State of the Union

Leaning In to Egg Freezing

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In April, the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek blared: “Freeze Your Eggs, Free Your Career: A New Fertility Procedure Gives Women More Choices in the Quest to Have It All.” The New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic all wrote similar stories within a few months of Bloomberg’s cover, describing the new egg freezing empowerment narrative being sold to the female professional class. This week, NBC reported that Facebook and Apple have included egg freezing in their benefits packages as Silicon Valley’s latest high-powered perk. But behind the flashy pitch parties and promises of reproductive liberation is an industry targeted at the maternal anxieties of an increasingly wide swath of women navigating economic and social uncertainty.

Where previous generations often married and established a family by their mid-20s, professional women now often delay marriage and children until their 30s and later, and are rewarded for doing so. As the UVA National Marriage Project’s “Knot Yet” report indicated, “there is an $18,152 difference in annual personal income between college-educated women who marry before age twenty and those who wait until thirty or later.” Yet having spent their most opportune childbearing years cultivating a professional life, many of these women are faced with the stark reality that their chance at having and raising children is waning by the year. That’s where egg freezing pitch parties come in.

Robin Marantz Henig wrote of her experience at an event for the fertility company Eggbanxx that was sold as “an evening of ‘The Three F’s: Fun, Fertility, and Freezing’” for Slate. A “cocktail party at the trendy Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo [that] could have been a networking event for a hip New York investment bank or publishing house,” egg freezing was marketed as an easy means to empowerment. After all, who needs to settle down when you’ve got your future children–and reproductive capacity–frozen in time? Egg freezing appears to offer women the opportunity to turn back the hands of the biological clock.

But as W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, pointed out, the entire egg freezing impetus springs from a feeling that there is nowhere else to turn. “This [technology] will appeal to a very particular class of work-oriented women or women who feel that their prospects are bad,” Wilcox said. “There is a rhetoric of empowerment, but the reality is that they are a bunch of women who feel that they are not in power. In the end, this is a last resort.”

Sarah Elizabeth Richards, journalist and author of Motherhood, Rescheduled, says in her experience the desire to freeze eggs is indeed born from a sense of entrapment, but isn’t necessarily tied to careerism. According to Richards, the popular narrative that young professional women freeze their eggs in order to delay childbirth and develop themselves professionally or academically is off the mark.

“What I found is that after women froze their eggs, they focused more on dating and relationships,” Richards said. “Here’s what no one understands about egg freezing: it’s usually not used to delay children and do career things or pursue an education. It’s because they’re not in a relationship. These women reach a certain age (though the age is getting younger) and realize that their time is running out.”

The advent of a new flash-freezing technique called vitrification has given the fertility industry a product to offer women in that position. While egg freezing was traditionally a long-shot attempt to preserve the fertility of cancer patients, it has increasingly been used as a way to preserve the fertility of single women still searching for a mate as they approach 40. And if some in the industry get their way, Bloomberg reported, the market will continue to grow younger as “generous would-be grandparents will cover it as they would a first-mortgage down payment. ‘If you’re going to give your daughter a college graduation gift, what would you rather give her—a Honda or the chance to make a decision about when she’s ready to have a baby?’” one fertility doctor asked.

Wilcox fears the mainstreaming of egg freezing could undermine other efforts to make the workplace more family-friendly. “In some ways, we are moving into a world where our institutions and workplaces are becoming more accommodating to mothers,” he said. “This technology would remove that pressure. They wouldn’t have to be flexible and creative anymore. If young, professional, highly-educated young women continue to have children in their 20s, employers will have to adapt.”

The marginally increased reliability of vitrification has opened the door for some in the fertility industry to making their pitch for egg freezing as a normal life choice, even though the expensive procedure is almost never covered by insurance. To bridge that gap, Bloomberg reported, companies like Eggbanxx are starting to offer financing and payment plans to extend their services to more women, plans that include options with APRs of up to 35.36 percent according to Eggbanxx’s website.

David and Amber Lapp, researchers at the Institute for American Values and co-investigators of the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, have also found evidence that motherhood anxiety is not simply restricted to its current professional-class market. Career women of the upper crust share this fundamental anxiety with middle- and lower-class working women. Amber Lapp spoke of a young woman who came to her with the idea of using a sperm donor: “When I spoke with her, she talked about how she felt she couldn’t trust men,” Lapp said. She continued, paraphrasing the young woman: “’Now I feel like I’m screwed. I’m scared. I don’t want to waste that much time and energy into something that’s not worth it.’”

The anxious impulse for motherhood was not stymied by an insufficient income among the working-class women the Lapps interviewed. “The odd thing was that these women, despite the expense, were considering using a sperm donor even though they could barely afford their housing,” Lapp said. “The desire for children is that strong.”

Expanded egg freezing may set women up for even more disappointment, however, as the new vitrification procedures rarely live up to how they are hyped. While Eggbanxx’s representatives confidently declared that women can expect near-90 percent success rates after three cycles, a recent peer-reviewed study of egg freezing papers concluded that even women who froze their eggs at age 25 only obtained live births 31.5 percent of the time.

While the egg freezing industry will likely continue to grow, the social and economic struggles impeding marriage and motherhood remain resistant to a technological solution.

Sarah Albers is a TAC editorial assistant.

Wi-Fi Invades the Wilderness

Jason Mark’s article for The Atlantic, “Wifi in the Woods,” points to an alarming trend: Wi-Fi connectivity brought into national parks—or at least, for the time being, their visitor centers. Parks Canada was the first to begin the push, spurring the National Park Service and National Park Hospitality Association into action.

