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Main | October 2006 »

September 26, 2006

Speaking of Objects

Sadly, Islam is not the only religion whose adherants teach the objectification of people. In this Salon piece Roberto alerted us to, a fundamentalist Christian pastor urges women to have lots and lots of babies in order to increase the number of people who will vote for conservatives. This both objectifies women, who are viewed as baby-making machines, and values babies as a means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. This attitude makes the Christians who teach it little different from those who would create babies in order to use them for spare parts.

The Second Largest Social Club

Facebook has finally decided to try catch up to its competitor, MySpace, in the race to connect every college student in the galaxy. The digital monster yearbook just announced that it will now open its sign-on screen to EVERYONE. This way friends who graduated two, twenty, or sixty years pre-Facebook can now join the second largest social club.

Give it a shot, only be prepared to squint in confusion at your screen over all the requests from everyone and their cousin who just happened to know you through chess club.

It’s No Mystery

Bible Girl is correct in believing we are all born into sin. I may be reading too much into this, but her use of the term “born broken” suggests agreement with the contention by gay activists that people are “born gay.” The absolute best writing on this issue comes from someone who cannot be dismissed as an ignorant fundamentalist homophobe: Harvard psychiatry professor Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Dr. Nicolosi’s books, especially Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality and A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, are first-rate: They describe the early-childhood roots of same-sex desires and provide fascinating case studies. Many bookstores refuse to stock these books for political reasons. They are available here.

Re: Bible Girl’s frustration over evangelicals who talk about “sexual preference”: Who can blame them when college girls claim to be lesbians “only” until graduation, when lesbian mothers encourage their heterosexual daughters to “try girls,” and Washington Post writers claim that sexual preference “is a shifting concept”?

Laura Bush on Afghan Women’s Activist Assasination

In the Post today, Noor Khan reports on an Afghan woman who was assassinated yesterday in Kandahar. Apparently, Safia Ama Jan was a long-time advocate and activist of women’s rights and had been a teacher for more than thirty years. Taliban forces are thought to have gunned her down, targeting her for her outspokenness for women’s rights and alignment with the new government.

Khan reports: “Laura Bush expressed sympathy and said the killing showed ‘how the struggle to end terrorism is also a struggle to preserve the fundamental rights and dignity of women.’”

The article and the statement are an in-my-face reminder of many freedoms I take for granted as a woman in the United States. (Though our culture attacks that dignity in many subtle ways, including the objectification of women in the media, it does not deny me opportunities for education, voting, career, etc. that are closed to women in other countries). It also reminds me of the God-given dignity of women and men that is assaulted wherever worldviews hold a dim view of mankind. I’m so thankful that a biblical worldview has both a high view of our dignity and a realistic view (because of the Fall) of our depravity. The Gospel answers the problem of our depravity and through Christ renews our dignity and restores the Imago Dei tarnished in the Fall.

Consumer Culture versus Creative Culture

This past week I was interviewing (for an article I’m writing) the director of a camp out in Michigan called Paradise Ranch that uses horsemanship to teach kids biblical worldview lessons. You can watch a video on their site that shows how he fluidly uses illustrations in breaking and training horses to create parallels with how God works in the lives of believers and non-believers. Anyhow, one of the parts of the interview that fascinated me most is discussing their family camps.

At the family camps, parents and kids work together to accomplish goals like sorting out a certain steer from the herd. In talking with Chad it became clear that experiences of parent and child working together to accomplish a goal often make for amazing learning experiences. Parents and children learn how to communicate better together, how to think on their feet, and how to plan.

What sort of amazed me is how foreign these shared problem-solving tasks have become to our consumer-oriented culture and to the families that come to his camp. Granted, parents often work in problem-solving tasks in their jobs, and kids may encounter problem-solving tasks at school or in after-school activities, but it has become far more exceptional for them to encounter and overcome these tasks as a team or to work together to create something. Just the everyday pace of life with shuffling of kids to school and back, after-school activities and back, the store and back, hardly makes for a lot of problem-solving or creative time spent together. Contrast this with the day in which homes were homesteads and parents and children engaged in activities daily that included these elements. Albert Hsu talks a little about this in his wonderful new book entitled The Suburban Christian. He says: “Of course, we cannot easily revert to an agrarian, communal society of extended, multigenerational families with homesteads of shared production and provision. For better or worse, we live in a postindustrial consumer society."

Hsu’s chapter on the Material World has me thinking, however, about how Christian homes can reclaim some of the lost elements of the homestead in the sense of creatively working together. “The opposite of consumption is production,” says Hsu; “often our only recreational activities are actions of consumption. What an alternative it is, then, to rediscover the wonder and delight of creativity.” At a purely educational level, it seems a helpful tool for teaching children. At a broader level, it seems a stepping stone to preparing children and engaging them in that great shared-enterprise and continuous problem-solving endeavor of the Church that we call kingdom-building. For those of you with families out there, what are some ways that you and your kids participate in creative activities together that major in producing rather than consuming something, or other problem-solving activities, for that matter?

Re: Single Girl Blues

Hey, Kristine, guess what: It's all our fault!

I kid, of course. I'm sure there's a lot of truth in those reader e-mails. But I'm surprised that NRO didn't get more e-mails from the opposite point of view: i.e., women of "inner strength, values and character" who haven't "[postponed] partner-seeking till it's too late."

Outbreak of Good Sense III

Over at The American Prospect, former Clinton administration trade official and Democratic consultant Kirsten A. Powers takes Rosie O'Donnell to task for telling her audience on The View that "radical Christianity is just as dangerous as radical Islam."

Besides calling the sage of Commack's comments "ill-informed and irresponsible" and noting that, despite this, "nobody was beheaded [and] to date, no mass burnings of A League of Her Own have been reported," Powers reminded TAP's readers of a few other inconvenient truths:

Whatever criticisms one can make of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell -- and there are many -- fundamentalist Christians are not flying planes into buildings in the name of God, nor are they plotting to blow up ten airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean. Radical Muslims are threatening and slaughtering “infidels” around the world. They murdered Theo Van Gogh and drove a member of the Dutch government into exile for their perceived slights against Islam. In Iraq, they recently kidnapped a Catholic priest and tortured him. They kidnapped and beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. It was reported today that Safia Amajan -- a fierce critic of the Taliban's repression of women -- was murdered in the street in Afghanisan. It's believed she was targeted by Taliban militants because of their opposition to women taking part in politics and education.

Rosie’s beef with Christian opponents of gay marriage would presumably pale should she find herself living in many Islamic countries. Perhaps she missed former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s speech at Harvard recently saying that, “Homosexuality is a crime in Islam and crimes are punishable. And the fact that a crime could be punished by execution is debatable.” And he’s considered a reformer.

Powers then criticized TAP's Adele Stan's assertion that "to throw a rhetorical bomb such as that the pope tossed into the teeming cities of the Muslim world is to commit an act tantamount to violence."

It’s a curious world where liberals decline to focus condemnation on a violent reaction perpetrated in the name of a religious ideology (Islam) that jails women for being raped or declares it legal for women to be murdered in the streets by angry male relatives. Even stranger to side against a religious ideology (Catholicism) that has vigorously opposed the Iraq war, torture, the mistreatment of detainees, and the death penalty . . . Attempts to falsely equate the Catholic Church and Islam usually lead to a discussion of the Crusades -- which, of course, happened in the 11th century. Pope John Paul II renounced them, along with the Inquisition, which ended 200 years ago. The Vatican isn’t out celebrating the Crusades while criticizing Islamic violence. It condemns both. Indeed, according to a Vatican spokesman, the pope believes that that there must be a "clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence." Thank God someone is willing to say it.

Thank God, indeed. I mean for Kirsten A. Powers.

Winning Isn’t Everything

And nor is it the only thing. Unfortunately, that's how some Christians see defending their faith. Even the phrase defending their faith betrays that.

