Politics

Entries related to things political.

Winston Smith’s Facebook Page

Companies earn their profits by exploiting their environment. Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment.

- George Soros, Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2018

It is an interesting formulation of an old idea. How has our social environment been exploited? How similar is this to the way the physical environment has been exploited?

It isn’t a new idea. For a long time writers have complained about feeling compelled to give away their content in order to be read. I am doing that here. I put my post up. I share links to it on Facebook and Twitter, and hope someone will read it and respond. All of this becomes content to be used by large social media companies to make money off of advertising. Little, if any of that makes its way to the content creators.

To make things worse, the social media companies’ algorithms favor content that will get the most advertising revenue as opposed to the most trustworthy content, or the content that will best lead to the betterment of society.

Soros goes on to say,

Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy.

He talks about John Stuart Mill’s “Freedom of Mind”, and suggest the manipulation that is possible when people start losing freedom of mind has “already played an important role in the 2016 US presidential elections”.

He then invokes 1984 and Brave New World

This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.

If Winston Smith, the hero of 1984 were alive today, instead of a diary, maybe he would be posting on Facebook. This begs the question of how we understand “thought crimes”.

Some of my libertarian friends might equate “thought crimes” with “hate speech” and fight against rules about hate speech. The Ethical Journalism Network provides a useful five point test for hate speech.

They note the tragic consequences of hate speech, especially in the context of the Rwandan genocide. There first point is to consider “The Position or Status of the Speaker”.

journalists and media are regularly trapped by media-savvy and unscrupulous politicians and community leaders. These skilful users of media stir up disputes and discord in support of their own prejudices and bigoted opinions and rely on media to give coverage to their sensational claims and opinions no matter how incendiary they are.

It is interesting to consider not only the position of the speaker, but the medium they are using for speaking. Soros talks about the large social media companies saying,

The internet monopolies have neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions. That turns them into a menace and it falls to the regulatory authorities to protect society against them.

There is also the issue of groupthink. Is this a different way in which thought crimes are prosecuted? Around 2010, Eli Pariser coined the phrase “filter bubble” to describe how people social media algorithms group people together around shared ideas. Are there filter bubbles contributing to groupthink?

In 1972, social psychologist Irving Janis coined the phrase “groupthink” which

occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”

Recently at my alma mater, there have been protests that were sparked when a member of the college football team posted racist material on Facebook.

The student was removed from campus and conservatives might bewail what they consider groupthink in the reaction of the students. Yet for it to be groupthink one would have to argue that protesting racism shows a deterioration of moral judgement.

How should we respond to the exploitation of our social environment? Are there things we can do to help repair our social environment? I pose these questions especially for politicians, religious leaders, and journalists.

Deconstructing the Established White Christmas: Homelessness, Immigration, and Pain

“I need help,” the old man said. He had come to the Homeless Memorial Service and was looking for food, shelter, and comfort. It had been a long day and I suspect all of us wanted to get home to dinner. He had been saying the same thing for probably half an hour as we tried to get him to head up to the soup kitchen for dinner and then return to the warming station at the church afterwards. After telling his story several times and describing the extent of his few belongings we finally got him on his feet and heading towards the door. He had a 2018 calendar because he was hopeful for 2018.

The day before, I had been to a Blue Christmas service at another church. I prayed for my friends and family members who have lived on the streets. A couple have their own apartments now. Another is in jail after getting into a fight.

I prayed for my friends and family who have been fighting illness. Some have fought cancer this year and are doing well. Others are still in the middle of that fight. Some have died. I prayed for those who have pain yet to be diagnosed. Some are at home. Others are in hospitals or rehabilitation centers.

I prayed for those who have been separated from their families this year. Those U.S. citizens who have seen their hard working tax paying parents deported under new administration policies. Those U.S. citizens who have seen their parents take sanctuary in local churches to avoid deportation.

A vigil outside of one church particularly stuck in my memory. The church was a Spanish speaking Pentecostalist church in a rough part of town. Years ago, when that part of town was where the wealthy lived, it had been a beautiful mainline Protestant church. Some of the stained glass windows survive. Others are now covered with plywood.

On Facebook, a friend with OCD posted about his torments, questioning whether the Episcopal church was Christian enough. Many criticised his post while others offered prayers or tried to help people understand what OCD is really like.

