Rod Dreher

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The Mysterious Woman In Black

Ivan Plis says this story has me all over it, and he’s right:

She moves silently and quickly through the countryside, clad all in black—but she’s no ghost or figure from a dark folktale.

Shrouded heavily in all-black clothing, a woman alleged to be an Army veteran and a bereaved mother of two has been steadily making her way north through the Appalachian U.S., drawing interest from locals and Internet onlookers all over the country.

Traveling mostly along rural highways and small towns, the#womaninblack, as she has quietly become known on the Internet over the last two months, doesn’t do a lot of talking. Sometimes she’ll accept help from strangers, but never rides. Most of the time she simply walks on.

The Woman In Black is named Elizabeth Poles, and has ended her journey in Winchester, Virginia. According to USA Today, her brother says she is a US Army veteran and a widow. She has been receiving treatment for mental illness since her husband died in 2008 and her father in 2009.

If you click on the story I first linked to, you’ll see that this mysterious pilgrim became a quasi-religious figure to many people who have seen her, or who have been following her. For example:

But whatever the reason for her strange journey, and however many gawkers there are along the way, it seems the woman in black has had plenty of help as she has walked through the rural Southern U.S. Many people have referenced Hebrews 13:2 regarding their treatment of the woman—”Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

What’s more interesting to me than the fact of the Woman in Black is what feelings and thoughts her presence among us provokes. People are looking for a sign.  They see a woman who appears to be mad, but wonder if the black-clad pilgrim is some sort of angel, or a holy fool.

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Richard Dawkins Passes His Sell-By Date

I had not realized that Richard Dawkins had turned into such a sad joke in the UK. From an op-ed in, believe it or not, The Guardian:

Sure, he wrote some pop science books back in the day, but why do we keep having him on TV and in the newspapers? If it’s a biologist you’re after, or a science communicator, why not pick from the hundreds out there who don’t tweet five or six Islamophobic sentiments before getting off the toilet in the morning? If you need an atheist, there are many philosophers, scholars of religion, and public intellectuals available who don’t refuse to acknowledge the existence of theology.

Dawkins has been arrogant for years, a man so convinced of his intellectual superiority that he believes the one domain in which he happens to be an expert, science, is the only legitimate way of acquiring or assessing knowledge. All of his outbursts in recent years follow from this belief: he understands the scientific method, a process intended to mitigate the interference of human subjectivity in data collection, as a universally applicable way of understanding not just the physical world but literally everything else as well. Hence his constant complaint that those appalled by his bigoted vituperations are simply offended by clarity; feeble-minded obscurantists who cling to emotion, tradition or the supernatural to shield themselves from the power of his truth bombs.

You don’t have to be religious to find this level of hubris baffling. In his review of The God Delusion, Terry Eagleton remarks:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

Dawkins’ narrowmindedness, his unshakeable belief that the entire history of human intellectual achievement was just a prelude to the codification of scientific inquiry, leads him to dismiss the insights offered not only by theology, but philosophy, history and art as well.

Read the whole thing. It couldn’t be happening to a more deserving chap.

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Josh Barro Is Not Doing Much For The New York Times Brand

This is really kind of breathtaking. Despite what it looks like, Josh Barro is not a teenager; he is almost 30 years old. He graduated from Harvard. He works for the most prominent newspaper in the world. And … this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barro makes Maureen Dowd sound like Hannah Arendt. The thing is, it’s tempting to think that this is how the entire newsroom there thinks. Here’s what the NYT’s public editor Arthur Brisbane said about the Times‘s “hive mind” in his 2012 farewell column:

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

UPDATE: Ryan T. Anderson comments on this second exchange:

What Josh Barro says or does doesn’t really affect me. I’m not a victim, and I’ll keep doing what I do. But incivility, accepted and entrenched, is toxic to a political community. Indeed, civility is essential for political life in a pluralistic society.

It also has deep roots.

The Hebrew Bible tells us that all people are made in the image and likeness of God and have a profound and inherent dignity. Sound philosophy comes to a similar conclusion: as rational beings capable of freedom and love, all human beings have intrinsic and inestimable worth. And so we should always treat people with respect and dignity—we should honor their basic humanity. We should always engage with civility—even when we sharply disagree with them. Faith and reason, the natural law and the divine law, both point to the same conclusion.

Just as I think the best of theology and philosophy point to the conclusion that we should always treat people with respect, so I think they show that marriage is the union of a man and a woman—and that redefining marriage will undermine the political common good.

 

 

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‘Vote For The Crook. It’s Important’ — Part Deux?

