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We are an evangelical people. How we ever got a reputation for practicality and common sense is a mystery historians will one day have to unravel. Facing up to problems, gauging their significance, gathering evidence, consulting with others, and testing out new approaches is not our thing. We much prefer to ignore problems until they become crises, undergo an inner conversion, write a gospel, preach it at the top of our lungs, cultivate disciples, demand repentance, predict the apocalypse, beat our plowshares into swords, and expect paradise as a reward. And we wonder why our system is dysfunctional…
–Mark Lilla, from an interview by Rod Dreher
The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.
The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.
Twenge supplies a lot of correlated data that strongly link smartphone use to a number of generationally-distinct patterns in what she calls “iGen.” Among the more worrying data, she documents the rise of cyberbullying among young people, especially among girls. Then this:
Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”
At no time in human history have we possessed tools more finely-attuned to the art of manipulating the psychology of masses of people. These tools are supremely scalable. The same platforms that can target a demographic of heterogenous millions can individualize their content to reach, perhaps, a niche demographic of dozens. Taken in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s utopian manifesto from earlier this year, the existence of the “boost” document ought to give us serious pause.
Allow me to go one step further. Scientists based in Portland, Oregon, recently succeeded in using the gene-editing program CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the DNA of embryos to eliminate the development of a genetic mutation that would cause hypertrophic cardiomyapathy. This is an incredible victory for medical science. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. You should, too.
We have the tools to shape and reshape the human experience on a very literal level. On the genetic level, CRISPR is but the first feeble step toward technology whose power will enable us to program our own genetic makeup on scales previously imagined only in science fiction. Similarly, the algorithms of social media sites like Facebook have the potential to shape their users’ desires, feelings, and perceptions in ways that are simultaneously microscopically managed and macroscopically unpredictable. I strive to make these observations not in a spirit of alarm or histrionics but in the mindset of sober assessment. If, despite my attempts at sobriety, you feel alarmed… well, good.
When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.
–Clay Routledge, Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s
Routledge ends with this: “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?”
TRUMP: Look, Sessions gets the job. Right after he gets the job, he recuses himself.
BAKER: Was that a mistake?
TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.
HABERMAN: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?
TRUMP: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.
TRUMP: Who is he? And Jeff hardly knew. He’s from Baltimore.
TRUMP: Yeah, what Jeff Sessions did was he recused himself right after, right after he became attorney general. And I said, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I would have — then I said, “Who’s your deputy?” So his deputy he hardly knew, and that’s Rosenstein, Rod Rosenstein, who is from Baltimore. There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any. So, he’s from Baltimore. Now, he, we went through a lot of things. We were interviewing replacements at the F.B.I. Did you know Mueller was one of the people that was being interviewed?
HABERMAN: I did, actually.
A few thoughts on reading the transcripted excerpts of the most recent NYT interview with 45:
1.) Some theater company ought to do a staging of Glengarry Glen Ross where all the parts are played as Donald Trump impersonations. You heard it here first. I’ll clear space in my schedule for next year’s Tony Awards. (Seriously, though: I can’t be the only one who’s thought of this.)
2.) In interviews with competent executives, it is usually the journalists asking their subject for basic information and clarifications. In this interview, the president asks the reporters a lot of questions about things you would expect him to know. Or, as in the quote above, the president asks a rhetorical question that only makes him look like an uninformed buffoon.
3.) In a post that is very critical of the president’s lack of ethics or good sense, Rod Dreher comments, “I don’t see how Jeff Sessions has any choice now but to resign. He has lost the confidence of the president. And I think Sessions will one day very soon be grateful that he got out of this Dumpster fire of an administration before it all went to hell.” To which I say, “before it goes to hell”?!? But also: Jeff Sessions has a lot of choices. Jeff Sessions played a central role in legitimizing Trump for the Republican base during the long election, and I’m sure that he intends to do a lot more with the power of the A.G.’s office before he’s done.
Dreher, bless him, seems to operate under the impression that the key players in the Republican Party have some semblence of a political conscience. But they fell in line behind Donald J. Trump, a man who has demonstrated a truly incredible capacity to prove his ignorance and lack of moral scruple time and again. In a country where a majority of the Republican base could be outraged/shocked/marginally perturbed by Trump saying, almost in so many words, that he would not have hired Sessions as Attorney General if he’d known that Sessions would do his job in holding the president accountable to the law, perhaps Dreher would be on the mark. In the real world, as long as Trump’s flagrantly tyrannical effusions don’t upset the core constituencies that keep them in power, people like Jeff Sessions can continue to bathe in the dumpster fire, confident that they won’t get burned. I mean, the whole thing stinks, but voters evidently will continue to hold their noses and pull the lever for these people.
