Over the past few years we’ve read debate after debate about the value of a college degree, about the value of studying the humanities, about the value–not!–of an Ivy League education. We’ve learned that it still pays to go to college since college grads earn more than those who without a degree. We’ve learned that English majors do better than promoters of STEM education might have us believe. We’ve learned that this bit of information has not been shared with some university administrators and legislators, who would like to eliminate such “useless” degree programs. We’ve learned that there aren’t as many STEM jobs as we’ve been lead to think there are, but we’ve also learned that math and computer science graduates make more money than, say, psych majors. We’ve learned from a former Yale professor (though we’ve heard it before) that his colleagues at big, fancy research institutions don’t really value interacting with students. We’ve learned, from students and alumnae at some of those places, that that’s not always the case. (As I learned yesterday from a video posted on this site, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”)
But what may be the most pertinent piece of information has emerged this summer comes from a pair of government studies, reported yesterday in The New York Times, that show that despite all efforts at “diversity,” American colleges and universities have made essentially no gains in opening their doors to the poor and less-well-off. And this despite the fact that the number of high achieving students from poor families has substantially increased.
Every day there’s something more immediately important happening in the world: ISIS is seizing an airbase this morning, and California is recovering from an earthquake, and Michael Brown is being buried.
But there’s nothing more important that’s happening each and every day than the ongoing deterioration of the planet on which we depend. Though on a geological time scale it’s proceeding at a hopelessly rapid pace, in terms of the news cycle it happens just slowly enough to be mainly invisible. It’s only when a new study emerges, or a shocking new data set, that we pay momentary attention, until the Next New Thing distracts us.
Here’s one installment in this ongoing saga, released this morning by Environmental Health News and National Geographic. It’s about birds, and the fact that across the planet they’re in serious trouble:
Oh how I remember those heady days when everyone was writing about and discussing Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian famous for books like The Nature and Destiny of Manand The Irony of American History, the preacher who taught us how to think about the Cold War. As a graduate student immersed in Niebuhr’s work around this time – the “Niebuhr moment” probably peaked in 2007 or 2008, but his specter loomed over many of the arguments about the invasion and occupation of Iraq – I had the rare pleasure of feeling like my labors in the stacks really connected to contemporary debates. For once, a preoccupation with theology was cool. In his 2007 Atlantic essay, “A Man for All Reasons,” Paul Eli aptly summarized the Niebuhr-love that seemed to be everywhere:
[T]he Niebuhr revival has been perplexing, even bizarre, as people with profoundly divergent views of the war have all claimed Niebuhr as their precursor: bellicose neoconservatives, chastened “liberal hawks,” and the stalwarts of the antiwar left. Inevitably, politicians have taken note, and by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono. In recent months alone, John McCain (in a book) celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war; New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (at the Chautauqua Institution) invoked Niebuhr as a model of the humility lacking in the White House; and Barack Obama (leaving the Senate floor) called Niebuhr “one of [his] favorite philosophers” for his account of “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.”
Seven years later after Elie could compare him to Bono, we seem to be hearing much less about Reinhold Niebuhr, a fact that I was reminded of while reading Dale Coulter’s short essay this week marking sixty years since the publication of Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Coulter lays out the book’s basics, but there’s no real attempt to connect Niebuhr to present days concerns. That’s not a criticism, but it was telling, given all the previous attempts, noted above, to make Niebuhr a sage for our times. And even more, this was the first time in quite awhile I had read anything at all about Niebuhr aimed at a general audience.
I have a theory about why the Niebuhr moment has passed – and why it matters.
I did not have a lonely childhood, although sometimes I remember myself as having one, in that way that you make your own childhood more like a story than it was. I had three siblings and lots of friends. But I also had books, and books were a kind of chosen loneliness– an exciting loneliness, sometimes almost an illicit loneliness. Because when I was reading, I was probably reading about magic. Magic was, for me, all the things I wanted and did not believe. It was the vehicle through which I would gain the control that all young people long for, the adventure I yearned for and knew I would never achieve, and in time, religion, the traditional family, and America. I poured all of these superstitions into my belief in magic, and I would clutch books about magic to my chest on the bus to school, counting syllables and thinking about the places I would go if I only had the power. And I believed it all willfully until I found that expenditure of will too much to give, and then one day I didn’t believe anymore.