I first became acquainted with Prof. Preston Jones of John Brown University after reading his article on prostitution and the military from Christianity Today; he later elaborated on the issue for BreakPoint WorldView. And so I got to have a first look at the topic of his new book, Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?, in which he shares his correspondence with a punk rocker, Greg Graffin, who holds a doctorate in evolutionary biology. Preston wrote another BreakPoint WorldView article for me, taken from this new book. The subject matter -- naturalistic materialism, religion, and science -- is intriguing. But what's more intriguing is not what the two talked about, but how they talked. As Jones points out in a current Christianity Today article (thanks again to Steve B. for the link), it was not a debate; it was not about winning. It was about learning.

It also takes a commitment not to let the discussion turn into a debate. ... I've tried to resist the construal of our correspondence as a "debate." Yes, we disagreed and went at each other, but we didn't debate.

Debate is about winning, and that's important in many contexts. But I didn't care about winning. Nor did I care about "listening" in the gushy, politically correct sort of way associated with people-friendly evangelism.

Mainly I cared about learning. I wanted to learn how Greg sees the world, and I hoped that he learned about a Christian vision of the world.

In the process I found my relationship with Jesus strengthened. Not because I was stretched intellectually by the challenges of atheistic materialism, in which (it seems to me) there's a lot more bark than bite. Rather, my relationship with Jesus was strengthened because my conversation with Greg led me to see some things more deeply.

This is an important point Christians should take to heart for two reasons: 1) If you see "defending your faith" as winning the argument, then when you supposedly have won the argument, what have you really gained? A convert? Guess again. And 2) if you don't allow your belief to be challenged, or welcome opportunities to learn, then you don't open up to growing more deeply in your faith. Listening to or reading only everything you agree with does nothing to cultivate your faith, belief, and worldview.

Postscript: Some readers may bristle at the topic Jones addresses in the rest of his article, about the rigidity of believing a literal 6-day creation and the possibility of evolution and faith not being mutually exclusive. My own opinion is the latter. To be succinct, none of us were there at creation with a camera to witness exactly how God created; nor is exactly how God created what is important. I choose to be humble enough to allow God that mystery in what method He chose in creating all that is. And I don't think that diminishes His sovereignty or greatness; I think the mystery enhances it. But let's not debate this; let's choose to continue to learn ...

The Mystery of Homosexuality

At the Dallas Observer blog, "Bible Girl" talks about the mystery of sexual orientation, and her own experience:

Today I will say that sexual orientation is a mystery. It does frustrate me greatly when evangelicals talk about “sexual preference.” In gay activist Mel White’s book, Religion Gone Bad, which I wrote about last week (unflatteringly), he tells how Pat Robertson pointedly refers to homosexuality as a “preference.”

Hmm…let’s see. Today I’ll have a Wild Cherry Pepsi. Tomorrow I’ll have a can of Squirt.

I don’t entirely blame Robertson; he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The truth is we are all born broken--so often in the area of sexual identity, something that touches the core of who we are and what we were created to be.

That, I believe, is the authentic biblical view: born broken, children of original sin. Desperately in need of a savior--who then tells us we must be “born again.” ...

The Apostle Paul said, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ.” This is how I’ve come to understand his words: You don’t know who you really are, who you were really meant to be until you have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Until you’ve surrendered your all to him—including your broken sexuality, in whatever form that has taken. That’s the death Paul is talking about. You must allow Jesus to remake your life as he sees fit.

There is much more to this thought-provoking post; read and discuss.

(Thanks to Steve Beard for the link.)

The Real Secrets of Success?!?

A recent Newsweek article discussed "10 Power Tips" to "real success" for women in business. Here are some of the tips:

Be competitive: "Too often, women feel they have to be nice. Don't."

It's not about friendship: "Women want everyone to like them, but it really doesn't matter what people think of you," says Renee Edelman, Sr VP of Edelman. "It's that you get the job done and deliver results."

Always project confidence: "When someone asks 'How are you?' don't go into a litany of what's wrong with your life," says Schulman. Instead, present yourself as in control and happy.

Stand up for yourself: "I protect my interests, their interests. If someone is going to mess with that, I cut them out like cancer."

This is the antithesis to the woman of Proverbs 31, a woman of noble character.  Character is not mentioned once in these tips.  A succesful woman is defined as in control and cutthroat...one who will destroy friendships in order to get the job done.

The real definition of a successful woman is found in Proverbs 31:30-31, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate."

Single Girl Blues

Following up on Gina's post, Sunday's Washington Post ran a humorous editorial on the pitiful male to female ratios in cities including D.C. The writer aptly pointed out that the numbers are even more dismal when you take into account only heterosexuals, to say nothing of the despair that sets in if one is hoping for an honest-to-God evangelical Christian. The fact that this shocks no single woman is evident in the new ABC drama Men in Trees, about a single New Yorker who moves to Alaska, kind of a Northern Exposure for Gen X.  Tellingly, one of the show's creators was previously a head writer on Sex in the City. I think, perhaps, that proves your point, Gina.

A Believable Theory About Conspiracy Theorists

Ever wonder about those 9-11 conspiracy theories? I don't mean do you wonder if they are true. I mean do you wonder how anyone takes them seriously, or why the media wastes any ink on them.

What is it about our culture that gives traction to such silliness? Why do novels built on conspiracy theories, like Da Vinci Code, gain such popularity even with such slipshod research and mediocre writing?

Edward Feser unpacks those questions in his post called "We the Sheeple? Why Conspiracy Theories Persist".

Feser's theory is that it is the Enlightenment narrative of distrust for authority that gives these laughable theories their legs.

The absurd idea that to be intelligent, scientific, and intellectually honest requires a distrust for all authority per se and a contempt for the opinions of the average person, has so deeply permeated the modern Western consciousness that conspiratorial thinking has for many people come to seem the rational default position.

In other words, it is a worldview that feeds them.

The money sentence is this ...

As the philosopher Christopher Martin has noted, the real difference between medieval and modern people is not that the former believe in the need for authority and the latter don't -- in fact both medievals and moderns believe in it and act accordingly -- but rather that the former admitted that they believed in it, while the latter pretend they don't.

Spot on. Should we really buy into a worldview that says with authority, "don't trust authority"?

(Hat tip : Joe Carter)

September 25, 2006

If you’re a single woman . . .

. . . see if you can read this without snorting.

You mean that upstanding single men who are interested in marriage are exceedingly hard to find in a big city nowadays?? Why, heavens to Betsy, who would ever have thought it?

Mr. Derbyshire, incidentally, once tried to convince me in an e-mail conversation that the sexual revolution had had its good points. I wonder if there's any hope of his seeing any connection between it and this anecdote that has him so stunned.

Meow Mix (That’s What TNR Called It.)

On the surface James Wolcott might seem like an odd choice to write a review essay on the latest entries in the never-ending literary "mommy wars." After all, the author of Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants doesn't have any kids and, well, he's a guy.

Who cares? He's funny. Very funny. In a kind of reviewer Jujitsu he turns turns his seeming disqualifications into a plus.

Women--to generalize madly--internalize a far thornier thicket of conflicts and tensions than most men do. Their worries, duties, doubts, regrets, and unfulfilled yearnings can jab at them from different directions at varying intensities, their unresolved feelings never quite coming to rest, whereas men tend to load all their grief, worry, and regret into one large duffel bag that weighs them down like Willy Loman's suitcase . . . Men are competitive with other men, but less comparison-oriented. When men take inventory of their lives, we are the only ones standing on the scale; we don't weigh ourselves against a brother-in-law or against Murray down the street. We tend to practice a laissez-faire policy toward other men and their (mis)deeds, an indifference born out of a deeper apathy. That's what mystifies so many married men about the Mommy Wars. We don't understand why so many women are so avid to sit in moral judgment of other women's difficult choices, why they care so much about what other women do (often women they barely know), and why so many of those women are writers. 

While I don't agree with everything I just quoted (I don't regard myself as apathetic), I do wonder about many of the same things.

Having warming to his task, Wolcott writes that "almost every chapter" in Mommy Wars by Leslie Morgan Steiner "is a Lifetime movie in miniature, complete with a snuggly epiphany before the fadeout." His take-down of the contribution by Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of Erica, which he calls "proof that bad writing can run in the family," is a classic.