This prompted a popular outcry. Mark sums it up nicely when he writes that “if we ever succeed in knitting all (or even most) of the physical world into the Internet, we could end up abolishing the sense of the Away. When we’re all able to connect from anywhere—well, then, there’ll be no place left to hide.”

Parks Canada issued a statement guaranteeing that Wi-Fi connectivity will remain unavailable in most areas, adding that “You will have to wait to be back from your hike to update your Facebook page or add a squirrel selfie.” A similar conciliatory tone is maintained by the NPS and NPHA. An article on the project states that the “backcountry and wilderness areas in general would not become Wi-Fi hubs—at least, not through this pilot project.”

Not through this project, but perhaps through another? Google is more ambitious than the park services in its efforts to affirm the ubiquity of Internet connectivity. A fleet of 180 mini satellites is being launched at the price of an estimated $1 to $3 billion. Google’s first avowed goal is simply to enhance their mapping capabilities, but that by no means precludes the later addition of Internet connectivity.

Alistair Barr and Andy Pasztor wrote on the project for the Wall Street Journal in June, highlighting Internet access as the primary economic motive: “Google’s project is the latest effort by a Silicon Valley company to extend Internet coverage from the sky to help its business on the ground.” And this latest effort is extensive. Google is launching balloons and drones in addition to its satellites. (Facebook has a drone project of its own.)

Anxiety at the apparent inexorability of Internet connectivity is justified: the American imagination has long been fascinated with the notional purity of nature. At the time Thoreau penned Waldenhe was witnessing the earliest cultural precursors of the Industrial Revolution: cities were growing at unprecedented rates, families were being uprooted, individuals were becoming increasingly isolated from one another in the rush to gain employment and wealth—the Gilded Age was coming. Thoreau retreated into the woods to find truth, saying “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

We are now facing the effects of the Information Revolution. iPhones, laptops, and social media are its hallmarks; compulsive data aggregation and exchange its symptoms. Cities and industries are shifting rapidly again and, once more, we face another wave of technological advancement to which we must become accustomed.

We may yet see Wi-Fi at Walden Pond.

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Place and the Politics of Slacktivism

Americans have come to stand at quite a distance from their government. The interests of government, as well as those of politics, are a point of indifference to many citizens. A Pew Research Center study conducted before the 2012 election cycle designated 43 percent of the voting-age population in its entirety as “non-voters.”

As a result, our political process has seen the rise of slacktivism, defined by one august Internet institution as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” It manifests itself in many ways: hashtag activism (see also: #WeAreN, #YesAllWomen, and #BringBackOurGirls), social media campaigns for “change,” and clicktivism, to name a few. Laura Seay at The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage writes that the logic of slacktivist campaigns “are usually based on the logic that increased awareness of a cause is in and of itself a worthy reason to pursue them.”

Why the emphasis on awareness? Today’s political sphere has been atomized. The public has no voice, no agency unless it somehow finds a way to leverage its power in Washington indirectly. This is where slacktivism is so appealing. A click, a share, and you feel that you have influenced something, somewhere. Seay again:

[Slacktivist campaign] logic assumes that the more attention a cause receives, the more likely public officials are to pay attention to a cause, and thus the more tangible benefits (like legislation, a policy change, or money allocated to help victims of a crisis) there will be.

Of course, this is not merely a political matter. Social media activism is a massive commercial industry, as Vice points out:

With each click, Change.org makes a profit, and increases its clientele base. Clients are often organizations with deep pockets; Amnesty InternationalSierra Club, and even the Democratic Party.

Some of the petitions do indeed go “viral” and cause change—the article points to the “pink sludge” and Gatorade campaigns as success stories, with one caveat.

Both petitions were started by regular people, went viral, and resulted in real change. But therein also lies the problem: As research shows, you’re more likely to click on something short, simple, and easy to understand.

Large-scale petition programs often end up being little more than a means to translate widespread but apathetic goodwill into monetary gain. Micah White, in a piece that ostensibly named the “clicktivism” movement, posed the conflict as “a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change.”

The article is an eloquent jeremiad, declaiming what he sees as a crass by-product of capitalism.

Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal…. Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities.

But in that last sentence, he hits upon the truth of “clicktivism,” “slacktivism,” etc. Local organizations, formerly the “authentic voice” of the community, have been all but eliminated in modern politics. The problem is not capitalism, but the lack of a meaningful way to act and influence others locally—namely, the absence of the intermediary social institutions of town, church, home; in a word, place.


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Punk Rock and Poultry With a Kick

punkrocker

Johnny Rotten would probably be horrified to be grouped with the likes of today’s foodie counterculture—and, true to character, the odds are good that he would unabashedly vocalize his distaste—but the fact remains that his sneering anarchy is, in some ways, as much of a political statement as the choice to eat and cook locally.

Punk came about as a form of critique. In the beginning, it managed to create a now-iconic counterculture where (often subversive) political commentary could flourish. The anti-establishment attitude resulted in a remarkably hardy group: early punk rockers largely embraced self-promotion, preferring informal and community-based means of production to systematized or formalized industry structures. (Not to mention hard drugs.)

Today, the genteel locavore movement is forming its own, more subtly subversive, counterculture. The strengths of the punk movement—as with any truly sustainable anti-establishment culture—are to be found within those who choose to grow their own food, eat and cook locally, and focus on re-establishing local communities in the face of an ever-growing industry structure. And the movement is anything but a partisan project.

