone whose knowledge, wisdom, and judgment you deeply respect who still backs the candidate you fear. When you hear a claim that strikes you as preposterously false or a proposal that seems horribly counterproductive, ask yourself how that other person might interpret it. You will probably discover reasons for doubting that Bush is nearly as evil or Kerry nearly as opportunistic as you are tempted to think. This is not philosophical or moral relativism; people are flawed and err all the time. It is humility, for we are flawed and prone to error too.

Third, because cultures are much more stable than we usually think. Things have a way of grinding on in ways that make four-year election cycles less than epochal. I have just finished a wonderful book, Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence, which charts four dominant schools of American foreign policy back to the origins of the republic. The centuries have seen them gain and lose, not rise and fall. Their constituencies shrink and grow; their visions perceive and misinterpret; their powers wax and wane. They adjust, not unlike a market adjusts, to new conditions. Mead's book was released before September 11, 2001 but a revised edition includes an epilogue that confirms a reconfiguration of these schools in the months since rather than a revolution. The long view looks surprisingly constant and surprisingly good (at least from the conventional American perspective, which is the one usually in view during election seasons).

Finally, because the conventional American perspective, as bright as it probably is, is not the best perspective. Thomas Merton once commented that one sin has more destructive power than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We should remember that the converse is all the more true: one saint has more re-creative power than a world of sinners. The Father's will is done; the Son is risen; the Spirit is among us. When, despite all the horrible evil of their ages, Jesus and his angels said not to fear, they understood why that advice is no empty consolation, but the height of faith. Want to calm down? Then remember the victory that outlasts every defeat.

Shabbat shalom.

17:38 (file under /topics/politics)

Tue, 22 Jun 2004

Bye, Bravenet; Bye, DreamWeaver

A while ago I discovered that my Bravenet site counter was sending pop-up windows to browsers. I don't know when the company started doing that, or if it did it all along, but I apologize to you all for the treatment. I have changed to StatCounter, which treats its users better, and which looks better on the site as well.

I am also completing a laborious migration from DreamWeaver to GoLive. Without it I could not really have maintained the site.

From Blogger to Blosxom, from Bravenet to StatCounter, and from DreamWeaver to GoLive – all so the site looks and works about like it did a year ago. Just how I wanted to spend my summer.

But it sure beats moving!

14:34 (file under /topics/general)

Mon, 21 Jun 2004

Recalling the Calling

A few weekends back I had the pleasure of speaking at the Santa Barbara Community Church men's retreat. The overall topic was calling. I took the opportunity to compare and (mainly) contrast the traditional Christian notion of calling with the way we throw the word around in America nowadays. In sum, we have turned 'calling' into glorified language for communal and personal self-centeredness. In the church we have done the same thing, but wrapped it in spiritual sounding language. Imagine that!

Anyway, an outline of my comments is available here. I actually delivered this PowerPoint version. It's amazing how one page in HTML turns into fifteen slides. Idea inflation!

Among other things, blogging will continue to be light this summer as I am spending most of my literary energy writing a book on the Lord's Prayer. The chapter on "your will be done" is currently underway. I hope it sees the light of day.

11:22 (file under /topics/westmont)

Thu, 10 Jun 2004

American Theology

A friend sent me a link to an article by Jim Wallis in Sojourners about the political theology of George W. Bush. Since I already replied to it, why not convert it into a blog entry?

This is the heart of Wallis' argument:

In our own American history, religion has been lifted up for public life in two very different ways. One invokes the name of God and faith in order to hold us accountable to God's intentions – to call us to justice, compassion, humility, repentance, and reconciliation. Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin King perhaps best exemplify that way. Lincoln regularly used the language of scripture, but in a way that called both sides in the Civil War to contrition and repentance. Jefferson said famously, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
The other way invokes God's blessing on our activities, agendas, and purposes. Many presidents and political leaders have used the language of religion like this, and George W. Bush is falling prey to that same temptation.