But, by far, the funniest stuff is reserved for Caitlin Flanagan whom he calls the "Holly Golightly of the Mommy Wars." I like Flanagan's stuff but this is funny. So is his response to her account of the effects that her mother's short-lived return to the paid workplace had on her:

Flanagan's plight didn't last forever . . . Although Flanagan's ragamuffin period was brief, it seems to have marked her as deeply as Dickens's traumatic stretch in the shoe-blacking factory.

In the end, Wolcott is way too hard on Flanagan -- no surprise here -- and treats Linda Hirshman's quasi-totalitarian screed with way too much deference (no less a surprise). Still, I'm grateful for the laughs, especially when it comes to this subject.

When the Saints Come Marching in (Tonight)

Just a little over a year ago, 25,000 men and women crammed into the Superdome to escape one of the worst natural disasters this country has seen. Tonight the Superdome will host the Saints and the Falcons in a game that signals a return of hope and some small semblance of normalcy to New Orleans.

But when the Saints come marching in to the Superdome tonight, I won't be able to help but think of and pray for the true "saints" I know who have shown persevering love in helping to rebuild shattered lives and communities in hurricane-ravaged areas. Last Thanksgiving, I spent a week with some of those Saints from Desire Street Ministries, gutting ruined homes, sweeping and shoveling debris, and otherwise picking up just a few pieces of the desolation that will take years, if not decades from which to recover. You can read a little bit about that experience here, where I talk about what it means to miss New Orleans, borrowing Louis Armstrong's phrase.

The point of the post. First of all, pray for my friends at Desire Street (true saints) and so many others like them who have continued to persevere and serve in the face of disaster. (And if you can give to help support them, even better! I'm sure they'd be grateful.) Second, pray for those like my friend Tonya in Houston, who are continuing to serve the displaced in cities across this country. Pray (Gal. 6:9) that they would not become weary in doing good, but that God would encourage their hearts that in due season they will reap a harvest if they do not give up.

I also want to encourage anyone who is reading to not give up in their own particular area where God has called them to persevere. Here at BreakPoint we often write about issues time and again, from the sanctity of marriage to the sanctity of human life, from sex-trafficking to human rights abuses. These issues are not solved in a day. Like William Wilberforce, who fought his whole life to see the slave trade abolished in England, we are called to persevere also. I pray you will persevere in the particular area of bringing a biblical worldview to your own sphere of influence, that place to which God has called you. Do not become weary, friends. Look to God and look to his promise of a future harvest.

Cavalcade of weirdness

(Sorry 'bout that, Allen. :-) )

Remember the saying "It never rains but it pours?" Around noon I got invited, along with other graduate students at my university, to have coffee with Angela Davis. This afternoon I received an e-mail from Books-A-Million asking me to come meet James McGreevey.

All I need now is a dinner invite from the president of Iran, and my day will be complete.

Re: Steyn

Gina, how could you leave out Steyn's punch-line finale?

It may be news to the Council of Foreign Relations types and the Dems, but the U.N. demonstrated this last week that it is utterly incapable of reform. Indeed, any reforms would be more likely to upgrade and enhance the cliques of thugs and despots than of the few states willing to stand up to them.

Anyone else experiencing flashbacks to the U.N.'s Human Right's Commission when Libya, Sudan and Syria were members?  And now, a drumroll please.

...Anyone who thinks the U.N. is the body to mediate Iran's nuclearization or anything else is more deluded than Ahmadinejad. At this rate, the Twelfth Imam will be the next secretary-general.

Sadly, I'm not sure if this is more comedy or prescience.

Thinking Worldviewishly About Technology

Donald made a cogent comment on my earlier post on the phenomenon of social networking. Donald and I are on the same trajectory, I think.

In Technopoly, Neil Postman makes the following astute comment ... "New technologies change what we mean by 'knowing' and 'truth'; they alter deeply embedded habits of thought which give a culture its sense of what the world is like -- a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is inevitable, of what is real."

That is where I was angling with this thread. Besides the obvious dangers of predators lurking on social networking sites, I think living on line has a much more subtle danger. As we morph into virtual creatures and spend more of our lives on line, our view of reality will be affected … especially in a culture that is awash with postmodern views of reality anyway.

I also agree with Postman that "technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology." Will the term friend be the latest takeover?

BTW, don't pull the luddite card on me at this point. I love technology ... blogging on The Point is proof of that. :-) I simply think it is critical that we think worldviewishly about technology, don't you?

Some others are already thinking worldviewishly about technology: Brett Kunkle at Stand To Reason, Dr. Doug Groothuis in a satire piece called www.MyWorld.com. Also, check out the interesting column on U.S. News and World Report called "Decoding MySpace."

Asking for a Second Chance

In today’s Breakpoint, Mark Earley argues for passage of the Second Chance Act. Mark and Justice Fellowship’s Pat Nolan have labored for this bill for a long time now, and it is time for this to finally get passed. We need to provide prisoners with the tools they need to succeed on the outside instead of simply increasing the likelihood that they will commit more crimes upon release.

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege -- thanks to Randy Schulz, Prison Fellowship’s Field Director for Washington and Alaska -- of joining inmates of McNeil Island Corrections Center in Steilacoom, Washington, for an evening worship service. The thirty or so men, who lovingly refer to each other as “brothers," were full of joy and exuded a confidence of freedom despite their residency behind McNeil’s imposing fences.

Not that I have always been concerned about the plight of prisoners. Hardly. In the late '90s, I spent three and half years as a police officer in the DC metro area, and my sentiment toward criminals was more frequently hate. And how could it not be? I saw how dreadfully the victims suffer, and my sympathies were strictly with them. But criminals? All I cared about was locking them up; after that, I hoped for as horrible a prison experience as possible.

It was the children who changed my perspective. Although I despised the 25-year-old toughs I regularly encountered and often arrested, my heart went out to the 5-year-old children. From rotten home situations to bad neighborhoods to crass entertainment, everything constantly works against them. In that environment, lacking in loving relationships and wise counsel, just how precisely are these kids supposed to magically "get it" between ages 5 and 25? Would I?

Now, does environment excuse crime? Should inequalities in upbringing cause us to stop being tough on crime? No and no. On the contrary, the Christian command to do justice requires us to punish criminal acts, and the command to love our neighbor requires us to safeguard their lives. Most obviously, we must seek justice for, and care for, those who are victimized by criminals. But the command to love also compels us to continue valuing the life of the prisoner. Lives are not disposable, no matter whose life is in question.

Indeed, while we tend to think of prisoners as being completely different than us, at McNeil Island, I found myself struck by our similarities. More than similarities, I was honestly impressed with these men. I admired them for the earnestness and sincerity of their prayers, their joyous and intense worship, and their evident work at deepening their faith through studying the Bible. Man after man expressed the freedom found in their transformation. One young man put it this way: “I may be locked up inside these walls, but I’m as free as anyone on earth because God has saved me and freed me.”

All of which is to say that I was inspired by these men for whom, not that long ago, I’d have felt nothing but disdain. Do they deserve a second chance? Haven’t all of us received second chances we did not deserve? Regardless, most of them -- and tens of thousands besides -- are going to get a second chance, when they complete their sentences. The question is: are we going to release them as likely re-offenders or as reformed citizens? Anything that gives us more of the latter and fewer of the former is a good thing. We need the Second Chance Act passed now.

Created in God’s image -- conforming to Christ’s image

For several years now I've participated in the Fellows study program of the C.S. Lewis Institute. The focus for Year Three of the program is to learn more about what true discipleship is, and how to mentor others. Last weekend, Don Payne of Denver Seminary led a great seminar on "The Theology of Discipleship" that has me pondering a lot of points made by him and others throughout the sessions. So I thought I'd share a few of those points with you here so you can ponder them too!

Today's point to ponder is based on a question posed by one of the other participants (and keep in mind -- I'm no theologian, so I may not have expressed this perfectly!):

We were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). As followers of Christ, we have been redeemed to conform to Christ's image (Romans 8:29).

Is the image in which were were originally created (and intended to be) different from the image to which we are being conformed? If so, how and why?

Discuss.

