Friday, April 29, 2016

How We Unlearn Liberty

One of the primary goals of public education is to teach citizenship.  In order for our constitutional republic to function, we need to be taught the values underlying a free society.

We need to be literate, historically aware, and capable of grasping our rights, freedoms, and duties as Americans.  It's also a place to begin a sense of vocation, to create art and music, and to explore the joys of human knowledge.  But first and foremost, it should establish our place in culture.

That's the goal.

Yesterday, at the Fairfax County high school both of my sons attend, there was a security sweep.  The students were told it was a drill, but it was not.  Teenagers were herded out of classes, and told to leave all of their bags, backpacks and purses behind.  Teams of officers with drug sniffing dogs were brought in to search their possessions.

Some of the students were singled out for more extensive searches, which were clearly randomized.  Their bags were emptied and their possessions thoroughly examined.

An email was sent to parents, with language about insuring safety.  This is for the good of the children, we were told.  It's about keeping your children safe and maintaining a secure environment.


It was also a warrantless search, an invasion of individual privacy absent reasonable cause.  There was no specific information about an individual or concern.  It was a general sweep, one that my sons have informed me...been performed in other high schools around Fairfax County.

They're minors, one might argue, just children who need to be protected.  They have no rights, not technically.  Again, perhaps.

For those who are coming into adulthood, this teaches a very different set of values.  They are not incapable of observing and seeing what this means, even if they have not yet been afforded full citizenship.  What do they see?  Values grounded in fear and an obsession with security.

And remember: this is a high school.  For those in the senior class who have turned 18, like my older son, I would suggest that such a search directly violates their rights under the Constitution.  I assume the Fourth Amendment is still taught in Government classes.

A public school is a public space, supported by the public purse to serve the common good.

If our rights as citizens are not valued and lived out there, what does that say?  What does that teach?

The Church Incestuous


In the Old English, the word for church is Circe.  Or Cirice.  To be healthy spiritually, this peculiar institution needs to have its attention turned outward.

Christianity, after all, is an intentionally pan-cultural movement.  Yes, it's a message that rises from one person in one context.  But it transcends that context, spanning language and culture.  It presses out, wild and joyous, like living fire, touching and transforming and moving on.

It does not destroy.  It lights up, refining and changing and bending towards the just and the good, but it is always ever pressing outward.

Until it doesn't.

When it turns its attention inward, to its own interests, its own power, its own self?  It darkens, and grows broken of soul.

When it turns its affections towards itself, speaking only its own language and relating only to those within the circle it already knows?  It becomes cynical, pointlessly abstracted from reality, turned away from joy and folding inward.

The fruit of that turning inward is warped and flawed, a love that has forgotten the purpose of love, a love that has festered and rotted and turned to poison.

Because, as the Master taught, loving only those who are close to us is not the love that brings God into the world.

Why Robots Shouldn't Sell Books

Yesterday, on something of a whim, I spent fifty bucks to buy a book I already have from a seller who doesn't actually have the book in the first place.

It was the self-published version of my novel, which I used Amazon's Createspace to pitch to friends and family and a couple of folks who'd expressed interest.  It's cheaper than photocopying, way I figure it.  The English Fall has a real publisher now, which is a cool thing, and as soon as went to contract I made it so's you couldn't actually buy the first effort at the book from Amazon.

Which was all well and good.  The novel has benefited from some great, insightful editing, and it's a better story for it.

But what got me was that there were resellers out there claiming to have used copies of the proto-book.  I tracked the sales, and I know with certainty that there aren't more than a couple dozen copies of that novel out in the wild.  Most of those are owned by my parents.

So these resellers were, well, they were most likely lying.  The probability they have it in stock is near zero.   As a business model, buying multiple copies of a book that is sitting at number 7.6 million on the Amazon Bestseller List isn't a recipe for success.

My assumption: they'd set some automated system to claim they have every CreateSpace book in stock.  "Lightly used."  In "good as new" condition.   Then, when an order comes in, they just order it from Amazon, and sell it as used, while skimming a little bit o' shipping and handling.

That, as a business model, seems to have legs.

It also involves couple of little white lies.  "One in stock!"  "Order Soon!"

If the book is out of print, the machine intelligences deal with that by setting the price point higher than they calculate the market will bear.  For a while after I'd shut it down, the price point was in the high hundreds.  Then, of course, the illusion of demand drifted away, and the price drifted down.