According to a delightful link sent by a reader, David Wasserman, the House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, interviewed Louisiana State Rep. Lenar Whitney, who is a GOP candidate for US Congress in the state’s Sixth District. He calls her the most “frightening” and “fact-averse” candidate he has ever interviewed. More:

Whitney’s brand of rhetoric obviously resonates with some very conservative Louisiana voters who view President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency as big-city elitists directly attacking the state’s energy industry and their own way of life. And she would hardly be the first “climate denier” elected to Congress. But it’s not unreasonable to expect candidates to explain how they arrived at their positions, and when I pressed Whitney repeatedly for the source of her claim that the earth is getting colder, she froze and was unable to cite a single scientist, journal or news source to back up her beliefs.

To change the subject, I asked whether she believed Obama was born in the United States. When she replied that it was a matter of some controversy, her two campaign consultants quickly whisked her out of the room, accusing me of conducting a “Palin-style interview.”

It was the first time in hundreds of Cook Political Report meetings that a candidate has fled the room.

Wasserman goes on to explain how it is by no means impossible under Louisiana’s open primary system that the runoff will come down to Lenar Whitney vs. former Louisiana governor and convicted felon Edwin W. Edwards.

In which case I expect to see more than a few folks driving around with resurrected “Vote For The Crook. It’s Important” bumper stickers from the Edwards-Duke race in ’91.

UPDATE: Conservative Louisiana political analyst Scott McKay thinks Whitney really did get ambushed, but that she really ought to be ready for this sort of thing if she’s serious about running for Congress. Thanks to Ryan Booth for sending this in. Excerpt:

In other words, you’ve probably got to hang in there and trade punches with this guy; succumbing to the temptation to kill the interview, as understandable as it might be when he’s clearly hostile to her, only assures you’re going to get a terrible writeup out of the encounter.

Whitney is trying to position herself in this race as what she is – a principled hard-core conservative with a record to prove it. She’s telegenic, she’s very likable and she’s a good retail politician. In addition, she’s somebody you can be completely sure will be a rock-solid, reliable conservative vote.

But the question coming out of that interview is whether the video she did on global warming – and the one on immigration where she called for employers of illegal aliens to do jail time – isn’t an example of overdoing it. There are a ton of hard-core conservatives on the Republican side of the 6th District field, and while it’s a challenge to separate yourself and your message from that field there are pitfalls associated with coming out so strongly.

Whitney just hit one. As a result, her biggest challenge for the immediate future is to close a perceived “competency gap” between herself and more seasoned policy people in the race like Edwin Edwards, Dan Claitor and Garret Graves.

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Nienstedt Is Here To Stay

St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt, who has been under intense pressure to resign over mishandling of clerical sex abuse matters, now says he ain’t going nowhere:

Archbishop John Nienstedt will announce Thursday that he is not resigning as head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, despite growing pressure for him to step down.

Nienstedt will make the announcement in his column in the The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the archdiocese.

“To say that this has been a difficult year is quite an understatement,” wrote Nienstedt.

“In the end, it comes down to this: eighteen years ago, Pope John Paul II chose me to serve the Church as a bishop, an authentic successor of the Apostles … I am bound to continue in my office as long as the Holy Father has appointed me here.”

Because it’s all about him. No matter how much he’s lost the confidence and the trust of the people he was sent to lead, he’s bound to soldier on.

The Minneapolis area reader who sent me that link writes:

I want to post “95 Theses” to the door of the Chancery: 1) John Doe #1; 2) John Doe #2, etc etc on up to John Doe #95.

Why do we Catholics put up with this?

I’m not being at all snarky when I say: What choice do you have? There’s absolutely nothing the laity can do except take it. For too many bishops, their motto is, L’eglise, c’est moi. What these bishops don’t understand is that the office of bishop is essential; no particular bishop is. If you’re going to alienate the people in your diocese, do it for the right reasons. But for clericalism, covering up child molestation, and protecting perverts in the priesthood?

The problems in that diocese go so deep. The St. Louis Catholic blogger and theater director Kevin O’Brien has been writing about the role his archbishop, Robert Carlson, played in the Minneapolis mess when he was a bishop there. Carlson covered for a now-laicized priest, Father Mike Kolar, who was raping underage women. Kolar was dispatched to South America, and later requested laicization. He got married, and is today back in St. Paul, drawing his priest’s pension. Read the document trove released in the lawsuit. I found the letter one of Kolar’s alleged victims, a female employee, sent to the Archdiocese talking about how she stabbed and burned and threw acid on her face because she felt so worthless and guilty for having made a priest sin. A gobsmacked Kevin O’Brien writes about the Kolar case here. The documents in the case are here. In the official request to the Pope for Kolar’s laicization, then-Archbishop John Roach tells the pontiff that as a seminarian, a “respected priest of the archdiocese” (it was Msgr. Jerome Boxleitner, well known as a social-justice priest) attempted to rape him. That, says Roach, referring to Kolar’s own testimony, convinced Kolar that he could do whatever he wanted to do sexually as long as it remained hidden. Said Kolar, “That is the way he handled his sexuality; I was thus taught that that is the way I could handle mine.”

