Wednesday, December 20, 2017

1 Peter 1:13

Peter starts his first letter in the New Testament by consoling his readers. Being a Christian wasn’t easy in those days. Most of the first Christians were Jews, and they had to leave behind their friends and family to practice their new religion. Many had been driven from their homes and forced into exile. It was enough to make anyone bitter. Peter encourages them not to dwell on the past, and to hold onto the promises of the gospel instead. They had to live out their faith when times were tough.

But what did that look like practically? How should their beliefs impact their daily lives? What did being a Christian really mean? Peter dives into those questions in the next section of the letter.
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.  
- 1 Peter 1:13 
We have a hard time understanding what it means to worship Jesus Christ because we think of worship as something that only happens in a church on Sunday morning. Human beings are wired to worship. We are worshipping something each and every day, and in every decision we make. It doesn’t have to be God. Worshipping is treating something like a god. You treat something like a god when you put your hope in it, when your relationship with it is the most important thing in your life, and when you build your identity on it.

Everyone puts their hope in something. Just ask yourself: what makes me a worthwhile person? Or, what has to happen for me to become a worthwhile person? What defines you as a human being? We all have an answer. We all need an identity.

Before I became a Christian, work was my god. I loved my job, and how it made me feel. People were impressed when I told them what I did. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment, like I had done something with my life. No matter what else was going on, I could fall back on my job. It gave me security. Everyone needs to make a living, but it was more than that. My job was my identity. I didn’t know what I would be without it. When you identify as something, you give it power over you. You feel like you can’t lose it. I treated work like a matter of life and death. I was constantly worrying about what I would write, whether it would be good enough, and whether people would like it. 

Anxiety comes from worrying about things we can’t control, and that’s what I spent most of my time doing. I was hardly the only one. The numbers from this New York Times article are staggering:
In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase -- to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 -- of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA began asking incoming college freshman if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent. Those numbers -- combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they returned to school each fall -- came as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students. 
There are a million reasons for the rise of anxiety, but the underlying sources is the same. We don’t give kids stable identities. They are terrified of failure because they think failure defines who they are as people. I thought this comment from the teenager profiled in the New York Times piece was particularly revealing:
He had already spent weeks challenging his own thinking, which often persuaded him that if he failed a single quiz at school, “then I’ll get a bad grade in the class, I won’t get into the college I want, I won’t get a good job and I’ll be a total failure.” 
One of the most liberating moments in my life came a few months after I became a Christian. I was praying for someone who was struggling after breaking up with his girlfriend. I could see what was happening because it’s always easier to diagnose someone else’s problems. He had built his identity on that relationship. Dating her had given him purpose in his life. I told him he was defined by his relationship with Jesus Christ, not any human being. At that moment, I realized I saw work the way he saw his ex-girlfriend. If I got fired, I would be exactly where he was.

I had to change the way I saw myself. My life still had meaning if I got fired, and I didn’t make it as a writer. It still had meaning if I didn’t have a cool job. It had meaning if I didn’t have one at all. I wasn’t a writer who practiced Christianity. I was a Christian who happened to write. I had spent all my life pushing myself to be successful, but I didn’t have to anymore. I was free.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. 
-- Matthew 7:24-27 
If your house is built on sand, you should be anxious. When you base your identity on how much money you have, and how far you advance in your career, you are basing your view of yourself on something that can be taken away from you at any time. You can get fired. Your job can be downsized. Your savings can be wiped out in the stock market. There are no guarantees, no matter how hard you work. The things you were counting on to get you through tough times may not be there when you need them. How could you not worry?
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  
-- Matthew 6:19-21 
There’s a big difference between deciding something with your head, and believing it with your heart. There are still days where I get my self-worth from my job, and I start comparing myself to other people. One of the most challenging things I’ve felt like I had to pray for recently is for Kevin O’Connor, one of the other basketball writers at The Ringer, to be more successful than me. I used to be really competitive with other writers. I would read their articles and look for things I could have done better instead of trying to learn from them. I didn’t want anyone else to be better than me because I got security from the idea that I was the best. When your identity is grounded in Christ, you don’t have to be better than other people to feel good about yourself. You can build people up instead of trying to tear them down.

There are so many negative habits and mindsets that I’ve had to unlearn as I’ve walked with God. That’s why praying and spending time with God every day is so important. Building a house takes time, and you have to partner with God at every step. That’s what Peter is telling his readers. Set your hope in Jesus. Define yourself by your relationship to him. Build your house on a rock.

Monday, November 27, 2017

1 Peter 1:1-11

First Peter was written on the eve of war. It had been more than 30 years since the events of the Gospels, and Christians were being hunted down left and right. The other Jews thought they were heretics, while the Romans thought they were all troublemakers. Israel was a Roman province, and revolution was in the air. The first Christians couldn’t stay, but they had nowhere to go. They had enemies behind them and enemies in front of them, and no friends on either side.

Peter writes “to the exiles scattered throughout the [Roman] provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia [modern-day Turkey]” (1 Peter 1:1). He starts by reminding them that what they lost didn’t compare to what they gained:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.  
- 1 Peter 1:3-4 

Peter is trying to separate politics and religion in the minds of his people. The deliverance they received was not what they were expecting. They grew up believing the Messiah would return Israel to the days of David and Solomon, when they were one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Middle East. The Jews were waiting for their version of Julius Caesar, and their desire for power blinded them. No political victory is ever permanent. Nations rise to the top, but they don’t stay there forever. Israel had been ruled by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians before the Romans, and they would be ruled by many others after. It didn’t matter who the king was anymore. Jesus hadn’t come to play the game of thrones. He had come to end it.

It’s a lesson Americans need to learn. Like the Israelites, we have always thought we had a special destiny. We were taught that the course of history had been building to this moment, when America spread democracy, liberty and tolerance to people in every corner of the globe. America is the new Rome. We treat the President in much the same way as the Romans treated the Emperor, and we have convinced ourselves that the fate of mankind is in the balance every four years. Our elections don’t just decide which political party controls the federal bureaucracy in Washington D.C. The American people had been given a solemn responsibility to pick the leader of the free world.

The entire thing is a religious spectacle. The ballot box is the church, and the politicians are the preachers. When it is all over, the nation comes together and listens to a sermon from the new President. This is from George W. Bush’s inaugural address in 2004:
America’s vital interests and deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time. 
There was less talk of God when Barack Obama won in 2008, but the overall message remained. His speech on Election Night was a call for spiritual revival:
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world -- our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down -- we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security -- we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright -- tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope. 
I was an organizer for the Obama campaign in the summer of 2008. Before we started, we had a three-day orientation where we got a crash course in campaign strategy. The goal was to contact, either on the phone or in person, every person in every battleground state whom their database indicated was a potential voter. The only way to do that was with an army of volunteers. Our job was to find and train them. To get them to devote months of their lives for no pay, we had to offer them more than politics. We had to offer a purpose. It was a lot like being a missionary. We had to show people how we were changed by working in the campaign. We spent those three days crafting our stories. How had Barack come into our lives? How had he touched us?