Joel Salatin, a hero among many who hope to return food production and consumption to its local roots, wrote a book titled “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal,” addressing the difficulties that independent farmers face. He is a champion for local and sustainable agriculture, and a charismatic one at that. Andrea Gabor from The Atlantic wrote about her visit to the “mecca of sustainable agriculture,” Salatin’s Polyface Farms, in 2011. She observed that his appeals to the listener are not only rooted in his trade, but political and moral sentiments as well. Salatin is fulfilling a vocation, creating a counterculture.

As he does frequently during the tour, Salatin digresses to matters more spiritual and political than agricultural: “The pig is not just pork chops and bacon and ham to us. … Our culture doesn’t ask about preserving the essence of pig, it just asks how can we grow them faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper.”

Salatin is far from alone in his rejection of factory farming and industrialized food. Though Salatin’s rhetoric tends to appeal to the Right, John Schwenkler wrote in 2008 of an unexpected ally on the Left: Alice Waters, the leader of what she calls “the Delicious Revolution.” In a 1997 speech, she seems to echo—though in very different vernacular—what Salatin is saying.

[Schoolyard gardens] “teach redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting—for the things that money can’t buy: the very things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives.

Salatin strives to preserve the existence of what Waters calls “the real, the authentic, and the lasting;” sustainability is, like all sound countercultures (punk included) a principled critique.

But the ethical case is not the only one to be made. The factory farming industry is corrupt in precisely the same way that other sprawling industries are: Schwenkler writes that “Official dietary guidelines inevitably became the product of collaboration between government agencies and representatives of the industries that stand to benefit.” (Sid, are you listening?)

The punk movement, in the end, was not particularly conducive to law and order—or sustainable community of any kind, for that matter. It was the earnest, if misguided, rebellion of disenfranchised youth, rejecting legitimate and illegitimate social obligations without scruple.

The essence of the locavore movement on both Left and Right is its unique anti-authoritarian aims: not anarchy for its own sake, but the rejection of what they see to be a corrupted system. Alice Waters’ rebellion seeks to combat corporate and governmental sprawl by cultivating local community; Salatin’s, by rousing it.

Perhaps there’s a little punk in all of us—even while tending the hens.


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As Mosul’s Christians Flee, Religious Freedom Gets an Ambassador

mosul

The State Department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom paints a dark picture for religious liberty advocates. The AP says that “Millions of people were forced from their homes because of their religious beliefs last year,” referring to the IRF report’s summary of “the devastating impact of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the Central African Republic.”

The IRF report itself opens by saying that, in 2013, “the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. … Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map. In conflict zones, in particular, this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.”

In Mosul, the crisis of Iraqi Christians has reached fever pitch: a fourth-century monastery was recently taken by force. The tomb traditionally held to be the resting place of Jonah was destroyed by insurgents. The Iraqi government has denounced the rebels’ actions, but done little to stop them. An AP report sheds light on the havoc:

Residents in Mosul also say the Islamic State group’s fighters recently have begun to occupy churches and seize the homes of Christians who have fled the city. … Already in Mosul, the extremist group has banned alcohol and water pipes, and painted over street advertisements showing women’s faces. It has, however, held off on stricter punishments so far.

The State Department report was released on Monday, serving to illustrate a known trend of international religious chaos and neatly coinciding with President Obama’s announcement of David Saperstein’s appointment as Ambassador-at-Large of International Religious Freedom for the U.S.

The appointment has been a long time coming. Obama, criticized by some for dawdling, has allowed the post to remain vacant since Suzan Johnson Cook, Saperstein’s predecessor, vacated the post in October 2013.

Mark Silk writes at Religion News Service that Saperstein is highly qualified for the position:

Saperstein’s religious liberty bona fides is without peer. Two decades ago, he put together the coalition responsible for gaining all but unanimous passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law that has recently become the darling of religious conservatives. In 1999, he was unanimously elected by his fellow commissioners to serve as the first chair of the USCIRF. He served on the first advisory council to Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and was a member of the task force to reform the office. No representative of a religious organization in Washington comes close to matching his credibility across the political spectrum.

His appointment comes at a time when religious strife is prominent at home and abroad. Saperstein has been tasked with what is arguably one of the most complex and difficult political missions of the moment. He faces extraordinarily violent international religious conflict, in addition to the prospect of political resistance at home. And given the trajectory of the world, things look likely to only get worse before they get better.


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Pentagon Audit Goes Once More Into the Breach

Image courtesy Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Image courtesy Congresswoman Barbara Lee

H.R. 5126 is the latest effort in a longstanding and increasingly bipartisan movement to send the Pentagon sailing into the azure waters of Sound Fiscal Policy. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and co-sponsored by Reps. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

For those seeking immediate, significant cuts to military spending, the measure might be less than satisfying, but Jill Shatzen, Communications Director for Rep. Burgess, said that the primary goal of the bill was to “put a little pressure on them in order to gain compliance.” The bill will “reduce by one-half of one percent the discretionary budget authority of any Federal agency for a fiscal year if [it] does not receive a qualified or unqualified audit opinion by an external independent auditor[.]” A similar bill proposing five percent budget penalties for un-auditable Pentagon programs failed in 2013, so a more modest approach has been taken.

Led by Rafael DeGennaro, the Audit the Pentagon Coalition has secured endorsements from a diverse range of political figures. “[H.R. 5126] is a well-crafted and moderate piece of legislation,” DeGennaro said at a press conference. “It’s backed by a broad coalition: from Grover Norquist on the right to Ralph Nader — who endorsed it only recently — to Code Pink on the left.”

