Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Andrew Keen: The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture

Author: Andrew Keen
Title: The Cult of the Amateur
Subtitle: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture
Publication: 2007 Community / Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-52080-5, 228 pages, hardcover, indexed

The title of this book, making arguments that I have heard for a number of years and which would inevitably get collected into a formally published book, links the words “cult” and “culture” and that is certainly logical. The book, written by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, certainly does call for us to rethink our moral paradigm as to how information gets out into the public and gets disseminated, and how we ascertain the credibility of content and its providers. The book was mentioned by the opening panel at the Digital Media Conference in Silver Spring, MD last Friday, June 22, 2007.

Actually, some of the issues that he raises pre-existed before what we call “Web 2.0” became a common buzzword. (It was supposed to re-invent Silicon Valley after the first dot-com bust, as the silliness of too much reliance on on-line transactions for everything played itself out.) Take, for example, Internet censorship and the concerns for children. The Supreme Court struck down the censorship provisions of the original Communications Decency Act (CDA) as far back as 1997, and COPA, the Child Online Protection Act of 1998, which the author supports, was passed in 1998 but has been under injunction since February 1999. In a published book, it’s hard to follow something like this in enough detail; I know since I am one of the plaintiffs.

I “self-published” my first book in 1997 (info) and developed my first major website at the same time to maintain “footnote” files to keep the political information current. (I actually had started this in late 1996 with AOL personal publisher.) By late 1998, when COPA was going to be litigated, I knew how important search engines and Internet self-publishing – then I just used simple hand-edited html—would be. By 1999 media was starting to report more “problems” – like people manipulating stock prices illegally with their own websites. In March 2000, I wrote an online essay describing how problematic online self-publishing by ordinary employees (often based on their personal values) could become for employers. By 2003 or so, we were starting to see people say that employers needed to develop blogging policies, and in 2005 I wrote a sample one But once social networking sites took off (like around 2004 or so), it was not too long before the major media sources were reporting that employers were looking at applicants’ and sometimes employees’ profiles for signs of unsuitability for employment. (He covers this late in his book.) I may well have lost an offer or two during the 2003 and 2004 period, before the era of myspace. One point is that my "page request count" has grown steadily over the years, despite the exponential increase in blogging as a whole. Why? Any high school student good in Algebra II knows that you don't have to raise 2 to that high a power to reach, say, a billion (that's the mathematical "wide-open secret" of the search engine); furthermore, I have collected and cross-referenced materials and "connected the dots" in unusual ways that I believe interest many readers.

Of course, any younger person should think seriously about formal education and getting as much certification in sellable skills as possible. I wish I had stuck to my guns (hard to do during the Cold War) and stayed with music, where today I might be able to express myself "professionally" (in his sense) in music. I am 63, however, having "retired," then "traded queens into the endgame" so I am pretty much past that (perhaps in a queenless middlegame). What I do find is that sometimes personal candor does have a place in writing on issues, and that, even in movie or book reviews, it's possible to impart some extra insight that could not come from the licensed, established "media."

I’ve covered a lot of the Internet dangers on my blogs, as my readers know. (Check http://billsinternetsafety.blogspot.com/ ) In a way, this is like any new technology. Automobiles and airplanes pose dangers too, and they did back in the 1950s, well before today’s contentious debates. Freedom has always involved personal risk, so we really need to look into the principles to see what is going on.

Spam provides one example of what comes out of the "amateur culture." Because email was developed before it was perceived as a global medium, the protocol was permissive and allows sender spoofing. Amateurs seeking limelight could attract spoofers (or other schemes to implicate them, some harder to disprove). Yet so do major corporations and, especially, banks.

But, when Mr. Keen talks about the change in culture, he is referring (quite appropriately) to our loss of perspective on and respect for expertise. Indeed, the whole concept of professionalism, which we pay for, is based on that. Before the Internet (and, to some extent, low-cost desktop publishing) we were used to the idea that most content goes through formal corporate (or sometimes governmental or organizational) channels to become disseminated to the public. Journalism, particularly, has always had its ethical standards for fact-checking. (Read Foster Winans ‘s 1989 book “Trading Secrets” (St. Martins) for a lot on this.) And all of that has been wiped away. Right?

Not completely. Keen talks (sometimes whines, it seems) about the job losses in media companies that prospered with older business models. These losses have occurred, and some of them have been due to piracy, true, and that is a big problem, with DRM controversial. Less clear is that the “competition” from free content offered by the pajama-crowd under a “free entry” mechanism offered by Internet companies really has affected them that much. I disagree with him on this. Many other forces, ranging from natural business cycles, to normal evolution of consumer interests, to even threats like pandemics (which he neglects to mention) can also affect and sometimes endanger commercial "professional" media businesses.

I’ll speak for myself here, again. I go to two or three movies a week in theaters (mostly smaller, independent films in only one auditorium), buy some hardcopy books from Amazon and BN, buy magazines and newspapers occasionally. It is frankly much easier for me to work on a current event when blogging if I have a hardcopy news story near my computer. And, yes, on an airplane or at the beach, I would rather have a hard-copy old-fashioned book or magazine than an e-book or an iPhone. This is all from someone who has self-published as much content (most of it heavily footnoted) on the web as I have in the past ten years. I have self-published three books, had one essay published by a conventional trade publisher, and plan to submit fiction and screenplays through conventional third party agents. In the past, I used to purchase many classical records and CDs. I rent films (that I missed) regularly from Netflix, often for research to support my own screenplays. I don’t think that “competition” from me will throw people out of work.

I personally find that most of Wikipedia is actually factual and reasonably reliable. I used it. Wikipedia, as we all know, has been criticized, and many schools (and news organizations) do not allow it to quoted as a source, although its articles usually point to more standard sources. Wikipedia, as a result of unfavorable comments recently, is tightening its standards, and certainly competition from credentialed sources like Compendium is welcome. I watch some videos on line, but most of them are from companies or individuals whom I know. I have watched some YouTube, but generally only things that really appear to be original and interesting. For some things, I have to dig. If I have a technical problem on my computer, I find that I need to look at six or seven sources on the web before I have a reliable idea of what is causing my problem. But that is OK with me.

Part of the problem is understanding what the point of a posting is. An online encyclopedia should be a repository of facts and reference material, not be a place for debating or venting opinions. In the old world, some encyclopedias like Britannica extended their reference concept with the idea of “Knowledge in Depth” volumes and I think that idea is good for the Internet, too. Opinions about difficult issues (such as sexuality and family values) can be debated, but they should be cross-referenced to each other and then to validated sources (with options to pay for content) with systems yet to be developed. But, gradually, people in the user-generated content business are recognizing this and proposing solutions. I do very little “social networking” on line and almost never look at strictly personal information on social networking sites, as it is of no interest to me.

It’s also important to understand that some of the security problems on the Internet are caused by misbehavior of large companies, not individuals. Compromise of identity security is exacerbated by carelessness of banks and mortgagers in granting credit, and better procedures (like checking USPS NCOA databases offline from the Internet) can be developed. Other problems, as he admits, like online gaming, somewhat depend on whether society requires that I be my brother's keeper.

Keen points out that amateur bloggers or social networkers are rarely sued, yet some of their postings defame others, to the point that others (when employers find them by search engines) lose job opportunities. Professional journalists (whose employers have deep pockets) get sued all the time, incur risk of prosecution sometimes for failure to disclose sources (Judith Miller) or even risk and lose their lives (Daniel Pearl in the movie "A Mighty Heart"). Theoretically, however, intellectual property law applies to novices just as it does to professionals; and at least people doing illegal downloads have learned that the hard way with legal phone calls from the RIAA.

Major sites like Amazon, imdb and Netflix invite users to review and "star" books and movies, and provide searching and cross-referencing of reviews. Often the comments from users are more specialized than what is usually available from professional reviewers.

Toward the end of his book, he does make some suggestions for regulation, both by government and industry itself. It’s not hard to advance the idea that information that companies can keep about their consumers could be regulated and safeguarded. But the real philosophical question concerns the issue of entry into the world of online publishing. It's all to easy to envision the no-no of increasing "barrier to entry" (or maintaining "standards of entry") to make the content that gets out there more credible -- and this would certainly lead to bitter, anti-libertarian political battles. It’s easy to propose tightening age requirements, and maybe making people pass a quiz showing that they understand legal concepts like defamation and copyright (ideas that now need to be taught in public school at least to high school students). Because disk space and bandwidth have become so cheap, it has been easy to offer almost unlimited space; but it’s easy to imagine limitations of exposure (in terms of bandwidth times length of contract). If network neutrality legislation is not passed, it is conceivable that ISPs and telecommunications companies will have reason to limit “vanity” publishing that doesn’t result in financial results (or, in the case of cooperatively published books, sales volumes) in a reasonable amount of time. It’s also possible to imagine rules that require third party review or accountability (the old idea with some people that “self-publishing doesn’t count”). After 9/11, one concern that I had was that individual people could attract security threats (steganography or zombie-making by hackers), and a long term legal threat is that individuals could be held much more responsible for this than they are today. It's easy to imagine requiring Internet self-publishers to post bonds to justify the indirect downstream "risk" that they pose, but that would wreak economic havoc on the entire digital media business, and I recall seeing that suggested in the book.

We used to have a world in which the control of information flow as tied to political, familial and even (especially) religious power structures. Personal advancement through the family, church or corporation was thought to make what one had to say worth hearing. (This bears on our current debate over sexuality and gay marriage. Think about how the Vatican claims that only it has the right to speak on the Teachings of the Church!) I’ve even heard people tell me that I would be much more credible if I would run for office (and guess what, ask other people for money!), and prove that I can will elections – as well as publish. But I am not interested in having other people under a political span of control. I just want to see all of the arguments made, and see us move beyond a world where what we hear from politicians is just what we want to hear out of narrow self-interest. I do understand the other side of a coin on this -- that blogging and online attention-seeking ("15 Minutes") has become a placebo for many people who are unable to have effective interpersonal relations with others on their own terms. But I want us to grow out of the picket line, petition and demonstration stage. But that is a double-edged proposition.

What seems at stake, besides professionalism and expertise, is the nature of our democracy, whether political and familial power controls the flow of information, or whether the liberating attempt to give the flow of information to the individual succeeds.

Coordinated quick review on my other domain, here.

Related post on Wikipedia "notability" here.

Electronic Frontier Foundation links on blogging and journalism:

Reporter's Privilege

Media Access

Freedom of Information Act

Update: July 1, 2007

As for "counter-amateurism" check The New York Times Magazine on July 1, 2007 with the story by Jack Hitt, "The Amateur Future of Space Travel." The magazine cover reas "The Amateur's Hour" Or why the tool-bench inventers, self-schooled savants, Internet nighthawks and all the rest of the utterly eccentric nonpros are the last, best embodiment of American independence." Welcome to October Sky and The Astronaut Farmer.

Update: March 7, 2008

The United States Air Force has decided to block access to almost all "blogs" (based on URL) except from those on "reputable professional media sites," from military personnel, on military computers, partly out of fear that airmen might compromise security with the comment features. Ironically, the site that reported the story, AOL switched com, is blocked itself. Here is the link.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Kay Hymowitz: Ready of Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future--and Ours

Author: Kay S. Hymowitz.
Title: Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Futures -- and Ours.
Publication: New York: The Free Press, 1999 ISBN 0-684-83264-6, 292 pages incl. endnotes and index; with an introduction, seven chapters, and conclusion.

I reviewed Dr. Hymowitz’s more recent book on Marriage and Caste two blog entries down, but this older book (with a cherry rainbow checkered dust jacket) warrants a bit of personal digression. But her underlying thesis, which wavers a bit during the book, requires restating. That is, as adults, we have developed a certain emotional disconnection from family life, and have difficulty accepting that "kids are kids" when we raise them; the disconnect has grown to the point that many people delay or avoid marriage altogether and are not prepared to share family responsibility (which now, in a world of fewer children, includes eldercare, a specific point that she really doesn't deal with -- but perhaps will in another book, given the demographics of today).

Two springs ago, I was substitute teaching in some middle schools, and ran into difficulties in which administrators thought I was unable to maintain discipline. In one case, I had a three day assignment with an eighth grade science class. This was in a high income school district, and I took a laid-back approach. The teacher’s lesson plans were clear, as the students were to fill out video and reading worksheets. About 85% of the students did the work without any prompting by me whatsoever (a few of them were mature enough to be allowed to take courses on their own at the senior high school a few blocks away). But a few kids presented real problems. The next day a guidance counselor appeared in the class, as well as a special education teacher, to help “protect” a couple of the female students (an offensive idea) from male taunts. The teacher had “bribed” the kids with a promise of a pizza party for the section with the best rating from the substitute, but out of maybe eighty kids, I had to write up about six of them. (Again, a number of non-problem kids were just super as to the work they handed in.)

On another middle school assignment in music, I had one eighth grade orchestra class good enough to perform an Offenbach overture for me, to rousing conclusion, another independent jazz ensemble, and an advanced sixth grade band that could lead itself. But two other six grade classes had serious problems. One student would beg me to intervene in silly teasing squabbles, and I had no idea what to do.

The Arlington school system substitute manual does encourage subs to be pro-active, to make eye contact, to greet students at the door, etc. Although I did very little grade school, I saw in elementary school classes an intimate environment, with kids seated on rugs. Sometimes kids would hug special teachers that came into the room. One time a kid in extended day asked that his shoes be tied.

Many educators write papers about how it is wrong for schools and teachers to have one standard of conduct and performance in looking at student. Yes, they say, every teacher loves to see the student who does the right thing without prompting (and many do, even in middle school; if you get an AP class, they know exactly what to do). But, they warn, don’t expect an even playing field in student performance or maturity. They speak of “progressive responsibility” and “differentiated instruction.”

All of this experience certainly fits with much of Hymowitz’s earlier book. (I have a more technical description here: She notes the loss of community in raising kids, the fear of legal repercussions, and at one point notes that the false accusations against parents and teachers may actually be encouraged by our culture of viewing kids as “little adults.” She also suggests that kids cannot grow up and learn proper judgment about things without the continuous involvement of authority figures to both install cultural and moral norms, and without the staging of learning in such a way that kids have enough skill before they are allowed to make grown-up decisions. School systems will always warn substitutes, to be sure, that some kids do need a lot of attention. On the other hand, as I have noted, more mature kids love it when a teacher facilitates rather than over-manages (I have heard the complaint of regular teachers “She treats us like babies:”). I can remember one honors chemistry class where we spent several periods Googling for information for homework problems on orbitals and electronegativity with absolutely no misuse of Internet access. (I remember another one deriving gas law equations from hyperbolas with parametric equations.)

Hymowitz, toward the end of the book, notes that the false autonomy of young people is encouraging them to delay and even avoid marriage and openness to having children. The sovereignty is often well intended, especially by women, intending on finishing education (like medical or law school) and careers. Adults (as I believe Bill Maher once pointed out on Charlie Rose) grow up unable to communicate meaningfully except with other adults with adult cognitive skills. But payback, as they say, is a b___. We were all toddlers once, and had the attention of parents, although perhaps not “attachment parenting.” Many of us, even if we have no children of our own, may face severe eldercare burdens down the road and suddenly discover our own communication gaps. As a matter of morality, even in the calculus of individualism and karma, we owe something back for what was done for us.

Conservatives like Hymowitz have a hard time talking about what it takes to socialize young adults into family and meeting the needs of others. Liberals talk about social programs, and conservatives stumble. The trite truism is that “women tame men” and get men interested in becoming fathers and connecting with children as loving parents, and as role models. One problem, though, is that you have to compete well in today’s kind of world to feel that there is any point in becoming a parent, until you have “done your own thing” first. Adolescence must last forever, it seems. My father once said, “one day, blue eyes will confuse you,” but they did not. There is no free ride in being ready to bring other life into the world and change one’s priorities and admit that it may take progeny to get your own thing done. Otherwise you can wind up unable to do your “payback” and connect with kids (or the elderly) when you are needed, and you may realized you skipped a whole duty of life.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Aaron Jason Silver: Why Gay Men Do What They Do

Author: Aaron Jason Silver
Title: Why Gay Men Do What They Do
Subtitle: An Inside Look at Gay Culture
Publication: 2006, Authorhouse, ISBN 1-4259-3875-2 , 242 pages, paper, 23 chapters
with external Foreword (of which authorship is disputed)
Website: here.

The author says that he is giving the male gay community a tough-love tongue-lashing and is a bit unpopular for it. Although in a lot of unnumbered chapters of varying length, the book essentially is in two parts: the first autobiographical, and the second being his criticism of gay male culture.

Aaron grew up, as he says, with ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and was considered “mentally ill” and borderline retarded until he seemed to mature out of it, developing a skill for foreign languages (it’s ironic that this is what the military is looking for today) and as a grown man developed a dog breeding and boarding business. Widely traveled, he spent most of his life in Michigan, and much of his criticism comes out of some bad experiences with the resort area around Saugutuck. He was not himself the stereotyped “sissy” or “nerd” in high school, but describes other friends (especially Craig) who were. He does talk about his growing awareness of the appearance of other men, and later connects this to a concept of semiotics. He describes his adult relationships, one which ended in a financial disaster which he attributes partly to a lack of legal protections for gay couples, and another where he nurtured another gay man who attempted suicide. He says he was ostracized in his community after this, and the circumstances and reasons are not completely clear. The writing style and density contribute to this. His personal story sounds a little bit like a gay soap opera like “One Life to Live” and might lend itself to being written as a stage play or movie script.

He then goes into a long list of criticisms, sometimes a bit rant-like, about contemporary gay male culture. A lot of this is, of course, familiar. I can recall gay book club discussions at a Minneapolis Barnes and Noble story about the circuit parties (especially in Palm Springs), bare-backing, drugs, preppies, and shaved chests. He goes into lookism and “body fascism” in some detail. Of course, we all know the psychological territory of this, especially on the dance floors (but not everybody who enjoys dirty dancing is “cute” to say the least). Once I made an inappropriate remark at a Pride festival to a friend who had suddenly gained a lot of weight, and got a comment back from him by email – about lookism and superficiality in our community. The author may have read David Skinner’s amusing piece in a June 1999 Weekly Standard, “Notes on the Hairless Man.” [Skinner had written that Hollywood would turn us into a nation of "men without chest hair" and that our culture was developing an unhealthy, anti-family fetish for immaturity.] Lately, the mainstream media has talked a lot about “metrosexuality” in straights, and of laser depilation salons, although, from general summertime observations, the reports on the popularity of these nouveau cosmetic “surgeries” seem to be exaggerated (a Washington Blade ad offered a “leg job” for $2495!) He also discusses social networking sites for gays, with the wide range of profiles, some of them extreme, and warns heterosexual wives that their husbands could be on them! As far as his strong (even vitriolic) criticisms of male gay cattiness, I have not encountered this as much as he did, even though I have lived actively in New York, the Washington DC area, Dallas, and Minneapolis over thirty plus years myself, and traveled almost everywhere else -- but never to Saugutuck. The experience he relates over the reaction of others to his caretaking seems shocking, since the gay community went through the buddy experience bigtime in the 1980s (when I was living in Dallas) when the AIDS epidemic erupted.

He does talk about religion and homosexuality, and mentions late in the book that scholars eliminated the Book of Thomas from the canonical Bible because of its potential political incorrectness considering the power needs of the developing Church. He also gives some history of male homosexuality in ancient cultures, especially Greece and Rome. He correctly points out that the Greeks had a political system of city-states, but actually the culture from one city to the next varied a lot (compare Sparta and Athens) as did intellectual honesty (consider the death of Socrates). The Romans built an empire, and popular misconception blames the fall of Rome on homosexuality – actually it was partly because of over-extension and partly because, possibly, of lead (Pb) in drinking water. But Roman society was often very patriarchal, and high school world history texts point out that often a man “owned” his family and could sell his kids into slavery. Aaron is correct that ancient cultures sometimes had more respect for dual psychological polarity (of the Rosenfels kind) regardless of gender.

Silver misses an opportunity, however, to delve more deeply into the real problems that the “monotheistic” straight world has with homosexuality. (Silver's own background is both Catholic and Jewish-- as was composer Gustav Mahler!) Consider that “conventional” notions of public morality surrounding “abstinence outside of marriage” are supposed to tie sexual intercourse to procreation and child rearing, and, of particular importance, taking care of others besides oneself. (That connection came through in some daily journal passages -- with religious overtones -- in the book "Four Souls" reviewed earlier this month on this blog.) To some people the social approbation for marriage – which often taxes and burdens those who don’t fit into gender-roled traditional marriage with children – is part of what makes the lifelong commitment to “the family bed” exciting and even possible. To some of the rest of us it seems sick – to need to keep other people down so that you can feel good about your own sexuality. (Another way to state this is to say, the institution of traditional marriage demands a monopoly not only on sex but on the broader meaning and experience of sexuality.) But in a sense, gay male ideas about “body fascism” tend to do the same thing, with the tables turned.

Silver made a comment on an earlier blog entry. Go here.

Correlated entry on my main site is here.

Also check my earlier review of Paul Rosenfels “Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process”, go here (middle of the page).

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Kay Hymowitz: Marriage and Caste in America

Author: Kay. S. Hymowitz
Title: Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age
Publication: Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2007; ISBN 1-56663-709-0, 179 pages, hardbound, indexed

This relatively brief book was mentioned in a recent article in The Economist, discussed here: The author is a senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to the City Journal.

It’s pretty clear from the title what her basic premise is: that African American economic performance, and the plight of the poor in general, is closely related to the breakdown of the nuclear family – of two legally married opposite sex parents – as a cultural norm. Of course, many people will disagree with over emphasis on this thesis: after all, many will say, families provided an excuse for all kinds of class-based exploitation, starting with slavery and segregation, and abusive practices of some of our capitalism today.

But she does make a strong case for her ideas. She presents plenty of studies showing that upper middle class families tend to be more stable, that kids growing up in two-parent families do better in school, and tend to have a “script” that encourages them to continue the social pattern of their parents: forming two-parent families themselves.

Her core concept is “republican marriage” – which she believes sets American society apart from Old World cultures – even Europe, with its pattern of royalty (however it started to fracture with the French Revolution as well as American). People accept marriage and family as the basic institution to raise children – and particularly value the freedom to choose their own sexual and lifetime soulmates according to their own values, but at the same time raise their kids to think for themselves, do their own thing, become self-reliant, and at the same time tolerant or accepting of others who are different. If this expectation contains a few contradictions, so be it.

The problem comes from the sexual revolution, which, of course, seemed predicated on the idea that people needed more personal expressive freedom. In the course of the revolution, people came to see relationships – whether legal marriages or not – as mainly set up for their own personal happiness. Raising children became a separate choice. When this cultural divide sifted down to lower economic classes (especially African Americans) it led to a culture of single motherhood and a view of men as peripheral in their role as parents. Of course this is harmful. Other conservatives have pointed out that the “welfare state” has contributed a lot to the breakdown of the black family.

She mentions gay marriage at various places, and complains that Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan dismiss the necessary connection between marriage and procreation. (I really don’t think that they do.) . Of course, we all have read countless conservative pieces that claim that gay marriage will redefine marriage as a procreative social institution out of existence.

Of course, however, the missing piece of all of this is indeed “equal rights.” There is a basic problem – call it mixing apples and oranges if you will – one of immiscible entities, with different (personal) expressive and psychological goals – wondering how they can ever be exactly “equal” when they use each other’s resources sometimes and then can trample on one another’s sensibilities. As a matter of logic, a utopian ideal of absolute equality and perfect environments to raise children seems unachievable. During the sexual revolution, gays (and feminist women – who have an agenda that the author sees as expired) made progress, so this contradiction seemed tolerable. But the practical reality is, there are all kinds of issues about how non-procreative people should share cross-generational responsibilities and how they can get in the way. All of this needs a complete airing, and it’s difficult to get anyone to do it. I’ve talked about it a great deal on other blog entries.

