Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

Think, for example, of how the words “community” and “conversation” are now employed by those who use the Internet. I have the impression that “community” is now used to mean, simply, people with similar interests, a considerable change from an older meaning: A community is made up of people who may not have similar interests but who must negotiate and resolve their differences for the sake of social harmony. …

Think of how television has changed the meaning of the phrase “political debate” or the word “public”; or the phrase “participatory democracy.” In his book The Electronic Republic, Lawrence Grossman argues that new technologies will make representative democracy obsolete because they will make it possible to have instant plebiscites on every issue. In this way, American voters will directly decide if we should join NAFTA or send troops to Bosnia or impeach the president. The Senate and the House of Representatives will be largely unnecessary. This, he says, is participatory democracy as it was in Athens in the fifth century B.C. I have no objection to borrowing a phrase from an older media environment in order to conceptualize a new development; we do it all the time. But it has its risks, and attention must be paid when it is done. To call a train an “iron horse,” as we once did, may be picturesque, but it obscures the most significant differences between a train and a horse-and-buggy. To use the term an “electronic town-hall meeting” similarly obscures the difference between an eighteenth-century, face-to-face gathering of citizens and a packaged, televised pseudo-event. To use the term “distance learning” to refer to students and a teacher sending e-mail messages to each other may have some value, but it obscures the fact that the act of reading a book is the best example of distance learning possible, for reading not only triumphs over the limitations of space and co-presence but of time as well. As for participatory democracy, we would be hard-pressed to find any similarity whatever between politics as practiced by 5,000 homogeneous, well-educated, slaveholding Athenian men and 250 million heterogeneous Americans doing plebiscites every week; it is dangerous to allow language to lead us to believe otherwise.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

Read Full Post »

In her book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, Esther Dyson tries to assure those who worry too much about the new electronic world that human nature will stay the same. Of course. If we mean by “human nature” our genetic structure or biological needs or fundamental emotions, no one has argued that technology will alter human nature (at least not by much). But human nature is not the issue. What is at issue are the changes that might occur in our psychic habits, our social relations, and, most certainly, our political institutions, especially electoral politics. Nothing is more obvious than that a new technology changes the structure of discourse. It does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence, and by demanding a certain kind of content. Ronald Reagan, for example, could not have been president were it not for the bias of television. This is a man who rarely spoke precisely and never eloquently (except perhaps when reading a speech written by someone else). And yet he was called The Great Communicator. Why? Because he was magic on television. His televised image projected a sense of authenticity, intimacy, and caring. It did not much matter if citizens agreed with what he said or understood what he said. This does not in itself suggest that he shouldn’t have been president or that he did his job poorly. It is to say that television gives power to some while it deprives others. It is not human nature we worry about here but rather what part of our humanness will be nurtured by technology. I have often wondered how Abraham Lincoln would have fared on television. Because of the invention of photography in the 1840s, he was the first president to be the subject of continuous comment about his looks (ugly and ungainly, many said). Would it be too much to say that Americans must be eternally grateful for the absence of television when Lincoln made his run for the presidency? Or perhaps we might say that had television existed, no such person as Lincoln could have become a serious candidate for president.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

Read Full Post »

There are two constants in these stories. First, churches from different denominations minister together. Second, churches cooperate with political leaders on projects that benefit the entire community. Christendom is being rebuilt on a human scale in town after town across America. It is a model of ministry suited to our historical moment. As the Yoderites and Hauerwasites have been telling us for some time, Christendom is dead. The religious right was its last, long suspiration. Though there are millions of Christians in the United States and Europe, Christian faith no longer provides the moral compass, the sacred symbolism, or the telos for Western institutions.

America’s Protestant establishment has collapsed. Neither evangelical Protestants nor Catholics nor a coalition of the two is poised to replace it. Christian America was real, but—whatever its great virtues and great flaws—it is gone, and the slightly frantic experiments have failed to revive the corpse. It is past time to issue a death certificate. That’s a sobering conclusion, and it is tempting for Christians to slink back to our churches. For innovative, visionary pastors and civic leaders, though, there are hundreds of realistic, locally based, ecumenically charged opportunities to foster experiments in Christian social and political renewal. Christendom is dead! Long live the micro-Christendoms!

— Peter Leithart, The End of Protestantism

Read Full Post »

A cynic might conclude that our policy to wards drugs in America is to send users either to prison or to the Olympics.

— Bill Bryson

Read Full Post »

A directive about organ donation in case of accidental death is noted on an individual’s driver license in many countries. The formulation of that directive is another case in which one frame is clearly superior to the other. Few people would argue that the decision of whether or not to donate one’s organs is unimportant, but there is strong evidence that most people make their choice thoughtlessly. The evidence comes from a comparison of the rate of organ donation in European countries, which reveals startling differences between neighboring and culturally similar countries. An article published in 2003 noted that the rate of organ donation was close to 100% in Austria but only 12% in Germany, 86% in Sweden but only 4% in Denmark.

