ornament 31 January 2006 ornament

State of the Union

My thoughts on President Bush’s State of the Union Address:

War/Foreign Policy: As usual, this was the strongest part of the president’s address. Once again, the enemy was identified as practicioners of radical Islam — a point that needs to be driven home to those ambivalent regarding the war.

The most telling moment of the entire speech came during the president’s defense of his terrorist surveillance program:

If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaida, we want to know about it — because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.

As the Republicans applauded, one side of the aisle remained — quite noticeably — sitting back.

Domestic/Economic: The whole “hopeful society” bit seemed a bit cliched to me. I did like his focus on competitiveness and his continuing stance on tax relief. It’s hard for me to see how the Democrats don’t find their refusal to applaud tax relief embarrassing, but alas, I’m a conservative, and I don’t understand a lot of what makes the Dems tick.

Regarding education, I liked the proposal to “bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms.” I’d like to see a lot more of this. People who actually work in the field are often much more enthusiastic about their subjects than teachers who only had a course or two in their university education programs.

The most thought-provoking statement in the speech for me was this:

These gains are evidence of a quiet transformation — a revolution of conscience, in which a rising generation is finding that a life of personal responsibility is a life of fulfillment. Government has played a role. Wise policies such as welfare reform, drug education, and support for abstinence and adoption have made a difference in the character of our country. And everyone here tonight, Democrat and Republican, has a right to be proud of this record.

Is there truly a revolution of conscience at work in America? I’m skeptical, but I hope it is true. Whether this transformation is taking place or not remains to be seen, but it is a noble goal for our society.

All in all, SOTU 2006 was a good speech, maybe not as rousing as 2002 or 2003, but it did draw a line in the sand for the Democrats, who seemed awfully comfortable in their seats.

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ornament 30 January 2006 ornament

Google & China: A Different Take

During the past week, the internet has been awash with criticism of Google for its decision to offer a modified version of its search engine to a country with one of the poorest human rights records in the world. The Chinese version of Google “sanitizes” much of the search results and displays a list of results that are more favorable to the outlook of the People’s Republic of China’s communist regime.

Google isn’t alone in altering its services to suit the PRC government. Last June, I wrote disapprovingly about Microsoft censoring of its Chinese blog service, which edits out phrases containing words like “freedom” and “human rights” as if such terms didn’t even exist. Most of the criticism of Google (along with my previous criticism of Microsoft) centers on the notion that the company is bowing to the demands of a totalitarian government just to make a buck.

Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute has a different take which is quite convincing. Ballor argues that such criticisms, while heartfelt, may be overly simplistic:

Is economic and political isolation the best way to “punish” the Chinese government for its wrongs? Sadly, sanctions and isolation of governments rarely have the intended effect. Those in power are simply able to blame the West for the problems, and the people who really suffer are the poorest citizens of these nations. There are any number of examples to look at (Castro, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein) to show that economic and political isolation do not accomplish what we wish them to, that they have horrible unintended consequences.

What about political and economic engagement? It is the latter of these that involves the Google case. Google believes that even with the government strictures, even limited and censored engagement with the people of China is better than no engagement. “We firmly believe, with our culture of innovation, Google can make meaningful and positive contributions to the already impressive pace of development in China,” said a Google spokesperson.

The issue is not cut and dried. No one wants to enlarge the purses of totalitarians, but Ballor is right in that economic sanctions have a poor track record. Despite declarations to the contrary, the boycott of Disney by some Southern Baptists had little to no effect. Disney is bigger than ever, and the boycott has ended. Does this mean that economic engagement will work in ending the PRC’s gross violations of human rights? Not necessarily, but it is a viable alternative to isolation.

At any rate it seems somewhat hypocritical (and I include myself) to criticize Google, Microsoft, and others for selling a service to China when the bulk of consumer goods purchased in America are increasingly made in China.

Ballor offers some needed perspective:

Let’s not forget who the real villains of this story are: the oppressive governments themselves. The rampant criticism of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo should really be directed at illiberal regimes like China.

The Chinese communist regime is to blame for the suppression of freedom in China. As Google itself admits, filtering isn’t the ideal option, but it may be the best one available at present.

If reports around the internet are true, Google’s “censorship” actually may not be that good. Even a professionally clamped-down internet may not be enough to block the rampant spread of ideas — just look at the often futile efforts of the American software, music, and movie industries to stop piracy here. Here’s hoping that a different kind of internet piracy arises in China — one of ideas rather than bootleg pop songs.

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ornament 26 January 2006 ornament

Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

The current Newsweek cover story, “The Trouble With Boys,” is just one of many recent examples of a growing awareness of the damage that feminism has inflicted upon males. Going much further than simply showing that men and women are of equal worth, feminism has strangely worked against itself by implying that male and female are the same. The result is a gross overcorrection in culture that tends to denigrate masculinity in favor of getting in touch with one’s so-called “feminine side.”