She does approach the problem a few times, however, at least as a matter of anthropology. Early on, she mentions that some cultures hold siblings legally accountable for some aspects of each other’s families (so that family responsibility is not a choice). She admits that there is a real tension between the work ethic of capitalism (including the creative work ethic of artists) and the demands of family and raising children, which puts working women in a real bind – and which European cultures today, with their pro-family policies, may well be undercutting. She probably would say, if you’re single (especially if you’re gay) and productive and creative without having kids, have at it – but the problem is, others may demand sacrifices of you without consciousness of it. Toward the ends, she writes that gay marriage debate “encapsulates the tension between the sexual revolution and the new conventionality.”

Ultimately, however, we come back to a tension between commitment to equal human rights, and recognizing the apparent reality that some critical functions of society (child rearing, particularly) need a collectively supported shell that seems immune to totally rational thinking. Or is that just an appearance?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Robert W. Merry: Sands of Empire

Author: Robert W. Merry
Title: Sands of Empire
Subtitle: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition
Publication: 2005, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-74326667-6
302 pages, indexed, with 16 page introduction
4 Parts, 13 Chapters

The author, president of Congressional Quarterly, has discussed this book on CNN recently. The basic thesis is that civilizations, with different paradigms for basic values, rise and fall, and that it is dangerous and mistaken for the West, especially the United States with its neoconservative movement and the Bush administration, to pursue a policy of imposing its values on other parts of the world, most of all the Islamic world.

The early chapters of the book discuss the “Progress Ideal,” relating from the End of History thesis of Francis Fukuyama, which somewhat relates to the “World is flat” idea of Thomas Friedman. He gives many examples of foreign policy, back to World War I, where misapplication of this idea has led to tragedy, including the idea that the Balkan settlement even helped radical Islam get a launching pad.

He comes around to discussing Islam, both the virtuous idealism of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, but moreover the way Islam developed on top of “Magian” tribal culture in the Middle East. He depicts this culture as based on tribal and kinship values called asabiyya, with made and female honor concepts called sharaf and ird. Islam structured this into a theology that had logical explanations as to how people in this kind of culture should behave, and how these rules came from God or Allah. But really all religions must do this kind of thing, and that includes Christianity. But people in this culture became very dependent on the idea that religious values dictate everything else so that separation of church and state as a westerner understands it seems contradictory.

Western values have, in this view, evolved into a kind of hyper-individualism, where the individual maps out his own course in life, regardless of religious or familial ties. The controlling factor is a secular system of law, and equal protection of the law to all people. It’s easy to see how this cultural develop leaves a lot of people “exposed.” Tribal cultures are very good at protecting individual members from their own “weaknesses,” at the risk of continual war with other competing tribes for resources. Likewise, authoritarian secular cultures (even communism) can claim some success at this. But the “emancipation” of the individual from the controlling emphasis of the family is a relatively recent development even in western culture, and is particularly problematic with some parts of American culture, especially evangelical Christianity, which sees hyper-individualism as an assault on the protective and character-building values of the family, and an invitation for marginalized individuals (including gays, often enough) to desert their families. Therefore, I don’t think that, at a psychological level, that the schism between civilizations (which he builds up as a development following the collapse of communism) is as simple as he makes it look. He is right, however, that radical Islam has used the asymmetry associated with individual freedom (like publishing on the Internet) to promote its own tribal and “collectivist” ideology, and that is a bit of a paradox.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Four Souls: A Worldwide Odyssey in Search of the Epic Life

Authors: Trey Sklar; Jedd Medefind; Mike Peterson, Matt Kronberg,:
Title: Four Souls:
Subtitle: (unofficial) A Worldwide Odyssey in Search of the Epic Life.
Publication: Nashville, W. Publishing / Thomas Nelson, 2001
Description: ISBN 0-385-72010-61, 363 pgs, aper.
Website: http://www.foursoulsthebook.com

The four authors are young men who go on a round-the-world trip to some of the earth’s most troubled spots. They raised money from friends and performed service (ranging from housing construction to working with teens) at their multiple locations. The spirit is much like that of church groups helping after Hurricane Katrina or Jimmy Carter’s call for “service” at a Habitat for Humanity event at the Washington Cathedral in the 90s.

The journey covered Mexico, Guatemala, Russia (including the far north, to Archangelsk), Egypt, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The books contains many daily journals by each of the four men, along with many black-and-white thumbnail-like photos.

It’s easy to imagine this becoming a spectacular, widescreen docudrama motion picture. Would a company like Fox Faith be game? Imagine doing all filming on location, recreating the journey in a post 9/11 world (the book was written just before the tragedy), because the book makes so many pertinent observations about the history of each region visited. For example, the authors talk about the poverty of the modern day Maya, descendants of a great civilization that failed. (Remember Mel Gibson and Apocalypto.) There are valid historical questions about the moral responsibility for the state of modern day Latino civilization (which, as they point out, has its own hidden racism).

They make many observations about Islam, and the fact that in Islamic countries people are registered by the religion into which they are born, and still discriminated against if they convert to Islam. One of the men is complemented about his apparently thick "Islamic" beard.

The book, of course, is infused with a lot of reflection about Christianity, more than is usually “appropriate” in most “literary” writing. The authors seem to take the point of view that faith is something either experiences or one does not, and it is beyond the usual intellectual ruminations that lead to doubt, often well-founded with scientific literacy. Christianity lays out rules for how people should live (and this includes the rules about abstinence and marriage) so that people may be “free” within the boundaries created by observing these rules. But the “rules” are related to an unseen purpose about God’s plans for people collectively, rather than individually – that (the “natural law” problem) seems to be the view of the authors. Of course, many other faiths (including Islam) make a similar claim (and one can go one about the philosophical meaning of Salvation by Grace alone).

The modern individualist, however, sees morality in terms of personal responsibility. Science takes the position that people are born with different capacities and what is “natural” is much more complicated than the view usually offered by religion. People are born with different amounts of ability, and such is affected by environmental circumstances, so the individual sharing of burdens and hardships and interpersonal accountability to others (as in marriage or other social arrangements) becomes a moral question even for individualism. (They give examples of the behavior that comes from the indignation associated with collective injustice and extreme poverty, such as constant car-jackings in South Africa.) Such considerations lead to the idea that service (as Jimmy Carter would describe it) is a good thing. The authors give as a deeper example the vow of poverty and service perspective (without concern for efficiency) of people like Mother Theresa. From a deeper perspective of commitment to God, the intellectual and utilitarian introspection of "good works" would seem, in the world of these authors, to disrupt their very experience of their own faith.

Zach Hunter mentions this book briefly in his own book (May 22 entry on this blog).

More quotes at my other review site, here.


Here is a missionary blog from Guatemala Appropriate Technology by Dan Divelbiss (blog and slide show, many engineering photos). Interesting is his comment about respiratory disease in poor rural population associated with unsafe indoor cooking practices, something no one in richer living circumstances in the West would think of. The name of the host site is "God Loves: Mobilizing the Body of Christ into the World: Mission Impact."

On June 27, 2007 "CNN Heroes" added a video about Ryan Hreljac, who founded Ryan's Well Foundation to help bring drinking water to Uganda. The link is this.
Matt Damon was reported in the broadcast (July 7) to have helped start H2OAfrica, link here.

A similar hero is Aaron Jackson, who founded a project to deworm children and clean the water in Haiti. CNN's reference is here (broadcast Sept. 22, 2007).

Update: March 11, 2008

The DC Environmental Film Festival has an event at National Geographic March 12, and here is the write-up of U.S. Wash-in-Schools Initiative, here (pdf) and here (Water Advocates).

Check also "Clean Water for Haiti" in the DC Green Film Forum, review link here.

For a recent (2008) link on Oprah's related "O Amabassadors" project, here.
Look also at Doc Henley's "Wine to Water", reported on CNN May 2, 2009.