A presidential campaign has to inspire voters, and turn the candidate into a symbol of something greater than themselves. Electing Obama was supposed to be the next step in America’s journey towards racial equality. Hillary Clinton’s election was sold the same way, except for women. Instead, a country raised on TV and movies found out that life doesn’t always turn out like it does on the big screen. Election Night was a profound shock to half of the country. The foundations of their belief system were challenged. How could something like this be happening in 2016? Maybe history went in more than one direction. Maybe progress wasn’t inevitable. Maybe the moral arc of the universe was even longer than we thought. Maybe it didn’t exist at all.

Multiply that despair one hundred fold. That’s how the Israelites felt when their rebellion was crushed by the Romans, a few years after Peter’s letter was written. Caligula had demanded the Jews worship him like a god, and they were certain God would destroy the Roman armies who tried to make them. Surely He would show them favor if they were fighting in His name? The war lasted for seven years, but the outcome was never really in doubt. The Romans had built the most fearsome military machine in human history. Over a million Jews were killed for a cause that was doomed from the beginning. When it was over, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the center of their religious and political life, was razed to the ground. The Romans began ethnically cleansing Israel and re-settling the Jews throughout their Empire. They would not regain political control of the Promised Land for almost 2,000 years.

Peter didn’t want Christians putting their hope in war. None of it mattered anyway, not in the big picture:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘all people are like grass, and all the glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’  
- 1 Peter 1:23-24 
The quote is from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. One way or another, Peter is right. Either Judgment Day is coming, humans will wipe ourselves out, or the sun will go supernova. Even if we escape to the stars, they will eventually burn out too. If this life is all there is, nothing is forever. However, if it is only a prelude to something greater, we can see it in a new light.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
- 1 Peter 1:6 
This is where Peter puts theory to practice. He is asking these people to rejoice after they had been exiled, their lives had been destroyed, and with the fear of persecution hanging over their head. The only way it makes sense if they really believed God became a human being, walked the Earth and died for their sins.  It was the perfect opportunity to live out the gospel. If the first Christians really had something better waiting for them on the other side, even exile wasn’t so bad. And if they were joyful and thankful in desperate circumstances, their new neighbors would notice. Their actions had to align with their words, or their words wouldn’t mean anything.
These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  
- 1 Peter 1:7 
You don’t need faith as much when things are going well. It becomes real when you have to depend on it. The Jews weren’t looking for the Messiah in the Golden Age of Israel, when Solomon was king. God sent Jesus when He knew people would listen. Once they heard, He gave them a push out the door. The trauma of exile and persecution, and watching their homeland be destroyed by the Romans, is what shaped Christianity into a global religion. The first Christians couldn’t put their faith in politics. They had been molded into something new.

That is where the analogy to gold comes from. Gold is not pure when it comes out of the ground. It needs to be refined. Modern jewelers use chemicals to remove the other elements that have been mixed in. In Biblical times, they held the gold over a furnace and let the flames strip the imperfections from the metal. Going through fire is what makes gold beautiful. The analogy is simple. We are the gold, the flames are our trials, and God is the craftsman. We can trust God as we go through our trials because He is using them to craft us into something beautiful. The flames are part of the process. They aren’t just happening for no reason. There’s a greater purpose behind them.

The end result is something worth far more than gold. Like everything else in this world, gold perishes. Human beings are created in the image of God, and our souls are eternal. Jesus once asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) The answer is nothing. Our souls will last a lot longer. God gets more glory from the life of one man than from the rest of His creation combined.

Horatio Spafford wrote the hymn “It Is Well” when he was traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to see his wife, who had survived a shipwreck that killed their four daughters. The lyrics came to him as he passed the spot where they died:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way /
When sorrows like sea billows roll /
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know /
It is well, it is well, with my soul. 
Spafford could hold onto three promises in the face of unimaginable tragedy: his daughters were in a better place, he would see them again, and God would use their death for good. His life is a beautiful example of how Christians can respond to loss. He was a prominent lawyer in Chicago before the tragedy. After he re-united with his wife, they devoted themselves to their faith, had three more kids and moved to Jerusalem, where they founded a ministry that helped people of all religious backgrounds. They ran soup kitchens, orphanages and hospitals, and they were a critical part of relief efforts during World War I. The communal residence where they lived became a symbol of religious reconciliation. After their death, a hotel was built there, and that is where the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO were first negotiated.
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  
- 1 Peter 1:8-9 
Peter is writing to the second generation of Christians, people who had not seen Jesus themselves or witnessed his miracles. They had learned their faith from people like Peter who had. He had watched Jesus turn water into wine, raise men from the dead and feed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread. And yet, despite everything he saw, he still denied knowing Jesus three times before the crucifixion. Peter knew what these people were going through because he had gone through it himself.