In better news, the Vatican has forced a Paraguayan bishop to can the pervy Fr. Carlos Urritugoity, who was thrown out of the Diocese of Scranton in the US over his sicko behavior with boys, but elevated to No. 2 in the Peruvian diocese by its bishop, who had reason to know all of this. That’s seriously good news, and good on Pope Francis for making this happen.

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Little Ways Everywhere

And now for some good news. A reader sent me this today:

I thought I would share this with you because it reminded me a little bit of what you wrote about in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.

My grandmother has been in the hospital for 3 days so far two of them in ICU. She might be getting out today. But so far all of this has been done for my family while remaining anonymous.

My yard, my parents yard, and my aunt and uncle’s yard have been cut, edged, and weedeated.

My pool has been cleaned and chlorinated.

My grandmother’s house was cleaned, bills paid. I find the bills paid odd because my grandmother is a very wealthy woman.

Food has been brought, neighbors have stopped by the hospital, and people have volunteered to sit with her through the day so we could attend to work. (That did not happen with 3 sons she and 5 grandchildren she has had more than enough company that was family but we also allowed those who wanted to to stick around.)

I even had my oldest friend guess my Amazon password and check me out some books off my wishlist and bring them to hospital so I would have something to read while there. She works at a library so she has access to plenty of books.

Just writing this list has brought me to tears again. Even if my business folded and my wife lost her new job I would not leave this area. I would just find another job. It is instances like this that reinforce this feeling.


Sam M. sent this the other day,
about an order of French nuns, some of whom have Down Syndrome, and others of whom are vowed to care for their sisters with Down’s. Excerpt:

In 1990, the group was canonically recognized as a public association by the Archbishop of Tours. The Sisters now reside in a priory in Blanc, where they model their lives after St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way”. A leaflet published by the community explains:

We follow every day the “little way” taught by Saint Therese; knowing that “great actions are forbidden to us”, we learn from her to receive everything from God, to “love for the brothers who fight”, to “scatter flowers for Jesus”, and to pray for the intentions entrusted to us.

Life…

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Positive Law Marriage Vs. Natural Law Marriage

Here’s a fascinating Twitter exchange in which Ryan T. Anderson and Ross Douthat quietly make Josh Barro look like a jerk over how to treat those with whom he disagrees about same-sex marriage. For example:

 

Which one of these guys is more exemplary of the virtues necessary for life in a pluralistic democracy? Which one of these guys would you rather have as your mayor? Their exchange was actually about an important philosophical point at the core of the marriage equality debate. Read the whole thing.  Barro says that “marriage is whatever the government says it is.” Anderson says that the government doesn’t define marriage, but recognizes it, “based on human nature.” Douthat jumps into the debate to explain that Anderson and his allies say that a definition of marriage expanded to include same-sex couples is “incoherent.” This makes no sense to Barro, who says:

 

To which Douthat replies:

However unintentionally, Douthat’s point is made in this Buzzfeed discussion with three gay writers on a topic charmingly introduced by the headline, “How We F**k Now.” Excerpt:

DT: The marriage thing is interesting, too, because of the presumption that married couples will be monogamous. I’ve heard straight people say that they’ve come to support same-sex marriage because they know loving, monogamous gay couples. And I thought, Whoa, how do you know they’re monogamous? It seemed like a pretty big assumption, although maybe that’s what they told him, and maybe it was true. But I think that’s a widespread assumption among heterosexual people — that men in same-sex marriages will adopt monogamy as a lifestyle value. And I think that’s probably a very questionable assumption. I’m curious if young gay men coming of age these days have adopted that perspective or not, and if they have, how long they will adhere to it.

ST: One of the most explosive findings from the Gay Couples Study I mentioned earlier has been that half of all gay couples are openly non-monogamous. I wrote about that last year, and I got a fair number of negative reactions from gay activists I know for focusing “too much” on the sex lives of gay male couples. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a couple choosing to be non-monogamous, but I do think it’s dangerous to assume they are. In fact, a lot of sexualitiy academics I know find this to be a leading area of HIV prevention research. Because we’ve been taught that couplehood equals monogamy in heterosexual marriages (even when that’s not true), a lot of gay men in partnerships have bareback sex more with their partners than single guys do with other single guys. Two single dudes are more likely to use condoms than two partnered dudes. And if half of all gay couples are not monogamous, this makes them more susceptible to STIs than single guys. Biden kind of falsely advanced the idea that couples are more safe and more deserving because they are monogamous. Levels of monogamy could change over the coming generation, as legal recognition of gay union happens. Truvada could alter how susceptible couples are to HIV. But as of today, gay couples shouldn’t be assumed to be monogamous, and their risks for HIV transmission ought to be considered seriously.