The On-Line Social Networking Phenomenon

(Ed. note: If you think you've seen this post before, you're correct. A re-edit bumped it back to the top. We're still figuring out this system. :-) )

"If the web was once an enormous library, it is now a vast conversation" says Amanda Gefter in Living online: This is your space.

The advent of social networking has been nothing short of mind boggling.

Three years ago, "social networking" sites like MySpace, Facebook, Friendstar and Bebo did not exist. Now they are the internet … at least for the under 25 crowd. Don't believe me? Look at the numbers. MySpace, which was purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation for $580 million last July, just registered its 100 millionth member. It passed Google last July as the number one ranked website among US internet users. Friendster now has 30 million members. Bebo, launched last July, has 25 million members and is the number one social networking site in the UK. Facebook, a social networking site directed primarily at college students, processes 2.3 million photos uploaded per day! Eighty-five percent of college students use Facebook.

My initial reaction to the rise of social networking is that it is simply an internet version of yapping on the phone for hours -- and who among us was not guilty of that once or twice (or lots of times) as a teenager?

Looking deeper, is there more going on? Why the meteoric rise?

My own hunch is that for some, it is a fad … simply something novel to try out. Like blogging, many will try it and abandon it after the fun wears off.

For others, it is an opportunity for self-expression … and chance to define themselves by what groups they listen to, what shows they watch, what movies they like, what movies they hate, and any other cultural peg they can hang their hat on.

For others, it is a new social currency … a popularity metric … a competition to see how many "friends" they can amass.

For others, perhaps, it is an escape from boredom or loneliness.

Whatever the reason, the sheer number of internet social networkers is staggering … it has taken over our culture … more importantly, what will be the impact of taking our relationships on-line?

My own concern is two fold. First, will the rise of "friending" devalue and water-down the true meaning of friendship … in the same way that redefining marriage devalues marriage? Second, was Neil Postman right that our culture really is a Technopoly, and is technology becoming the gatekeeper for how we form our friendships? I would be interested in hearing other Point bloggers and Point readers weigh in.

What say you?

It takes a Steyn

. . . to do justice to last week's U.N. debacle:

I said a year or two back, apropos the U.N., that it's a good basic axiom that if you take a quart of ice cream and blend it with a quart of dog poop the result will taste more like the latter than the former. And last week's performances at the General Assembly were a fine illustration of that. Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez were the star finalists of "UnAmerican Idol," and, just when you need Simon Cowell, the only Brit in sight was the oleaginous Mark Malloch Brown, Kofi Annan's deputy, fawning over every crazy in town. The rest of the bigwigs reacted like Paula Abdul, able to discern good points even in fellows who boast about not having any. That's the reality the Dershowitzes refuse to confront: that structurally the U.N. enables thugs to punch above their weight.

Incidentally, were you aware of the latest Holocaust denial by the Iranian president? I wasn't until I read Steyn's piece. Why is it that the world cares so very much when Mel Gibson insults the Jews (or even when George Allen tries to keep his heritage quiet to fulfill a promise to his nervous mother), but sits back and yawns when a head of government does it?

A Different Kind of Nostalgia

Two of John Hughes's movies, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, have just been released on special-edition DVDs, prompting Michael Weiss to revisit and reevaluate these teen angst movies:

... Hughes, though, was never quite the antagonist of the status quo he made himself out to be. He was actually a political conservative, and his portrayals of down-and-out youth rebellion had more to do with celebrating the moral victory of the underdog than with championing the underprivileged. In Hughes' hormonal vale of tears, snobs and elitists were the ones who ruined wealth for everybody else. ...

Gen X nostalgia is as interesting for what it remembers as for what it chooses to ignore. Every so often, you'll turn on TBS and be forced to take inventory of the popular culture of your youth. Trading Places delivered its comeuppance with a switcheroo act of stock fraud; the true nemesis of Ghost Busters wasn't Gozer but the EPA; Stripes is all about making a kind of screwball peace with the military-industrial complex … Sure enough, there's Harold Ramis—another Lampoon alum, who directed Hughes' screenplay for Vacation—reflecting on the Chicago Seven hearings in a recent interview with the Believer: "They ran up and down the street, smashing car windows and stuff. My first reaction was, 'Yeah, right on!' But then I thought, 'Wait, I'm parked out there.' " The polite term for this gentle rightward shift when it happens to artists and intellectuals is embourgeoisement. What a shame the philosopher of puberty never warned kids about that. ...

Re: Nostalgia and phonics/whole language

Not to pile on ... in either direction, but as one who's gone through a traditional phonics-based reading curriculum and whose daughter has been through the same, I can attest that: Phonics is an effective method of teaching how to read -- and whole language methods, if my understanding of everything that they entail is correct and I'm matching that notion correctly with my experience, are helpful in teaching what the student is reading, i.e., comprehension and evaluation. It's not an either/or situation and is to the detriment of many if treated as such. But it doesn't seem that many do treat it this way.

The students that come into my daughter's school who have poor reading skills and are immersed into the phonics approach improve quickly and greatly in their reading ability, enabling them to move on to higher thinking levels in reading, so that they can evaluate well and write more skillfully. One method feeds the other. And then early on (it was either 2nd or 3rd grade that my daughter began this), they move into basic etymology of words, learning the meaning of parts of the word in order to deduce definitions without looking them up in dictionaries, as well as learning the meaning in context (i.e., whole language). But they first must learn to read the word (via phonics).

But then, as I understand, there are those few children for whom phonics is no help. They have a different learning style and/or ability. And that's why teaching reading skills cannot be limited to a one size fits all method.

Re: Nostalgia

And mine allowed me to defend it, which always makes me feel fantastic. ;-)

Seriously, all I was saying was, rely on the research. And as for teaching one method to the exclusion of all others, though you may not realize it, that's a rather misleading way of framing the question. Someone in the comment section of that Washingtion Monthly piece you posted explains why: "No one on earth argued that phonics should be 'exclusive,' as if the entire 12 years of elementary and high school education are going to be spent on sounding out the letter 'm.' The real problem is the reverse: Whole language advocates who do NOT want to teach kids how to sound out diphthongs because that would be 'drill and kill.'"

In fact, that comment section as a whole is very telling. There are several different kinds of responses, as always in a comment section, but as a whole, the general thrust of the conversation amounts to this: "Man, I HATE it when conservatives are right, but I sorta kinda have to admit they're right on this one. BUT they're right for the wrong reasons AND they're never ever right about anything else!" Go read it if you haven't had your morning chuckle yet.

Re: Nostalgia

Gina: I'm a noncombatant/agnostic in the whole phonics-versus-whole-word steel cage match. The closest thing I have to an opinion in the matter is the intuition that, as with the rest of education, one size definitely does not fit all. This seems obvious to me and, thus, any attempt to require one approach to the exclusion of others makes me ask "why?" My earlier post offered one possible answers and, more importantly, allowed me to trash nostalgia, which always makes me feel good.

Elements of Forgiveness

Two opinion pieces in Sunday's Washington Post highlight forgiveness. Writing of elderly Germans' confessions of youthful participation in Nazi activities, Alix Christie complains that their admissions fall short because they lack an acknowledgment of guilt. "The central requirement of confession has been consistent in Western Christian tradition since it was established by the Council of Trent: full admission of sin or wrongdoing, as a prerequisite to pardon and reconciliation," she writes. "We raise our children to fess up, shake hands and say they are sorry." (If you were my brothers, you were also made to recite Psalm 133:1, "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.")

In a similar vein, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who was puzzlingly put on trial for betraying "Turkishness" through a fictional character, writes about the bizarre trial and her novel. She calls it "a book about the need to examine the past and the desire to erase it." Her novel tackles the 1915 slaughter of Armenians, a touchy subject among Turks who want to deny their country's part in the atrocity. Shafak writes, "I would like Armenians to forgive and forget one day, too, but we Turks need to remember first."

A little repentance goes a long way.

September 24, 2006

Re: Nostalgia

I don't overlook the role played by nostalgia here, Roberto. It's undoubtedly sigfnificant. But let's not rule out plain old common sense, either.

When I worked as a reading tutor years ago, my students had learned to read by the look-and-say -- excuse me, "whole language" -- method, with the result that on the threshold of junior high school, they could barely read. I had to practically start them over from the beginning -- with phonics.

Granted, I didn't have many students, and even if I did, one tutor's experience would be purely anecdotal evidence. But it's what got me interested enough in the issue that years later, while interning for then education policy analyst Jennifer Marshall at Family Research Council, I researched and wrote a paper for them on phonics vs. "whole language," gaining in the process a much fuller understanding of why one works so much better than the other. (Susan Wise Bauer, incidentally, agrees with this.) Jen (now at Heritage Foundation) supported me in this, not, I think, because she was a social conservative, but because she knew and cared more about education techniques and policies -- about what works and what needs to be scrapped -- than almost anyone else I've ever met.

If it's truly the case that the politically conservative advocate phonics much more than the politically liberal do -- and for all I know there may be a considerable amount of overlap -- couldn't it simply be because they've studied the issue more carefully?

Nostalgia

Over at The Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum writes

Social conservatives believe a lot of things: school prayer is good, abortion is bad, homosexuality is a sin, evolution never happened, and phonics is the only proper way to teach children to read.

Do you notice one thing in that list that seems like a bit of an odd fit? And yet, conservatives have long fought for phonics with the same revolutionary zeal that they bring to the rest of their agenda. And they don't merely argue that phonics should be a substantial part of any good reading program — which it should — but that phonics should be the exclusive method of teaching reading to kids. "Whole language" meets with about the same reaction as a cry to arms against "secular humanism." I've never quite understood how phonics came to occupy the same pedestal as the Lord's Prayer, but there you have it.

Drum is a smart guy so I suspect that he knows that at least part of the answer lies in the role that a kind of nostalgia plays in the thinking of many social conservatives. Many activists aren't operating from a coherent, well thought-out, set of ideas and principles. Instead, they seek to restore, at least in part, some prelapsarian status quo ante such as the 1950s or, as my friend Susan Wise Bauer has pointed out, the nineteenth century.

You don't need to be or even agree with Stephanie Coontz to see that this nostalgia-as-thinking is a-historical. Not in the "past was really creep and repressive" way -- although there's some truth to that -- but in the sense that much of what social conservatives object to about modern culture was already present, albeit in germinal form, in these periods. Stated differently, what we see as contemporary decadence has been a long time in the making.

Cultures aren't like railroads where a few well-timed switches can make the difference between arriving in Los Angeles or arriving in New Orleans. As James Davison Hunter wrote in The Death of Character, the shift away from the understanding of self that made traditional notions of character and morality possible was well underway in the nineteenth century and pretty much complete by the early twentieth century.  Thus, Hunter proclaims, "Character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed.” 

By "dead," Hunter means character as defining characteristic of American culture. It's possible for distinctive communities, especially religious ones, to inculcate character but, as he notes, Christians have internalized the same of understanding of self as everyone else and, in any case, aren't terribly anxious to be all that distinctive.

So, coming back to my railroad metaphor, they keep throwing switches, forgetting that the train has already passed through. They hope that, by re-creating bits and pieces of the past, they can re-invent the present. Sound it out: fu-ti-li-ty.   
 

September 23, 2006

Re: Lifetime Television for Women

Regarding my post on Sue Monk Kidd and her Lifetime movie, reader Herman Greenstein comments that, given their traditional over-the-top domestic abuse of women, he has a name for those movies: "Deathtime on Lifetime." Not bad, Herman. Personally, though, I usually just go with "the Men Are Bad Channel."

(I confess, however, to enjoying the occasional Golden Girls rerun and making use of the aerobics programs. At least, I'll make use of them until some homicidal chauvinist pig takes after Denise Austin with a meat cleaver.)

Thin ... like a Hanger

(Yeah, like I could actually keep silent for the weekend.)

Diane, you're getting at it, except not all designers are gay; and even the straight ones hire too-skinny models. I definitely do not support or make excuses for the anorexia on the catwalk. But think about this: If the model were devastatingly beautiful and voluptuous (a la Catherine Zeta Jones, who I think is the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, and then Salma Hayek), would you pay much attention to those clothes? Probably not. Yes, the era of the Supermodel is over. And if you remember those supermodels -- like Cindy Crawford and Elle MacPherson -- you'll remember they were not grossly skinny or waifish; they were healthy and curvy -- thinner, yes, than the average American woman, but definitely not sickly. And we remember them for how they looked, not what they wore. Hardly any models are known quantities nowadays. We don't know their names; we don't know their faces. We know them just as a skinny blur on the fashion pages of the paper.

But boy, those clothes (some pretty, and some pretty godawful) sure catch our eye. And, thus, the designer has achieved his or her goal. I can't remember where I first heard it many years ago, but runway models are known as "hangers" -- that's what they're actually called. They are there only to display the clothes, not to overpower them with their own appearance. So we see bland, faceless girls trotting down the runway. But now the anorexia is getting so ridiculous, we're starting to notice the problem of thinness, and not those clothes. Hence, we're seeing the trend in the other direction toward getting models not to be so distractingly skinny. Either way, they're a commodity -- though paid well. So it's not necessarily about who the designer personally finds attractive (boyish or manly, girlish or womanly), finding "hangers" is about finding someone who won't distract from the clothing.

Admirably, not all major models aspire to impossible skinniness -- some decry it. Consider this from the one Victoria's Secret called "The Body," naming a line of its lingerie after her, Heidi Klum:

"When I came to America, I was really into all the things people eat here. I started to eat muffins and brownies and those yummy caramel chocolate things," she says with a laugh. "People called me Muffin, because I would eat muffins all the time. ...

She also had a problem with how people in the modeling industry viewed her body. "They want you to be skinny all the time," she says. "They're like, 'Oh my ---, you're too fat. You have to lose weight.' ... In New York it was the same, because I was too big for a lot of things. That's why I never really got into fashion shows."

"Big, as in fat?" asked the interviewer, incredulously. "Big, yeah, as in fat for the business. ...," responded Heidi. "The designers have certain measurements you have to fit into. So you all have to have a certain body type ..." [Don't think they'll move to size 10 anytime soon, Diane.]

Asked how she avoided developing an eating disorder, Heidi shrugged and replied, "I think there is a certain kind of person who, when someone says, 'Jump,' they say, 'How high?'" But she, said Heidi, was not one of those people. "Either you like me for who I am, or that's it."

Good girl, Muffin. And now, I think I'll bake something indulgent this weekend...to go with the football games.

September 22, 2006

A simple solution to too thin models

Travis, I read a headline the other day where the French claimed they simply could not legislate the size of runway models. I had one thought: if the designers would provide size 10 clothes for models to wear, the problem would be solved. I have a theory, however, about why super-thin, flat-chested women have become the norm in high fashion: most of the designers are gay men who prefer a male-like body to the normal curves of normal women.

One Size Fits None

The New York Times weighs in (so to speak) on the controversial banning of too-thin models from European fashion shows.

If fashion models were purebred dogs instead of underfed women, there would be an outcry over the abusive standards for appearing in shows and photo shoots. The prize for women who aspire to the catwalk is a ridiculous size 0, though overachieving undereaters seem to be reaching for size 00, which invites further starvation, serious illness and worse.

Not only that, but the sickly, scowling, bizarrely dressed zombies that march up and down the runways seem to go out of their way to remove all semblance of actual beauty. So what's the point? There is more to life than being really, really, ridiculously skinny.

Wilberforce and Heroes

Yesterday, in my sophomore-level British Literature class, I asked my students who their heroes are. This was the warm up to my lecture on William Wilberforce, someone I imagine we would all put into that category. (BTW, I'm happy to know that Walden Media has produced a film on WW, which will be in theaters Feb 2007 in time for the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolishing slavery throughout the empire. However, I must admit that I'm amused at the casting: the actor who played Horatio Hornblower as "the shrimp who stopped slavery"!?!?).

Anyway, my students' answers were fairly predictable: Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Maya Angelou, all US soldiers (OK, that one was a surprise ... a nice one), and Geraldo Rivera (at least it wasn't Jerry Springer). Those of you who work with teens and college-age students might try this exercise. If you do, please let the rest of us know who made the list. One point I made to my students is that heroes are not perfect, but we live in a time where character assassination is so common that it's hard to know who to admire. I tried to give them an example of a hero we should all be better acquainted with, and I'm hoping they'll flock to the theaters to see the movie when it comes out.