The law that H.R. 5126 seeks to enforce, passed in 1990, required the Pentagon to pass an annual audit and has been utterly disregarded since. “The current law is strong and clear,” said DeGennaro, “The deadline was [25] years ago. We need to impose immediate financial consequences on un-auditable agencies.” Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, emphasized at a press conference that establishing baseline accountability is an important first step to reform, regardless of political affiliation. “There is always going to be a discussion on how and what to spend on defense,” Norquist said, “but do any of us know how much we are spending? You can’t begin to have a conversation without the facts.” Norquist is a long-time supporter of the effort to audit the Pentagon. TAC‘s Michael Ostrolenk interviewed him in 2012 about his efforts at the time. During the interview, he quipped that “[s]pending is not caring. Spending is what politicians do instead of caring.”

DeGennaro said that by requiring each individual agency to be responsible for passing an audit, H.R. 5126 sidesteps the mistake of treating the Pentagon as a “monolith.” Necessary spending cuts can be decided once the numbers are available and the agencies are once more operating within definable boundaries.

Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, a former officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, strongly supported the Pentagon audit in a 2013 interview with TAC: “Audit the Pentagon?” he asked. “Absolutely—a no brainer. Just do it.”


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Slenderman and the “Mythos” of Modernism

On May 31, a bicyclist found a young girl, stabbed 19 times with a five inch blade, after she crawled out of the Wisconsin woods and dragged herself toward the nearest road.

The perpetrators Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 12 and classmates of the victim, are being charged as adults with attempted murder. The stabbing was an attempt to pay tribute to Slenderman, a faceless, betentacled, and besuited character from Internet lore. The two girls were caught along the road after they had committed the crime, apparently walking to an imaginary rendezvous point with Slenderman.

They first discovered Slenderman on the Creepypasta Wiki, which is where most of the current fan fiction resides. They reportedly planned the attack for months, finally luring the victim into the woods with a game of hide-and-seek.

The Slenderman myth is one of the first pieces of popular lore truly borne of the Internet, beginning online and accruing momentum and backstory as people photoshopped and blogged Slenderman into existence. The rapid spread of his legend surprised even Eric Knudsen, Slenderman’s creator. He said in an interview that he didn’t expect it to move beyond the Somethingawful forum where he posted the first Slenderman image:

It was amazing to see people create their own little part of Slender Man in order to perpetuate his existance [sic]. … I found it interesting to watch as sort of an accelerated version of an urban legend.

When he created Slenderman, he said that he wanted something “whose motivations can barely be comprehended,” and that caused “general unease and terror in a general population.” He here pinpoints the power of Slenderman: the omnipotence of the unknown. The Internet has, after all, given us the ability to know every imaginable aspect of our world; but not to belong to it.

Vice chalks the violence up to poorly-managed hormones and small-town boredom. An Mytheos Holt at R Street asks whether their violence could have been prevented by addressing mental illness openly. Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times makes Slenderman’s faceless horror emblematic of the “selfie” age—an attempt to use fear to push against compulsive, narcissistic self-documentation.

Collin Barnes, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hillsdale College, mentioned in an e-mail that the need to find meaning and community, to craft an identity, could have driven the crime, “Killing in the name of Slenderman and investing oneself in religious rituals are not entirely different and may reflect latent fears we have about being utterly alone in the universe.”

In the mythos, Slenderman’s victims are always alone, and radically estranged from help or support. There is no intelligible pattern or motive to the victimization. In contrast to the bogeymen of “organic” folklore, he has no distinct vendetta against transgressors of social or moral norms.

The two girls were not driven to violence by their encounter with Slenderman. He was emblematic of faceless, nameless dread: of complete alienation. As Kathleen Hale pointed out at Vice, girls of their age are experiencing radical emotional isolation, and possible mental health issues and public school social dynamics only exacerbate the problem. In a way, the killing was a gesture of solidarity, an attempt to connect with someone or something when faced with being “utterly alone.” Slenderman is the demon of a suburban age.


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“Emoji Dick”: American Classic?

“Call me Ishmael,” the opening line to one of America’s greatest works of literature, looks very different when rendered in emoji characters.

The Library of Congress accepted data engineer Fred Benenson’s pictorial rewrite of Moby Dick, titled “Emoji Dick,” after Michael Neubert advocated its addition:

“[The book] takes a known classic of literature and converts it to a construct of our modern way of communicating, making possible an investigation of the question, ‘is it still a literary classic when written in a kind of smart phone based pidgin language?'”

Pictorial communication is becoming increasingly widespread as Emoji, “the more elaborate cousins of emoticons,” get deployed incessantly across social media. There is a forthcoming communication app called Emoji.li that uses exclusively emoji characters to communicate. One Tumblr account offers emotional analysis based on emoji use. There is even an art and design show dedicated to the pictorial system.

Hannah Rosenfield took a look at the linguistic possibilities (and impossibilities) of emoji. It has yet to develop syntax or grammar: changes in the placement of emoji within a “sentence” fail to convey any significant change in meaning. It shares many characteristics with pidgin languages, which often arise when two groups without significant linguistic common ground must communicate. “Pidgins typically have a limited vocabulary and lack nuance, a developed syntax, and the ability to convey register,” Rosenfield writes.

But just because pictorial systems are non-viable as a means of communication themselves doesn’t mean that they can’t enrich the language—and this goes beyond emoji to other forms of visual media. For example, teachers are utilizing graphic novels to aid reading comprehension in schools, as well as relying more upon digital and visual media to engage young children in their text work.