Recent less-than-stellar performances of boys in education have caused many to take notice. National Review’s Rich Lowry, commenting on the Newsweek article, observes:

…Feminists have wanted to believe that, given the right socialization, boys would give up their stubborn fascination with earth-moving equipment. As someone once said, “You can have your own opinion, but you can’t have your facts.” Similarly, you can have your opinion about what gender should be, but you can’t have your own brain chemistry. Newsweek notes how in the womb, the brain of a male fetus is bathed with testosterone.

As any parent knows, that makes him different from a girl. If pedagogy systematically ignores those differences, it will be a disaster. Newsweek recounts the indices: Boys are twice as likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities than girls in elementary school; the number of boys professing a dislike of school has risen 71 percent from 1980 to 2001; men constitute 44 percent of undergraduates on college campuses, down from 58 percent 30 years ago.

If school overemphasizes sitting quietly and language skills; if recess is eliminated; if discipline is eroded; if the books feature consciousness-raising instead of action-packed narrative — then boys will be bored, disaffected and disruptive. Classrooms have to be made more boy-friendly — with more discipline, more competition and more activity — so that boys are no longer treated, as one expert put it to Newsweek, “like defective girls.”

These changes look promising, but schools aren’t the only place where cultural emasculation has been felt. The topic came up in a different setting where The White Horse Inn radio program interviewed David Murrow regarding his recent book Why Men Hate Going to Church [hat tip: The Rough Woodsman]. This week, Albert Mohler spoke of sex differences on his own radio program in the context of Scott Haltzman’s new book, The Secrets of Happily Married Men.

If we realize and act upon the fact that boys are not “defective girls,” the chances of growing defective men will exponentially diminish. Let’s appreciate the different ways God has made us. If there’s anywhere in our culture that’s lacking diversity, this is it.

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ornament 23 January 2006 ornament

Writer’s Block

As you can tell by my lack of recent activity around here, I’ve had a bit of writer’s block. I can’t seem to finish a

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ornament 15 January 2006 ornament

Art Imitates Life…Sort of

Anthropologist Grant McCracken picks up on a changing trend in the programming of prime–time television:

Prime time TV is, as we say, episodic. Each show was supposed to be free standing and one-off. No prior knowledge was presumed. If we had seen the show before, great. If not, never mind. Narrative constructions like Rockford Files or Two and a Half Men are so structurally simple and referentially redundant, that prior introductions were quite unnecessary. (In any case, a car chase is, forgive me, not so hard to follow.)

Prime time TV was not about continuities. It was about episodes. The world that just kept starting over. Time didn’t happen. Events didn’t accumulate. There were no critical paths, no path dependencies, no differences that ever made a difference over the long term. Typically, people didn’t age. They didn’t change. They didn’t grow. Outside the narrow narrative particulars, prime time dramas were timeless and placeless. It was as if all the characters had a really terrible case of amnesia.

Clearly, this is changing. Shows like 24 are really unthinkable without a knowledge of the larger, overarching narrative. Lost the same. I am noticing that while House can be watched without a knowledge of narrative continuity, it makes a vast difference when this is in place. Even with the cheat sheets from Entertainment Weekly (to say nothing of the love notes), Lost remains daunting.

McCracken suggests that contemporary culture might be becoming more complicated, thereby forcing contemporary entertainment to follow suit. He asks the question, “Beyond the new media literacy, what drives the trend to offer TV narrative that replaces the old strategy (broad access to shallow narrative) with a much more demanding one (narrower access to deeper narrative)?”

The other night I had a conversation with my friend Tom Hicks in which we discussed the idea that in order for art to be good art, it must be true. It doesn’t necessarily have to be factual, but it must represent what is being depicted truthfully. Absractions, or even ugliness can occur within a work of art, but even these must serve to highlight some truth or another.

Such thinking might be helpful in explaining the shift in the nature of prime–time television. People have seen that the old, formulaic, episodic shows didn’t give a true enough depiction of the world. People’s lives really weren’t resolved in hour, so they stopped watching these episodic shows in favor of “reality TV.” More often than not, however, reality shows were less truthful than episodic television.

Enter the serials. While shows like 24, Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Alias are often just as fanastic as the earlier stand-alone shows, they exhibit one truth in that like lives of their viewers, these shows understand that there is a larger overarching story to a human life that doesn’t end with the closing of a day. This doesn’t necccesarily qualify them as art, but it could place some of these shows much further along the spectrum than a standard 1980’s cop show.

This doesn’t completely explain the reason for the success of such shows (the marketers would undoubtedly see other influences), but it’s certainly a plausible theory — these are, after all, the most popular shows on television. It also is very telling about contemporary culture that people are interested in larger, more complex stories rather than simple, self-contained ones.

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ornament 13 January 2006 ornament

Kentucky Fried News

There’s trouble in Frankfort, KY, as a prominent porn star-turned PETA activist takes on the Kentucky government:

Pamela Anderson is leading a charge to remove a bust of KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders from the state Capitol.

The actress called the Kentucky native’s likeness “a monument to cruelty” to chickens in a statement issued by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal rights group.

Ms. Anderson, it seems, feels that silicon is a more earth-affirming material than concrete when it comes to a bust.

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If paraskevidekatriaphobia is fear of Friday the 13th, then paraskevidekatriablogophobia must be fear of blogging on Friday the 13th.