Still, the reseller-bots claimed to have it.  So I decided to test my hypothesis, gritted my teeth, and ordered a copy for slightly more than it costs to fill up our van with gas.  "Daily Deals" was offering their imaginary "used" copy for $43 bucks, plus four dollars in shipping and handling.  I ordered it.

Mid-day, I checked back in.  The one other reseller-bot had fallen away, and only "Daily Deals" remained.  Their price for the book they likely do not have and cannot get, though, had gone up to over $200.

By evening, the price had risen further still, to $1,170.

It's supply and demand, and the machine is pricing for zero supply and one demand.  Still lying, of course.

But is it actually lying?  It doesn't know any better.  Reality means nothing to an algorithm.  It just responds as it was designed to respond, unaware, subsentient, unable to change in the face of something unexpected.  It knows nothing of the content of what it's doing, has no sense of aesthetics or purpose.

Which is why, honestly, robots make terrible salesmen.

They just don't know the product.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Paradoxical Isolation of Social Media

Nothing is more horrific, more shattering, and more soul-destroying than isolation.

Put a human being in solitary confinement, and you shatter their psyche.  We need one another, need unfiltered relationship, need the life-giving character of human-to-human exchange.  It is how we were made.  It is our nature.

Where solitary confinement is used, it leaves us gibbering and broken.  It's a cruel thing, a punishment, not a penitence.  It serves no purpose other than to inflict soul-harm.  It does not restore.  It does not reclaim and heal.

The solitary soul is trapped seeing only itself, trapped in a howling, echoing darkness.

And I wonder how that's mirrored the strange arc of our selfish culture, and the darkest shadow influence of social media and internet culture.

Here, a medium that is designed to connect.  It can.  It can allow us to open ourselves, to encounter new music and new cultures, new forms of life and being.  It can be a place of delight and discovery, of ever deepening understanding.  It can add richness to our relationships.

But it can have the inverse effect.  How?

Because it can also enable us to see only that which we wish to see.  Our screens can show us only those parts of being that are already a part of us, the inorganic and desire-driven projections of our yearnings.  We filter out those things we do not wish to see, aided by marketing algorithms and the semi-sentient manipulations of our selected inputs.

It can become the echo chamber of our grasping, drilled down through the miracle of marketing to our granular particularity as a microdemographic.   That mediated reality becomes the reflective surface of our own hungers and desires, carefully calibrated to filter out even the faintest whisper of noise from the outside.

It can supplant and replace our organic connection to being, a cuckoo chick growing fat in the nest of our soul.  It can become a compulsion, darkly obsessive by design, calling us into patterns of repetitive behavior, a panther circling endlessly in a cage, a prisoner rocking and muttering in their cell.

Trapped, alone, in a virtual world that is nothing more and nothing less than exactly what we want.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Witness 101

Truth is complex.

I was reminded of this after reading three things in rapid succession.  The first of those things was an article called "This is What Theology Looks Like," a missive from the Justice Unbound web-journal.  It was about Ferguson, and clergy responses thereunto.

The description of the events in Ferguson within that article stirred me to go deeper, and to read two documents that I'd meant to study.  The first was the report from the Department of Justice on the racial dynamics of Ferguson, with particular attention paid to the actions and attitudes of the Ferguson police department.

It's a striking, careful, and thoughtful document, one that systematically exposes the explicit and implicit racism of Ferguson law enforcement.  The black community in Ferguson had ample reason not to trust the local police, and the repeated systemic overreactions and overreach were amply documented.  The simple truth, provable to an objective observer: Racism had subverted the system of justice in Ferguson.

In that, the witness of local clergy and their external allies was clearly both relevant and needed.

But there was another document, one that was equally relevant: the Department of Justice report on the shooting of Michael Brown.  It was an exhaustive analysis of all of the forensic evidence and witness reports from that day, equally dispassionate and clinical.

It found no basis for prosecuting the officer who shot Michael Brown, and found that the officer's actions were both rationally comprehensible and within the bounds of the law.  This, from the same Justice Department that found ample evidence of systemic racism in the Ferguson Police Department.  That didn't matter, of course.  Given the former reality, the reaction of the community to yet another death was unsurprising.

And there, a peculiar dissonance was created with the article in Justice Unbound.

The author of that social justice piece described the shooting of Michael Brown in graphic, emotionally charged terms drawn directly from a witness..Witness 101...that was found by the Department of Justice to be unreliable.  Meaning, the testimony given by that witness was in direct contradiction to the clinical forensic evidence at the scene, and internally inconsistent.

What Witness 101 said just wasn't true, in the "part of reality" and "empirically provable" way of defining truth.  And yet it was uncritically repeated, presented to stir an emotive response.