Before he was a disciple, Peter was an uneducated fisherman. Some historians believe he didn’t actually write this letter because of how well it was written. Whoever wrote it had an excellent command of the Greek language, as well as a clear understanding of formal philosophy and logic. It’s as if a high-school dropout wrote a law review article. However, just because Peter shouldn’t have been able to write it doesn’t mean he didn’t. His lack of education was the whole point. Jesus purposely chose common men to spread his message. He didn’t want people thinking there was something special about them. It made what they did even more impressive.
When the [Jewish High Council] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took that these men had been with Jesus.  
- Acts 4:13 
Peter starts the Bible as a student and ends it as a teacher. Jesus spent most of his ministry personally teaching his 12 disciples. He knew that the spending time with someone is the best way to change their life. The idea was that the disciples would pay it forward. The power of exponential growth did the rest. Peter had disciples, and his disciples had disciples of their own, and the cycle has continued all the way to the present. Every Christian is a link in a chain that goes back 2,000 years. When I became a Christian, an older believer began a Bible study with me. The same thing happened to him, and to the guy who taught him. Faith is a torch passed down from one generation to the next.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.  
- 1 Peter 1:11 
Prophecy was a huge part of early Christianity. When Peter and the other apostles preached in the synagogues, they weren’t just asking people to take them on faith. They were citing Scripture to prove that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah. God had given His people the clues to figure out whether or not Jesus was telling the truth. He wasn’t just going to send His son into the world without the context necessary for people to understand what was happening. The whole thing had to be set up. Take a look at this prophecy from Isaiah, which was written 700 hundred years before Jesus:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed by our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  
- Isaiah 53:4-6 
It’s hard for modern Americans to wrap our heads around prophecies. They seem like something out of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, not real life. Jason Concepcion, my colleague at The Ringer, wrote a beautiful column about the way fantasy stories appeal to a deep need in the human heart:
Think of Harry Potter's story without magic: A child—a baby, really—loses his parents to a car accident. Scarred, physically and psychologically, he goes to live with distant relatives. Resentful of the burden his care puts on them, they bully and ignore him. He sleeps in a storage space filled with spiders under the stairs. Every day, he watches the mail carrier bring in the mail, and he imagines that one of those letters would be for him, calling him away to someplace better, and none of them ever do. Gradually, a darkness, which has always been there inside of him, which he can't express and doesn't understand, grows. And one day, he just decides to walk into the woods, intent on ending his own life. Pulls his jacket tight about him and thinks about his parents. Wonders what they would say if they were there with him now.  
Or think about Game of Thrones without the magic. A boy grows up, never knowing his mother. His father's wife hates him. Desperate for a place to call home and to make his father proud he joins the military. When he's gone, his father and half brother are murdered. An orphan, a refugee from war, on the streets in a foreign land, is sold to a stranger like a piece of furniture by her own brother. 
The Christmas story starts like a fairy tale. A child is born in a manger. His parents are too poor to afford a room at the inn. He is the son of the true king, but he is raised by a carpenter. He grows up and becomes a preacher who challenges the pretender to the throne. His disciples were expecting a triumphant ending, where the Messiah was crowned as the rightful king. Instead, the story takes an unexpected turn. Jesus is betrayed by one of his closest friends. His followers abandon him. He is publicly executed, and he becomes a laughingstock as he dies on the cross. His revolution had failed in humiliating fashion. His story should have ended right there.
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. 
- Isaiah 49:6 
When this prophecy was written, the Jews were a conquered people being sent into exile in Babylon. It’s a miracle they survived at all. The vast majority of tribes in their position didn’t. The Middle East was the crossroads of the ancient world, and the mighty empires who clashed over it didn’t leave many traces of the people they conquered. Most disappeared from the historical record. The only reason we know about the Canaanites and the Philistines is because they appear in the Bible. Their story ended long ago. There is no modern religion that worships Baal, the god of the Philistines. The Jews were told their God would spread His salvation to the ends of the Earth, and that's exactly what happened. Was that luck? Or providence?

A few years after this letter was written, Peter was killed by the Roman authorities, just like Jesus. He was writing to a few thousand people scattered throughout the Empire. They were the persecuted religious minority of a persecuted religious minority. There was nothing special about them. There was no reason to think Christianity would survive. Unlike Moses and Mohammed, Jesus didn’t die at the head of an army.  He was barely mentioned in the contemporary records. So how did a man who died penniless and alone become the most influential person in human history? And why does his life mirror so many prophecies written hundreds of years before his time? The simplest answer is that we are living inside of a fantasy story. The only thing the first Christians needed was faith. Everything else would take care of itself.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Best Of Father Brown

All detective stories work on two levels. The first is within the story itself. The detective tries to solve the crime, while the criminal tries to conceal it. The second is how the story is read. The reader is in the role of the detective, and the author is the criminal. A fine balance has to be maintained. Make the mystery too easy and it is boring. Too complex and people give up. The best authors lead the reader along by the nose. They drop just enough clues to keep the reader on the path without letting them figure out where it leads. The Best of Father Brown, like any good mystery, works on multiple levels. G.K. Chesterton isn’t just writing crime stories. He’s commenting on the way they work, and why they are so appealing to the human psyche.

Chesterton was a writer in 19th century England. Father Brown, his most famous character, stands in opposition to the other great fictional detectives of the time. He is a small and unassuming Catholic priest without the larger than life quirks of his peers. There is no larger storyline that connects his investigations. He is not engaged in an epic battle with an arch-nemesis, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. As a detective, his greatest skills are empathy and humility. In The Secret of Father Brown, which doubles as a director’s commentary from Chesterton, Brown tells an interviewer that he solves crimes by thinking like a criminal. Everyone has the capacity for evil inside of them. Even the worst criminals aren’t hard to understand. They are just like us. It doesn’t take a genius to figure them out. Just someone who knows themselves.

The other detectives in the Father Brown stories are too clever for their own good. Dr. Orion Hood, the “eminent criminologist and specialist in moral disorders” in The Absence of Mr. Glass, is a send-up of Holmes. Near the end of the story, Hood creates an elaborate explanation out of a few fragmentary clues to solve a murder that never happened. What was supposed to be the great reveal turns out to be a big joke. “You are a great poet! You have called an uncreated being out of the void,” Brown laughs as he tells Hood. “How much more godlike than if you had only ferreted out the mere facts! Indeed, the mere facts are rather commonplace and comic by comparison.” The same thing happens in The Mistake of The Machine, where Brown’s friend Flambeau, the Watson figure in many of his stories, arrests the man he thought he was the victim.

Brown lives by Occam’s Razor. He looks for the simplest explanation, not the most complicated. The first question he asks is why someone would want to kill the victim, or steal the treasure. The second is what would be the easiest way for them to do it. The trick is looking beyond the most attention grabbing clues. Brown solves the mystery of The Secret Garden by asking why someone would cut the head off his victim. The killer is not a psychopathic genius whose motivations are tied to a Freudian explanation from his childhood. He has an agenda anyone can relate too. His brutality has a purpose.

Chesterton’s genius comes in creating simple answers to complex questions.
“A crime is like any other work of art. Don’t look surprised; crimes are by no means the only works of art that come from an infernal workshop. But every work of art, divine or diabolic, has one indispensable mark — I mean, that the center of it is simple, however much the fulfillment may be complicated.” 
Most of his stories present the reader with a seemingly unsolvable paradox. A theft occurs in a building with only one way in and out, and every person inside accounted for. A woman is murdered in a closed passageway, and each of the other people in it describes the murderer as looking completely different. Someone sneaks past a building being guarded on all sides, with none of the guards the wiser. The psychological principle of inattentional blindness runs through most of Chesterton's work.

Humans can only pay attention to so many things at once. Count the number of passes the white team makes in the video and you will miss the truly bizarre thing happening. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to see what’s right in front of your eyes. The answer to a Father Brown mystery is often in the first page. Chesterton creates a mystery box and hands you the key to open it. Then he puts on a huge show to make you forget you have it.
A thing can sometimes be too close to be seen, as, for instance, a man cannot see himself. There was a man who had a fly in his eye when he looked through the telescope, and he discovered there was a most incredible dragon in the moon. And I am told that if a man hears the exact reproduction of his own voice it sounds like the voice of a stranger. In the same way, if anything is right in the foreground of our life we hardly see it, and if we did we might think it quite odd. 
The mystical is one of his favorite ways to mislead the reader. A dog that barks during a murder doesn’t have supernatural knowledge of the murderer’s identity. The fact that he was barking, though, is the clue Father Brown uses to solve the crime. A man dressed up like an Arabian sorcerer uses the appearance of the supernatural to disguise a basic theft. A curse passed down seven generations doesn’t murder the heir to an estate, but the idea of the curse leads Father Brown to the killer. Brown doesn’t believe in either mysticism or materialism. There are spiritual forces in the world, but we still have free will. A curse only has the power we give it. 

Chesterton was commenting on the times he lived in. The seemingly rational society of Victorian England, which was in the process of shedding its ancestral faith, was producing increasingly irrational people:
People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and skepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition. It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab. 
Humans are a storytelling animal. We are wired to create larger explanations out of unconnected events. We are all detectives in the great mystery of life. Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the point of it all? Every human society comes up with answers to these questions. The highest value in our society is personal liberty. Everyone is free to come up with an answer that works for them, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. As Anthony Kennedy, the most influential justice in the Supreme Court, wrote in a famous case from the early 1990s: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

So how do we define our concept of existence? Science promises us answers, but all it does is create more questions. It's hard to know where the line between fact and fiction is in string theory. Many of the greatest minds of our day think we are living in a giant simulation. If we are in a simulation, who is doing the simulating? And have they left us any clues as to why? We have circled all the way back to the beginning. Maybe the answer to our questions isn’t that complicated. Maybe it was right in front of us the whole time.
For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.  
- Romans 1:20-22 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Reckoning

What’s good for General Motors is good for America. The saying summed up the 20th century when the US, and its car industry, ruled the world. The invention of the car in Detroit and the discovery of oil in Texas changed the country forever, both in terms of its culture and economy. Henry Ford created the assembly line, and the assembly line created modern America. Ford, along with GM and Chrysler, was a shared monopoly, divvying up the car industry between them. However, within the span of two generations, the Big Three went from leading the world to barely staying afloat. Detroit became a graveyard, while the American manufacturing base hollowed out. The rapid rise and even faster fall of Ford is a story worthy of Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. David Halberstam tells it in The Reckoning, a book written in 1986 that is still relevant today.

Halberstam parallels Ford’s decline with the rise of Nissan, one of the leaders of the Japanese car invasion of the 1970s. Japan and the US had been closely linked ever since American warships steamed into a Japanese harbor in 1854 and opened the islands to foreign trade. After 220 years of isolation, the Japanese had to quickly re-invent themselves to become a modern industrial power. They eventually became strong enough to challenge the US for control of the Pacific in World War II. It wasn’t a fair fight. They were a middleweight going up against a heavyweight. Once we survived their initial blow, there was only one way it could end. After the war, the Japanese were disarmed, and their islands came under the US military umbrella. We provided security and dictated how their economy would be rebuilt. The irony is the pro-corporate reforms we initiated crushed their labor movement, giving their car companies a huge advantage when competing with their American counterparts. Nissan controlled labor costs in a way Ford never could.

Japan is more hierarchical than the US. Obeying authority is the ultimate good. That’s how life works when so many people are crammed into a small land mass without many natural resources. The only advantage the Japanese have is their ability to work together. Everything is centralized. The International Bank of Japan and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry are more powerful than their equivalents in the US. Katsuji Kawamata, the head of Nissan for more than 30 years, came from the IBJ. The Japanese built their car industry almost from scratch after WWII. They learned everything they could from their conquerors. Hierarchical societies produce good students. Americans ignored in their own country, like quality control expert Edwards Deming, were revered in Japan and given free run to try their ideas.

No one in the US cared about car quality. They were making too much money to bother. The US was the only industrial power untouched by WWII, so no other country could compete economically. The war was a triumph of production and logistics. The Allies controlled 86% of the world’s oil. It was only a matter of time before the sheer number of ships, tanks and planes overwhelmed their enemies. The brains of the war effort weren’t the generals. It was the statisticians and analysts who ensured the continent-wide industrial machine ran at max efficiency. Modern analytics were born in the Pentagon. After the war, Robert McNamara and men like him brought systems analysis to the private sector. McNamara eventually became the head of Ford, before running the Vietnam War as LBJ’s Secretary of Defense.

The disputes between McNamara and the car people at Ford read like a mid-20th century version of the ones between the stat guys and scouts in Moneyball. There was an enormous class divide between the two groups. The car people were blue collar men who came up through the company. The analysts came from the best schools in the country. They didn’t have a technological background, but they didn’t need it. The numbers told them money was being left on the table. They were the first generation of consultants. They streamlined the manufacturing process and squeezed consumers for every dollar. Why build a car to last 20 years, when you could build one that broke in five and forced people to buy a new one? Why put money in research and development when people would buy whatever they put out?
So there were more people than ever from the business schools, and where they once had only slide rules for their calculations, now they had computers, which greatly increased their capacity to quantify any concept and to put those numbers to use. Computers were a powerful new weapon for the finance people. Every year now they had great access to financial detail and greater skill in using that detail within the company. With the coming of computers, the financial people were like prophets armed. 
The analysts told the owners what they wanted to hear. Henry Ford II, the grandson of the company’s founder, had taken Ford public after WWII. It made the family incredibly wealthy, but it also tied their fortunes to the stock market. The business changed. Ford went from selling cars to selling stocks. The goal was maximizing short-term revenue. They had to impress Wall Street with quarterly profit numbers. There was no pressure to innovate. The barriers for entry were too high for new domestic companies to compete. GM set the market. Ford and Chrysler followed. Follow the pecking order and they would all get rich.

The Big Three were slaves to the numbers. When the numbers didn’t correspond with reality, they questioned reality, not the numbers. Their researchers knew the tastes of their consumers were changing, but the bosses weren’t listening. They couldn’t. Their business model was built for a world where the size of your car determined your social status. That changed for the generation who grew up after the war. The first yuppies were more sophisticated than their parents. They were born with money, and they signalled status through food, lifestyle and politics, not consumption. A forward-thinking company would have tried to change, but the Big Three needed the higher profit margins that came from bigger cars. The executives had annual bonuses, and they had negotiated generously with the UAW knowing they could pass on the costs to the consumer. Their cars were getting worse and more expensive at the same time. Something had to give.

The worldwide supply of oil gave in the 1970s. The economic boom of the 20th century was built on cheap oil. Technological advancements came from the labor-saving power of machines, and the machines ran on oil. The Japanese didn’t have as much, so they used it more efficiently than the Americans. In 1973, OPEC, a cartel of the world’s biggest oil producers, created a panic when they restricted supply. With prices rising and lines stretching around the block at every gas station in the country, US consumers began focusing on mileage. Toyota and Nissan were ready to pounce. Domestic competition in Japan was much fiercer than in the States. It was natural selection 101. Companies fighting for their lives make better cars than ones protected from competition. The Japanese pushing their way into the US car market was a stark reversal of what happened in 1854. It was like introducing an invasive species to an environment where they had no natural predators. The Big Three couldn’t react fast enough to how the market was changing.

What makes the book so interesting is that it also tells the story from the perspective of the Japanese. From the American point of view in the 1980s, they appeared to be an unbeatable industrial machine. However, there was just as much infighting and dysfunction at their companies. They just did a better job of hiding it. The power struggle between Takashi Isihara and Ichiro Shioji at Nissan was almost a carbon copy of the one between Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca at Ford. Yutaka Katayama, the trailblazing executive who popularized Nissan in the US, was resented by his bosses for his success. Not even being right could save him from being marginalized. The same thing happened to Hal Sperlich, the chief architect of the Ford Mustang and Chrysler Minivan. Once an organization gets large enough, advancement and survival within it depends on playing politics. It’s Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics in action: The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

The human heart is flawed. Our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses, and every revolution contains the seeds of its own destruction. That was the story in the US just as much as it was in Japan. The more successful people get, the more arrogant they become. By the end of his life, Henry Ford had nearly destroyed the company he founded. After being pushed out of Ford, Iacocca took over Chrysler and slowly turned into everything he hated about Henry Ford II, who was essentially Bruce Wayne without Batman. The second generation of Japanese factory workers, just like their US counterparts, didn’t want to follow their parents into such demanding jobs. The final few chapters of the book show Korea doing to Japan what Japan did to the US. Nothing stays on top forever. It’s worth remembering in an era where a few companies control the online economy. Apple and Google will get fat and lazy, just like Ford and Nissan. What comes up must come down.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plan and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.  
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Forge Of Christendom

No one talks about the Middle Ages. In the popular imagination, the thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance were a dark period in European history, where civilization was in decline, society stagnated and people were blinded by ignorance and superstition. However, history is never as simple as it appears, and the people living through that era certainly didn’t feel like they were in uneventful times. You can draw a direct line between what happened at the turn of the first millennium and the state of the world today. Everything is connected: skip over huge portions in the history of any country and you can’t expect to have all the necessary information to understand what is going on. In The Forge of Christendom, Tom Holland does a brilliant job of making an obscure section of history come alive, making us re-assess what we think we know in the process.

The first thing he points out is that Rome never really fell, at least not in the 400s. By the time Alaric the Great sacked the actual city of Rome in 410, it was a relative backwater that didn’t even rule Italy, much less the Empire. The regional capital was in Ravenna, two hundred miles north, while the imperial capital had long since moved to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans, and their capital was the biggest and most important city in the Mediterranean, if not the entire world. Their power fluctuated, but their strategic location, as well as their wealth, meant they were a major player internationally until the city finally fell in 1453. Rome and Persia had been rivals since the days of Julius Caesar, and the Crusades were just one chapter in the struggle between the two great civilizations.

Our system of dating itself comes from this time period. People started thinking about history in terms of AD and BC in the 800s, when Charlemagne popularized the Christian calendar to help unify his newly conquered realm. Charlemagne was the first medieval king worthy of the name, and the modern-day borders of France and Germany stem from how his empire was divided up between his sons after his death. After subduing most of the Western Europe, he needed to legitimize his rule, so he bartered with the Pope to crown him the Holy Roman Emperor. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: the Pope asserted his authority over the other bishops in the Western Church, and established the precedent that rulers needed his blessing.

The running theme through the book is the conflict between the church and state in the West leading up to its resolution in 1073, when Henry IV kneeled before Pope Gregory VII and asked for forgiveness. There was no such separation in the East, either in the Eastern Orthodox church or the Islamic world, where power was centralized and religious leaders served at the pleasure of the king. The difference in the West was that the Bishops of Rome used their connection to the Apostle Peter, who lead the church in Rome before he was killed in the 60s, to elevate themselves over the rest of the Catholic church and turn the city into a religious capital. However, they never had the political power to go with it. The dominant tribes - the Franks, Germans and Normans - in the West were all Northern, and they had uneasy relationships with the Papacy. A particularly strong king, or pope, might hold sway for awhile, but the two offices were never combined in the way they were out East.

The Normans (aka the Northerners) were the descendants of Vikings who settled throughout Europe. They saw how Christianity could be useful: the church’s network of bishops provided a bureaucratic framework through which they could rule, while the religion gave them a reason to pillage new lands, since they were “bringing Christ” to the natives. Norman kings had to create wealth for their followers, so there was a constant push to expand into new territory, whether it was Iceland, Greenland, England or Russia. The name Russia came from the word “Rus”, which meant “rowing” in the language of the original inhabitants, because the Normans established a foothold in Russia by rowing down the Volga and Danube Rivers. Every king wanted Norman mercenaries: they fought on both sides of most major conflicts. The Byzantine Emperor had an entire regiment of them as a Praetorian Guard.

The European world was very interconnected. The peasants might not have moved around much, but the elites thought globally. One of the most memorable characters from the book is Harald the Varangian, a Norman captain who ventured abroad to win a fortune and marry a Russian princess. He cut a swath through Constantinople, where he was a medieval version of the most interesting man in the world:
Brags about his exploits in the imperial service would end up echoing as far afield as Iceland. In Sicily, it was claimed, he had captured no fewer than eighty towns. In the Holy Land, he had bathed in the River Jordan, and conquered Jerusalem - “an easy task for Harald”. In Constantinople, he had been thrown into prison by a lovelorn empress, helped to blind an emperor and fought with a dragon. The plausible and utterly fantastical, in the rumors of Harald’s deeds, were promiscuously mixed. And to a sensational effect - for in the North he was soon a living legend. Piled up for safe keeping in an island compound outside Novgorod was a great heap of treasure, “a hoard of wealth so immense that no one had ever seen its like before”: Harald’s winnings. 
Harald used his money to become king of Denmark and Norway, and when it ran low, he looked towards England, the richest kingdom in the Western world. The relative isolation of the English allowed them to create a centralized state, as well as a defined ethnic identity, much earlier than their neighbors. And the more unified a kingdom was, the more money the king made. The king of England, Harald Hardrada, was able to beat off the invasion and kill the other Harald, but that left him open to attack from across the English Channel lead by William the Conqueror. William was a real-life King Arthur: a descendant of an English noble family exiled to France, He had been groomed since childhood, along with a tight group of relatives who became his lieutenants, to be a warrior king. The Norman conquest of 1066 was the last successful invasion of the English islands, something which had been happening every few hundreds of years since the beginning of recorded history in Europe.

The Saracens (aka the Muslims) were the Normans of the South, a small warrior elite who ruled over a huge number of conquered peoples. They viewed their military success as proof their righteousness, and they taxed conquered dhimmis (Jews and Christians) at exorbitantly high rates to fund their armies. It was a brutal time. The origin of the word “slave” comes from how often the Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe were enslaved, by Christians and Muslims. Kings won their legitimacy by beating back foreign invaders. An unorganized society without one in charge wasn’t going to last very long. 

Given the level of political turmoil, it’s no wonder people thought the end of the world was near. Humans have worried about the apocalypse since the beginning of time. Our society doesn’t believe in God anymore, but we still fear our sins will destroy the world:

Many tenth century Christians thought the millennial anniversaries of the birth and death of Jesus Christ signaled the beginning of the end times. As it turned out, though, the world kept right on spinning after they were gone. They thought they were living in the most important period of history, but by the turn of the second millennium, their descendants had written them out of the history books. People at the end of the third millennium will do the same to us. Ask the average person today about the year 3000, and they would probably question whether the world will last that long. It’s the same answer you would have gotten if you asked people a thousand years ago about the year 2000.

The most important period of history is always right now. History is the story the present tells about the past to shape the future. People remember what they want, and what actually happened quickly recedes in the sands of time. Fake news didn’t start with the internet. The medieval monk Gerbert, who became Pope Sylvester II, taught students about the Earth circling the Sun five hundreds of years before Copernicus. Things we take for granted now will be forgotten in the future, and people in the 1800s would be shocked at some of the things we don’t know. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. 
- Ecclesiastes 1:3-4, 9-11

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Meaning Of Marriage

Marriage has fallen out of fashion. People still get married, but they no longer feel like they have to. In 1960, 72% of adults in the US were married. In 2008, the number dropped to 50%. There’s no such thing as “living in sin” anymore. 75% of couples lived together before marriage in 2008, a practice unheard of in 1960. We are two and three generations removed from the Sexual Revolution, and our view of marriage has changed so much it’s barely recognizable. And while there were flaws in the traditional view of marriage, doing away with it has created just as many problems, if not more, than it solved. In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller outline the connection between marriage and Christianity, and why both need the other.

For the Kellers, the change in marriage started with a loss of faith. A society without God doesn’t have a higher power for people to put their hope in, so they look for it in each other. Instead of finding meaning through a relationship with the divine, interpersonal relationships and the social status that comes with them become the primary way people define themselves. The result is a narcissistic culture where the pursuit of sex is as much about validation as pleasure. Everyone wants to be the type of person other people want to have sex with, even if they don’t want to actually have sex with a lot of people. Conversely, there’s nothing sadder than someone who can’t get laid. In American Pie, the main characters are obsessed with losing their virginity before they graduate high school. They don’t want to feel like losers.

Marriage is the next step in the process. We aren’t just looking for a companion these days. We want a soulmate. No one wants to think they settled. In a world where we can find hundreds of dates on our phones, how can we know someone is the best we can get? Marriage has gone from something that helps us get where we are going to the final destination. Instead of romance strengthening a marriage, marriage is now a way to strengthen a romance. We want so much from our significant other that there’s no way they can live up to our expectations. It’s no wonder the divorce rate is so high. No one is going to be happy all the time. That’s not how life works. It’s not that we don’t value marriage enough. It’s that we ask it to do too much.

From a Christian perspective, we have turned love into an idol. Our hearts are designed to worship God, and if we put anything else there instead, it becomes an idol. There’s a reason “have no other gods before me” was the first commandment: idol worship is at the root of evil. Even good things, like romance and marriage, become bad if we get our identity from them. Getting your identity from something gives it power over you. People who define themselves by their wealth will do anything for money. Famous people create an image for themselves that becomes their identity, and they lose their mind when it gets challenged. Nothing becomes more important than the brand:
The Lance Armstrong case is a great example of what sociologists call the social construction of reality because he used the media, threats and intimidation, his disease, and philanthropy to as he put it “control the narrative” of his life. That is he manipulated the people and institutions (i.e. the media, athletics, and even the medical community) to create a version of reality where he was a drug-free champion. “Controlling the narrative” is another way of saying influencing all that is being said, written, and thought about you.
If what your spouse thinks of you determines your value as a person, it distorts the relationship. You become more concerned with winning their approval than loving them well, and those things don’t go together. The same thing happens in parenting. People who want their kids to like them end up spoiling them because they indulge their every whim.

The freedom the gospel brings is that your identity is no longer tied to what other people think of you. Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins, and nothing you (or anyone else) can do can change that. You can lose your job, you can go bankrupt, and your spouse can leave you. If you get your identity from those things, they end up controlling you, which causes anxiety because there’s only so much you can control about them. However, if your identity comes from God, you are firmly rooted in something outside of what happens in this world, and nothing that happens to you can impact who you are. The challenges in your life can no longer crush you because your self-definition is no longer at stake if you fail.

Marriage between two people who are firmly rooted in Christ is still hard. The key is both people can serve each other, instead of needing to be served, because they are first served by Jesus. We love because he first loved us. No one is perfect, but when both parties can swallow their pride, admit fault and trust in something other than themselves, marriage becomes easier. While it’s easier said than done, there’s a reason why marriages between two believers tend to be more successful, and it’s not because Christians are any better than anyone else. There is no difference in the divorce rates between people who identify as Christians and the rest of society. Just saying you are a Christian doesn’t mean much if you don’t live the faith. The difference comes for those who attend church regularly, and then it drops 35%.

The point of going to church isn’t because you need a place where you can meet with God; it’s so that you can get to know your fellow worshippers. Human beings are not meant to live alone. We are at our best when we are part of a strong community that surrounds us with people who care about us, share our values and participate in our lives. A healthy church community is a lot like a high school where everyone is nice to each other and no one is competing for status. Our society has tried to replace church with college, work and social media, but it doesn’t work. Higher education is prohibitively expensive and can only last so long, while you can lose your job at any time, and communicating with someone through a screen can’t replace face-to-face interaction. A marriage where two people don’t find community in the same place is one that fractures a lot easier when things get tough.

If all your friends are single, you won’t know anyone who can understand your marital problems. A successful marriage will naturally turn inward since you have to spend less time with other people and more with your spouse. For the apostle Paul, “the gift of singleness” was that it gave him more time to devote to his ministry. Not everyone has to get married. Some of the greatest people in human (and Christian) history didn’t. Marriage is a good thing, but it’s not the best thing. It is designed to be a reflection of the relationship between Christ and His church. A reflection can’t save you. Only the real thing can.

It’s different on a societal level. A society that devalues marriage is one that won’t last. Demographics are destiny. Over dozens of generations, people groups who don’t get married, have fewer kids, and don’t give them stable home environments will have trouble competing with those who do. None of us would be here today if at least some of our ancestors hadn’t gotten married. That’s how Christianity outlasted the Roman Empire, and it’s why religions outlast nations. Thousands of years later, nothing has changed. There is nothing new under the sun. The faith will never die because believers will always get (and stay) married, even if those around them no longer see the point.
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. 
-- Isaiah 40:6-8  
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 
-- Matthew 24:35

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Lion In The Living Room

Cats are the new kings of the jungle. There are over 600 million of them in the world, and the number is only growing. With bigger predators pushed to the brink of extinction by human development, the household cat is now at the top of the food chain. Unlike dogs, who have been systematically bred into subservience over thousands of years of domestication, cats are unchanged genetically from when they first came into contact with humans. If dogs are man’s best friend, cats are our wary companion, happy to follow behind us, but always maintaining their independence. Like humans, cats have remade the world in their own image, and it isn’t always clear which species is getting the better deal in the relationship. In The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker takes a deep, fascinating and often hilarious dive into the world of cats. After reading it, you will never look at your pet the same way again.

Scientists have traced the genetic origins of modern cats to a single species in the ancient Middle East. It appears they just showed up as humans began living in villages, made themselves comfortable and started feeding off the scraps. As Tucker puts it, they were less domestic recruits than invaders. Humans traditionally domesticate animals by hijacking their dominance hierarchy and establishing themselves as the alpha of the group. Cats don’t have one; they are solitary predators who don’t need a pack to survive. The key difference between cats and dogs, as well as every other barnyard animal who has been suited to fit human needs, is they always maintained control of their reproduction. Cat breeders are a relatively modern invention: it’s only in the last fifty years that we have begun to create micro-species like the munchkin. For most of human history, the generic tabby cat has bred without our interference, creating huge populations of strays outside our control.

Once cats are established in an ecosystem, they are almost impossible to eliminate. “Breeding like rabbits” is the popular expression for quickly churning out kids, but cats aren’t far behind. Within five years, a male and female cat can have as many as 354,294 direct descendants. Neutering, the preferred method of keeping their population under control, can often backfire, since cats who don’t have to deal with the stress of mating and breeding live longer, while kittens born in colonies where there are fixed cats have better odds of survival. People who try to protect vulnerable populations of birds and smaller animals live in fear of cats. The odds are stacked against them: cats are relentless and intelligent predators with public opinion overwhelmingly on their side. The gun lobby doesn’t have anything on the cat lobby, and cats are much more dangerous, at least to other animals. They are responsible for 14% of vertebrate extinctions worldwide.

Cats don’t take long to make themselves at home. A century after they were introduced in Australia, the Aborigines viewed them as native animals, even though they decimated populations of animals who had never learned to fear them. These days, cats in Australia (pets and strays) eat more fish on an annual basis than humans. By hijacking our natural fondness for small and seemingly helpless creatures, they have flipped the domestication script. Cats have conditioned us; their purrs mimic the wails of an infant. While they are theoretically supposed to hunt rodents who spread disease, they mostly coexist with the other smaller animals who also feed on our garbage. Why would an alley cat hunt a rat when there’s more than enough trash to feed them both? Historians now believe cats were one of the prime carriers of the Black Plague.

One of the crazier findings presented in the book is that cats spread a microorganism that has infected the brains of over 60 million people. Once infected, people become more prone to risk-taking behavior that can lead to death. Cats are just the middleman: the bug starts in smaller animals who become easier for cats to kill after they are infected, who then spread the bug up the ladder. There might be a reason why so many ancient societies feared cats and treated them with some suspicion. As a rule, cat enthusiasts are more prone to mental health issues, though it’s unclear whether that’s more causation or correlation. Reports of schizophrenia have spiked in the last 200 years, at the same time cats have passed dogs as the most popular household pet.

Cats are the perfect animal for an urbanized society. When people lived in more rural settings, cats were more like presences who roamed around the farm than members of the family. However, as we began moving into apartments, the lack of upkeep and space cats need to survive made them more appealing. Just as important, they filled the void created by the lack of community inherent in city life. Sometimes you just want to go where everyone knows your name, even if they ignore you half the time. The changes in the cat/human relationship have happened quickly. Kitty litter was invented in 1947. Cats now outnumber dogs worldwide by a ratio of 3:1, even though dogs perform many functions, from aiding the blind, sniffing for bombs and guarding our homes, more important than being featured in memes.

However, the move indoors has not been all good news for cats. They are apex predators without a pyramid, and the lack of territory to call their own can make them uneasy, especially when they are living with other cats whom they don’t get along with. Many would prefer to live in a small cage they can control rather than an open space they cannot. Like Lucifer, they would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. While dogs have co-evolved with humans to the point where they need us to survive, cats would do just fine in a world without humans. They are an evolutionary masterpiece, a finely tuned killing and breeding machine that deigns to grace us with their presence. Cockroaches might not be the only things that survive a nuclear apocalypse.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mao: The Unknown Story

Mao Zedong killed more people than anyone in human history. In his near 50-year run as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, he was responsible for the deaths of well over 50 million people. Mao had no limits when it came to the pursuit of power. He killed anyone and everyone in his way, and he turned an entire country into an extension of his will. The scariest part is that it could have been much, much worse. Mao didn’t just want to rule China. He wanted the entire world. He was a James Bond villain in real life, except without James Bond to bring him down. In Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday paint an unflinching portrait of one of the worst killers of the 20th century, tearing apart the myths that surround him, and raising unsettling questions about what a 21rst century version of Mao could do.

Mao was the son of a farmer in rural China who preferred laying in bed and reading to working in the fields. If he had been born in a different time and place, no one would have known about him outside of his isolated village, which didn’t find out about the death of the Emperor for two years. However, the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty, and the power vacuum that came with it, created opportunities for ambitious young men like Mao. Even though he became one of the most influential leaders in Communist history, Chang and Halliday use his diaries and letters to show that he was never a true believer in Marxism. He didn’t need to be. Unlike his rivals in the CCP, Mao was never weighed down by ideology. From the beginning, he was more concerned with raising his status within the organization than accomplishing its goals.