But before that were my books, and the ones I loved more than any others were by Diana Wynne Jones. Jones should be more well known than she is. She was a favorite and personal friend of fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman; one of her best known books was made into a movie by Hayao Miyazaki; and her stories, filled with wizards and spells and schools, would seem a perfect fit in the post-Harry Potter world. And yet I find she’s still somewhat unknown, even among fans of fantasy and Young Adult. Google lovingly celebrated her 80th birthday just a couple weeks ago, and yet I think many people responded with confusion. That’s a shame. All these years later, she’s my favorite.
Certainly, the things that are great about Jones’s work are things you might look for in any fantasy author. Her imagination is expansive and individual. With fantasy, it’s not just about the degree of someone’s imagination, but the style, and Jones imagined unlike anyone else. It’s a well-worn notion that the trick in fantasy lies in how to describe the mundane, and at that task, Jones had few peers. Her worlds are lived-in and worn, never terrifying but never quite comfortable, filled with details as familiar as your grandmother’s house but as disconcerting and alien as a dream. Her settings are frequently cold and foreboding, but her characters are warm and familiar, her books filled with knowing, kind, distracted, difficult, smart, flawed, headstrong, clumsy, misunderstanding people. People in Jones’s books are forever hurting each other through their distraction, or through their misunderstanding, or very often, through their genuine desire to help. There is warmth and friendliness in her world, but there is also the real-life condition of the endless harms we pile up on the people we love and do not understand.
I truly believe Jones is one of the greatest chroniclers of childhood we’ve ever had, and it’s because of nothing so much as her utter rejection of romanticizing being a child. The world she describes, for kids, is strange, rule-bound, fickle, and unknowable. Children are hurt, mostly by other children, and they all grow up too fast. I don’t mean to make her work sound impossibly depressing or grim; in fact her books are frequently joyous affairs. But there is an absolute and unwavering commitment to reckoning with the disappointment and confusion of being young, in her work, an honesty that is wonderfully supportive simply in its willingness to confront the way things are when you are young and your life is not yet yours. It’s a rare and valuable message to get as a kid, the recognition of loss by an adult who understands. Throughout all of it, there’s possibility, teeming and inventive, a world of magic and adventure that most children want beyond wanting. Some children, in her books, get that magic and that adventure. But never without a price.
That’s the question Rod Dreher asks in a searching reply to my thoughts earlier this week on Christianity and modern life. Some of Rod’s response is a gentle correction to my characterization of the “Benedict Option,” which, in his original essay, he summarizes as “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” To take one example, I described Eagle River, Alaska, as a remote village, while it’s actually in suburban Anchorage – I regret getting that wrong. More importantly, Rod argues that I created something of a straw man, portraying those who pursue the Benedict Option as running for the hills while the world burns. My rhetoric did slip in that direction, and there are nuances to the ways the Benedict Option can be pursued I didn’t capture in my original post. Not all who favor it, and certainly not Rod, argue for “strict separatism” as a response to modern life.
The deeper issue Rod raises, however, goes beyond haggling over this or that detail of the Benedict Option and its various instantiations. Really, arguments about the Benedict Option amount to arguments over the place of, and prospects for, Christianity in the modern world – how Christians should try to live faithfully in our day and age. Here’s the gauntlet Rod throws down:
The way a Christian thinks about sex and sexuality is a very, very good indication of what he thinks about living out the faith in modernity. The reason it is so central is because it reveals, more than any other question now, how a Christian relates to authority and moral order. Matt is a kind and honest interlocutor, and I sincerely appreciate his attention, so please don’t take this in any way snarky or hostile towards him or Christians who share his viewpoint … but the questions have to be put strongly: Where is the evidence for being hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life? Why should anyone think that the message of Jesus will retain its power in modernity if a Christian experiences little conflict between his faith and the world as it is?
To get to the heart of it: What is Christianity for?
Those obviously are very big questions, but at least a few points can be made to clarify how I approach these matters.
So it won’t surprise anybody to learn that I really, really don’t like Buzzfeed.