The key, though, is that these are used to supplement—not replace—traditional language. Camilla Nelson writes that “good transmedia narratives do not merely repeat across media platforms. Rather, each text offers a way to supplement, analyse and evaluate the rest—a bit like pieces of a puzzle that need to be put together through the use of imagination and problem solving.” Indeed, “Emoji Dick” is primarily an exercise in translation: Benenson accompanied the strings of emoji “sentences” with the original text, in order to provide context for the reader and intelligibility to the characters.

Picture languages give us an opportunity to emphasize or complement the language in which we think and speak, be it utilized for the sake of education, to bridge a language gap, or in casual communication. “Emoji, for all its detractors, is about embellishment and added context,” writes Rhodri Marsden for The Independent. “[I]t’s about in-jokes, playfulness, of emphasising praise or cushioning the impact of criticism, of provoking thought and exercising the imagination.”

The idea that pictorial systems could be used to engage language—streamline it, give it further nuance—has been around since before the 1500s. The problem is that visual representation is just that: representation. It refers to something concrete; points, as it were, to something else. Advanced languages derive meaning from context, from the relationships between the words themselves as well as the associations they evoke. Emoji and other visual media are highly contingent, useless without at least some explanation.

Useful? Perhaps, but by no means representative of the eclipse of the written word.

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America the Abstracted

Two recent studies offer up what appear to be contradictory results: one, by the Pew Research Center, indicates that young Americans are less patriotic than their forebears. On the other hand, a recent MTV survey purports to have found that young Americans far and away surpass past generations’ patriotism.

One explanation for the disparate findings is that both surveys approach patriotism in a different manner. For MTV’s purposes, patriotism implies zealous adherence to and belief in “American ideals.” For the Pew Research Center, patriotism and exceptionalism are neatly conflated. (For example, one question the Pew survey uses to determine “patriotism” is whether the U.S. “stands above all other countries in the world.”)

Daniel Larison recently looked at the disparity between “old” and “new” exceptionalism. He writes that “believing that the U.S. is exceptional in certain respects because of its political traditions and institutions doesn’t require one to endorse the idea that the U.S. ‘stands above’ all other countries.” Conversely, a commitment—no matter how zealous—to an America of universal platitudes does not mean that you are patriotic.

But it is precisely this zealous commitment to universalist moralism that MTV emphasized in its own survey. As Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post put it:

Rather than trying to boil patriotism down to whether millennials think we are number one, MTV took a look at what young people think constitute American values and how much faith they have that the country can live up to them.

Are you proud of America? Are you inspired by America? The use of emotional, idealistic vocabulary led to paradoxical results. From the MTV press release:

· Nearly 90 percent of young people feel it is “American” to advocate for equality and fairness, yet nearly 7 in 10 believe the country only embraces college-educated, well-off people.

· Over 80 percent of Millennials say America remains the land of opportunity, however 56 percent also feel the American system has let them down.

· Nearly 7 in 10 Millennials believe “America is the best country in the world,” yet 8 in 10 young people agree that some actions of the American government make it hard to be proud.

As Richard Gamble explained in a 2012 cover article for TAC, contemporary American exceptionalism and its belief that American values are universal values results in an aggressively global perspective; it presumes America “to be a beacon to the world and a liberator on a mission of universal redemption.”

But abstract principle comprises only part of American identity. The Declaration of Independence, while universalist in its rhetoric, was not intended to be an absolute expression of human emancipation.

Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review makes an excellent point when he says that the Founders “sought a restoration of their inheritance, the Constitutional Congress asserting in 1774 that British subjects in America were ‘entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural- born subjects, within the realm of England.'”

Cooke writes that, “[w]ith its attestation that all men are created equal, the Declaration of Independence represented a glorious break with all that had gone before.” But the Founders did not seek to march forward into global progress. He continues: “…it is a reflective, rather than a subversive document — one that is predicated upon ancient principle and marinated in a wisdom that had taken centuries to accrue.”

Young Americans are emphatically committed to the principles upon which America was founded, but will sometimes reject the country itself as well as the wisdom and history embodied in its establishment. It is fealty to an idea, not loyalty to a nation, that they profess.


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Aggregated Soul, Quantified Self

Know thyself!

According to the Quantified Self movement, data aggregation is the answer to one of mankind’s oldest and most fundamental problems. Its catchphrase, “self knowledge through numbers,” implicitly suggests that objective self analysis by various means of data collection will allow users to reach their goals, whatever those may be.

Lo! Self knowledge, delivered in an easy-to-read graph and often helpfully accompanied by concrete, attainable steps to self-improvement.

The American public has proven incredibly receptive to the idea. Indeed, the Quantified Self movement is nestled within a much larger industry of self-quantification and description. Josh Bersin for Forbes Magazine points out that we have turned nearly everything into a means to this end:

Not only are we instrumenting our bodies, we are instrumenting everything else. … Facebook itself is an “instrumentation” system – it encourages us to post more and more data about where we are, what we’re doing, and who we are with. And Twitter, which now has around 260 million users, has become a self-description engine.

One man has taken to coding himself a daily itinerary. HTML prompts appear at various intervals, reminding him to get up and stretch, tell his wife he loves her, evaluate his energy level, take 10 minutes to think, etc.  Another man used the massive amounts of data he self-collected to lose 100 pounds and launch himself into a successful business career. And then there’s the man who just got drunk.

A look into the ways consumers use the data collection industry gives insight into why they are self-aggregating in the first place: they are telling a story. (Take, for example, the tendency of Facebook and Twitter users to thoroughly chronicle and distribute their existential minutiae.) The “narrative” of the Age of Information is a torrential data stream.