Does reality matter, if we care about justice issues?

It does.  I say that without qualification.  It must.

One of the greatest and deepest sins of the "social justice" movement is a willingness to embrace a radically relativistic ethos.  "Truth," we are told, is a social construct.  "Truth," say the articles in the journals, cannot be known, as it is forever lost in the shifting sands of subjectivity.  Which means, oddly, that the "truths" of any given observer are inherently and automatically valid.  That is doubly true if that individual is experiencing social oppression.  Those who suggest that empirical reality should be considered are dismissed out of hand, as "Western" and "hegemonic" and "patriarchal."

This is an error, one that critically sabotages progress.

The truths articulated by those who are oppressed are only transformative if they are real.  They cannot be grounded in fantasy, projection, or the self.  They must have deep and real roots in the actuality of oppression.

Because oppression is real, and must be witnessed to in ways that lay their roots down deep.  What does that look like?  It looks like firehoses and dogs, like people peaceably sitting at lunch counters, asking only to be treated as human beings.

It looks like Eric Garner.

Eric Garner really couldn't breathe.  And he said so.  And we watched him say it.  That was a profound truth, a transforming truth, the truth of the crushing, suffocating weight of oppression.

It is reality, unmediated and absolute, that is the common ground in which we exist.  From there...and only there...we find the place of connection to those who do not understand oppression.

Truth is worth seeking, in all its frustrating complexity, because it is the ground and basis of both progress and justice.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dunbar's Target

The current cultural roar about transgendered individuals is peculiar.

Why this hubbub, about such a tiny fraction of the population?  Best estimates from research indicate that transgender folk are at most three out of every thousand individuals, and more likely one in a thousand.  It is not a common thing, and yet it seems to be a flashpoint issue this political silly season.

Here, a nation drowning in debt, unmoored from a sense of common purpose and frustratingly lost.  Our warped, top-heavy economy has left countless millions without meaningful vocation.  There are very real things we need to deal with.  And all we can talk about is where surgically and hormonally altered people should go to the bathroom.

I think, though, that I know why.

It's because transgendered individuals are an optimal target.  It used to be homosexuality generally, but that's proven less productive than hoped.  The problem with targeting gays and lesbians is that there are just too damn many of them.  Yes, that might seem a strange thing to say, but hear me out.  At three point five percent of the population, they're a small fraction of humanity.

But we all know a gay man, or a lesbian.  We humans are tribal creatures, woven together by a network of relationships.  That network of knowing tops out, on average, at around 150 individuals.  We can grasp the complex interweaving of a matrix of that size, understanding how every part of that network relates to every other part.  It's called "Dunbar's Number," after anthropologist Robin Dunbar, and it seems to be a robust descriptor of human relationships across every culture.

That means that gays and lesbians are a part of every tribe.  They are our friends, our family, our co-workers.  They are part of us, no matter who we are.  They pass the Dunbar test.

For all of the hullabaloo on both left and right, trans folk fail the Dunbar test.  At a best-estimate 2.25/1000 of total population, the majority of human beings won't deeply personally know a transgendered person.   I do not.  Oh, I've seen people who are trans.  And there are trans souls who are one or two steps removed from me in my loose circle of acquaintance.

But they are not my friends.  Not because I bear trans people any animus.  But because I simply do not know them as persons.  In fifty years of life in a major metropolitan area, I have not had that opportunity, not ever, to organically make their acquaintance.  Nor would I do so inorganically, because that kind of synthetic consciousness raising exercise would be an insult to the personhood of a trans soul, just a checking of a represent-your-category-for-me leftist-anxiety-box rather than an actual relationship.

This makes the transgendered the perfect Other.   If you need an enemy to cement your power, you need to stoke fear and manipulate, they're even better than immigrants.   Even better than gays and lesbians.  Because, through the simple mathematics of statistical frequency, there just aren't that many of them.  Not enough for that to be a consistent part of the human experience.

Those seeing power always seek the friendless, the isolated, the different.   It is the method of the bully, everywhere, at every level.

And what better target, than those who inherently fall outside of Dunbar's Circle of Trust?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Joyless Left

It was a silly thing, a bit of viral fluff that briefly lit up Facebook this week.

Two young women, both professional musicians, are busking in a train after a show as a way of drumming up interest.  It's a German train, filled with German commuters traveling from Frankfurt, but they're singing in English, because, well, that's how Europe rolls.

