Good thinking alert

These are the opening paragraphs from a post about urban planning. You may not be interested in his topic, but the writer’s point can be applied much more broadly.

The New York Times ran an op-ed the other day that helpfully demonstrated the pitfalls of lifestyle arguments in favor of urbanism, namely that they are annoying to everyone but the people making the argument.

The boys, like their father, are lean, strong and healthy. Their parents chose to live in New York, where their legs and public transit enable them to go from place to place efficiently, at low cost and with little stress (usually). They own a car but use it almost exclusively for vacations.

“Green” commuting is a priority in my family. I use a bicycle for most shopping and errands in the neighborhood, and I just bought my grandsons new bicycles for their trips to and from soccer games, accompanied by their cycling father.

These arguments – whether they’re about physical health, or “diverse” or “vibrant” or “creative” communities, or whatever else – are, at bottom, about telling people that they are lacking, and that in order to improve themselves they should become more like the author. In the 1970s, when city dwellers felt superior mainly because of their supposed cultural capital and were telling middle-class suburbanites to loosen up a little, that might have been obnoxious but harmless. In our current situation – when the city dwellers making these arguments are the economic elite (the author of this particular piece, Jane Brody, lives in gentrified brownstone Brooklyn, I believe) – it’s a lot more sinister. Brody talks about commutes as if their length and form were something that most people could freely choose, rather than something imposed upon them by their wages and the price of housing and form of development of their metropolitan area. She makes this a story about personal morality, rather than the constraints we choose to put on people through public policy.

Waiting for the Barbarians

I was reminded today of this poem by C.P. Cavafy. As the reminder said, it resists easy interpretation. The barbarians are a kind of solution—but to what? I have my own tentative answers, but I think the value here is in the seeking—and seeking again—more than in the finding.

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Playing Notre Dame

I ran across this expression today in an article which claims that conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza once did solid work but turned to the dark side for the sake of money. (As D’Souza himself puts it, “The book industry was changing after Illiberal Education [his first book], and I found out you could make money by not writing for the critics, that book reviews didn’t matter,”)

Already a recent convert to the idea that book sales were not wedded to critics’ judgments, D’Souza decided to stop writing with one eye on the reaction of critics. […] Yet failing to take on the best arguments of the other side—“to play Notre Dame” in the words of Charlie Peters, editor emeritus of Washington Monthly—carries risks. D’Souza’s subsequent books and films testify to the intellectual pitfalls of ignoring the critics.

Pandering to a crowd is sometimes just too lucrative to pass up, regardless of ideology. Here’s Mickey Kaus in 2005 criticizing a Malcolm Gladwell article:

Like many New Yorker policy articles, Gladwell’s reads like a lecture to an isolated, ill-informed and somewhat gullible group of highly literate children. They are cheap dates. They won’t think of the obvious objections. They won’t demand that you "play Notre Dame," as my boss Charles Peters used to say, and take on the best arguments for the other side. They just need to be given a bit of intellectual entertainment and pointed off in a comforting anti-Bush direction.

This was quoted in a blog post by Steve Sailer, who went on to say:

Indeed, there’s a huge market in this country for people who will flatter liberals about how they are culturally and ethically superior to conservatives. Just as there is plenty of money to be made telling conservatives why they are more patriotic, practical, and moral (conservatives are "moral," liberals are "ethical"). Over the years, Gladwell has been perfecting a spiel that might eventually prove the most profitable of all: he tries to appeal to his readers’ capitalist greed and progressive snobbery simultaneously.

“Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We've been eating grass!” —Gary Larson, Far SideNow I love reading Gladwell, but ‘tis a fair cop. Reading his stuff is not only entertaining but makes you feel smart for reading it—a royal road to that feeling, rather than the hard slog of working through all the best arguments on both sides. Back in the 80s I used to enjoy the slick science magazines Omni and Discover in the same way. Except when I occasionally ran across an article on a a topic I knew something about, I invariably found that it was shallow and misleading. Hey!

Probably the longest-lived character building project I’ve engaged in is to stop expecting others to do the hard thinking for me. Not that I ever didn’t think at all. But until my late 30s I used to gravitate towards areas I hadn’t explored, find authorities I found amenable, and devour their writings uncritically.

This isn’t a bad thing at the start. If you don’t know anything about a topic, e.g. good business practice, ethical behavior, Christian thought, then you have to accumulate a lot of basic information before you can begin to evaluate it. There are always temptations not to do that. You can find a comfortable groove, and continue to read “new’” writings on a topic that are really the same stuff repackaged in an inviting way. Or (my weakness) you can fill up on the basics, then move on to another topic instead of diving more deeply into the current one.

I avoided critical evaluation partly because it was comforting to take things on authority (not to mention that it indulged my natural laziness). But it was also partly because I had no clear conception of an alternative. Nobody was there to tell me that I could and should think these things through for myself—certainly not the experts I was reading, whose livelihood depended on me not doing that—much less to suggest that a little bit of hard-won understanding would be far more precious to me than being handed a treasure trove of neatly packaged, pre-digested nuggets of wisdom.

An early inkling that there was another way came one day in a reading group I was part of. We were working through excerpts from Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. At that time I had no particular opinion for or against Freud, regarding him only as a great thinker—or so I’d heard. I went in expecting to learn some things, and I did, but what surprised me was a growing feeling that not only did I not agree with this guy, I thought I could make a pretty good case against what he was claiming—not a scholarly, publishable case, but a personal case, one that would allow me to file Freud’s thoughts in the “important and interesting though wrong” folder. There were many things in that folder, but this was the first time I had decided for myself to file something there, rather than being told to do it by some smart guy I trusted.

I’d like to say that was a turning point, but it was really only a starting point. For the next fifteen years I continued to embrace other people’s thinking, to seek out people whose thinking was worthy of embracing. That led to a string of disappointments. But the episodes were never as lengthy or as damaging as they could have been, because despite my best efforts I could no longer adopt someone else’s thinking wholesale. I knew that I was capable of evaluating ideas and claims for myself, no matter how lofty the source. I also knew that it was lazy and irresponsible not to do so. Somewhere along the way I learned that it was actually a satisfying thing to do. And eventually I had done enough groundwork to discover that I could go wandering through minefields that were less explored but more potent than the well-tended Victorian gardens where celebrity teachers like to graze their flocks.

I can’t exactly recommend that folks set their sights on playing Notre Dame. It’s not a quick fix but a hard slog, life is short and there are other profitable ways to spend your time. And if you take 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 as a life passage (“aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one”), then there are many paths you can walk fruitfully and safely with only a basic knowledge of how God’s ecology is constructed—and that basic knowledge is easily available.

But for those who fancy themselves thinkers (I do) and intend to devote a good portion of their energies to exploring and understanding God’s ecology in some depth (I did, and still do), then I’d recommend making Notre Dame the standard, as a prophylactic against the lures of mediocrity. There are more than enough Christians around to make insularity a temptation, to deny that what goes on outside our circles possesses any value or quality, to think that our own culture is inherently, self-evidently superior, that any apparent weakness when comparisons are made can only be illusions. If we manage to convince ourselves that third-rate thought and action is acceptable and even preferable simply because it is Christian … well, there are a lot of third-rate thinkers and actors eager to cultivate that attitude, even make a comfortable living from it.

Rules are overrated

What would a massively busy traffic intersection look like if there were no traffic lights, no lane markings, no rules at all as to how to proceed? There is at least one such intersection, in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Here’s what it looks like.

If you’re interested in the details of how this works, click on the gear icon at lower right, then set speed to 0.25 — that seems to slow pedestrians down to a normal walking pace.

God’s ecology

On some days I think ‘God’s economy’ is a better descriptive phrase, but although both ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ are encrusted with unhelpful connotations, the dictionary definition of ‘ecology’ (the relations of beings to one another and their surroundings) comes closer to what I mean—the way God’s creation actually works, as opposed to the way our flesh would have it work.

My current favorite example comes from Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Certainly the world doesn’t believe this, And how many times have you heard Christians explain it away, arguing e.g. that we must take care of ourselves first so that we have something to give to others? But the meaning of the text is plain.

I won’t deny that following this principle puts one at a significant disadvantage in a world where everyone else puts themselves first—you give and give as they take and take, with no reasonable expectation that they will give in return. But imagine an alternate world where everyone, believer and unbeliever, put everyone else first. Is life better—for everyone—when we are required to take responsibility for our own interests, in competition with folks whose focus is to defend their interests against ours? Or would it be better to have the whole world looking out for us, at only the cost of looking out for everyone else?

I think we actually live in that second world. I don’t think it’s strong enough to say Philippians 2:3 describes the way things ought to be, or how the Kingdom will be when it eventually comes, or the sort of world we should be working to build as an improvement on this one, or a replacement for this one, or even that it describes the separate, new and different community that Christians experience . Philippians 2:3 describes the here and now, the way things actually are, and problems arise when we deny that reality and choose to act in accord with an ecology of our own imagining.

Even if you’ve been given eyes to see and ears to hear, It’s hard to discern the reality that lies beneath the layers and layers of selfish, deluded thinking we coat it with. But it’s there, and with diligent practice we can improve our spiritual perception. And sometimes it just peeks through anyway, as in this recent post from Seth Godin, where he isn’t speaking as a Christian (I have no idea whether he is a believer) but as someone who knows something about how the world actually works. It’s very short, so I’ll reproduce it in its entirety.

Go first

Before you’re asked.

Before she asks for the memo, before the customer asks for a refund, before your co-worker asks for help.



Imagine what the other person needs, an exercise in empathy that might become a habit.

This could very easily be offered, word for word, as pious advice from the pulpit. But in fact it’s a businessman offering highly practical advice on how to succeed in business. And it’s good advice, because that’s the way the world actually works.

A devotion to authority that borders on insanity

Lately I’ve been watching the outpouring of revelations about sexual abuse in protestant churches, and I’ve gone back and read up on the Roman Catholic church scandals that first made the news fifteen years ago, and I’ve also taken a broader look at abuses of institutional authority in the church. Some of it has thrown me for a loop—I never realized things were this bad.

But none of it has scared me at a personal level. Looking back, my family was never in any real danger of being subject to such abuse because we always rejected the claims of other men to have fundamental authority over our lives, social or spiritual—even during some stretches when we desperately wanted to put ourselves under such authority. To be blunt, we knew people too well, and always saw that the men who claimed such authority were in no way qualified to wield it.

I try to choose my words carefully, and I try to resist bolstering my case with over-the-top characterizations. So when I describe a tendency as “bordering on insanity”, I really do mean that I think madness is on the horizon. And in what follows, this joky definition of insanity may be applicable: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

I recommend that you read these two blog posts, one by Damon Linker called The greatest threat to traditional churches isn’t liberalism — it’s the men who run them, and then this response from Rod Dreher called Can Traditional Religion Survive A Wired World? What strikes me is that neither writer entertains the possibility that the traditional church might simply be done–not even in order to weigh and then reject the idea. It is simply not possible for them that the traditional church is done, and consequently its troubles are not the evidence of irreversible terminal decay in the institution, but of external and internal threats against which she must be defended.

I won’t summarize the posts because I don’t think the stories they tell are especially new or interesting, we’ve all heard them many times In many ways. What I want to do is extract and highlight the descriptions of church authority.

… So let’s just say that if you hadn’t heard the news before you started reading this column, you would have heard about it elsewhere before long. And that is a big problem for the churches, especially the conservative churches that seek to uphold and promulgate traditionalist views of morality and doctrine. …

…. Stated simply, the problem is this … when a scandal reveals that those who preach the stringent traditionalist view of morality fall far short of the standards they publicly demand of others, it makes them look like hypocrites and the church’s teachings look like a cruel sham concocted by psychologically unbalanced clerics. ….

…. Clerical hypocrisy and corruption are, after all, nothing new. They’re as old as the church itself — because the church is run by human beings, and human beings find it extremely difficult to live up to what the church holds out as right behavior. ….

…. When a priest, bishop, pope, or pastor was accused of impropriety, sexual or otherwise, the instinct was to cover it up, for the good of the institution. ….

… our role, we were told, was to publicly defend the church, not to add fuel to the fires lit and stoked by its enemies. We needed to circle the wagons and stop making such a public fuss about ugly facts that would only do damage to the institution. ….

…. How long will the remaining parishioners keep returning to the pews when they’re confronted by a persistent drip of scandal implicating people at all levels of the institution? …

…. Once we recognize the crucially important role of publicity in driving a mass exodus from the churches, something far more troubling becomes obvious — namely, that more than anything else it is the truth, and not some external cultural or political force, that may ultimately destroy the churches. Not the indemonstrable "truth" that God doesn’t exist. But rather the ultimately undeniable truth that, despite what they might say about themselves and what many of us would fervently like to believe about them, the churches are all too human. All the way down.

… [quoting a lawyer]: ““Everything I had heard about Archbishop Nienstedt,”  led me to think that if there was ever a guy who was not going to put up with this kind of stuff, it would be him. Would you ever think that somebody with a reputation for being dogmatically pure would turn a blind eye to this kind of stuff? I was completely unprepared for it.” …

… Just this morning I received an e-mail from a faithful orthodox Catholic friend in which he mentioned that he and a Catholic seminarian friend of his have had to dramatically lower their expectations of the hierarchy in order to stay strong in the faith. …

… As a matter of guarding my own heart, I expect the worst from Orthodox bishops and clergy. … I’ve lived through what happens when you trust those in religious authority as strongly as I once did, and I cannot afford to get fooled again. …

… It turns out that “everybody knew there was something funny about the priests there,” said my friend (“everybody” being the parents). But those families stayed faithful to the Church, despite the corruption of their parish clergy. It was a different world then. …

… Here’s a perhaps more radical claim: the wide dissemination of truth may, in time, destroy the authority of all institutions. Walter Bagehot famously said about the importance of keeping the British monarchy shrouded in mystery, “We mustn’t let daylight in upon magic.” This is true for the leadership of all authoritative institutions, don’t you think? …

I have my own biases, of course, but trying to imagine myself as being open to the value of institutional authority and then reading through the above, I think I would end by asking: please tell me again why you think it is a good idea to expose yourself to this sort of danger.

But people continue to think it is a good idea, one that shouldn’t be jettisoned simply because it can be abused. Rod Dreher ends his post with this paragraph.

From a theological point of view, what all of us Christians are living through now, and will live through, could be seen as God’s judgment on His people. Purification is painful; bourgeois Pelagians in the clergy and in the laity will be burned away. Increasingly, churches whose leaders cannot withstand the scrutiny of the all-seeing eye of the Internet will not survive over time. And not just churches.

Well, I suppose. But it could also be seen as the latest in a very, very long series of proofs that men are completely incapable of wielding spiritual authority over others, and that denying it is just wishful thinking.