SJ: I can’t speak for young gay men everywhere, but I think a committed open relationship is both practical and ideal. This shouldn’t be (and hopefully isn’t) regarded to my investment in marriage equality. It’s just — like, isn’t the entire point of being LGBT people that we don’t have to live the way straight people choose to live? In a way, it goes back to the idea of the “joy” of gay sex, which I really believe in. I want equal rights, but that’s not the same thing as wanting someone else’s way of life. But hey, that’s just me.

Incoherent, totally. And yet, if Barro is right, and all marriage law is positive law (meaning we can make it up as we go along, to suit our needs and desires), as opposed to deriving from natural law (meaning that we must define marriage according to our natures), then whatever we choose to call marriage is marriage, and there need be no coherence to it. And anybody who points that out is a big old bigot who doesn’t deserve anybody’s respect. It’s as if one stands there and scream “You HATE me! You HATE me!” often enough, 2 + 2 will cease to equal 4.

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The Virus Of Poverty Culture

If you haven’t seen Brenda Ann Kenneally’s amazing photographs of poor young white people in Troy, New York, her hometown, please take a look at this Slate piece on them. They’re striking — damn near unforgettable, I’d say.

I’ve been looking at them again and again for over a week now, trying to figure out what to say, and I’m nonplussed. They provoke feelings of both pity and fear, and guilt because I don’t know what I think, or am supposed to think. By now we are used to seeing poor black people in these settings, and even though there have always been poor white people with us, it’s still relatively unusual, and disconcerting, to see white faces in those scenarios. These photos make me aware of my own unconscious biases, which saw poverty in America as primarily a phenomenon of the black underclass. I mean, one knows that the white underclass is there, but one doesn’t often see their faces, at least not as often as the black underclass. I appreciate what Kenneally’s art — see more of the photos here — has done toward making me conscious of what I didn’t know, or knew but had filed away where I didn’t have to see it. Kenneally, by the way, comes from the same class and cultural background as these kids. She was once one of them.

Here’s what stands out to me about the world of the young people in these pictures: the chaos. 

There is no physical order in their world. There is no evidence of sexual order (e.g., 14 year old girls pregnant). The boys look confused and kind of crazy. The girls look desperate. Everybody looks defeated. There are signs that childhood doesn’t exist, at least nor ordered as most of us know it (e.g., the little girls lighting their mother’s cigarette, the mom serving her 12-year-old coffee in a baby bottle, as he has been taking it since he was the right age to use a baby bottle). There is no sign of manhood, except as babydaddys; 70 percent of poor families in Troy are headed by a single mother.

Kenneally has said:

As a journalist and activist I have dedicated my life to exploring the how and why of class inequity in America. I am concerned with the internalized social messages that will live on for generations after our economic and social policies catch up with the reality of living on the bottom rung of America’s upwardly mobile society. My project explores the way that money is but a symptom of self-worth and a means by which humans separate from each other. Poverty is an emotional (rather than simply) physical state with layers of marginalization that cements those who live under them into place. The current and widespread worldwide economic crisis has taken some of the moral sting out of being poor, though the conversation remains centered on economic rather than social stimulus relief. The unspoken but salient truth is that its focus is honed on those who have recently joined the impoverished, rather than on the Americans whose ongoing struggles remain unaddressed and rendered invisible by the headlines.

She later told the NYTimes:

While Ms. Kenneally hopes to help teenage girls in trouble, she has few illusions.

“I think breaking away is damn near impossible,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing I ever did.”

Her insights are hugely important here, I think. Notice how she said that poverty is not simply the lack of money. It is an “emotional state” too; it is a culture, a culture with its own gravity field that traps people inside it. Longtime readers may remember me writing years ago about a missionary working with teenagers in poor minority neighborhoods of Dallas. He said poverty is a big obstacle to these kids’ advancement in life, but the bigger obstacle is emotional, psychological and cultural: the belief they have that they are largely powerless over their fate. One can see why kids raised in the kind of chaos Kenneally documents would assume that they have little or no meaningful agency. This, I take it, is what she means by “breaking away is damn near impossible.” You first have to grasp that life does not have to be that way — and that is a very hard thing to do when all you have known, and all the adult world has taught you, is chaos, and the power it has to determine your life.

These Troy photographs are one reason why I get so angry and outdone with bourgeois liberals who favor a more libertine culture of sexual expression. As study after study has documented, educated liberals do pretty well with a more libertarian culture. They marry and stay married more than members of other demographic groups, and don’t have their personal and professional aspirations sidetracked by early, out of wedlock childbearing (though there’s an important caveat there, represented by what an administrator at a posh private school once told me: the girls in their school do get pregnant a lot more than people think, but they come from a social milieu in which “taking care of it” — abortion — is more accepted and practiced; I find that profoundly immoral, but I’m looking at this phenomenon sociologically, not morally). Put bluntly, the bourgeois can handle the sexual freedom better than poor and working-class people can. And the bourgeois think their cultural norms and attitudes are normative.