When the rot sets in

A few weeks ago, I picked up Sue Monk Kidd's spiritual autobiography The Dance of the Dissident Daughter from the library. I remember Kidd as the author of some pretty insightful columns and articles in Guideposts, one of my sister's and my favorite magazines from the time we were little. Fast forward to today, when I'm suddenly seeing Kidd's novels being made into Lifetime original movies. So I was curious to discover how "a woman's journey" (quote from the front cover of Dance) takes her from Christian magazine writer to author of bodice-rippers about married women who fall passionately in love with monks.

Sorry I asked. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have had to wade through the biggest, soggiest mass of sappy feminist cliches I've encountered in quite some time. (I should have just listened to my mother. Her one-word answer when I put the above question to her: "Menopause.") I finally had to give up any hope of a careful read and just skim through the thing, but skimming wasn't enough to spare me woebegone laments over patriarchy in the church, painstaking recordings of apparently every dream she's ever had and every session with her analyst, depictions of altars and rituals and caves and sacred baths and yarn-tearing rites and Lord (excuse me, Goddess) knows what else, pages and pages of gibberish about the Big Wisdom and the Feminine Self, etc., etc., ad nauseam. I can truly understand resentment against sexist attitudes displayed by some in the church; most of us have seen them crop up in some form or other, and Kidd, from the sound of it, has seen much more of it than I have. If I'd gone through my entire life hearing that women were "second in creation, first to sin," I concede I might have gone a little nuts. But Kidd let it drive her straight out of the church into Da Vinci Code territory, which I suspect most of us would find just a bit drastic. (The person who got all my sympathy was her poor Baptist minister husband, trying to make some sort of sense out of all this claptrap.)

To me, one of the saddest things is what this "journey" did to Kidd's writing. As the Harlequin-esque novel/Lifetime movie implies, she can no longer write a sentence without larding it with cliches and trite imagery. Sample: "It is uncovering the doll at the center that causes the exuberant healing song about being a woman to break out inside. Women, long denied the healing symbol of a
Divine Being who is like ourselves, will find female wholeness forged in us as we peer into the mirror and see the real beauty of our feminine selves, which means seeing Herself's reflection nested in our own."

If you can decipher that one, you're a better man (sorry, Sue) than I am, Gunga Din.

I wonder, could it be that dabbling in the occult, or otherwise drifting away from the Christian faith, causes not only spiritual degeneration but also some sort of mental and intellectual weakening? I believe some Christian writers have previously suggested as much. In fact, the whole thing reminds me of this classic exchange from Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night:

"She even wrote a book . . . [about] the Higher Wisdom. And Beautiful Thought. That sort of thing. Full of bad syntax."

"Oh, lord! Yes -- that's pretty awful, isn't it? I can't think why fancy religions should have such a ghastly effect on one's grammar."

"It's a kind of intellectual rot that sets in, I'm afraid."

Kidd's grammar was all right, at least as far as I got, but in other ways I'm afraid the rot has gone far.

I Hate it When That Happens

I've never really felt comfortable about The Washington Times. While I like some of the stuff in the paper, such as sports columnist Thom Loverro, the whole "Lord of the Second Advent" for an owner thingie gave me the creeps.

Now, I'm the position of having to root for the Moon family to succeed. Why? According to an article by Max Blumenthal in The Nation,

"Preston Moon, the youngest son of Korean Unification Church leader and Times financier Sun Myung Moon, has initiated a search committee to find a replacement for editor in chief Wesley Pruden--a replacement who is not Pruden's handpicked successor, managing editor Francis Coombs."

Chief among the reasons for the putsch-in-the-making is the flat-out racism of the current Times leadership. Blumenthal quotes a senior staffer who calls the racism "a cancer that goes all the way to the top." A former Times correspondent relates a story about showing his boss a picture of his nephew's African-American girlfriend. The boss

"went off like a rocket about interracial marriage and how terrible it was. He actually used the phrase 'the niggerfication of America.' He said, 'Not in my lifetime. If my daughter went out with a black, I would cut her throat.'"

There's more. A lot more. Like I said, I'm squarely in the Moons' corner. Just this once.

H/T Orcinus

Sigh, I couldn’t resist

I mean, come on: (RE: online communities thread) Look, it's MySpace for Oldsters! Looks like the kids aren't the only ones networking.

My opinion, Jeff, of the phenomenon? Yes, of course, if it's all one does to socialize, it's not a strength, not a good thing. But anecdotally anyway, it seems by and large that it is just one more communication method. We've moved from visits and calling cards, to letters, to the telephone (I think I remember hearing that at its invention people felt the same way about the phone that they do today about online communities: that it would diminish community), to e-mail/texting, to online communities today. That is, it's not the way people connect, but a way, in addition to already established relationships they have with those same people they're connecting to online. At least, if they approach it that way, if they use technology wisely -- as a supplement to communicating, not a replacement for community, if they are conscientious about using it and being in control over it and not vice versa, I think it is just one more tool. It won't take over the world, like that new-fangled machine they were afraid of in Desk Set.

Of Course, It’s Still A Cat

Talk about your genetically-modified organism!

A California biotechnology company has started taking orders for a hypoallergenic cat for pet lovers prone to allergies.

The genetically engineered feline, which is expected to be available from 2007, is the first in a planned series of lifestyle pets, Los Angeles-based Allerca said in a press release.

The price? $3590 a kitten, which, as Allerca's web site hastens to point out, "is similar or less than some of the more exotic cat breeds available today." Not included in the price is a $995 "processing and transportation fee." After all, you wouldn't want Fluffy to be traumatized by the "rigors of standard commercial air shipping" would you? No, you want your GMO to travel first class: via "specialized private jet courier and . . . hand delivered to your nearest ALLERCA certified veterinarian for collection by you and your family."

"For those customers who just can't wait to own an ALLERCA GD kitten, ALLERCA has introduced a Premium Placement program that can reduce the waiting time from two years or more to a few months."

The cost? An additional $1950.

H/T Tyler Cowen

Keeping Our Big Mouths Shut

At the Christian Science Monitor, Jeffrey Shaffer calls for silence. I definitely empathize with him; I much prefer a quiet house than all the radios, TVs, and computer speakers blaring one thing or another. But he's mainly talking about our supposed need to express an opinion on everything:

I have nothing useful to say about the pope's dilemma with the Islamic world, how the UN is dealing with Darfur, or why Tucker Carlson got bounced from the first round of "Dancing with the Stars." Those issues, and numerous others, are getting all the attention they need without my input. In many situations the best course of action is to refrain from saying anything.

And, yes, The Point is helping add to that chatter! ... okay, I'll say nothing more here on that. ( : But to illustrate the value of silence, Shaffer offers the following anecdote from a book titled Men, Women, & Money by financial writer William F. Devine:

... A client wanted him to negotiate the purchase of some property from a developer, but the client's offer was $100,000 below the asking price. During a long phone call with the developer, Mr. Devine got most details resolved, but finally the man brought up the money issue and said, "The price your client proposes will leave us well short of our projections. That makes it very tough on us."

There was a pause, and Devine considered his options. Since the developer hadn't asked a question or made a counteroffer, he decided to wait, and soon the man said, "But ... I guess it's good for us to just get the deal done, so we'll do it." The lesson, Devine writes, was, "I had saved a client $100,000 by simply immobilizing my jaw."

And, yes, I know, I'm certainly not one to "talk," considering the number of posts I've made the past few days. Okay. I'll zip it. For the weekend anyway ...

Re: The On-Line Social Networking Phenomenon

True confessions time, Jeff. I know about all the dangerous aspects of online communities and spending too much time there, and I believe it . . . but there have been times when they've been lifesavers for me. I'm thinking particularly of those where you can share prayer requests. I've read at least one article about how online prayer communities are bound to be shallower and generally not as good as real-life prayer communities (to which I'd link if I could remember where the heck I saw it). But let's face it, when you need a lot of people to pray for something, and there aren't a lot of people around whom you can ask at that moment, it's really comforting to be able to go to a group of people whom you know spend a lot of time in prayer (even if you don't know every other little detail about them) and ask. And I find it helpful to my own prayer life to be able to spend a little time lifting up their requests in turn.