Clara broke in here, flushing a little as she spoke: ‘Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living? — a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate — “nature”, as people used to call it — as one thing, and mankind another. It was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make “nature” their slave, since they thought “nature was something outside them.’
‘Surely,’ said Morsom; ‘and they were puzzled as to what to do, till they found the feeling against mechanical life, which had begun before the Great Change amongst people who had leisure to think of such things, was spreading insensibly; till at last under the guise of pleasure that was not supposed to be work, work that was pleasure began to push out the mechanical toil, which they had once hoped at the best to reduce to narrow limits indeed, but never to get rid of, and which, moreover, they found they could not limit as they had hoped to do.’
‘When did this new revolution gather head?’ said I.
‘In the half-century that followed the Great Change,’ said Morsom, ‘it began to be noteworthy; machine after machine wa quietly dropped under the excuse that the machines could not produce works of art, and that works of art were more and more called for. Look here,’ he said, ‘here are some of the works of that time — rought and unskilful in handiwork, but solid and showing some sense of pleasure in the making.’
‘They are very curious,’ said I, taking up a piece of pottery from amongst the specimens which the antiquary was showing us; ‘not a bit like the work of either savages or barbarians, and yet with what would once have been called a hatred of civilization impressed upon them.’
–William Morris, News from Nowhere, or an epoch of rest, being some chapters from a utopian romance. Edited by James Remond, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, pp. 154-55. (1890)
As in physics, so in politics: for every action there is a reaction, perhaps not equal nor precisely opposite, but reliably contrary nonetheless.
–David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999), p. 339
The Vatican is an imposing enough place to speak, especially for a Southern Baptist, so I guess I can plead that my mind was distracted with nervousness. I waited in line with several friends and colleagues of various communions and denominations to enter the center of the Church of Rome to attend a gathering, called by Pope Francis, of religious leaders from around the world to talk about marriage and family. Going through security, I fished in my coat pocket for my passport. The problem was that I had worn the same suit the week before, lecturing on the Protestant Reformation at an Evangelical seminary. Without thinking, I pulled out what I took to be my passport, only to find that I was handing the Swiss Guard a pocket-size copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.
As I made a fumbling attempt to put the little booklet away and find the right documentation, I wondered which of my grandparents would be more ashamed of me: my Roman Catholic grandmother, for my ushering the tumult of the 16th century right there to the pope’s door; my Baptist-preacher grandfather, for entering the Vatican at all; or all of my grandparents together — Evangelicals and Catholics alike — for my violation of southern manners. My awkwardness was all my own, though. The Swiss Guards didn’t recognize the 95 theses, and my American Catholic colleagues roared with laughter. At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.
–Russell Moore, The Reformation at 500
More from Vann R. Newkirk II:
Trump’s rise came as a preacher of the prosperity gospel. His promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with just about nothing in particular relied as much on dissatisfaction with the current law as it did the delirious optimism of prosperity, and the idea that the real way to better America was to make life better for healthy and wealthy people, and to further link the two.
Will coal miners, unemployed auto workers, and small farmers in Appalachia fare better under the AHCA? Almost certainly not now. But if they work hard enough and have enough virtue, maybe. And at the end of the tunnel of aspiration is the favor that the AHCA’s brazen regressive health tax provides for the healthy and wealthy. It’s a moral restructuring of the health economy.
As Newkirk says elsewhere in his article, most Republicans aren’t as
intellectually honest accidentally truthful as Brooks. They argue that their ideas of health care are somehow will make life better for the poor and the sick. I have no doubt that some Republicans have even persuaded themselves that this is, indeed, the case. “To be fair,” Brooks himself says in the unedited interview, “…I think our society under those circumstances”–that is, people being sick “through no fault of their own”– “needs to help.” He probably thinks that the AHCA is helping. Bless his shriveled little heart.
Mo Brooks made a Kinsley gaffe, which is to say that he fully comprehends what he’s talking about and inadvertently demonstrated his competence to a public that should be properly horrified at the prospect that he meant what he said and has the power to do something about it. Democrats seem to think that the AHCA is a major political blunder. I’m not convinced. Voters were willing to support a House Speaker who baldly proclaims that wealth = freedom and a president who espouses, according to the very same House Speaker, the “textbook definition of racism.” The only question facing low-income Republican voters with pre-existing conditions, I suspect, is which scapegoat is going to bear the blame next for the consequences of their own political choices. I guess we’ll find out.