I’m not superstitious, so I’m unafraid. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll come up with something else to write about today…

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ornament 12 January 2006 ornament

2005 in Places

Following Jason’s meme, here are the cities in which I spent at least one night in 2005:

Alcoa, TN
Birmingham, AL
Destin, FL
Gray, TN
Indianapolis, IN
Kingsport, TN
Knoxville, TN
Louisville, KY
Owensboro, KY
Pigeon Forge, TN
Stamping Ground, KY
Townsend, TN

Although several of the above were repeat visits, it appears I’m becoming a homebody. Compare with my 1999 list:

Birmingham, AL
Budapest, Hungary
Elat, Israel
Frankfurt, Germany
Haifa, Israel
Jerusalem, Israel
Kingsport, TN
Kiyiv, Ukraine
Knoxville, TN
Krakow, Poland
Lake Naroch, Belarus
Louisville, KY
Minsk, Belarus
Moscow, Russia
Nashville, TN
Northern Israel
Nyoman River, Belarus
Paris, France
St. Petersburg, Russia
Tihany, Hungary
Vilnius, Lithuania
Warsaw, Poland

Where did you go in 2005? Daytrips don’t count — only places where you spent the night.

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ornament 11 January 2006 ornament

Books That Haunt: Gilead

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Seldom is a novel so powerful that it stops you in your tracks. A novel by design typically moves the reader along, building a tension that culminates at the three–quarter mark and finds closure on the final pages. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is not such novel.

Set in 1950s Iowa, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead is the diary-like account of third-generation Congregationalist pastor John Ames. Ames is nearing the end of his days, and writes for the benefit of his young son, the product of a late marriage to a woman half his age. Widowed for the bulk of his long life, Ames finds it necessary to put his thoughts to paper. The result is a work so rich that the reader will have a difficult time believing that is the real Marilynne Robinson and not the fictional John Ames who actually sent the draft of the novel to the publisher.

Slow on action and deep in thought, Gilead meanders a path through Ames’ inner life — a landscape which Robinson paints in prose so perfect that it borders on poetry. With a territory so vivid, an adequate survey would take pages, but I will limit my evaluation to two motifs found in the novel: awkwardness and rootedness.

Gilead oozes with awkwardness. One needs to look no further than the fact that a septuagenarian has a thirtysomething wife to begin to find the feeling of misplacement that pervades the novel. The fact of Ames’ looming death gives him a feeling of doubt with how to deal with his young family. Is he failing them by leaving them only the meager life savings of a widower who never expected a family so late in life? What does he do about his best friend’s estranged son, Ames’ own namesake — John Ames (“Jack “) Boughton, who has begun to take a seemingly excessive interest in Ames’ wife and son?

Awkwardness exists on the metaphysical level as well. During a discussion with Ames, Jack Boughton questions the old pastor on the nature of faith:

“Does it seem right to you,” he said, “that there should be no common language between us? That there should be no way to bring a drop of water to those of us who languish in the flames, or who will? Granting your terms? That between us and you there is a great gulf fixed? How can capital-T Truth not be communicable? That makes no sense to me.”

“I am not sure those are my terms. I would speak of grace in that context,” I said.

“And never of the absence of grace, which would in fact seem to be the issue here. If your terms are granted. I don’t mean to be disrespectful.”

While Ames’ answers fail to satisfy the unbelieving Boughton, Robinson shows us with this exchange (as with many others in the book) that people are at their most awkward when alienated from Truth. Even grace itself is an awkward concept, yet it is its beauty which makes our awkwardness fall away.

In our age of mass culture, the idea of a person having roots is quickly fading. Postmodernism is highly suspect of tradition, and looking back often puts one in danger of not being progressive. The locales where people once let their roots dig deep have suffered as well, with access to global travel and communication only a click of the mouse away. We citizens of the twenty-first century find ourselves in a place and time where sports stadiums reach obsolescence after twenty years and the elderly are counted as mere denizens of the society that got us all into the mess from which the rest of us are trying to emerge.

Ames finds his rootedness in the town of Gilead, Iowa, where his father likewise was a pastor. He has lived seventy-four of his seventy-six years in the town, and connects with the land around him as if it were integral to his being:

I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that the word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

Ames’ familial roots also affect him deeply. His grandfather was a wild-eyed prophetic-type preacher who fought in the Civil War and shed blood for the cause of abolition. His father, in reaction to that fiery paradox of a man, became a preacher for whom pacifism was a defining mark.

The potential up-rooting of Ames’ immediate family looms large throughout the novel. A wife and a son whom he never expected so late in life are a source of both joy and unrest for the ailing Ames.

However, it is Ames’ theological rootedness which gives him an unearthly sense of calm as he confronts his life at the end. An admirer of Calvin and Barth, with a strange respect for Feuerbach, the Congregationalist Ames is a man who has deeply studied but not perfected his faith. Doubts and questions do appear, yet never for too long. Amidst Ames’ insecurities and inconsistencies, the Christ of his faith sustains him and gives him joy.

Gilead is an uncommon novel. To read it is to be haunted by its prose and harassed by its profundity. The Pulitzer Prize has never been more deserving.

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