A middle or upper middle class girl who becomes pregnant as an unmarried teenager can even have the child, and have far more social and financial capital to fall back on to keep her from falling through the cracks than a poor or working-class girl has. That’s just a fact of life. On the other hand, I think it’s also true that some middle-class people, especially those who were raised in or near poverty, are acutely, sometimes obsessively, aware of how little separates them from that chaos. My theory is that they see the values of poverty culture, and its seep into working-class culture, as like a virus. They want to keep it far away so it doesn’t infect their children. It’s not only sexual morality — which, if you don’t think is a big deal, spend some time looking at those photos and imagining the life prospects of those teen moms and the children they’re raising — but it’s also things like the violence that’s more prevalent among the poor, the greater susceptibility to drug abuse, and the collapse of manhood as a social construct to civilize males. In other words, behind the prejudices many middle-class people have towards the poor is a sense, of which they are barely conscious, that civilization is fragile, and all the gains we’ve made as a family in keeping out the chaos could be lost in a single generation.

One problem with this is that without exposure to other possible lives, kids and young parents trapped inside poverty culture may never escape it, because they cannot conceive of living any other way. A friend of mine was not poor, but lived a fairly chaotic and self-destructive life until spending time with a sibling and his stable, middle-class, ordinary and joyful family revealed that this kind of thing is within the realm of possibility. She changed, and made a much happier and more nurturing life for herself and her kids. If her sibling had hived off away from her to escape the chaos of their lives, what would have become of her and her kids?

On the other hand, I heard recently of a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood in a major American city — I’m being obtuse on purpose — where the residents had banded together to fight both politically and legally the placement of Section 8 housing in their midst. They had done their best to get away from the poverty culture of the projects, and to create a place of order in which to raise their children. They weren’t about to see it imported into their part of town, not if they could help it. They won, too. So the Section 8 planners took their project to a white working-class part of that city, and found the same resistance. This time, though, they had civil rights law on their side, and filed suit. Turns out you can sue for racial discrimination in this country, but not for class discrimination. Black middle class folks can keep black poverty culture out of their neighborhoods, but it’s harder for whites to do so.

Thought experiment: if black Section 8 families moved into a black middle class neighborhood, would the middle-class families serve as examples to lift up the poor black kids, or would it be more likely that the poor black kids would draw the middle-class black kids into a mindset and into behaviors that could compromise their stability and futures? I don’t have an answer in mind, but that question is what those families and homeowners must face. Near the heart of the matter is the question of whether or not the poor aspire to be middle class, and whether the overculture expects them to behave according to middle class standards.

This, by the way, is a big part of Charles Murray’s point: that the overclass is failing to transmit middle-class culture (= practices, habits, ways of thinking) to the poor, which is worse, in a way, than material poverty. Murray wrote that in his book about the growth of white poverty culture. My point is that a lot of middle class people think the poor are just like them, except they don’t have money. This is not really true. Though economics are, obviously, a part of the story, they are not the whole story, and might not be the most important part of the story. As Barbara Kenneally says, poverty is also a state of mind. And even among the poor, there are important cultural differences that matter for their future, and the prospects that the poor will endure poverty, and be ready to escape it should the opportunity arise. You’ve heard this from me before, but I think a lot in this regard of the difference that the journalist Robert D. Kaplan observed two decades ago between the urban poor in West Africa, and the poor living in a slum on a garbage dump (The Golden Mountain) in Istanbul:

Slum quarters in Abidjan terrify and repel the outsider. In Turkey it is the opposite. The closer I got to Golden Mountain the better it looked, and the safer I felt. I had $1,500 worth of Turkish lira in one pocket and $1,000 in traveler’s checks in the other, yet I felt no fear. Golden Mountain was a real neighborhood. The inside of one house told the story: The architectural bedlam of cinder block and sheet metal and cardboard walls was deceiving. Inside was a home—order, that is, bespeaking dignity. I saw a working refrigerator, a television, a wall cabinet with a few books and lots of family pictures, a few plants by a window, and a stove. Though the streets become rivers of mud when it rains, the floors inside this house were spotless.

Other houses were like this too. Schoolchildren ran along with briefcases strapped to their backs, trucks delivered cooking gas, a few men sat inside a cafe sipping tea. One man sipped beer. Alcohol is easy to obtain in Turkey, a secular state where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Yet there is little problem of alcoholism. Crime against persons is infinitesimal. Poverty and illiteracy are watered-down versions of what obtains in Algeria and Egypt (to say nothing of West Africa), making it that much harder for religious extremists to gain a foothold.

My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone.

The loss of the practice of churchgoing among the American poor and working classes is producing a civilization that has lost its natural muscle tone, and has something to do with the situation in Troy. Again, I’m making a sociological statement, not a theological one. I think it’s wrong to take religion instrumentally, but as Kaplan observes, the Turkish poor on the Golden Mountain really do lack only money and opportunity. They’ve kept internal chaos at bay in a way the poor of Abidjan have not. As an unidentified West African government minister told Kaplan:

“In the poor quarters of Arab North Africa,” he continued, “there is much less crime, because Islam provides a social anchor: of education and indoctrination. Here in West Africa we have a lot of superficial Islam and superficial Christianity. Western religion is undermined by animist beliefs not suitable to a moral society, because they are based on irrational spirit power. Here spirits are used to wreak vengeance by one person against another, or one group against another.”

Religion is culture, and culture has consequences. The answer to the question of poverty is hard, but it often seems like it’s easier to figure out how to transfer more financial capital to the poor than to figure out how to transmit more spiritual capital to them. This is not just a problem for the poor. It’s a problem for the Church. It’s a problem for America. It’s a problem for all of us.

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Why ‘Kellerism’ Matters

At Get Religion, Terry Mattingly brings to our attention a fantastic term he once coined to describe The New York Times’s attitude toward covering religious conservatives: Kellerism.

Read TMatt’s post for the full explanation, but basically it’s the NYT’s newsroom doctrine that when it comes to covering religious and social conservatives and their institutions, error has no right to fairness. In today’s post, TMatt cites the paper’s coverage of a case involving George Fox, a small Christian (Quaker) college that will not recognize Jaycen, a female-to-male transgender student as male, and has asked for a religious exemption from Federal non-discrimination law. It’s an interesting story, but TMatt says it fails as journalism. Why?:

Simply stated, the Times team completely ignores the issue of a private school’s right to define the doctrines at the heart of its community, whether on the doctrinal left or right.

More:

Why is the student named “Jaycen” at George Fox? This is the other point where the Times team is completely uninterested in the views of those that oppose the newspaper’s doctrines. Apparently, other than the school’s PR voice, there are no voices at George Fox who are willing to defend George Fox.

Notice what’s going on here. It’s not that TMatt believes the NYT owes George Fox a story favorable to its point of view. It’s that the NYT is practicing advocacy journalism — and is a powerful advocate — while either not noticing or (more likely) not caring that it is stacking the deck against religious conservatives. I read the story, and there is no attempt to convey to readers what the issue looks like from the school’s point of view. It is yet another story reinforcing the NYT’s constant narrative: that LGBT folks are nothing but victims of uncaring Christians and their institutions.

This is another example of why I cancelled my NYT subscription.

But here’s an interesting twist. The NYT announced yesterday that its second quarter profits fell off a cliff. One part of the problem is not that it’s losing subscribers; the problem is it’s losing ad revenue. But the other part of the problem is that it’s not gaining subscribers fast enough to compensate for the lost ad revenue:

Tuesday’s earnings report led some analysts to ask if subscription growth has stalled — and if the company is doing enough to attract new sign-ups.

In the first quarter, the newspaper added 39,000 digital subscribers. (A subscription starts at $15 a month.) But at the start of the second quarter, The New York Times introduced a new, less expensive option, an $8-a-month app called “NYT Now,” and a high-end option, “Times Premier.”

That did not boost the pace of subscriber growth though. The New York Times ended the second quarter with just 32,000 more digital subscribers than it had started with.

Many people outside of the newspaper business assume that papers make their money from subscriptions. They don’t, at least not most of their money. That comes from advertising. As newspaper reading has migrated onto digital, ad revenue has massively declined because nobody has yet figured out a way to justify charging nearly the same rates for an online ad as for a print ad. Until and unless that problem can be solved, newspapers are going to have to rely more and more on paid subscribers.

In a time of rapidly declining newspaper readership, there are not enough subscribers or potential subscribers in the New York metropolitan area for the NYT to sustain itself over the long run. It has to grow its business. There is a vast potential audience in the country for the product the NYT has to sell. People like, well, me: intellectually and culturally engaged readers who want a quality comprehensive newspaper that reports in depth on national and international events and trends. The Times is that newspaper. It is not a conservative newspaper, but it is a great newspaper, and conservatives would get a lot out of reading it. If that weren’t true, I wouldn’t have been a subscriber for 20 years.