While this transformation seems radical, American society has experienced rapid shifts in the quantity and speed of shared data before. A City Journal article points out that the printing press, telegraph, and telephone each vaulted data distribution to what were then-unprecedented levels. The authors, Mark P. Mills and M. Anthony Mills, make the distinction between two prior stages of the information revolution and the peculiar nature of this latest development:

The first information revolution spawned mass printing and telecommunications; the second saw the ascendance of mass computing and the Internet. … We are now witnessing the emergence of a new type of data derived from every aspect of human interaction and behavior, from commercial exchanges to biological processes.

The distribution of this information seems to require no interpretation; only mediation, passive transmission of fact. It is tempting to lament that the qualitative self—man as storyteller, as interpreter—has been largely supplanted by the quantitative self: a man of data and metadata, of fact and sleek efficiency.

Though our imagination may very well have shifted, our nature has not. We are intrinsically subjective, incapable of complete objectivity. The image of mankind rendered by quantification, though ever more extensive, is by no means comprehensive. Scientific description cannot now and never will alter fundamental facts of human nature. Relentless reduction to objective fact cannot somehow circumscribe mankind.

“Know thyself” is an exhortation as profound and relevant in the Age of Information as it was in the age of Classical Greece: there is more to know, more to be known by, than numbers.


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Religious Discrimination Found in the Workplace

One might think that having a stronger cultural bias toward religion would lead to less discrimination against religious affiliations. Two sociological studies, one of New England and one of the South, indicate that in the workplace, at least, that may not be true.

The first study, the survey of New England, measured employer response to fictitious resumes that had various religious affiliations (including a made-up “Wallonian” faith) and a control group that had no such affiliation listed. The second study was a simple replica of the first, performed in the South. Both studies found that including an overt religious affiliation caused a significant drop in follow-up contacts from prospective employers.

The original study was focused on New England because, in the authors’ own words, “New Englanders express the lowest levels of religiosity in the country,” and the “notoriously taciturn New Englanders are not typically prone to flamboyant displays of religious fervor.” The New England study was then replicated in the South, a region known instead for being strongly religious. (The introduction to the survey of the South calls it the “most devout,” in contrast to New England’s label of “least religious.”)

The results? In both studies, Muslims were by far the least likely applicants to receive a follow-up contact, receiving 38 percent fewer e-mails and 41 percent fewer phone calls than the control group in New England. In the South, the numbers were 38 and 54 percent, respectively.

The New England study found that Catholics, pagans, evangelicals, and atheists were again subject to discrimination, if considerably less than Muslims. Each group received roughly 27-29 percent fewer phone calls: close to the effect that religious affiliation itself had on contact returns. (The reaction against these minority groups, save evangelicals, was similar but more pronounced in the South.)

Even cultures that are highly religious—such as the South—will discriminate against expressed religious affiliation in entry-level hirings. From the conclusion of the study conducted in New England:

This suggests that the secularization has developed a normative aspect … prescribing when and where it is “acceptable” to express one’s religiousness. … As such, secularization implies not just independence from religion but normatively enforced separation from it — even to the point of religious discrimination.

The key to overcoming prejudice seems to lie, oddly enough, with Southern Jews. They were given even preferential treatment by employers, despite the fact that their culture is unfamiliar to the regnant strain of Protestantism. From the conclusion of the survey conducted in the South by Wallace, Wright, and Hyde:

While Jews are culturally different from evangelicals in many respects, Southern Jews have deep historical roots in the South and have more successfully assimilated into mainstream culture than Jews in other regions. … In short, Jews thrived in the South, not by brandishing their religious differences but by embracing key aspects of Southern evangelical culture.

American culture has indeed secularized and, as this study shows, become more wary of overt religious affiliation. The separation between public and private freedom of religion is more and more strictly defined. Many Christians chafe at the idea of such restriction. But perhaps, as the success of Southern Jews has demonstrated, the answer is not to “brandish religious differences” but, as Samuel Goldman describes in the latest issue of The American Conservative, to make peace, within limits, with the culture in which we live, for the sake of common harmony.


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Childless Elite, Spouseless Poor

Traditional marriage has experienced a shift in popular culture from “cornerstone” to “capstone” of adult achievement. As a result, many young men and women are delaying marriage; indeed, today’s generation is marrying later than ever before.

For poor women, or those with low levels of education, late marriage has resulted in demographically unprecedented nonmarital birthrates. But for young female professionals, children during early life are often out of the question. And, unlike their counterparts of lower socioeconomic status, they have the means to both willfully prevent conception and push back the hands of the proverbial biological clock.

The odd thing is that early childbearing outside of marriage is culturally and economically incentivized for those of the lower class, whereas the same mechanisms operate to discourage childbearing at all for women of wealth and high social standing.

Among the poor, childbearing is still seen as a rite of adulthood, a chance to achieve some form of success and personal fulfillment. Olga Khazan quotes a Johns Hopkins sociologist, Andrew Cherlin, in an Atlantic article:

‘Many young women think they will be able to care for the kid—they have a mother who can help, a sister they can rely on,’ Cherlin said. Particularly among the very poorest Americans, ‘this is a way a woman or man can be a successful adult when all other paths are blocked.’

For the wealthy, however, children born outside of wedlock present a significant social and financial burden. Educational and career successes are the milestones used to judge success as an adult—meaning that young female professionals often choose to delay marriage and children.

Because marriage is no longer a moral prerequisite for reproduction, economics and personal preference are left to determine whether or not marriage occurs. As a result, those stricken by financial hardship have all but abandoned marriage. It demands resources they simply do not have: money, time, and long-term commitment.