I agree with the heart of Wallis' argument, but he gives up all the ground he has gained by the way he develops it. Wallis is right about the basic dichotomy there. However, Lincoln obviously falls into the second camp as well as the first. He and his fellow civil warriors used religious language even more ambitiously than Bush. Exhibit A is The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which takes over apocalyptic language for the Union cause in simply staggering ways. Many of the Founding Fathers did the same, in ways that strike my evangelical students today as blasphemous. A New Republic article in 1998 reported that James Madison called America's founding documents "political scriptures," and John Quincy Adams borrowed the language of Deuteronomy 6:7-9 to urge his countrymen to

teach the [Constitution's] principles, teach them to your children, speak of them when sitting in your home, speak of them when walking by the way, when lying down and when rising up, write them upon the doorplate of your home and upon your gates

I'm listening for humility, but I'm not hearing it.

Wallis' singling out of George W. Bush is historically naive and simplistic – which is what I have learned to expect from the left nowadays, even the Christian left.

I believe Bush probably thinks 9/11 presses the issue of policing the world in a way that forces America to fulfill God's intentions that rulers wield the sword for justice. That makes his vision Lincolnesque. It is possible for someone who confuses the Kingdom of God and the United States of America to frame the Iraq War in terms of justice [to UN resolutions and to the Kurds and others who have suffered from Baathism], compassion [to the dead and suffering of Iraq and to the victims of Iraqi-sponsored terrorism, for instance the Palestinian terrorism overtly paid for by Saddam], humility [accepting a leadership role in the War on Terror that Al-Qaeda and its partners forced on the U.S.], repentance [for poor leadership in the Middle East, past support and complicity with Saddam, and failure to follow through in 1991], and even reconciliation [in rebuilding the country politically and economically]. Note well: I am not saying that these are the best ways to frame them. Nevertheless, advocates of the war and of an assertive leadership of the War on Terror have been framing these arguments in these ways, just as Wallis has been framing leftish policies in the same terms. Just as Lincoln framed the Machiavellian actions he took in the Civil War.

If Wallis can't see this, it is because he only hangs out with fellow left-wingers who have lost their perspective on Bush at least as badly as right-wingers lost their perspective on Clinton. Bush's political theology is just the latest in a long American tradition that is as liberal as it is conservative.

Moreover, adding a dose of Niebuhrian humility/contrition/defeatism doesn't turn American policies into divine intentions. Sure Lincoln felt terrible. Does Wallis really think Bush, or any president for that matter, doesn't regret the suffering involved in accomplishing his objectives?

It's too bad Wallis surrendered to the Manichaean temptations of anti-Bushism, because at the heart he is dead right: the choice before disciples of Jesus Christ is God's intentions or America's. Military victory never substitutes for cross-bearing. What Wallis needs is a firmer appreciation of the fact that neither the left nor the right – and neither America nor Europe – is free from deep self-deception regarding whose intentions are whose.

17:41 (file under /topics/wot)

Baccalaureate 2004

This is the post I tried to post a month ago.

It's graduation weekend. Congratulations, class of 2004! You rock!
I have been honored with the invitation to deliver Westmont's baccalaureate address tonight. For posterity's sake, my remarks are here in Adobe Acrobat.
16:12 (file under /topics/westmont)

Bye, Blogger

I give up.

On Blogger, that is – not blogging (not quite yet, anyway).

New hardware and software here at Westmont has made it impossible to use Blogger any more. I tried to post something a month ago and never succeeded. Since then, this blog has been on even more of a hiatus than I intended to take.

So I have moved to Blosxom, which allows me complete control over the setup. It's a bit more of a headache, but at least I can post. Expect some hiccups with the new setup. Old and new permalinks will continue to work, but the format may change a bit in the next few days.

I have made a slight but unavoidable change to the address of this page. The old page will redirect here. Feel free to adjust your bookmarks, or not.

Welcome back, everyone (who's left). I intend to keep the blog alive, but post lightly from here on.

16:09 (file under /topics/general)
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