I quit the other day, you will recall, because I got fed up with the steady drumbeat of Kellerism.  I don’t want a newspaper that reports favorably on my community, necessarily. I want a newspaper that strives to be fair and comprehensive. But I am not paying for a newspaper that consistently portrays us as people to be feared and loathed, and rarely people who have a point of view that deserves to be heard, and to be part of the conversation. The George Fox story TMatt cites is a perfect example of Kellerism; its author and its editors apparently don’t think the college’s concerns deserve explaining to NYT readers, presumably because those concerns do not serve the LGBT liberation narrative. That’s how readers who depend on the Times for their understanding of this complex and fast-moving social, cultural, and legal story fail to get a grasp of how things look from the conservative Christian point of view, and assimilate the NYT’s bias: that there is no legitimate “other side” to the story. Kellerism matters for the same reason newspapers from an earlier time ignoring LGBT people matters: it reinforces the idea that the lives and the interests of an unfavored group of people are so marginal that they can safely be ignored or treated disfavorably, because they don’t matter.

The Times is a leading contributor to an atmosphere of bigotry and illiberalism toward a large number of Americans, not all of them Christians, an atmosphere that is resulting and will increasingly result in harm coming to us. They’re not going to do it with my money, not anymore.

The thing is, I don’t understand why, from a business sense, the Times would take this tack. The kind of religious and social conservatives who would be interested in subscribing to the Times are not readers who expect their daily paper to tell them what they want to hear. I would wager that they are educated, relatively sophisticated people. According to a 2012 Pew study, 56 percent of regular NYT readers are college educated; I would imagine that the percentage of conservative NYT readers that are college educated is much higher. I would also presume that they are not business-oriented conservatives; those readers already subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. I think it an educated guess that those readers are people like me: people who want to know a lot about foreign and national affairs, but who also care a lot about aspects of culture (e.g., books, food, science) that the Times covers pretty well. And they’re likely the kinds of readers who appreciate learning about people unlike themselves. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t consider subscribing to the NYT in the first place.

So why would the Times work so hard to drive people like us away, or not to welcome us to the paper in the first place, because the newsroom has decided that we are so bigoted we don’t have any right to a fair hearing? Hear what I’m saying: I’m not asking the NYT to be biased in our direction; I’m just asking it to be fair. As Keller said, though, the Times newsroom knows it’s not trying to be fair on social and cultural issues, and it doesn’t care. Why would bringing the same degree of fairness and professionalism to the coverage of social and cultural conflicts that the Times attempts to bring to the coverage of politics and foreign affairs be a bad thing? What am I not getting?

This might be an answer. A friend who works in media at a senior level told me the other day that the Times almost certainly has a hardcore subscriber base that is militantly liberal on cultural issues, which are at the center of American politics today, and that will not tolerate any deviation from the progressive line. The Times‘s own institutional bias favors that point of view, but it’s also the case that they may feel economic pressure to cater to those readers’ prejudices. That’s understandable, to a point. But when your business model requires you to expand your customer base past New York City, and reach out to a big country that’s a lot more conservative than New Yorkers are, it makes sense to be more broad-minded and inclusive in your coverage.

Doesn’t it? Help me out here. What am I not understanding?

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The Future Of Islam Under American Laïcité

This reader comment from the “Best Church For American Christianity In Exile” thread, was so good, and so distinct, that it deserved its own post. A Muslim reader who posts under the name “Jones” commented on the Christian part of the thread, which prompted me to ask him to expand his remarks on Islam and its prospects for survival and growth in an America that is becoming more hostile to religion (or at least those religions and churches that are most antithetical to modernity). He responded:

Good question! I’m worried; that’s a big reason why I read your blog. We face many of the same problems that you do. It’s an incredibly complex question and I can only touch on it here. I had thought that the chances for American Islam were good, precisely because we are already in “exile”: all those hard-earned virtues that are supposed to come from such a condition, we are forced to develop from the beginning. I grew up in a community that exemplified those virtues in a way I will never forget. That community still exists, but its members are aging and departing from the earth.

One of the main advantages we have, I think, is that many people in the community are immigrants who are still close to a truly, fully religious society. That is how they were raised, and it is the world they knew. They are irrevocably cut off from that world now, and in many ways, thanks to globalization, it is disappearing in the countries they came from. In fact a lot of people would say it already has disappeared in those countries.

The religion of that first generation is the one that I knew growing up. It had an incredibly rich texture. It was a “devotional” religion, focused especially on love of the Prophet (pbuh). This is characteristic of much of the Islam of the subcontinent. It shows itself in the exceptionally sensitive emotional dimension of our practice. Musicality, ritual, outward displays of emotion.

There is another strain in the culture, one associated especially with ideas coming from the Middle East. (I apologize that this is vague, but that’s how a complex theological landscape translates across all these boundaries. Also I’m no expert on Islamic theology!) These ideas result in a more “rationalized” religion – one that is stripped of many “frills”. One notable difference, and a repeated point of theological contention, is the role of the Prophet (pbuh). Whereas Sufi-inspired Sunni Islam sees the person of the Prophet as being of great importance – and derives more theological significance from the Prophet’s actions, sayings, etc. – Arab Islam today is more centered on the text of the Qur’an, and more dismissive of the rest. These people are (in)famous for insisting that the Prophet was “just a man.” This streamlined, rationalized approach is typical of more educated and wealthy American Muslims, who seem to converge on Arab Islam though they may be from elsewhere (in other words, they are more “cosmopolitan”), and perhaps look down on homegrown spiritual traditions.