Affluent women, however, have been proven to reap disproportionate financial benefits from delaying marriage and child rearing. Eleanor Barkhorn, in an article for the Atlantic, says that women “who marry later make more money per year than women who marry young.” There is a 56 percent increase in income for college-educated women who marry after 30, relative to the same group who married before age 20.

Thus, we have a boom of single mothers among the lower classes and a scarcity of mothers altogether among our professional and upper classes. The poor are unable to manipulate biology as effectively and end up having children at roughly the same point in their life as they always have, albeit outside the stability of a marriage. But the affluent can afford to cling to the normative marriage-then-children pattern, using money and technology to delay childbearing until they have found a suitable spouse.

The pattern is cruelly self-reinforcing. Young women raised in the broken homes so common among low-income social circles often grow up to perpetuate the same destructive cycle. Young women raised among the elite, on the other hand, feel overwhelming pressure to postpone childbearing for the sake of professional success.

In both instances, marriage has been relegated to secondary status. There is no longer any moral force behind the institution and, as a result, it is discarded or delayed for the sake of financial interests. Families are not a commodity; a household is more than a mere microcosm of our capitalistic society. But until something changes, the rift between the childless elite and spouseless poor will only continue to grow.


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Sports Bring Out the Tribal, Just When We Need It Most

In the SEC, college football fans revert to a form of elevated tribalism: beer cozies, tailgating rigs, clothing, face paint, college choices, marriage choices, and workdays revolve around the schedule of the team. Friends are made—and lost—over the results of a game.

A truly top-notch Super Bowl party is akin to arriving in the fields of SEC Elysium, with libations of soda (known colloquially as “coke”) or beer for all who attend and a never-ending supply of Ro-Tel and chicken wings, ready at hand.

Of course, this is the South. Not everyone can participate in the life of a sports fan with such unbridled and admirable enthusiasm. But for many, regardless of culture, income, or location, sports remain an important point of social life and shared identity. Stephen Webb of First Things recently pointed out just how significant sports have become in American culture:

You can measure what a country takes seriously by what it doesn’t joke about. We talk about sports but we don’t joke about it much. Sports are too important to joke about because it is where so many men put their hearts.

He argues that sports have become a point of solidarity in an increasingly fractured and socially conscious nation, a source of common experience.

Politics are divisive and the economy too depressing. … Religion is too personal, or complicated, or otherworldly, or bound up with the drudgery of duty that also includes yard work and oil changes. … We talk about our kids but don’t want to brag too much. We love our wives so much that we keep the genre of jokes about the burden of being married to a minimum.

He makes a good point, too. Much of what constitutes a national identity has been lost in America. Our national icons are a point of contention, our history regarded by many as due cause for shame. But Americans of all stripes can rally unabashedly behind a sports team, and they do so with gusto.

At the Wall Street Journal, Jeremy Gordon called the World Cup a “global ritual.” And it would seem so. But, more importantly, it is a national ritual: it is a means for people from all around the country to connect, an opportunity so rarely afforded us anymore. William Leitch of Sports on Earth says that we “can talk all we want about a globalized society, … but that has always seemed more true in theory than in practice. In real life, we search out our own.”

And I think that this cuts to the heart of the issue: it is through sports that Americans, so wary of religion, race, and politics, can finally have confidence that we are among “our own.”

This has always been the fundamental greatness of sports, the reason they’re so enduring and powerful: They turn a world of grey into one of black and white. … Now, obviously, the world of sports is not exempt from politics: The exact opposite, in fact. But for two hours, that can be stowed.


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Feminism and Fundamentalism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Feminism and fundamentalism have at last, if unwittingly, converged on a significant social issue: the hyper-sexualization of women. At face value, the arguments are diametrically opposed. One argues for carefully guarding the female form, the other for freeing it from all constraints, including tradition—and clothing. The irony, though, is that they represent two sides of the same coin. Both end up focusing on sexuality to the exclusion of all else. Dannah Gresh in Christianity Today makes this point using two dolls: “I have two Barbies in my office. The American Barbie wears a mini-skirt and a low, cut tight bodice that pushes her breasts upward. … The other, a Muslim Barbie named Fulla, is dressed in a burqa.”

She concludes that both modes of dress “raise awareness of a woman’s sexual nature and reduce her to being a mere body.” She also notes also that in some Christian circles, the women “might as well wear burqas.” The Muslim and Christian fundamentalist attitude stigmatizes sexuality, regarding it as shameful; feminists idolize it, holding up promiscuous behavior and dress as the pinnacle of female achievement.

You can see this dynamic at play on an international scale when you examine the popular U.S. reception—largely influenced by feminism—of the sexual norms seen in many Islamic cultures. A New York Times column by Haleh Anvari points out that American horror at the mandatory hijab has inadvertently caused a widespread fixation on the bodies of Iranian women: “Ever since the hijab, a generic term for every Islamic modesty covering, became mandatory after the 1979 revolution, Iranian women have been used to represent the country visually.” U.S. media coverage has measured Iranian cultural progress by the shorthand of how its women dress, as “Serious reports about elections used a ‘hair poking out of scarf’ standard as an exit poll, or images of scarf-clad women lounging in coffee shops, to register change.” But, as Anvari says, there is more to the nation and its culture than the way it treats female sexuality: “Showing the world our designer handbags or bra straps does not signify what we have achieved or strive for. Maybe it’s time for the world to stop measuring Iran through the bodies of its women.”

Another response to hyper-sexualization is the “respect” movement, burdened with phrases like “smart is the new sexy,” or “reading is hot.” The problem again is that those within the movement fail to transcend the puerile and hopelessly inadequate perspective on female sexuality that they hope to combat. Marc Barnes for Patheos recently quipped that American women are “swiftly running out of things that aren’t sexy.” Read More…

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ISIS May Expel Iraq’s Christians for Good

Mar Mattai monastery outside Mosul, continually inhabited by monks since the 4th century A.D. Chris De Bruyn / cc
Mar Mattai monastery outside Mosul, continually inhabited by monks since the 4th century A.D. Chris De Bruyn / cc

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, has recently overtaken the major Iraqi city of Mosul, causing an exodus of more than 500,000 that took some of Iraq’s last remaining Christians with it. The city itself, mentioned in the Bible as Nineveh, has harbored Christianity since the very dawn of its tradition and was one of the last havens for Iraqi Christian communities.

Despite these deep roots, past U.S. policy has ignored the vulnerable position of Christians in the Middle East. Andrew Doran wrote a strikingly prescient piece for TAC almost exactly one year ago, saying:

[D]emocracy in the Middle East is proving less tolerant than the regimes it has succeeded. Unless swift action is taken, these democracies will evolve into bastions of intolerance and violence beyond our comprehension. These democracies will not march ineluctably toward liberty and pluralism, as some naïve optimists continue to forecast despite the evidence, but will end in the ordered barbarism of Saudi Arabia, where punishments include beheading and crucifixion[.]

As it so happens, ISIS is the jihadist organization renounced by al-Qaeda for its brutality. Maliki’s abusive government, propped up by $20 billion in American aid, allowed Mosul to be claimed with alarming ease. One CNN article reports that “[p]olice and soldiers ran form their posts rather than put up a fight, abandoning their weapons as they went. The militants took their place in the city’s boulevards and buildings.” Marc Lynch of the Washington Post argues that the Iraqi military isn’t resisting is because Maliki has lost its loyalty:

The most important answers lie inside Iraqi politics. Maliki lost Sunni Iraq through his sectarian and authoritarian policies. His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq.

If ISIS succeeds, the regnant regime will be the “ordered barbarism” Doran foretold. In the hierarchy of a new caliphate, there will be no room for diversity or religious tolerance; there will no longer be any room for Christianity. According to a World magazine report, most of the Christians, so long a presence in Mosul, have already been driven out:

“Ninety-nine percent of the Christians have left Mosul,” pastor Haitham Jazrawi said today following the takeover of Iraq’s second largest city—and its ancient Christian homeland—by al-Qaeda-linked jihadist militants.

Catholic Archbishop Amil Shamaaoun Nona is reported to have said that the decline has been occurring since the U.S.-led campaign began. “In 2003 there were still 35,000 faithful living in Mosul,” Nona said. “Three thousand were still there in early 2014. Now probably not one is left here, and that is tragic[.]” According to Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute notes that, once the Christians are gone, they may not be coming back:

When the army does eventually succeed in reversing jihadi control in Mosul, it may be too late for the Christians. Once Middle Eastern Christians flee to the West, they don’t return.


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The Limits of Science in Matters of Justice

Chris Mooney of Mother Jones recently reviewed Harry Collins’s book, Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, and argued that the public has “no business challenging scientific experts.” Collins’s early work was actually an attempt to debunk the 1950s unthinking reverence for scientific expertise. “Coming out of the 1950s heyday, [Collins] argues, scientists were treated as almost mythic luminaries and geniuses who couldn’t be questioned. And that just wasn’t accurate.”

But Collins’s recent book, the subject of Mooney’s article, combats the subsequent devaluation of expertise brought on by popular skepticism of the scientific community. The assumption of a radically postmodern attitude toward the authority of information caused many to assume that knowledge, like belief, is purely socially constructed. This presupposition undermines much of the scientific community’s rhetorical clout, in addition to muddying the public forum: if expertise cannot be trusted, what can be?

But, as a recent National Geographic article points out, the authority of science has often been misappropriated, with dangerous consequences. For instance, it has been relied upon by the judicial system to legitimate unjust rulings: in one particularly infamous case, Buck v. Bell, the court cited scientific evidence to prove that reproduction on Carrie Buck’s part would burden society with criminality and imbecility. She was forcibly sterilized. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote in the opinion, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The National Geographic article explores the implications for the use of scientific data in contemporary court cases, pointing out that genetics research is being pointed to by defense attorneys with increasing frequency in order to mitigate their clients’ sentences. But the author also takes note of the limitations of scientific findings when they are applied to complex human situations far from the laboratory. She notes that after the Newtown shooting, the Connecticut Medical Examiner took the unusual step of commissioning a screening of 20-year-old Adam Lanza‘s DNA:

The screen will find something. Each of us carries genetic mutations somewhere along our 3-billion-letter DNA code. Some mutations are benign, some are not; some have huge effects, others tiny. But there’s no way to know how (or whether) any of them affects behavior.

Another thing I’d bet on: The media (and the public) will use the results of that genetic screen to explain what Lanza did. We all want answers, and a genetic test seemingly provides a long string of them. Answers from science, no less. But, as was pointed out by many scientists and commentators at the time, searching for answers in Lanza’s DNA is futile. “There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence,” read an editorial in Nature. “Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.”

That’s just it: science answers questions of how, not why. Insofar as the American code of law was written to uphold a set of moral goods—the sanctity of human life, property, and liberty among them—the judgments of the courts are not strictly rational, but moral as well. Read More…

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