I have just finished my first semester of seminary and I am missing my classmates and my readings. I’ve been thinking a lot about post establishment Christianity and if we can learn anything from post colonial theory. I’ve struggled with how theory and praxis intersect and I think there is something in these experiences to be explored.

Last night, I listened to an An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I think about the “subalterns”, those suffering outside the existing power structures. Mostly, I exist fairly comfortably within the power structures, although there are places where I struggle or have been rejected by the power structures.

This evening, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The established churches will sing beautiful carols. Some will have incense. I will be there, thinking not only of God becoming human and living with us, but of God becoming a subaltern. Fleeing to Egypt from the power structures, coming back from Egypt leading to a conflict with the power structures that resulted in crucifixion.

If you want to keep Christ in Christmas, walk with the homeless man saying, “I need help”. It is a modern vernacular translation of “Lord have mercy”. Pray with those struggling with pain and illness. Confront the political and ecclesiastical power structures. Most importantly, keep your eyes open for where the subaltern Christ has been born around you. O come, let us adore him.

Reconnecting Spirituality to Daily and Political Life via Lobbying and the News Media

This is a commentary that I wrote for the News and Religion course that I am taking at the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, oh LORD, our strength and our redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

How would an epigraph like this sound in our pluralistic secular media? Would we wonder about the use of a quote from the Judeo-Christian tradition instead of from some other tradition, or perhaps a humanist perspective? What role does or should spirituality play in the news media of today? How do views about this vary between the general public and reporters?

The report, Most Americans say media coverage of religion too sensationalized explores some of these issues.

The public and reporters also have different perceptions about what makes for good religion coverage. More than two-thirds (69.7%) of the public says that they prefer coverage that emphasizes religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs. In contrast, more than three fifths (62.9%) of reporters say that the audiences they serve prefer religion coverage that emphasizes religious institutions, activities, events, and personalities.

The problem is that “religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs” are often very personal and subjective and are often not breaking news. As a friend of mine quips about spiritual practices, “with priests these days, it’s out with the old and in with the ancient.”

Yet underlying the “religious institutions, activities, events, and personalities” that reporters like to write about these days are these “religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs”. In our modern age of objectivity, we are losing touch with this spirituality.

A few years ago, my daughter, who grew up in a land of McMansions decided to build and move into a tiny house. She did it as an art project. During her gallery talks, she would speak of the goal of reconnecting art to daily life. Our large houses are filled with mass produced merchandise and we too rarely take a moment to see beauty around us. The same could be said about spirituality today.

Spirituality, morality, and the stuff of religion should be informing our daily and political lives. Yet in our efforts to be objective as well as our efforts to be tolerant of other beliefs, we seem to have lost touch with the spiritual and moral in the public sphere.

I have run for state representative multiple times. While we might acknowledge God in an invocation to an event candidates are speaking at, and our biographies should mention the religious institution we belong to, we seem to rarely bring our spirituality into our stump speeches.

In 2016, I reluctantly ran for state representative again. I wanted to focus more of my time on my priestly journey. I tried to bring the two together as much as I could, and watched my audience squirm as I started a stump speech off with the quote from Psalm 19. It seems like many of us want coverage about spiritual issues, we just don’t want to have to grapple with it in our own lives.

Yet there are people that want to bring the religious into the public sphere and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life report on Lobbying for the Faithful explores more than 200 “organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C…. [that] collectively employ at least 1,000 people in the greater Washington area and spend at least $350 million a year”.

There are also numerous media watchdog organizations seeking to ensure that faith is adequately and accurately covered. There is nothing particularly new or unique about such organizations. In 2003, I was part of the Dean Rapid Response Team. This was a group of volunteers from across the country that worked together to support Gov. Dean in his presidential bid. There was a feeling that the media coverage of Gov. Dean did not adequately represent his views or our thoughts about why he would be a great president. We had a mailing list where we would share links to articles that we felt needed responses and talking points to help our members respond.

More recently, this week I sent an email to the communications committee of a church I attend. Like the volunteers in the Dean campaign many years ago, we are trying to find ways to get information about our church presented in the most positive manner possible. The local newspapers are short staffed and generally don’t write about matters of faith, so we seek to provide editors and reporters with as much usable information as possible. Often, that includes providing material that can be copied and pasted with minimal effort.

Whatever our cause, we are likely to feel that the news media provides inadequate or inaccurate information about it. We will seek ways of using any media we can to correct this.