These enormous differences are a framing effect, which is caused by the format of the critical question. The high-donation countries have an opt out form, where individuals who wish not to donate must check an appropriate box. Unless they take this simple action, they are considered willing donors. The low-contribution countries have an opt-in form: you must check a box to become a donor. That is all. The best single predictor of whether or not people will donate their organs is the designation of the default option that will be adopted without having to check a box.

Unlike other framing effects that have been traced to features of System 1, the organ donation effect is best explained by the laziness of System 2. People will check the box if they have already decided what they wish to do. If they are unprepared for the question, they have to make the effort of thinking whether they want to check the box. I imagine an organ donation form in which people are required to solve a mathematical problem in the box that corresponds to their decision. One of the boxes contains the problem 2 + 2 = ? The problem in the other box is 13 × 37 = ? The rate of donations would surely be swayed.

When the role of formulation is acknowledged, a policy question arises: Which formulation should be adopted? In this case, the answer is straightforward. If you believe that a large supply of donated organs is good for society, you will not be neutral between a formulation that yields almost 100% donations and another formulation that elicits donations from 4% of drivers.

As we have seen again and again, an important choice is controlled by an utterly inconsequential feature of the situation. This is embarrassing— it is not how we would wish to make important decisions. Furthermore, it is not how we experience the workings of our mind, but the evidence for these cognitive illusions is undeniable.

— Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Read Full Post »

Today, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine any movement for moral reform, religious or secular, transcending partisanship …. This has been tragically apparent in the case of the pro-life movement. For a time, in the 1970s, both parties included serious critics of abortion. Ted Kennedy expressed pro-life sentiments, as did Jesse Jackson, and in the 1972 presidential campaign the most pro-life politician on either ticket was the Democratic nominee for vice president, Sargent Shriver. Over time, though, the power of partisanship overwhelmed the influence of Christian principles. To be a Democrat was to be pro-choice, and so liberal Catholics and Protestants alike found excuses for embracing the “personally opposed, but …” line on the subject.

There is no perfect analogue to the abortion issue—no issue where the stakes are quite so high for Christians in politics, and the costs of compromise so great. But there are striking parallels to the eclipse of the pro-life Democrat in the sudden Bush-era enthusiasm among conservative Christians for waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques. The definition of torture admits of more honest disagreement than the definition of abortion, and the use of violence to extract information or confessions has a complicated history among Christian moralists. Still, the contemporary institutional Christian consensus leans heavily against such practices. The Catholic Church’s ban on torture is absolute, and prominent Evangelical institutions, from Christianity Today to the National Association of Evangelicals, took strong Bush-era positions against harsh interrogation practices as well.

But this consensus has been rejected, downplayed, or ignored among many otherwise orthodox Christians, lest it interfere with their ability to feel an uncomplicated goodwill toward the Republican Party. Indeed, now that waterboarding has become a right-wing litmus test, polls show that frequent churchgoers are more likely to voice explicit support for torture than other Americans, and that both conservative Catholics and (especially) Evangelicals are the most pro-torture groups of all.

— Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics 

Read Full Post »

As the two political coalitions have become theological worlds unto themselves, messianic and apocalyptic in equal measure, it’s become harder and harder for Christians to find a place to stand on public issues that isn’t straightforwardly partisan. The more that politics becomes the landscape of good versus evil, real Americans versus fascists or socialists, liberty versus tyranny, the greater the pressure to simply conform your theology to ideology. Whether they’re Protestant or Catholic, lukewarm or zealous, believers inevitably find themselves pressured to “join the side they’re on,” instead of trying to do justice to the inevitable complexities of political life in the City of Man.

In both the apocalyptic and messianic mind-sets, all good things go together, and the idea that both liberal and conservative ideas could capture some element of divine justice is anathema. To believe is to choose: If you’re theologically conservative you must be conservative on taxes and spending and everything, because otherwise you’re just playing into the hands of “the secular-socialist machine” (to borrow Newt Gingrich’s memorable phrase). If you’re politically liberal then you should be theologically liberal as well: It isn’t enough to back welfare programs or environmental protections; you’re a bigot and a tool of the wingnuts if you don’t also support gay marriage. If you don’t want to vote for George W. Bush because of the Iraq War then you’re playing into the hands of Christianity’s left-wing enemies; if you can’t vote for Barack Obama because of abortion then you’re an accomplice to the shredding of the Constitution. You simply cannot be a social democrat and an orthodox Catholic, or a conservative Christian who’s also genuinely antiwar. In the Manichaean landscape created by the heresy of nationalism, these categories are either incoherent, sinful, or both.

— Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »