Alan Jacobs

The “Doomsday Clock”: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University, writes in the New Yorker about the Doomsday Clock, which was created in 1947 by people associated with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

I am privileged to chair the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, a group of scientists, including sixteen Nobel laureates, that was created by Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer after the Second World War to advise the Bulletin. As a result, I also work with the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, which, each year, decides on the position of the Doomsday Clock. It’s a difficult task. Many disparate, worldwide factors must be judged in order to realistically assess the total existential risk facing humanity. This task has become even more complex in the past decade because the Bulletin has begun to explore issues beyond nuclear weapons, including climate change, bioterrorism, and cyber threats. Last year, in January, 2015, the Bulletin set the Doomsday Clock at three minutes to midnight. In a statement, we wrote that “Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity.”

This year, we’ve decided not to move the clock either forward or backward. It will remain set at 11:57 — three minutes to midnight. The fact that the clock’s hands aren’t moving isn’t good news. It’s an expression of grave concern about how the global situation remains largely the same. The last time the clock was this close to midnight was in 1983 — the height of the Cold War.

The “Doomsday Clock” is an odd thing — or non-thing, because of course there really isn’t any such clock. The idea, in 1947, was to use a ticking clock as an image of approaching nuclear war. Eventually someone decided to make a fake clock with moveable hands to make the occasional Doomsday Press Conferences a little more dramatic, but that’s not a timepiece; rather, it’s an image of an image of an emotion: fear.

I say “image of an emotion” because no actual science goes into the decision of where to place the hands of the clock. The scientists who make the decision have no particular expertise in geopolitical strategy, military and political risk assessment, or even climatology (relevant since they incorporate climate change into their assessment). They just read a bunch of stuff and take their own emotional temperature.

Moreover, now that climate change has entered in a major way into their thinking, the “ticking clock” metaphor has lost its fit to the circumstances. It was a good, strong image in the days of the Cold War, when the perceived danger was a nearly-simultaneous firing of nuclear weapons that could destroy a large part of human civilization in a just few hours. But when you’re trying to think about the consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the idea of a clock ticking down to midnight is meaningless. What would “midnight” be? The effects of such alterations to the ecosphere may indeed be vast, but “vaster than empires and more slow,” as the poet says, unfolding over centuries and millennia.

Still, you can understand why Krauss and his fellow members of the Science and Security Board would want to hang on to it. The fake clock, with its ominous name, seems more real than the guesses and anxieties that establish the position of its hands. And though Krauss in no way hides the Board’s responsibility for its decisions, it’s interesting how his language — and the language of many journalists who write about the clock — veers towards objective description: “The fact that the clock’s hands aren’t moving isn’t good news…. The last time the clock was this close to midnight was in 1983 — the height of the Cold War.” When described in this way — “the clock’s hands aren’t moving” — the thing seems to assume volition, like the planchette of a Ouija board. “The last time the clock was this close to midnight was in 1983” gives the appearance of being a more substantial and objective statement than “The last time members of this Board decided to place the hands this close to midnight was 1983.” (Which, incidentally, wasn’t “the height of the Cold War” — that would have been 1962.)

If indeed anthropogenic climate change has become a greater danger than nuclear weapons — and I’m inclined to think that they may well be true — then the “ticking clock” metaphor needs to be retired. But what would replace it? I’m thinking “the spreading (or contracting) slime mold.” Pretty catchy, no?

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The Public Intellectual as Modernist Poet

Having recently disagreed with Damon Linker, it’s nice to find agreement on something. In his most recent column, he describes a recent essay by Corey Robin thus:

Is this indifference to political reality a defect or a plus? Left-wing commentator Corey Robin clearly thinks it’s a virtue — and not just when it comes to presidential politics. In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.

I had semi-drafted a post on the Robin essay before Damon’s post, so let me take this ball and run with it.

When I read Robin’s essay, what immediately came to my mind is Wallace Stevens’s great poem “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

For Robin, this is the vision: the public intellectual as modernist poet, driven by a “Blessed rage for order … The maker’s rage to order words of the sea….” And all of the rest of us are the rapt, passively obedient audience “summoned” into being by the Maker’s brave new word.

Robin talks a lot about summoning.

“That’s also how public intellectuals work. By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being.”

“It is precisely that sense of a public — summoned into being by a writer’s demands; divided, forced to take sides — that Sunstein’s writing is in flight from.”

“the politics of division and summoning that is the public intellectual’s stock in trade”

“A world where it is difficult to imagine the summoning of a public, beyond the intermittent, ever-more-fleeting summons we’ve seen these past 20 years”

The word has two major overtones: in the first, a lord summons a servant; in the second, a magician summons a spirit. (Maybe three, if you add a court of law issuing a summons.) These are tropes of mastery, in which the public intellectual assumes dominion over a servile public. To be sure, Robin graciously allows that the public so summoned might disagree with what the public intellectual says; but he does not acknowledge the possibility of ignoring the summons.

A position like this is a recipe for political ineffectuality, because people know when they’re being condescended to, especially when the condescension is this flagrant, and simply will not agree to be summoned. For good and for ill, powerful political rhetoric acknowledges the meaningful agency of the audience, and typically positions the politician as the people’s emissary. Thus Churchill: “It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

We might argue about whether Churchill really believed this — I think he did — but even in the most cynical reading, he was a great politician in part because he knew it was important to say it. Public intellectuals rarely become politicians, but if they want political influence, they need to take a lesson from Churchill. If you don’t actually have respect for the people you’re writing for, fake it.

The Trade-In Society

David Blatt, formerly head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers Erik Drost/Flickr
David Blatt, formerly head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers Erik Drost/Flickr

Let’s ask a question: Why was David Blatt fired as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers? The man who fired him said it was a matter of “a lack of fit with our personnel and our vision.” Possibly true. But it would be more useful to say this: David Blatt got fired because Chip Kelly got fired before him, and Jose Mourinho before him, and Kevin McHale before him, and so on nearly ad infinitum.

That is to say: firing coaches is how professional sports franchises deal with conflict. And athletes know that this is how professional sports franchises deal with conflict: so when a team hits a bad patch, and the players are underperforming, and the coach is getting angry with them, and relationships are fraying… why bother stitching them up? Why bother salving the wounds? If everyone knows where the situation is headed — sacking the manager — then isn’t there rather a strong incentive to make things worse, in order to hasten the inevitable, put an end to the frustrations, start afresh, get a do-over? Of course there is.

And precisely the same tendencies are at work in many of the key institutions of American social life. This is one of the chief reasons why so many marriages end quickly; this is why so many Christians church-hop, to the point that pastors will tell you that church discipline is simply impossible: if you challenge or rebuke a church member for bad behavior, he or she will simply be at another church the next week, or at no church at all.

It seems that we — and I’m using “we” advisedly here, as you’ll see in a moment — are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can. Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over?

I know at least some of these temptations well. Not all of them: I am deeply grateful that I went into my marriage, 35 years ago, sharing with my beloved the bone-deep conviction that, except in the most tragic circumstances, Christian marriage is indissoluble. Bailing out has never been an option for either of us, and since we are very different people with very different responses to the world, that’s been invaluable for us. We’ve had a lot of work to do, but it has been good work, rewarding work.

But in the three decades that I lived in Wheaton, Illinois, I was a member of three different churches, and I often wonder what I might have learned — what wisdom I might have gained, what benefits of character I might have reaped, what good I might have done for others, what I might have been taught by fellow parishioners — if I had never left the first one. I can’t manage to wish I had stayed, but that may be because all I know is what went wrong there, what made me frustrated and unhappy. Any benefits I (or others) might have received through persistent faithfulness are unknown to me, a matter of speculation.

Looking back on my decision to leave that first church, I realize that I did so because I was confident that, whatever good things might have come to me at that church, those good things, or very similar ones, would be available to me elsewhere. It seems to me that if there’s one thing that our current version of advertising-based capitalism teaches us all it’s that everything is replaceable: everything can be reproduced, or traded in for a new and improved model. And that applies to coaches, to churches, to spouses. We live in a trade-in society.

This belief breeds impatience with everything, and that impatience in turn breeds immense frustration with any situation that doesn’t lend itself to the discard-and-replace approach. I think even our recent university-campus controversies can be explained in these terms. Students don’t want to deal with administrators who don’t see things their way, or speakers who say things they find offensive, but they realize that an immediate opt-out isn’t possible. You can’t walk away from Oberlin on a Friday and show up for class at Carleton on Monday morning. At least for a time, you’re stuck. But what if you’re stuck in a situation and have never been taught how to negotiate, how to work things out, how to be patient in the midst of conflict? Well, then, you make demands. You are very insistent that “These are demands and not suggestions”. And often those demands are that administrators or faculty be fired — like football coaches who haven’t won enough, basketball coaches who manifest “a lack of fit with our personnel and our vision” — because that, they think, can be done right now.

What most troubles me about these pathologies is that I don’t see any way back from the current level of impatience and the inability — indeed, refusal — to persist through difficulties. You can always point to marriages that have survived struggles and come to thrive; or workplace enemies who became mutually-valued collaborators; or sports franchises, like the San Antonio Spurs, that have succeeded through a commitment to continuity. But in a trade-in society, those situations look like black swans: unpredictable, inexplicable. (And will the Spurs continue to prize continuity when Tim Duncan, one of the best players ever, and Gregg Popovich, one of the best coaches ever, retire? Or will the pressure towards immediate action prove too much for their institutional culture to resist?)

The president of Oberlin, Marvin Krislov, has published an open letter in response to the protestors in which he says “I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement,” in part because “many of its demands contravene principles of shared governance.” That is, the students are demanding that the college president dictate changes that he doesn’t actually have the power to do, according to the by-laws and written procedures of the college. Similarly, when students at public universities demand the punishment or prohibition of “hate speech,” they can be reminded that the First Amendment makes no exception for hate speech. So in increasing numbers Americans, especially younger Americans, support the repeal of the First Amendment. It turns out that many people are profoundly unhappy with social and political structures that prevent the immediate implementation of their desires, and are willing to discard them — without pausing to reflect that the people who share their desires may not always be in the majority. You can’t remove those breaks for yourself without simultaneously removing them for your political and social enemies. (Though Lord knows people try.)

The impatience that people feel with manifest injustice is understandable, and more than understandable. In perhaps the most powerful passage in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. answers white moderates’ counsel of patience with a long litany of everyday abuse and affliction, and concludes: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” And all God’s people say Amen.

But it’s worth noting that those white moderates wanted King and his fellow protestors to do nothing: simply to wait and trust that time would somehow naturally bring about justice. And it is also worth noting that it’s socially unhealthy when people exhibit impatience far beyond Dr. King’s when confronted by injustices that are far less massive — or when faced by mere inconveniences or strictly personal discomforts. People want to be able to trade in old models of anything and everything, and profoundly resent any social or political structures that inhibit instantaneous action.

In such an environment, it’s no wonder that a great many people applaud a Presidential candidate who believes that he can “see Bill Gates” about “closing up that internet.” (The old internet is messed up — let’s trade it in for another one.) I suspect they overlap pretty significantly with the folks who demand, after every losing streak, that their favorite team’s coach be fired; and with the more aggressive of the student protestors. Trump supporters may not seem to have much in common with people demanding that racially insensitive university administrators be fired, but there’s a deep temperamental affinity. They’re all enthusiastic adherents of the trade-in society.

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Football Coaches and Rational Choices

Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight:

Thus, our best (and perhaps slightly conservative) estimate is that the Packers cost themselves about 7.9 percent of a win by kicking rather than going for two, and this whole thing could have been avoided if NFL coaches took the time to sit down and learn some basic percentages….

Another year, another year with NFL coaches not doing their jobs and not being taken to task for it. By now, coaches have no excuse for not having mastered basic decisions like these.

People say coaches are afraid of media criticism. But they’re professionals, among the handful of elite who are capable of doing what they do. If a coach cares what the media thinks, let him explain his logic.

There’s so much that is touchingly naïve about this, but more than anything, the idea that a football coach — or anyone else — could save his job when under fierce criticism by “explaining his logic.”

Morris thinks coaches, when they make these decisions, are being irrational. They are in fact being perfectly rational. Why does Morris think they are irrational? Because he thinks that the only relevant factor in evaluating decisions is what will increase the likelihood of winning a game. But this is obviously false, because every coach or manager knows that many coaches and managers, across the spectrum of sports, who have been very good at winning games have also, with alarming frequency and without rational justification, been fired. And no coach is selfless enough to factor his own job security out of his calculations.

Here’s what Mike McCarthy may have been thinking at the crucial moment in that playoff game:

  1. If we go for two and make it, I will be praised as a “riverboat gambler,” because hardly anyone in the press or among Packers fandom understands the percentages involved.
  2. If we go for two and fail, millions of people will scream “What the hell was McCarthy doing??” Thousands of people will call into radio shows to demand my ouster. Hundreds of columnists will write stories about my recklessness and thoughtlessness. And the sum total of all these interventions will put pressure on my bosses to fire me, pressure that they well very likely succumb to, especially since we haven’t been all that great the past couple of years.
  3. If I just kick the extra point I will be, generally speaking, neither praised nor blamed.

Ergo, and given that coaches will inevitably be concerned not just with the chances of winning a given game but also with the chances of keeping their jobs, McCarthy’s decision to kick the extra point was perfectly rational, as long as we have a proper understanding of what “reason” is in a given case; which is to say, as long as we factor in the variables that are immensely significant but not in any obvious way mathematically calculable.

The more general lesson to be applied here — one that the analysts at FiveThirtyEight need to reflect on — is this: It is not rational to act perfectly “rationally” when surrounded by irrational people whose actions have influence over your life.

On Suicide and Marriage

Marriage rests upon the immutable givens that compose it: words, bodies, characters, histories, places. Some wishes cannot succeed; some victories cannot be won; some loneliness is incorrigible. But there is relief and freedom in knowing what is real; these givens come to us out of the perennial reality of the world, like the terrain we live on. One does not care for this ground to make it a different place, or to make it perfect, but to make it inhabitable and to make it better. To flee from its realities is only to arrive at them unprepared.

Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you – and marriage, time, life, history, and the world – will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.

That’s Wendell Berry, from his great essay “Poetry and Marriage.”

Damon Linker makes an interesting argument here, in which he responds to this post by Daniel Payne, which in turn responds to this post by Kevin Drum.
Payne writes that if Drum kills himself “he will have cheated [his wife] out of something that is hers by right: the chance to realize her wedding vows and her matrimonial commitment to the fullest possible degree by conferring upon her husband the last and most important measures of care and comfort she can give him.” Linker replies, “Message: It would be selfish for Drum to end his own suffering and thereby deprive his family members of having to endure that suffering with him.”

Damon Linker is a good thinker and a fine writer, but I have complained more than once over the years that he has a habit of in-other-wordsing. That is, he quotes or cites someone and, adds “in other words” (or in this case “Message:”), attributes to the author something he or she did not say, and then refutes that. Perhaps Payne does indeed believe that “suffering is not only necessary, but even in some respects good,” but that’s not what he says in the passage Linker quotes. What Payne says is that it is good when a person gives “care and comfort” to someone he or she loves in that person’s time of suffering. Good for the person giving the care, and good for the person receiving it. And having cared for my wife through a long and difficult (though not mortal, thanks be to God!) illness, I can testify — and she can testify — that this is true, as long as the care is both given and received graciously.

Linker connects this belief to the claim that our lives are not our own, but rather belong to God, who gives us stewardship over them, and concludes: “Without these theological assumptions, the opposition to assisted suicide makes no sense.” But is the claim that the bonds of marriage are fulfilled when we care for one another in suffering actually a theological claim? Linker clearly thinks so. Perhaps without a Christian doctrinal foundation we cannot make such strong claims on one another, even in marriage. Even when a vision of mutual care and comfort like Payne’s is not articulated in theological terms, it only makes sense when supported and justified by a model of marriage as strong as the Christian one.

Hey, he said it, I didn’t. (Unless I’m in-other-wordsing him.)

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On Arguments Against Religious Education

Academic freedom is something I’ve written about a good deal over the years—and quite recently—which I suppose has been inevitable, since if you teach at a religiously-based institution you always hear that the problem with such places is that they constrain academic freedom.

To that claim, I have always responded that I have taught at religious institutions because in them I have academic freedom. (And if you follow up the links in that post I just mentioned you’ll find other people making the same point.) There is just no logically coherent, evidence-based way to claim that religious institutions have less academic freedom than secular ones. Every community of learning has limits, though different limits, articulated with different degrees of explicitness. Academic freedom is a concept relative to the norms of communities, institutions, and disciplines–and often of society as a whole. Academic freedom is therefore bounded freedom (as freedom always is), and when people don’t recognize that they make incoherent arguments.

Often the claim that religious institutions offer less freedom is based simply on personal feeling: the feeling that you would be constrained there, and therefore it is a place of greater constraint than your current institutional location, where you feel quite free to do and say what you want. But what if I would feel more constrained in your location than I do in my own? Moreover, the legal history of academia is littered with the remains of scholars, sometimes tenured scholars, who thought that their academic freedom was absolute, only to be “terminated for cause.”

In light of all this, I thought it might be a public service to offer some logically consistent and coherent arguments against religious education (some of which people make openly, some of which are only implicit views that people who hold them don’t know that they hold). So here goes:

  1. Education is properly a function of the state. All private educational institutions, including religious ones but others as well, should be abolished. If people want to get together to learn and teach, that’s fine, but they may not formally constitute or incorporate themselves as a school. If this requires a Constitutional amendment, so be it. (N.B.: Anyone who actually wanted this to happen would probably say that it doesn’t violate the Constitution, but quite clearly control of education is not one of the powers allocated to Congress in that document—though some think that it should be—so the only honest and coherent version of this argument would have to accept the necessity of amending the Constitution.)
  2. Private educational institutions may exist, but teachers and students at them should not be eligible for federal or state funding: no NIH or NEH or NSF grants for faculty, no federally guaranteed loans for students. Taxpayer support should go only to those institutions that are constituted and governed by the people.
  3. While the government of the United States may not discriminate against an institution on the grounds of religion, the educational establishment as a whole may—as long as the relevant accrediting agencies cease to seek and receive approval from the Secretary of Education. By cutting all ties to the government, accrediting agencies would free themselves to declare that religious schools violate the core principles of higher education and therefore may not be accredited. To de-accredit such institutions might not kill them, but could damage them seriously.
  4. Religion does more harm than good, and interferes with the state’s ability to care properly for its citizens, so the First Amendment should be repealed and the Constitution amended in order to prohibit—or at least place strict controls on—religious organizations. All Christian schools, at every level, will be abolished. Private but non-religious institutions may remain as they are.

Notice that anyone holding the first argument may not have anything against private education as such, but is willing to sacrifice non-religious private institutions in order to get rid of religious ones, without radically altering the Constitution. The same may be said of the rather milder plan embodied in the second argument. The fourth argument grasps the nettle that the first won’t grasp. The third one … well, something like that may actually happen.

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Parting the Veil of Ignorance

Sometimes it seems that this is John Rawls’ world, we’re just living in it: conducting our political and social debates as though we were behind a veil of ignorance, as though we can only trust the judgments made in perfect abstraction from any actual lived contexts. The debate about the future of Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College is a classic example, where a complex, embodied, richly personal situation gets translated into the terms of disembodied theological debate.

It’s not that such debates are fruitless or useless: they matter. But they aren’t all that matters. And they can distract us from more complex considerations.

Consider the experience of my friend Matt Milliner, an art historian at Wheaton:

In my field work in Turkey, Egypt and Cyprus I had some negative and some very positive contacts with Muslims, and spent lots of mornings waking to the prayer call of the minaret. But interestingly, the best relationships with Muslims I have had have been in this town. Believe it or not, they (and by “they” I mean real local people like Abraham and Zahra) are well aware that despite this media firestorm, Wheaton College is here for the long haul, and so are they. Accordingly, my son is not even one year old, and he has been held by more Muslims than Christians. The reason for this is that at the Islamic Center of Wheaton, the gracious, hijab-donning women joyfully pass him around while I talk theology with my new friends. From the beginning we have been clear about our differences. I actually believe, for example, you could have passed Allah (the pre-Islamic Arabic term for God which is still used by Arabic-speaking Christians) around in the same way as my son. And sentimental as it may sound, because God freely gave his son, I can freely give mine.

Wheaton College does not exist in a free-standing abstract theological space. It is a college in a town of about 50,000 people, at the north end of which stands the Islamic Center of Wheaton, which just a few years ago moved into a former church building there. Perhaps that accident of real estate — Muslims occupying a church! — has contributed to the cold welcome, or less than a welcome, that those Muslims have experienced from some locals. But my friends at Wheaton College, most of whom also live in the town of Wheaton, or in other nearby communities that also have a visible Muslim presence, know that the people who worship at the Islamic Center of Wheaton are their neighbors, and Christians are supposed to love their neighbors, so … so they show up. They visit. They talk. They bring their children.

Someone doesn’t like that — doesn’t like the very idea that Muslims can be peacefully incorporated into the fabric of a community like Wheaton. So they have created a fake website for the Islamic Center of Wheaton that presents its people as advocates for jihad — and implicates local Christians as well, as another friend and former colleague of mine, Noah Toly, has recently discovered. Christians from the Wheaton community who have befriended their Muslim neighbors are being smeared, along with those neighbors, as advocates of murder and terror.

That’s the context in which, at Wheaton College and in the town of Wheaton, people are discussing and debating what it might mean to say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

I’m not saying anything here about whether Larycia Hawkins should or should not be fired. You are free to make your own judgments. My own inclination fits that of Mark Galli, who wrote at Christianity Today that there might be a better way to handle this conflict than dismissal.

But whatever your opinion, it’s important to avoid the temptation to abstract this debate from its human situation — as though we could live behind a veil of ignorance and consider the matter in a purely theoretical sense. It’s on the ground, at the corner of President Street and Geneva Road in Wheaton, Illinois, where those life-challenging and life-transforming questions are being asked: Who are my neighbors? And how might I love them?

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Anti-Socialist elements

Long, along ago, when the world was still young and Communism still ruled Eastern Europe, a labor movement arose in Poland and called itself Solidarność. My wife Teri and I, early-marrieds in those days, were serious politics junkies, and one day she was watching one of Ben Wattenberg’s shows on TV, or maybe listening to him on the radio — the details are fuzzy after all these years. But in any event, Wattenberg was reporting on the anxiety Solidarity was generating in Poland’s communist government, which, when the union called a great strike, made a point of referring to members of the movement as “anti-socialist elements.” This phrase was used so often that the union members came to have affection for it, Wattenberg said, and had started wearing shirts featuring the phrase.

Teri thought this was very cool and very funny, and wished that she had an “anti-socialist element” shirt. So she tracked down Ben Wattenberg’s phone number, managed somehow to get him on the phone, and asked him if he had any idea how she might be able to obtain one of those shirts. He indicated that he might actually be able to procure one for her, for twenty bucks — a good bit of money in 1981. But she was all over it.

A few days later it showed up and she wore it with pride for some time (at first greatly confusing the Polish custodian of the apartment building we lived in). The other day she was cleaning out one of our closets and look at what she found:


Still a thing of beauty. Long live the spirit of Solidarność!

I’m Thinking It Over

Just before Christmas, I posted to my personal blog an account of my year in tech; it’s largely the story of how I strove to simplify my life in 2015. That post had only been up for a few hours when I got a long email from someone I don’t know telling me (among other things) that I was wrong to leave public Twitter, that without Twitter the only people who can give me intellectual feedback will be my students, that I should consider whether it’s un-Christian of me to “stop engaging,” and that if people who want to respond to my ideas have to go to the trouble of writing emails they might not respond at all.

My first reaction to this was sheer bemusement: I simply can’t imagine writing to someone I don’t know to tell him (in detail!) how he should and should not use social media. Is that any of my business? But before I could think further, another email showed up. This one was also from a stranger, and was also in response to a post on my personal blog, a brief one in which I explained why I had not commented on the current controversy at Wheaton College. This person told me that my plea of ignorance was unconvincing and my failure to respond was “weak and timid.”

This second email, coming so soon after the first, clarified some things for me.

There’s a famous Jack Benny routine, one he used many times over the course of decades, in which he’s confronted by a mugger. Now, you need to be aware that the chief personality trait of “Jack Benny” — the character Jack Benny played on radio and TV — is a compulsive miserliness. So:

Mugger [pointing a gun at Jack]: Your money or your life.

Jack: [silence]

Mugger: I said, Your money or your life!

Jack [exasperated]: “I’m thinking it over!”

The internet is also a mugger, but what it demands is not my money but my attention and my reaction, and it wants them right now. And “I’m thinking it over” isn’t an acceptable response.

When the leadership of Wheaton College placed Professor Larycia Hawkins on leave, it was not clear to me precisely why. Several weeks later, and after considerably more communication from the college, it’s still not clear to me precisely why, though everyone agrees that it had nothing to do with Hawkins’ wearing of a hijab. Moreover, even her statement that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” seems not to have been definitive: other faculty have made similar or identical statements, but (says the college administration on the webpage just cited) “In those instances, the individuals rapidly and emphatically explained their opinions and affirmed their full consistency with the theological identity of Wheaton College.” This lack of clarity has not stopped some people from demanding that Hawkins be fired, nor others from confidently declaring that Wheaton’s leaders are bigots motivated by religious intolerance and Islamophobia. How the latter are able to read the minds and hearts of people they don’t know, I can’t tell you; maybe you could ask them.

Anyway, a great many people are going off half-cocked on this issue; and what those emails I got remind me is that going off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice. Moreover, that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of Your Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet — and according to my first protestor either directly on or accessible to Twitter — or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.

I want to suggest some alternative ways of thinking about these matters, and related ones:

  • I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  • I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  • I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  • I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  • If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  • Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  • Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  • Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

In short, peer pressure is always terrible, and social media are a megaphone for peer pressure. And when you use that megaphone all the time you tend to forget that it’s possible to speak at a normal volume: thus my first protestor’s apparently genuinely-held view that if you’re not talking to peers on Twitter you can’t possibly be talking to peers at all. (We must all have been trapped in our silos of silence before 2006.) But the more general view of both of those who wrote to me — that rapidity of response is a virtue, and therefore that technologies that enable rapid response are superior to ones that enforce slowness — is the really pernicious one, I’ve come to believe.

I keep thinking about my first protestor’s complaint that if people can’t respond to me via Twitter or blog comments they might not respond at all. Given my experience of both public Twitter and blog comment threads, my thought is: feature, not bug. Indeed, I should probably have an auto-reply on my email featuring my postal address and encouraging people to write me letters. That might enliven the daily mail deliveries, which have for me, as for all of us, grown so gray and wan over the years. And maybe I would be doing my correspondents a favor also: if typing, printing, and mailing a letter is too much trouble for you, then it could be that the things you have to say aren’t that important, even to you, and you’d be better off using your time in a different way.

Well, that may be too extreme. I’m not a big fan of printing and mailing either, though I use those technologies when I need to. So perhaps email is slow enough, provides enough of a buffer between people and their immediate impulses. Still, I can’t help thinking of the great computer scientist Donald Knuth, who famously doesn’t have an email address. He explains why: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.” My work may not require the same intensity of concentration that Knuth’s requires, but it requires more than I have been accustomed to give it for the past few social-media years.

It won’t be that long before I turn 60, though I struggle to keep that inescapable (and highly unpleasant) fact clear in my mind. I have ideas I want to pursue, stories I want to tell, and friends and colleagues I want to interact with. Things are happening in the world and on the pages of books that I want to meditate on.

I spent about seven years reading replies to my tweets, and more than a decade reading comments on my blog posts. I have considered the costs and benefits, and I have firmly decided that I’m not going to be held hostage to that stuff any more. The chief reason is not that people are ill-tempered or dim-witted — though Lord knows one of those descriptors is accurate for a distressingly large number of social-media communications — but that so many of them are blown about by every wind of social-media doctrine, their attention swamped by the tsunamis of the moment, their wills captive to the felt need to respond now to what everyone else is responding to now.

Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent. I’m trying to turn my mind towards the longer term, striving to get a little closer to the bottom of things. I’m thinking it over.

Happy New Year, everybody! And Festina Lente!


[Editors note: this post contains plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens]

Screenwriters love superpowers — a category in which I include magical powers — because they can make those powers wax or wane according to the needs of the plot at any given moment. This point is more interesting than it might at first seem.

A classic example: in The Return of the King, when the Witch-King is able to shatter Gandalf’s staff with a mere thought. Leaving aside the question of why he wouldn’t just kill Gandalf on the spot if it were that easy, I’ll just note that this is the same guy who with four other Ringwraiths was no match for Aragorn on Weathertop. Now, his power had been increasing since then, but that’s a pretty darn rapid and pretty darn massive increase in power; and hadn’t Gandalf himself also passed through death and returned with renewed strength of his own? No, the whole thing makes absolutely no sense: it loks like Peter Jackson deciding that it would be really cool at that point if Gandalf were helpless before the Witch-King and just about to be killed but then something else happens and the Witch-King flies away without doing anything to Gandalf and wow, wasn’t that a close shave for the old wizard? Making absolute nonsense of the whole concept of “powers” was just a price he had to pay for that cool moment.

Similarly, in The Force Awakens we have in Kylo Ren a massively capable and ruthless controller of the Force who was trained as a Jedi by Luke Skywalker himself and therefore is clearly one of the world’s great masters of the lightsaber — but here he can just barely hold his own against two people who have never held such a weapon before. Again, the simple exigencies of plot and action are at work here: we wouldn’t have much of a story if such scenes unfolded plausibly.

The same storytelling logic plays out, as Brad Bird brilliantly shows in The Incredibles, when villains start “monologuing.” Lucius (AKA Frozone) explains:

Lucius: So now I’m in deep trouble. I mean, one more jolt of this death ray and I’m an epitaph. Somehow I manage to find cover and what does Baron von Ruthless do?
Bob: He starts monologuing.
Lucius: He starts monologuing! He starts, like, this prepared speech about how feeble I am compared to him, how inevitable my defeat is, how the world will soon be his, yadda yadda yadda. Yammering! I mean, the guy has me on a platter and he won’t shut up!

This becomes a theme throughout the movie, which (of course!) indulges in the very narrative tic it so brilliantly makes fun of. Because deploying stuff like this — putting your beloved characters in impossible spots before you rescue them — is just how you sustain tension, how you keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

But maybe there’s something else at work here too. Beyond a need to sustain narrative tension, what do all these moments have in common? It seems to me that they all say, in their varying ways, that power as such, power as we typically define it, isn’t the whole story.

“The race is not [always] to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” saith the Preacher — to which Damon Runyon famously replied, and with some justification, yeah, but that’s the way to bet. It is, if you’re a betting person. Nobody smart would have bet on David against Goliath. But sometimes — not often, but sometimes — longshots come in. And if you hang around long enough, or read enough history, you start to notice that they tend to do so at curiously opportune times. Not often, mind you, not often enough that everyone will see a pattern, but … sometimes the battle is not to the strong; sometimes overwhelming force is defeated. Occasionally it plays a role in its own defeat, by trusting too much in itself — counting on, calculating by, force only — never suspecting that there may be powers at work other than those of strength, skill, numbers.

And that’s what we find buried in so many of our popular stories, stories that arise from the general human sense of things, even if they get taken up by individual authors or managed by vast rapacious corporations: the suspicion that there’s a reason why the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Maybe even a reason that the cynical old Preacher didn’t imagine, since he credited the defeat of the powerful to “time and chance.”

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings — setting aside Peter Jackson’s — Gandalf tells the history of the Rings of Power, and especially of the Great Ring made “to rule them all,” and explains that that Ring was constantly striving to get back to its maker, Sauron. And yet it did not make its way to him. Instead it came to Bilbo. And behind that curious event “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.” This is not putting the matter very plainly at all: Gandalf’s use of the passive voice is telling. It is perhaps, even for him, just a suspicion — little more than the reading of hints, in the long historical record he knows so well, that Sauron’s bet on the inevitable victory of Power just might not pay off; that perhaps there is something more moving in the world, something that does not work through the Great but through the small, the weak, the unknown, the neglected, the utterly marginal.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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