They bop along to Prince's "Kiss," and random, a passenger joins in.  He nails it, and the car erupts in applause.

Was  it planned?  Perhaps, because he's a Maltese semi-pro musician, although tracking his online reaction to the event and  pictures of them talking afterwards have a natural, "wow cool great to meet you fellow musician feeling."

It's the sort of light, joyful found-reality that has significant potential virality, and it worked.

It was shared, then shared, then shared again, finally being picked up by a culture-aggregator, whose followers shared it over 50,000,000 times in a matter of days.

It was the kind of thing you try to show to your kids, and they say, yeah, Dad, saw it.

But it was fun.

And then I wondered, through the lenses of the Left, how I would be obligated to see such a thing.  Should I be enjoying it?  Is it really "fun?" Or are there Significant Issues To Be Considered?

The video certainly manifests White Privilege.  People singing on a train?  No cops harassing them?  Man.  Serious privilege at play, both racial and class-based.

And Cultural Appropriation?  It's not just that they're German and singing in English.  They're using the styles and inflections of African American Vernacular English, up to and including their rap/scat.  Which, beyond being a little bit much, is also clearly, clearly cultural appropriation.

In fact, there are so many levels of wrongness at play here that we're certainly in encounter with an Intersectional moment, as confluences of unearned power and colonialist coopting of the semiotics of disenfranchised peoples create an oppressive nodality, one that could only be counteracted by parachuting in a team of trained facilitators to engage in the swift application of a Privilege Walk or some similar consciousness-raising exercise.


It's just so hard to enjoy anything anymore.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Why We Pick Terrible Leaders

It's a peculiar thing, being Presbyterian.  We have the longest and most agonizingly stretched out process for replacing our pastors, one that involves endless meetings and conversations, one that runs on for...on average...two to three years.

And yet, for all of that convoluted multistage complexity, we still often end up with folks who just don't work out.  We choose folks who just don't work.

Why?  Why do communities choose leaders that are not in their best interest?  Here are three reasons:

1) Anxiety. Communities that are anxious pick crappy leaders.  If they're fraught with internal tension, filled with fear about their future?  They'll pick the confident bullies, who push and shove and and dominate them.  They'll pick charlatans, who promise the world and sparkle and shine and make sure every spotlight rests on them.  They'll yield to the lure of the predator, who senses their vulnerability, and eagerly helps themselves to resources and flesh.

2) False Self Image.  A community that does not understand itself...that has no grasp of its history, that has no sense of its story...will choose destructive leaders.  This comes when a group either willfully or passively believes the lies it tells about its history.  "We're a welcoming place," they say, but they turn their backs on outsiders.  "We love our neighbors," they say, but their fellowship is defined by gossip, powerplays, and infighting.  Churches that fail to understand their identity will pick pastors for the church that they are not, and then wonder why things always come apart.

That's also a danger in "aspirational" leadership selection, when a congregation thinks it's ready for a change, but actually is not.  They bring in a bright eyed, bushy tailed "outsider," one who can guide them through a change process that they conceptually want but actually and existentially do not.  Woe, woe betide that hapless soul.

3) Absence of Shared Vision.  I know, the Supreme Leader is supposed to be the one "casting the vision."  And if you're creating a new community, that's all well and good.  But a healthy extant community already knows who they are, and from that ground they know where they want to go.  It's instinctual, learned, part of the pattern of the tribe.  They have a healthy sense of their identity, without which growth and progress is not possible.  They see, because they know, where that identity might lead them.

Where that is lacking, again, that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed dreamer is brought in.   Woe, woe betide them.

Of course, fortunately, this list only applies to churches.

Not nations.  No siree bob.  Nope.

Gosh, we'd be in trouble if that were true.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Josef Stalin Was a Great Man

I routinely read the Christian Century, both as it arrives in my church in box and online.  It's reflective and "thought provoking," which is a Presbyterian way of saying, "super sexy."  It's why I'm happy to be part of their blog network.

I was reading through a thought piece, part of a recent series on #BlackLivesMatter, when something struck me hard.

It was an essay about the tension between black identity and American identity from the perspective of W.E.B. Du Bois.  It dealt, specifically, with the real challenge of Confederate monuments in the American South.  It was interesting, in a reflective way, up to a key moment.

The authors, in a passing mention about how American racism had radicalized Du Bois, noted that he had written a eulogy for Josef Stalin.  Which, they asserted, was completely understandable.

And then the article moved blithely on presenting Du Bois and his perspective.  As if this was something one just says.  As if this is a perfectly normal thing to encounter.  But my reading of the article came to a grinding halt, the way one stops eating when one encounters a mouse head in your next bite of vegetarian lasagna.

The author provided a link to the eulogy, so I read it.  Read it.  Seriously.  Read it.

Stalin, according to Du Bois, was a great man.  Perhaps the greatest leader of the 20th Century, a man of vision and strength.  A man who got things done.  Sure, there are those who have belittled him.  But they are "jackals" and "ill-bred" and "distempered."

It stirred me to read more about Du Bois, who had some interesting beliefs.  He has some remarkably sharp insights into America's demons of racism, on the on one hand.  On the other, this flirtation with Stalin wasn't just a random thing.  He was a lifelong proponent of socialism...and not the Scandinavian/Canadian model...but the Soviet model.  There are some lovely pictures of him sharing a good laugh with Chairman Mao.  I don't know.  Maybe Du Bois just liked being associated with megadeaths.

And here lies a conundrum for the earnest liberal.  We are presented with an unparsed and unqualified statement praising one of the most quantifiably brutal tyrants of the 20th century.  At a minimum, Stalin's regime executed nearly 1,000,000 human beings.  Millions more died in gulags, and still millions more of starvation through forced and punitive collectivization.  The Soviet Union's own record keeping affirms that.  Stalin was a monster, a deep enemy of all that is good and creative and joyous and human.

Are we to gloss over a statement praising Stalin because the speaker is #black?  We can understand it, sure.  American racism gives it context, and oppression radicalizes.  Are we to "check our privilege," and just nod and listen attentively?

No.  Not if we are to remain both human and grounded in a Christian morality.

I am not obligated, as a human being, to affirm either that statement or that sentiment.   Neither am I willing to treat a thinker like Du Bois as if he is not a moral agent.  If I reduce him to context, attributing his actions to extrinsic systems and social dynamics, I rob him of his humanity.  That would depersonalize him, would render him less than the child of God that he was.

The article reminded me of the selective blindness induced by binary thinking and Othering.  It stirred me to muse about the inherent foolishness of the radical and the ideologue, and the meaninglessness of modern era racial dynamics as a moral category.

It stirred me to think about how complex the human soul can be, and about the deep flaws of human social systems.  It reminded me of the dangers of academic abstraction, which tends to be so focused on concepts and semiotics that it overlooks little things like "evil" and "mass murder."

Good, thought provoking stuff, in other words.  Which is why I read the Christian Century.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Blood and Privilege

It was one of those familiar moments, as I struggled to prepare my Easter sermon.  It's the Pastor's Cascade of Distraction, as an idea leads me from what was to be one illustration down a rabbit hole of related concepts.

In this case, it came as I boned up on the film that was part of my sermon illustration.  Being There was the film, that brilliant 1979 Peter Sellers comedy, and I was perusing the IMDB data on it before sliding it into my message.

Only something caught my eye.

It was the name of the cinematographer: Caleb Deschanel.  It wasn't that the name was familiar in and of itself.  I wasn't aware of his work with American Zoetrope, or his academy award nominations.

I just knew the last name seemed familiar.  And I thought to myself, I'll bet he's Zooey Deschanel's father.  Which, of course, he turned out to be.  If Dad worked with George and Francis Ford, that can't hurt career-wise.

Then, this week, there was a bit of gossipy-fluff-nothing in my feeds about Anderson Cooper talking with his mom about some time she fooled around with another woman.  This was meant to give some serious consumer-grade ElGeeBeeTeeCue warm-fuzzies, but it played out across my soul another way.

Because his mom?  She's a Name.  I hadn't realized he was the spawn of Gloria Vanderbilt.  Who, beyond being her own "brand," was also the heiress to the fortune of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

These familial connective resonances are consistent in our culture.  Like, you know comedienne Amy Schumer, who just happens at total random to be the niece of Senator Chuck Schumer.

Blood ties matter.  Oh, we like to think they don't.  We pretend that power doesn't pass on power.  But connections are connections, and blood is thicker than the ideals of American egalitarianism.  The creative and the wealthy love their kids, too, and do what they can to insure their success.

If you can insure that your children succeed, you'll do that.  It's natural, straight up evolutionary biology.

There, neither the opium-fantasy-bootstraps of the lumpencapitalist American right nor the neo-Marxist pifflepoffle delusions of the academic left mean a thing.  You protect and care for your babies.  It's a primal thing, deep meat organics.

And if you're socially powerful?  That drive is not diminished.

Which is why, try as we might, aristocracy just keeps on keeping on.