Just an aspect of this online community discussion that doesn't always get reported on.

Another good reason for parochial schools

Oh, Gina, I love it! I remember that Barry column! Hysterical. Actually, it's just the end of the 3rd week of school, and they're finished with Sumerians. Last year, her fourth grade class studied World Wars I and II in pretty good detail for 9- and 10-year-olds, and finished the year at Bill Clinton (tactfully addressing the, ahem, moral and ethical concerns about his presidency, to my amusement ... and relief). So she's got a thorough history education. ( :

Not to get too far off on a tangent

. . . But Catherina, you just might want to rethink that Sumerian thing. :-)

The other big problem with history textbooks was that they always started at the Dawn of Civilization and ended around 1948. So we'd spend the first three months of each school year reading about the ancient Sumerians at a leisurely pace. Then the teacher would realize that time was running short, and we'd race through the rest of history, covering World War II in a matter of minutes, and getting to Harry Truman on the last day. Then the next year, we'd go back to the ancient Sumerians. After a few years of this, we began to see history as an endlessly repeating, incredibly dull cycle, starting with Sumerians and leading inexorably to Harry Truman, then going back again. No wonder so many of us turned to loud music and drugs.

Dave Barry, "Why We Don't Read," Dave Barry's Bad Habits

The Game to Watch

One of my favorite things about Friday mornings happens at 7:30 a.m. on a local rock station, DC101 (sorry, Penny). That's when Boomer Esiason comes on for football commentary on the week past and the week to come. I love football, pro and college, but no, I don't follow as religiously as I did in college when you could name a player and I could tell you stats. So I'm sure there is some aficionado out there who will disagree with my assessment, but in my estimation, Boomer offers some of the best football commentary. Certainly, the most entertaining. Well, mommy duties take away from sitting down in front of a TV for 4 hours for a game nowadays -- more likely it's on, while I run around cooking, cleaning, and nagging my daughter to study about Sumerians ("Really, honey, they're important ... Why? You'll know when you're older."), but this Monday night I will be parked in front of the television (at least by then, "honey" is in bed).

This morning, Boomer first talked about the upcoming Monday Night Football game at the Louisiana Superdome between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons (imagine the heap of guilt on that team's shoulders ... ). I hope you don't need me to tell why this is significant (no, I'm not some rabid Saints fan; read my bio, and you know which team I love), but just in case: This is the big "coming-out party," as the International Herald Tribune put it, of the Superdome in little more than a year after Katrina. And it's a chance to put the ugly past behind us and move toward restoration.

And that's what Boomer expressed hope for -- he didn't talk about Falcons' and Saints' stats; I don't even think he speculated the winner. (But again, imagine the uncomfortable feeling possibly for some Falcons' players ... nah! They'll probably go all out like any other football game -- and apologize later, if necessary.) Boomer talked about the all-star attendance: Rock bands U2, Green Day, and Goo Goo Dolls will perform before the game, and former POTUS George H. W. Bush will flip the coin. "I don't want to hear anything about what went wrong, what should have happened, or who's at fault," said Boomer, while also expressing sympathy for the victims and admitting inability to empathize with the situation, having not taken part in New Orleans's rebuilding process. It helps no one if the fans boo the president, he said -- instead they should show him the respect the office deserves. He said it helps no one to politicize the event or heap negativity on the game, Rather this is a chance to give the people of N'Orleans what they need, not asking "what if...?" and laying blame, but rather being forward-looking and positive and moving on toward renewal.

No surprise, but DC101 morning host Elliot quickly changed the subject to calling the upcoming Cincinnati/Pittsburgh game (maybe/maybe not showing his disagreement with how Katrina and the POTUS, of whom he's no fan, should be treated). Oh, and Travis, sorry: Boomer is calling Jacksonville over Indianapolis. But hey, he also called the Seahawks over my beloved Giants.

But I digress, I just wanted to give kudos to Boomer for calling for the honorable attitude at Monday night's game: respect for all involved and efforts by all to move forward in spirit and action in bringing redemption and restoration to this city that's already seen too much heartbreak. And it is a beautiful thing: Considering the state the Superdome was in a year ago -- so sad you could smell it -- the joy that will be brought their Monday, if just for a night to start, is a long time coming. Are you ready?

The Value of Doubt

Whatever you may think of Jim Wallis and Sojourners, the magazine's daily "Verse and Voice of the Day" e-mail puts out some real gems -- many of which I've heard before, but certainly bear considering again:

For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial "doubt." This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious "faith" of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.

—Thomas Merton

Martha, Luther and House

Gina -- Per your suggestion, I read Luther at the Movies' analysis of last Tuesday night's episode of House. First, I'm ecstatic that he's got such a fabulous Wi-Fi connection in heaven, and second I'm so relieved he answered the question that had been nagging me all evening -- that dying doctor was Joel Grey!

Anyhoo, I completely agree with some of what he says. Of course they were planning all along to either kill him off or have him die at the end -- I can't see the writers of this show doing anything else with him based on how they've written the main characters and story lines so far. And of course they would push another character to explore and expand her ethical/moral boundaries (are they expanding or contracting when you inch a bit farther down the slippery slope?) -- she's been one big ol' mass of conflicted ideals since the beginning. And yes, the "right" to die is moving towards an "obligation" to die. And finally, I too am appalled at how medical professionals (at least fictional ones on TV and the suppposedly real ones we hear about in the media) have "used the knife" to whittle away the substance and ethics of the Hippocratic Oath down to a suggestion rather than a code by which to live.

On the other hand, I don't think that House's arrogance (and granted he has plenty) necessarily reflects either the arrogance or the ethos of the writers. Going back to our posts on the use of satire, I think it's a device used to show the absurdity of an issue or statement or situation and is used to create conflict so that the moral/ethical question of the week can be explored from various angles (and to make for a very interesting character to watch every week). And I don't necessarily think that the writers' purpose was for every viewer to walk away from the show thinking "Euthanasia -- good! Never do harm -- bad!"

Unlike Luther, I felt no sympathy for either the dying doctor (at least not the kind of sympathy that would cause me to shoot a gallon of morphine into his system to send him over to the other side pronto) nor for Cameron when he pushed her to have the "courage of her convictions" (which I thought was really sort of ironic given that many of her "convictions" are just passive-aggressive diatribes directed at House because he doesn't want to date her). And I don't consider Cameron an "innocent." Week after week she's demonstrated how conflicted she is as she gets all high and mighty about what someone else is doing and yet does something just as unethical or immoral or unwise. (Don't we all struggle with this ourselves, in big and little ways, every day?) And, realistically, this is a TV show -- they knew they'd get higher ratings if they had a plot twist like this!

Soooooo -- in other words, I think the characters on this show behave -- albeit in an exaggerrated way -- pretty much like ordinary human beings do. Life is messy and ugly and the world and everything in it is fallen and sinful, and while we like to say and think we are people of great integrity, and many of us really try to be, often what we say we believe and what our words and actions reveal are two very, very different things. We all face slippery slope decisions -- some big like euthanasia, some smaller like trotting out to Talbots and paying full price for a whole new outfit I just want but don't need an hour after posting a "let's all not spend money for a week except for needs!" blog entry.

Finally, unlike Luther, I will keep tuning in at 8pm EST on Tuesdays, because I like being challenged to think about what's right and wrong and to look at different viewpoints to figure out what I really believe and why. And I'd rather get that practice debating, discussing and deciding about a fictional situation than dealing with a real-life situation so that when that real-life situation comes I'll hopefully know what to do and have the courage to do it.

And, thankfully, I have a Compass to pull me back due North when I inevitably do veer off course and head down the slippery slope (and yes, Mother, I'm going back to Talbots to make a BIG return!). Sadly, real-life people like House, Cameron and the dying doctor may not yet know they do too. So maybe it's up to people like us who do to figure out what we should and would and will do in these types of situations, and how to explain to the Houses and Camerons and dying doctors of this world why.