In the contrast between these traditions, you will notice universal tensions between religious temperaments. Recently you had a post that compared Wahhabism to Protestantism. That was a very acute observation, one that impressed me. Because Wahhabism is usually invoked only in an inflammatory way in the West, Westerners are usually ill-positioned to appreciate that similarity.

Getting back to the original question. Early on it seemed like the previous generation was doing a very good job of passing on its practices. That judgment may have been based on a limited purview centered mostly on my own family and nearby community. I used to be very bullish on American Islam; my highest hope was that we would develop a form of Islam that could actually set an example to the rest of the Muslim world, grounded in a society that was peaceful and free. In the past year I’ve started going to a large, prominent mosque in New York, and have noticed some things that worry me. I realized that a lot of younger people have started to ignore the mores we used to observe. Frankly they are probably ignorant of many of them. I realized the effect of having a mosque that did not really coincide with an intergenerational community – most of the people who come are students, connected only by the university. I noticed that the imam covered a lot of important ground and powerfully conveyed many worthwhile messages, but discussions of topics like gender relations seemed one-sided. They seemed to highlight everything that was compatible with a modern feminist view and carefully sidestep most things that were in tension with, or even incompatible with, that view. I thought there was a missed opportunity to challenge the conventional wisdom of the society around us.

I’ve also noticed a trend in a lot of Islamic group environments: these settings are increasingly being used by young people to meet others of the opposite gender. Strictly speaking this is not appropriate. The consequences have convinced me of the wisdom of the traditional rules: an element of spiritual focus, discipline, and freedom is lost; the mind is brought back down to earth. The mosque ceases to be a place where you can forget the mundane and the base.

We are struggling to adapt – especially to the sexual mores of the society around us. These impose terrible choices and psychic costs on those trying to live a modest and chaste life, especially women. Increasingly I see young Muslims, men and women, succumbing to these pressures. Though when I was young it went without question that I would have an arranged marriage, slowly the system has begun to dilute into a hybrid system with a fair amount of “entrepreneurship” and very vague boundaries, which even my parents had to accept (mostly out of practical resignation). Even this system is very conservative by the standards of the American mainstream. Whether we come up with a stable alternative to that mainstream is in my mind the major factor in whether our religion comes out intact or not. Everyone passes through this gate. And the very structure of the next generation will depend on the kinds of families we form.

Many Muslims are also wealthy – if not in the first generation, then often in the second. This is starting to have its costs, too. Wealth brings freedom – including the freedom to make more mistakes, with fewer immediate consequences. Wealth brings comfort, ease, and insulation. In other words, the prerequisites of moral weakness. Some people are making it through these tests; many are not.

Again, we have advantages. We know we are not in the mainstream – actually, reading about Christian marginalization here has had a bizarre effect on me because it hadn’t previously occurred to me before that authentic religion <i>could</i> be mainstream here!

In sum, I think the reason American Islam will do well against the threats that you specifically mention (legal/political ones) is that Islam here is not benefiting from any kind of official sanction or accommodation anyway; more like the opposite (NYPD spying, mass deportation, Peter King inquisitions in Congress, a substantial group of Americans who literally think we are an enemy). When reading about the problems Christians face there is a certain temptation to say – welcome!! On the other hand, we’re succumbing to many of the same cultural and social forces, albeit along a different curve. Starting with conservative social mores that haven’t been seen in the West for about a century.

Many will quickly split off and assimilate to the point of being indistinguishable from mainstream America in beliefs and mores. But I think there will be a larger hardcore who will remain committed to the faith. I think they will do so because they will be clearer on what is good about their religion, because they have seen it really practiced, and because for many the more limited gains of assimilation will not be worth it (they will have a harder time shaking off their heritage in the public eye because of ethnicity, among other things).

It is my sincere hope and prayer that our communities in America, Christian and Muslim, can find some way to be a blessing and an encouragement to each other in the years and decades to come.

One thing I’ve really come to love about this blog is the friendships that get made across unusual lines. You should have seen how much genuine fun all us right-of-center Christians had with our Pagan friend Franklin Edwards at the Walker Percy Weekend. These are important friendships to have, if only because they make you realize that people cannot be reduced to their religious or ideological commitments.

I welcome comments on this thread, but if all you want to do is insult Islam (or Christianity), keep your remarks to yourself. If you wish to be critical, please be civil, and constructive.

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