Underlying all of this is the question of how we help reconnect the spiritual to our personal and public lives, and do it in a way that embraces other faith traditions. To put it another, even today, we continue to struggle like the psalmist to find ways to make our words and thoughts always acceptable.

Make America Great Again, the Top Hog BBQ way

When we came to Tennessee to watch the total solar eclipse, which was a wonderful event., we had decided to stay in Tennessee for a few extra days, hoping to soak up a little bit of the local culture. Yet it seemed like every restaurant recommendation we found was to some polished place in a mall somewhere, a mall that could have been anywhere in America.

On Wednesday, we headed towards a state park to see some of Tennessee’s great waterfalls. We drove through Franklin, where a statue of “Chip”, a confederate soldier was surrounded by green ribbons and private property flags. We didn’t know the details but guessed it had to do with the struggle over what we choose to honor and remember about our history.

As I prepare for seminary, I’ve been reading Radical Welcome by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers and been wondering how we welcome those who want to hang on to statues of Confederate soldiers and how we welcome those who want such statues removed. I’ve been wondering what sort of southern culture people are seeking to defend and what it really takes to make America great again.

In the evening, we headed out to dinner. A course that I’ve signed up for this fall is “Religion and News Media” at the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum. There was a video conference orientation session that I needed to join. I had some difficulties joining in and ended up participating from the backseat of the car as we drove to dinner.

How can we have meaningful and respectful dialog about religion in America? This is one of the topics we will be struggling with and talked a little bit about on the video conference.

My wife and daughter headed into the restaurant while I finished the end of the call. I had not seen the roads my wife took to get to the restaurant, but this was not in a mall. Walking into the restaurant, it was clear that Top Hog BBQ was different. On the walls were old advertisements for nickel bottles of Mountain Due, pictures of Barney Fife and the cast of The Wizard of Oz. There were big wooden tables, and no small plastic sign saying, “Please wait to be seated”. I looked around and saw my wife and daughter sitting at a table sipping fruit tea.

I’m not a big fan of sweet tea, so I thought I would skip the fruit tea, but when I looked at the other choices which were mostly soft drinks, I decided to give the fruit tea a try. It was great.

This was the experience we had been searching for. From the first sip of the fruit tea, to the last bite of BBQ, it was clear that this place is the real deal. Good solid tasty food. My wife loved the spicy turnip greens and my daughter who went with a simple cheeseburger declared it the best she had had in ages.

As we finished up, we got into talking with Patty, who owns the place. We talked about the eclipse, our families, our interests, and good food. It seemed that she personified the sort of southern culture that we need to be preserving and what it really takes to make America great again: attention to quality and detail, the kindness and friendliness.

So, if you’re serious about preserving southern culture and making America great again, I have one recommendation: Eat at Top Hog BBQ. I you can't make it to Gallatin, find someplace like Top Hog BBQ. Go in, have a great meal, talk with the staff and the other customers. Appreciate good food and good company and spread the word.

Eclipse Reflections

Today, there were lots of discussions on social media about the eclipse. One religious friend posted that he didn’t see what the big deal about the eclipse was. I responded, “I like anything that gets people to stop and look at God's creation differently and to share with one another a sense of awe”

Another friend posted about lost productivity. I responded,

“My wife and I took vacation to watch the eclipse. The productivity would have been lost whether we were watching the eclipse or doing something else.

Yet thinking about the beauty of the eclipse, it seems like we need to ask, is productivity really the ultimate aim of our lives?”

Friends that saw totality have been posting about how wonderful and magical it was. It was my fourth total eclipse and I look forward to many more. Two years from now in Argentina? Seven years from now in the United States again? We’ll see which ones we manage to make it to.

On one friends reflections, I commented:

“We had a wonderful impromptu eclipse party down in Castalian Springs. People from Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Russia, and I'm not sure where all else, sharing stories, eclipse glasses, peaks through telescopes, Prosecco, ad contact information to stay in touch.

It has been a wonderful day, and I too, love that so many of us from various different backgrounds could stop, even briefly, to enjoy one another and some of the beauty of creation.”

So my hope remains. However you think about creation, the creator, the source of beauty, the source of kindness, the source of love, I hope that you managed to stop and appreciate a little of the beauty of the created world, and share some joy and love from that experience to those around you.

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