Sometimes, when I consider the Buzzfeed phenomenon, I think I’m living in some sort of fictional satirical world where Buzzfeed is a symbol of how far media can fall. It’s like living in a Douglas Copeland novel. Buzzfeed’s particular brand of lowest common denominator clickbait, their “14 Giraffes Who Totally Look Like Steve Buscemi,” their “25 Things Only People from [Insert Geographical Area Here] Understand,” their “Which of Fat Cat’s Minions from Chip’n’Dale’s Rescue Rangers Are You?” quizzes, their corpsefucking glurge, sitting side-by-side with their “branded content” like “12 Most Crunchtastic TV Moments Brought to You by Frito Lay,” subsidizing imperial stenographer Rosie Gray’s smears of Max Blumenthal (an actual journalist), powered by an aggregation model that comes pretty close to plagiarism even when it doesn’t devolve into the serial copy-and-pasting of Benny Johnson (thanks BlippoBoppo and CrushingBort), in an environment where they can memory hole 4,000 posts and think they don’t have to say anything in particular about it publicly, all lorded over by dumb-faced Ben Smith’s dumb face…. It’s bleak, man. I mean, I can see somebody getting a job offer from Buzzfeed and trying to rationalize it, telling themselves, “well, they’re not so bad….” Yes, they are. They are exactly that bad.
The thing is, I don’t know if there’s some more ethical path writers these days can walk and still end up being able to support themselves. It’s looking pretty grim out there for our professional online writers.
I’m someone who writes a lot of what I guess you would call media criticism. And that means that I’m frequently in the position of saying some not-very-nice things about people who write professionally online. But I criticize because I think that job is important; I happen to have some old-fashioned, corny ideas about the role that journalism and political commentary have to play in a democracy such as ours. We need professional writers– not just dedicated amateurs– to observe and comment on our society and our government, in order to ensure that both are functioning the way that they should, and to give our people information they need to make rational political choices. The problem is that the basic economics of that work have become so threatened that I don’t know what independent writers are supposed to do. I hate when talented people join up with outfits like Buzzfeed, which I think are genuinely making our country a stupider place. But I don’t see any clear path that people can take to preserve both their integrity and their ability to eat.
I’ve developed something of a reputation as a socially liberal critic of today’s social liberalism. I got an email from a Dish reader who asked me to flesh out where I’m coming from.
I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is that social liberalism was once an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness. It was the antidote to Jerry Fallwell telling you that you were going to hell, to Nancy Reagan saying “just say no,” to your conservative parents telling you not to be gay, to Pat Robertson saying don’t have sex, to Tipper Gore telling you that you couldn’t listen to the music you like, to don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t wear those clothes, don’t walk that way, don’t have fun, don’t be yourself. So of course that movement won. It was a positive, joyful, human, freeing alternative to an exhausted, ugly, narrow vision of how human beings should behave.
It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks. The hundreds of young people I teach, tutor, and engage with in my academic and professional lives teach me about the way these movements are perceived. I have strict rules about how I engage with students in class, and I never intentionally bring my own beliefs into my pedagogy, but I also don’t steer students away from political issues if they turn the conversation that way. I cannot tell you how common it is for me to talk to 19, 20, 21 year old students, who seem like good people, who discuss liberal and left-wing beliefs as positive ideas, but who shrink from identifying with liberalism and feminism instinctively. Privately, I lament that fact, but it doesn’t surprise me. Of course much of these feelings stem from conservative misrepresentations and slanders of what social liberalism is and means. But it also comes from the perception that, in the online forums where so much political discussion happens these days, the slightest misstep will result in character assassination and vicious condemnation.
I want to put my discussion of Israel to bed for the week, as some emailers are complaining that I’m “fixated” on the issue. I’m writing about Israel and Palestine a lot in part because I’m getting the most emails on that question.
Many people who have written wonder, with various degrees of indignation, why I don’t perform the typical preemptive apologetics that so often come with criticism of Israel. Why don’t I take time to balance my complaints about Israel by mentioning all the bad things about Hamas? Where are my explicit denunciations of anti-Semitism? Why don’t I come out and say whether Israel should be wiped off the map? I don’t do these things for two reasons. One, because I think it’s in the best interest of everyone– including those committed to the defense of Israel’s government and policies– to return normalcy to this debate. On what other issue am I expected to explicitly disclaim attitudes that I don’t believe and haven’t mentioned? No, it’s true: I’m not anti-Semitic, I don’t think Jews secretly run the world, I don’t believe in Islamic governance either, and I don’t want Israel “wiped from the map.” But when did I suggest such a thing? Acting as if this issue has to be treated with kid gloves in a way that is wholly unique in American politics does no favors to either side of this debate. I have been counseled many times in my life to avoid this specific issue because of the potential professional consequences. I appreciate that people are talking out of a desire to help, and situations like that of Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein demonstrate the sense in this advice. But to not engage out of fear of the consequences exacerbates the problem, and incidentally plays into the hands of anti-Semitic tropes. My country spends billions of dollars and an enormous amount of diplomatic capital on Israel, that makes Israel my business, so let’s hash it out. We are adults. We are capable of arguing as adults. So let’s just argue the way we usually do.
I also don’t seek balance because I don’t pretend that there is equality of blame in this issue. Many smart, decent people I know treat this issue with a “plague on both houses” attitude, talking about a “cycle of violence,” or “ancient grudges.” They speak as though this issue is so polarized and so complex that we can’t make meaningful judgments. I find that, frankly, bullshit. I’m not usually a big fan of Max Fisher’s work, but he had this perfectly right: the occupation is wrong, it is the problem, and Israel is to blame. Israel has been illegally and immorally occupying the Palestinian territories for almost 50 years. And Israel has the ability to end it. The Israeli government could unilaterally withdraw from the territories and leave the Palestinians to build their own state, or they could fully incorporate Palestinians into a new unified Israeli-Palestinian state that recognized total and complete political and social equality between all people. If you find those ideas radical, consider that they are merely what basic liberal democracy requires. I am completely agnostic on the notion of one state or two, but I know that what our most basic political ideals require is a world where we have achieved perfect political equality between Arabs and Jews. Israel is capable of creating such a world. Palestinians are not.
For awhile now I’ve been intrigued by Rod Dreher’s advocacy of the “Benedict Option” for contemporary Christians, which looks to St. Benedict, founder of a monastic order in the wake of Rome’s collapse, as inspiration for how Christians should respond to the current cultural situation. Here’s a good summary of the Benedict Option from Rod’s essay about it late last year:
Why are medieval monks relevant to our time? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.
For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
Rod goes onto describe various communities – in places like Eagle Creek, Alaska and Clear Creek Abbey, Oklahoma – living out their faith in traditional ways, largely set apart from modern American culture. In the midst of our cultural catastrophe, the Benedict Option is a way for Christians to live virtuous lives uncorrupted by what’s around them, resisting any kind of assimilation into mainstream society.
Last week Samuel Goldman argued for an alternative, the “Jeremiah Option,” drawing on the experience of the Jews exiled in Babylon, and pitched as a corrective to Dreher’s ideas:
Without being rigorously separatist, these [Benedict Option] communities do aim to be separate. Some merely avoid morally subversive cultural influences, while others seek physical distance from mainstream society in rural isolation.
But a neo-Benedictine way of life involves risks. Communal withdrawal can construct a barrier against the worst facets of modern life—the intertwined commodification of personal relationships, loss of meaningful work to bureaucratic management, and pornographic popular culture—yet it can also lead to isolation from the stimulating opposition that all traditions need to avoid stagnation.
I think those hesitations are largely right, and as a Christian, I’d add that I have to wonder what these kinds of communities do to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the lonely in the world around them. I’m not sure hunkering down is what Jesus called us to, and when, for example, a member of the Alaska community I mentioned says that “If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,” I wonder how living in a remote Alaska village is not isolation. Christians are given the Great Commission, not the Great Retreat. I’m not trying to demean the people Rod profiled, but rather express that I can’t quite understand Christianity in the same way. Jesus always seemed to wandering around, telling strange stories, mingling with the kind of people Benedict Option types might prefer to avoid.
Given the above, you won’t be surprised that I nod along when Goldman elaborates on what distinguishes the Jeremiah Option from the Benedict Option:
A reader with more than two decades of experience in law enforcement offers his perspective on police militarization:
For the record, I’m a supervisor with a medium-sized police department in Midwest who has also worked in a small town. I’ve been a patrol officer, a detective, and now a supervisor. At heart, I’m an old fashioned beat cop who enjoys walking down a main street and talking to people. I’ve never served in my department’s tactical team, nor am I a veteran.
I’ve seen a lot of changes in my career so far. One of the biggest is the nature of the threat that we face on the street. When I was in the police academy, we prepared for criminals who had cheap handguns and little training. The types of weapons that we face have changed dramatically; the police have simply evolved to meet those threats. I’ll give you a couple of examples: