Two excellent things eaten this week

Actually more than two, but these are the ones I want to highlight.

I’ve been in El Paso with my dad for the past three weeks, and on Tuesday my daughter Maggie came for a week’s visit. She’ll leave this coming Tuesday, and I’ll leave the following day. On Thursday we took a day trip up the Rio Grande Valley: Alamogordo Space Museum, White Sands Monument, and Hatch NM for lunch at Sparky’s, home of the world’s best green chile cheeseburger. It probably wasn’t the world’s best cheeseburger, but still the best cheeseburger I ever ate–just a bun with the meat would have made me very happy, the cheese and chile just made it better.

And for lunch today Maggie and I went out to El Sarape for a bowl of posole, a sort of red chile soup with hominy and chunks of pork. It looked more or less like this.

A devotion to authority that borders on insanity, pt. 3

I didn’t intend this to become a series, but things keep popping up that fit with the theme. This article is worth a look, not so much for the familiar story of pastoral sexual abuse it tells, but because it appears in World Magazine. And what caught my eye was this. [emphasis added throughout]

Stories like this are becoming distressingly familiar. Over the past year WORLD has reported on both sexual and financial scandals, though not all of them rise to the level of the heinous crimes committed by Bobby Price, but all of which have two things in common:

What two things?

Persons in authority took advantage of those who revered them, and persons who knew what was going on failed to speak up. They remained silent out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, or self-interest, or a lack of courage, or because they were too busy or told themselves it was someone else’s job.

Whatever excuse they gave for their silence, the result was always the same: a greater tragedy and more victims than if they had spoken up, or spoken up earlier.

I think the writer is correct about the first, but wrong about the second. In fact, his claim makes no sense, since he can’t know that their speaking up would have resulted in a lesser tragedy or fewer victims.

There is mounting evidence that just the opposite is true. Speaking up in the context of the church makes little difference. Speaking up offers no protection or relief to the victims, only revenge (and only occasionally that). Even in the story the writer tells, people did in fact speak up.

I also told him I had heard from credible people about sexual impropriety at the church.

But the word of credible people made no difference. World Magazine “ultimately published more stories that helped lead to the resignation of Bradley Price and the departure of most of his family members from that church”–only to move on to other churches where they found fresh victims. Only the civil authorities provided relief.

As I wrote in the previous post in this series: To those who say that to be a Christian one must be under some sort of authority besides that of King Jesus, I hope that you are prepared to explain either (a) how the normal Christian in search of authority can discern that the authority exercised by these pastors was illegitimate and therefore can righteously be rejected or avoided, or (b) that such abuse is just par for the course, something to be expected and endured in the normal Christian life.

The wasteful fraud of sorting for youth meritocracy

That’s the title of Seth Godin’s latest post, and he makes an excellent point:

Soccer and football exist in school not because there’s a trophy shortage, not because the school benefits from winning. They exist, I think, to create a learning experience. But when we bench people because they’re not naturally good, what’s the lesson?

If you get ahead for years and years because you got dealt good cards, it’s not particularly likely that you will learn that in the real world, achievement is based as much on attitude and effort as it is on natural advantages. In the real world, Nobel prizes and Broadway roles and the senior VP job go to people who have figured out how to care, how to show up, how to be open to new experiences. Our culture is built around connection and charisma and learning and the ability to not quit in precisely the right moments.

As we raised our kids, and continue to raise them, we kept competitive activities near zero. We also left their gifts mostly alone to flourish as they would, focusing instead on teaching them to compensate for their weaknesses and to be diligent in necessary things that were distasteful or didn’t come naturally.

What if we celebrated the students who regularly try the hardest, help each other the most and lead? We if we fast tracked those students, and made it clear to anyone else willing to adopt those attitudes that they could be celebrated too?

What if you got cast, tracked or made the cut because you were resilient, hard working and willing to set yourself up for a cycle of continuous improvement? Isn’t that more important than rewarding the kid who never passes but still scores a lot of goals?

Before you feature a trumpet prodigy at the jazz band concert, perhaps you could feature the kid who just won’t quit. No need to tell him he’s a great trumpet player–the fact is, none of these kids are Maynard Ferguson–just tell him the truth. Tell him that every single person who has made a career of playing the trumpet (every single one of them) did it with effort and passion, not with lips that naturally vibrate.

This is not anti-meritocratic. Society can still order itself according to the merits of its members. But what it avoids is the twisted mentality that comes from gaming the system, from confusing merit with the appearance of merit. William Deresiewicz’s recent book Excellent Sheep describes what is now needed to gain admittance to an Ivy League school:

Only five or six extracurricular activities? Those are slacker numbers. Does the applicant have “good rig” (academic rigor)? What about “top checks” (highest check marks in every conceivable category)? Is he or she “pointy” (insanely great at one thing)? How are his or her “PQs” (personal qualities)? Or is your child, as one committee member said of an applicant, “pretty much in the middle of the fairway”?

Amazing that they pay attention to the quantity at all, but what else can they do when faced with thousands upon thousands of applicants, year after year? And once applicants learn that the judges have been reduced to counting, what else can they be expected to do but multiply activities, top checks, PQs, no matter their value?

Long ago I gave up listening to “promising” young musical performers, because all I was hearing was pale, incompetent imitations of successful adults. Why would I want to hear the inferior imitation instead of the much better original? On the other hand, I love to hear a young one use their skills as they are to sing or play something heartfelt. Only a few months after starting to sing and play, a very young Chris made a tape on his own initiative of a few songs he had learned. I listen to it occasionally, and tear up–at his joy in making music, at his eagerness to use his skills to please his listeners.

We didn’t know then where his musical giftedness would take him. In fact, we had good reasons early on to discourage any interest in a musical career, knowing the kind of life most professional musicians are forced to live. But it ended up being a vehicle for important life lessons–do things well, show up on time, cultivate a clear-eyed understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, understand that it’s not about you but the audience. Chris could have gone far further professionally if we had placed the emphasis where it usually ends up, on meritocratic success. Instead we taught him how to play the game with honor and integrity. And now he can play any game he chooses in the way it should be played.

The old way of singing

I am so glad I stumbled across this video.

I teared up at several points while watching it. For five years we had the privilege of gathering with an Old Regular Baptist congregation in south central Kentucky, and the singing … oh, the singing. No other element of corporate worship has ever transported me–not prayer, not conventional hymn singing, not sermons, not the Lord’s table–but the old way of singing did, which is why I never gainsay anyone who claims to be transported by those other things. Envy them, perhaps, but never assume they are leading me on.

Chris and I were first exposed to this kind of singing by Ginny Hawker. Here is Ginny singing one of the old songs.

As you’ll discover if you watch the first video, the history of this form of singing is mostly lost to us. One thing we know is that it was deliberately wiped out in churches by people who thought it was ignorant, undignified, and unmusical, wanting to substitute a form of composed European art-singing with four-part harmonies. Even shape-note singing, which superficially looks like a folk form, was something invented and promoted by commercial enterprises.

I can’t think about this too long without getting angry. But I’m grateful for the small taste we were allowed.

How to be polite

I read this essay a few days ago and enjoyed it, thought not quite enough to post about it here. Then I saw it referenced elsewhere, and noticed that it was written by Paul Ford, the programmer and essayist who came up with the fundamental question of the internet.

So OK, it deserves a recommendation. It not only offers an engaging account of how one man became polite and decided he likes it that way, it has some actual concrete advice that I heartily endorse:

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

The trick, of course, is having a reliable response ready. But the important part is responding with interest. Over the years I’ve gone from feeling painfully awkward in social gatherings to being able to make small talk with virtually anyone, simply by deciding that any conversation I strike up will be about the other person, not me, and that I will be interested to hear what they have to say.

Of course it helps if you can turn the conversation in a direction that will genuinely interest you. That’s what makes Ford’s canned response so useful—it will not only engage the other person, but they will likely tell you some very interesting reasons why their job is so hard. At some point you won’t really need a canned response, since you will eventually discover that other people really are worth your interest, and you’ll want to know about them enough to figure out on the spot what question can best allow them to open up about their life.

There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?

Ford also makes an important point about how politeness can provide an important buffer in a world where people are rightfully wary about letting down their guard.

This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time. […]

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches. [Emphasis added]

We should reserve opinions and suspend judgment purely out of politeness—or, for Christians, to esteem others more highly than ourselves. But it turns out that this is also an unexpected kindness to them, allowing them to set aside their fear of being judged in order to open up to us. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment.

Newsjacking

Speaking of using the right word, I’m all for neologisms that actually do some neglected work, and especially portmanteau words that I find clever.

I just ran across the term newsjacking, and I like it even though it was appropriated by (or maybe created by?) a marketing guy to describe a PR strategy he pushes, To newsjack an event is to somehow inject oneself into a trending story, in hopes of riding its coattails.

I think it points to a basic but unnamed impulse that has flourished along with the internet. For a long time I’ve noticed it primarily in comment threads on blogs, where people often don’t interact with the content of a post but simply use it as a springboard to talk about themselves. When I called the technique anything at all, I would call it (somewhat meanly) “That reminds me of … ME!” It is not the same as hijacking a thread, which involves redirecting the entire discussion somewhere the original post didn’t go. It is smaller and self-contained, a way of injecting oneself into a discussion without actually needing to address the topic at hand. Or, to be mean again, a natural result when the commenter finds their own experiences and opinions more worthy of comment than those of the blogger.

Hold on … memories are flooding in … aha, now I remember that there is a pre-internet precedent. I used to listen to a fair amount of talk radio, and I distinctly remember a shift in the late 1980s. Before that time call-in shows (Larry King being a prime example) would always answer the phone with “Hello, what’s your question?” … and the caller would always ask a question! Generally it was a question about the current topic, which either the host or a guest expert would proceed to answer. But at some point—probably when Rush Limbaugh revived AM radio—callers started opening their questions with long stretches of soapbox speech, and often never even got around to anything resembling a question. Soon enough the question charade faded away, and callers would begin by saying, “My point is …”

So talk radio apparently dredged up something that had been lurking in us all along, brushed it off, and put it on public display. (And monetized it.) Then the internet came along and saved everyone the trouble of getting in line to have their phone call answered. I’m not referring here to the impulse to publish, which may be related but at least requires initiative—to figure out what to write about, no matter how mundane. Commenting lowers the bar even further; now anything that comes to mind is fair game.

A couple of years ago I ran across an essay by Paul Ford which claims that every medium—print, radio, television, telephone, telegraph—is the answer to some fundamental question, and that we misunderstand the internet when we think that, because it can replace those media, it answers those fundamental questions. But Ford claims that the internet actually answers another, very different question.

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

Ford first noticed this as a web designer. The scenario he describes here is not just common, it is definitive:

I first wrote about this in 2007, after 18 months of isolating and frustrating work on a website:

Brace yourself for the initial angry wave of criticism: How dare you, I hate it, it’s ugly, you’re stupid. The Internet runs on knee-jerk reactions. People will test your work against their pet theories: It is not free, and thus has no value; it lacks community features; I can’t believe you don’t use dotcaps, lampsheets, or pixel scrims; it is not written in Rusp or Erskell; my cat is displeased. The ultimate question lurks beneath these curses: why wasn’t I consulted?

That line was tossed off, but since I wrote it I’ve seen the same pattern everywhere. I’ve explained it to many other web people, and they laugh, but then a few months later some say, “you know…” [Emphasis added]

Ford then points to this cartoon, which was the sole content of a comment on a blog post about computer pioneer Clive Sinclair marrying a younger woman:

I dearly love this cartoon, and I didn’t need to read Ford’s exegesis to know how right he was, that this is what the internet is about. But here’s how Ford explains it:

Consider what that cartoon means in that context: It implies that the commenter feels—with some irony and self-awareness, I’m sure—that his opinion, in some way, is relevant to the question of whether Clive Sinclair should marry a particular woman. This is, for many obvious reasons, completely insane. And yet there was an image already sketched and available to that commenter so that he could express this exact sentiment of choosing not to be outraged at a situation he read about on the Internet. WWIC in action. [Emphasis added]

"It is important you know I am not outraged by this." Exactly.

So, how does this relate to newsjacking? I think that in newsjacking, WWIC is simply bumped up a level. At the lower level we lazily inject ourselves into ongoing discussions, while in newsjacking we latch onto trending stories and inject ourselves by starting a discussion, asserting that it is important (and urgent) that we be consulted about what is going on in Iraq or Ukraine or Ferguson, or west Africa, or at Mars Hill Church. Not only important and urgent, but maybe even a vehicle to notoriety, which can then be somehow monetized.

Here are two recent examples of newsjacking, one entirely expected and one maybe not so much. The first is Ann Coulter’s recent column about the American missionaries who contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia. Coulter took some interesting questions about the worth of foreign missions, mixed them with her usual large helping of jingoism, and set the result loose on the internet—where it provoked a completely predictable and probably lucrative (for her) outrage. Was her purpose to begin a thoughtful discussion about foreign mission work? Not likely. In fact, the punches she landed in her original piece were completely disregarded by her critics, as far as I’ve read them. She points that out in her followup column—but tellingly, she doesn’t really complain that no one responded to her original points in any substantial way. I don’t think that matters to either her or her critics. What matters is that they were all spared the need to think, either about the original piece or their response. All that was required was a reaction to the initial outrage, which allowed for reactions to the reactions, ad infinitum.

The second is Matt Walsh’s post about Robin Williams’s suicide, which was shallow and provocative and ill-timed—exactly what is called for in a newsjacking, since if one of those qualities were lacking—if the post had looked thoughtfully at the social and moral issues surrounding suicide, or if Walsh had tempered his language to avoid unnecessary outrage, or if he had waited a decent interval to publish it—then the post would have had little or no impact. But because the post was accurately targeted to provoke outrage, it became one of the lucky ones—viewed more than 3 million times, the recipient of 10,000 comments before the system crashed. Walsh gained in notoriety, his critics (and defenders) all seized the opportunity to be consulted on a matter that everyone was talking about.

And then Walsh took the opportunity to spin the entire episode for the benefit of his (now presumably larger) fanbase:

Something happened yesterday.

It began with a post I wrote about depression and suicide called “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.”

When I clicked “publish” on that piece, I felt confident. I was sad that it had to be written, and upset about the circumstances surrounding it, but sure that I was saying something that needed to be said; something truthful but uplifting, frank but compassionate. I actually found myself getting emotional as I wrote it. I’m not suicidal but I have demons of my own, so I submitted that post to the public, praying others would find the same solace in the promise of hope and the power of free will.

But then things got out of control. Rapidly.

Out of control? Gee, that’s rough. But who could have anticipated such a thing?

It’s important to use the right word

I’ve been delving deeply into Dalrymple these days—not binging, but reading one or two of his essays at the end of every day. The man can write! But more importantly, he has the gimlet eye, an ability to make his case simply by recording his observations. When he does offer an opinion, he has already supported it so thoroughly that it can hardly be denied.

One of his better essays is called What is Poverty?, but right away he points out that moderns use the word wrongly, and there is a much better one available:

What do we mean by poverty? Not what Dickens or Blake or Mayhew meant. Today, no one seriously expects to go hungry in England or to live without running water or medical care or even TV. Poverty has been redefined in industrial countries, so that anyone at the lower end of the income distribution is poor ex officio, as it were—poor by virtue of having less than the rich. And of course by this logic, the only way of eliminating poverty is by an egalitarian redistribution of wealth—even if the society as a whole were to become poorer as a result.

Such redistribution was the goal of the welfare state. But it has not eliminated poverty, despite the vast sums expended, and despite the fact that the poor are now substantially richer—indeed are not, by traditional standards, poor at all. As long as the rich exist, so must the poor, as we now define them.

Certainly they are in squalor—a far more accurate description of their condition than poverty—despite a threefold increase in per-capita income, including that of the poor, since the end of the last war. Why they should be in this condition requires an explanation—and to call that condition poverty, using a word more appropriate to Mayhew’s London than to today’s reality, prevents us from grasping how fundamentally the lot of "the poor" has changed since then. The poor we shall always have with us, no doubt: but today they are not poor in the traditional way.

Dalrymple works at a hospital in a very rough part of town, one at which doctors from third-world countries often come to do a year’s work. He proceeds to build his case through their eyes.

Every few months, doctors from countries like the Philippines and India arrive fresh from the airport to work for a year’s stint at my hospital. It is fascinating to observe their evolving response to British squalor. At the start, they are uniformly enthusiastic about the care that we unsparingly and unhesitatingly give to everyone, regardless of economic status. They themselves come from cities—Manila, Bombay, Madras—where many of the cases we see in our hospital would simply be left to die, often without succor of any kind. […] Before very long, though, they start to feel a vague unease. […]  At first they assume that the cases they see are a statistical quirk, a kind of sampling error, and that given time they will encounter a better, more representative cross section of the population. Gradually, however, it dawns upon them that what they have seen is representative. When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone for gratitude. […]

Dalrymple makes his case with the reader by recounting the experience of these foreign doctors in their ongoing encounters with the British underclass, occasionally stopping to take their temperature.

I asked the doctor from Madras if poverty was the word he would use to describe this woman’s situation. He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural. […]

Many examples are given in detail, He takes them for short walks from the hospital to the nearby prison, pointing out small things—fresh puddles of broken glass from stolen cars, trash-filled yards, fast food litter everywhere.

"Why don’t they tidy up their gardens?" asks a doctor from Bombay.  A good question: after all, most of the houses contain at least one person with time on his or her hands. Whenever I have been able to ask the question, however, the answer has always been the same: I’ve told the council [the local government] about it, but they haven’t come. As tenants, they feel it is the landlord’s responsibility to keep their yards clean, and they are not prepared to do the council’s work for it, even if it means wading through garbage—as it quite literally does. On the one hand, authority cannot tell them what to do; on the other, it has an infinitude of responsibilities towards them.

Dalyrmple is also a master of the understated punch line.

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes antisocial egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.

"On the whole," said one Filipino doctor to me, "life is preferable in the slums of Manila." He said it without any illusions as to the quality of life in Manila.

You may think I’ve quoted the whole article at this point, but not so—Dalrymple writes at length, and what I’ve left out is the concrete detail he uses to make his case overwhelming. I encourage you to read the whole thing.