OK -- enough for today -- I'm rambling now and connecting disconnected blog entries in a nonsensical manner! You folks won't be hearing from me until next week so have a great weekend!

Trying Genes on for Size

In a recent article at Slate, William Saletan wrestles with the moral and bioethical conflicts surrounding the selection of embryos based on their genetic makeup.

"Mommy, where did I come from?"

Throughout history, parents have squirmed at that question because it involved sex. Now, many are squirming because it doesn't. For children born through in vitro fertilization—3 million and counting—the answer involves injections, selections, and lab dishes. The hard part is explaining the siblings we rejected: nearly half a million embryos frozen in U.S. clinics alone. For thousands of children, the story now includes preimplantation genetic diagnosis, a technique for weeding out flawed embryos.

While this argument does not address the more fundamental question of whether the in vitro fertilization/embryo-selection process is ever morally acceptable, it is not difficult to see how this kind of gene shopping could quickly become free of any boundaries whatsoever. Saletan quotes a patient who quite effectively describes the perhaps reluctant acceptance of embryonic eugenics: "You kind of feel like you shouldn't be doing it. . . . But then why would we go through all of this and not take those extra precautions?"

And Saletan himself acknowledges the conflict in his concluding paragraph:

If PGD were evil, it would be easy to head off such abuses by banning it. But it's not. PGD prevents hellish diseases. In those cases, you have to say yes. And once you start saying yes, it's hard to say no. That's why they call it a slippery slope.

Perhaps if the issue stopped at preventing the worst diseases, there wouldn't be much need for debate. But we already know that such decisions of who gets to be born don't stop with disease -- or embryos.

Banned Parents Week

". . . the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them."

"Assuring the availability" is code for "We're going to expose your child to graphic sex, foul language, and vile ideas whether you approve or not." This battle is NOT about banning books; it's about power. It's about who gets to decide what values, ideas, and images children will be exposed to in public schools, where they are required to be for 12 years unless their parents can afford private schools. The ALA is determined to expose children to, and force taxpayers to purchase, books that express ideas many parents find offensive and/or inappropriate for their young children. Anyone who objects is instantly attacked as a "censor" who wants to "ban books." Nonsense: Parents who think their kids' childhood will be ruined unless they read Judy Blume can borrow her books from the public library, or pick them up at the local bookstore.

September 21, 2006

Re: The Nativity

If you want to know the opinion of a writer who was on the set of the movie this past summer and spoke with those involved in the making, make sure you're subscribed to BreakPoint WorldView magazine! The December issue will feature a special article on The Nativity by Steve Beard of Good News magazine and Thunderstruck.org.

More on Macy’s and Philanthropy -- and the Middle Class

Regarding Catherine's post about Macy's "Shop for a Cause" ads (for a charity day held Sept. 16), and the accompanying slogan "give a little; get a lot" -- is it me, or does that ad campaign sound a lot like how some pastors solicit tithes and offerings? "Give and God will give you everything you want!!"

(It makes the Luke 6:38 passage, "Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you...," a little too much the way we think God's giving back to us should look ... Whenever I hear that, I just think, "No, just give. And then forget about it. What happens next, if anything, is up to God and shouldn't be our concern -- and certainly not our motivation for obedience." Nor should mere obedience be our motivation to tithe and give offerings; faith and gratitude should be.)

But it also reminded me of Catherine Seipp's book review of Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class by Jan Whitaker, in which she rightfully laments the demise of the department store:

Wkah359_bkstyl_20060817161_2 Two decades ago, a friend told me about a fight she'd had with her husband at the inconvenient hour of 9:30 a.m., leaving her with nowhere to go as she stalked out of the house: "Bullock's wasn't even open!" My friend's marriage is still happily intact, but the Bullock's department store in Los Angeles, alas, is not.

It's long gone, as are all of the city's other locally owned and distinct department stores. The phenomenon has been repeated across the country, of course. A Fortune magazine article from the 1940s quoted a Chicago matron exclaiming in shock about Pearl Harbor: "Nothing is left anymore -- except, thank God, Marshall Field's." Except that Marshall Field's isn't left anymore either. It was recently absorbed by Federated Department Stores' bland national Macy's brand.

And yes, "bland" Macy's is. It's one big monochrome, indistinct swath that has blanketed the country's shopping districts. No longer is there that social hub:

As Ms. Whitaker notes, in their heyday -- roughly the 1920s to the mid-1930s -- "a big store's population in daytime hours was greater than most of the towns in the United States."

nor that department store of yesteryear that oozed class, at least in the movies (but I suspect they reflected reality at the time):

Annex2020crawford20joa_3 Ms. Whitaker mentions only in passing the movie "Miracle on 34th Street," the 1947 Christmas classic about the real Santa Claus visiting Macy's. And she strangely ignores how often Hollywood used the department store, in its prime, as an arbiter of class.

Joan Crawford was a conniving perfume countergirl who tried to steal Norma Shearer's husband in "The Women" (1939). Ginger Rogers played an unmarried department-store clerk who adopts an abandoned baby in "Bachelor Mother" (1939). Bette Davis was the down-on-her-luck movie star forced to take a job at the May Co. in "The Star" (1952).

There was something unifying about the urban department store that moved people of all classes to aspire to a higher standard. (I know, we're talking about a store here.) Sadly, today we're just left with what Seipp calls "the vast Federated maw," where we can all clip our newspaper coupons, drive 30 to 45 minutes from home, and fight a thousand people we don't know for a badly designed sweater that everyone across America is already wearing. Some aspiration. Some community. And that's what Seipp gets at -- what the Macy's monolith has destroyed:

I found myself, while reading "Service and Style," more melancholy over the fate of the classic department store than I had expected. As it happens, the last two great department stores of my Southern California youth -- Robinson's and the May Co. -- will also soon vanish into the vast Federated maw, and I have realized that my sadness over the news is just part of a generalized regret that middle-class urban Americans are now almost an endangered species. Oh, we can still be found scattered in mixed-income pockets of impossibly expensive big cities. But our habitat is fast disappearing.

Not to mention the culture the classic department store once modeled and nurtured (yeah, I couldn't picture that either, as I imagined our shopping malls and their hub department stores today), as Whitaker writes:

Museums in the 1920s looked to department stores as models. At a style forum at Kaufmann's Department Store in Pittsburgh, Stewart Culin of the Brooklyn Museum declared, "The department store stands for the greatest influences for culture and taste that exist today in America." The director of the Newark Museum, John Cotton Dana, acknowledged that a first-class department store was more like a good museum than any of the actual museums of 1928. The stores were judged far more skillful at display, less intimidating to the public, and better overall at drawing crowds to view art works and exhibits of modern industrial design. They attracted thousands to symposiums on style, such as Macy's 1927 Art in Trade show that presented a weeklong program of talks by designers, scholars, and museum curators. ...

By the 1960s, a large US middle class took it for granted that local department stores were reliable links to the mores, manners, and material accoutrements of mainstream American life. But, despite success as social arbiters, the big stores' high cost of distribution -- due in part to special events and lavish services -- undermined profits. In city after city they closed or were consolidated in buyouts.

The department store represented a historic confluence of merchandising creativity and social aspirations that may be impossible to replace.

So today, the last thing we can imagine in department stores is creativity and high culture (or any culture other than maybe pop, as manifested in those charming message t-shirts touting the "hotness" of the one duped into buying and wearing them). They're now all about the consumer (think Macy's "Way to Shop" slogan) who's being encouraged to aspire to nothing more than "Dancing in the Streets." The way all department stores are going though, I would much rather dance in the streets than shop among their uninspiring racks. And I have it on good word that shoppers feel the same way -- apparently, Macy's has been failing to meet goals across the board, and across the country.

Thus, I'm not surprised that even Macy's ad campaign for its charity shopping day ended up being all about the individual again, and not so much about the communities it aspired to help. I'd say it fits into the narcissistic trend Kim mentions.

A special celebration

I'm off to take my parents out for their 40th anniversary dinner. (Strictly speaking, the anniversary is tomorrow, but this evening worked out better for everybody.) Forty years! I am one proud daughter. :-)