It was the Iron Law of Institutions in a nutshell:
The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution "fail" while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to "succeed" if that requires them to lose power within the institution. This is true for all human institutions, from elementary schools up to the United States of America. 
The CCP in its early years was fighting for its life against the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, but Mao never cared. He ruthlessly maneuvered to get rid of his rivals, sacrificing huge numbers of Communist troops who weren’t under his command, most notably during the famous Long March, where the CCP armies took circuitous routes that exposed them to needless danger as they trekked across the country. Like a game of chicken between two cars racing towards each other, the one most willing to crash wins. With the Communists having to deal with the Nationalists and Japanese, as well as an often reluctant patron in the USSR, they couldn’t afford infighting. Either Mao would run the CCP or they would be destroyed. The only way to stop him was to split the party, and none of his rivals were as willing to do it as he was.

He doubled down on that strategy during World War II, repeatedly stabbing the Nationalists in the back as they struggled with the Japanese. Mao later claimed to be a fierce Chinese nationalist, but he always put himself first. He focused on the near enemy and then worked outwards, since they were the biggest threat to him personally. Mao wasn’t much of a military tactician, but he was a brilliant strategist, and he was able to parlay his ability to play two sides off against another to eventually take over the biggest country in the world and banish Chiang to Taiwan. There was never much of a populist insurgency in China: Mao inspired fear, not love. In that respect, he was cut from the same mold as Joseph Stalin, and some of the most fascinating parts of the book outline the titanic power struggles between the mentor and protege, as they grappled for influence in the Communist world in the first decade of the Cold War.

The authors put the Korean War in an entirely different light, with the US being an unwitting pawn in Mao’s quest to wrangle a nuclear weapon from Stalin. In their version of the story, the North Koreans were a paper tiger controlled tightly by Mao’s CCP, and he kept them afloat and strung the war along for years. His goal was to bait the Americans into dropping nuclear bombs, and let Stalin use China as a nuclear proxy, which would give him access to the Russian arsenal. As Mao saw it, China had a huge manpower advantage, and so would eventually come out ahead in a nuclear war. He was playing the game of thrones, and he didn’t care who he had to harm to win. Few world leaders rivaled Mao in terms of pure sociopathy, and no one was hurt more by it than the Chinese people, the ones he claimed to be fighting for.

Mao was obsessed with turning China into a superpower before he died. He didn’t care about his legacy or the future: his only goal was to maximize his own power in the time he had left. While Chiang obsessively tried to free his son from captivity in Moscow, Mao showed little interest in his family, whether they were his brothers, wives or children. His second wife died in a mental institution, while two of his sons starved in the streets of Beijing in the years leading up to World War II. He cared even less for his subjects. When Mao took control of China, it was an agricultural country with little manufacturing capacity, so the only thing he could export was massive quantities of food. He had to starve his people to get weapons and advanced military technology from abroad, and that’s exactly what he did, killing millions in the process.

If the authors didn’t meticulously document the sheer perversity of Mao’s schemes, they wouldn’t seem plausible. The most telling statistic about his methods of leadership comes from the end of the Long March: his section of the Red Army wound up with nearly as many officers as soldiers. The enlisted men literally carried their commanders on their shoulders for thousands of miles. The ones who complained were eliminated. Everyone who served under Mao lived in fear of him. He constantly purged the CCP for spies, because even if he didn’t find any, he found the atmosphere of terror it created useful. It was Darwinian selection: either you fell in line behind Mao or you were killed.

Since he was speaking for the people as the head of the CCP, anyone who defied him was, by definition, an enemy of the people who could (and should) be purged in order to further the revolution. Once Mao maneuvered his way into the CCP power structure, he was able to turn its own principles against its most committed believers and take it over from the inside out. Once he was put in charge of the entire country, he ramped things up even further. China became a giant prison camp, where everyone spied on each other and no one, no matter how high they were on the chain of command, was safe from being denounced. Mao’s philosophy was to kill first and ask questions later. Anyone who died became a class enemy after the fact, in a repeat of what Stalin did in Russia. One way to create a classless society is to make everyone a slave. 

Much like Hitler or Stalin, it would have been easier to stop Mao at the beginning, when he was merely a commander in the CCP, and not when he had the entire state infrastructure at his disposal to crush his enemies. The problem is anyone who stopped Mao would have to have been just as ruthless as he was. Once Pandora's Box is opened, if often takes a strongman to close it. If Mao hadn’t ended up on top, it would have been someone else just like him. In Animal Farm, George Orwell warned that revolutionaries end up turning into the very people they initially revolted against. Mao is proof that Orwell was an optimist. They could turn out worse.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Before The Fall

Telling stories set in the universe of a beloved movie is a thin premise for a TV show, but Fargo has more than lived up to its namesake. Rather than trying to spin off characters from the movie, it took its underlying DNA - quirky criminals and even quirkier police officers interacting in a Midwestern society where everyone, even the most vile, is unfailingly polite - and ran with it. The writers toe the line between drama and dark comedy, and earnestness and nihilism, and it’s a formula the show’s creator Noah Hawley has replicated in Before The Fall. The book is a slow and meandering tale of a plane crash and its survivors, which incorporates a whodunit mystery with a coming of age tale as well as some deeper questions about the meaning of life.

The structure of Before The Fall resembles the first season of Lost, with a present-day storyline about the crash and investigation interspersed with the backstory of every person on the plane. Instead of a commercial flight, the plane is a private jet ferrying some of the top one percent, most notably a thinly veiled version of Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, and a private equity executive who launders money for just about every country on America’s hit list. The power each represents (and the enemies they have) makes the possibility of an accident unlikely, raising an ominous shadow over what really happened.

Resolving the mystery, though, is not the central driving force of the book. For the most part, the investigation happens off the page, as various federal agencies bicker over who should be in charge and what direction to take the probe. Hawley is more concerned with the lives of the people who boarded the flight, and how they intertwined and wound up together on that one fateful night. Even the most seemingly insignificant passenger may have played a role in what happened to that plane. Hawley has a gift for creating characters.

As you would expect from the writer of Fargo, there’s one with an origin story bordering on the supernatural, as well as several twists on familiar types, from the bored housewife to the overworked executive and swaggering pilot. The villain is the star commentator of the fictional version of Fox News, who uses the untimely death of his boss as a springboard to wage a personal vendetta against the vast conspiracy he imagines is plotting against him and his network.

One of the running themes is the way TV distorts reality, and how fact and fiction blur when news becomes entertainment. It’s nothing anyone who has watched cable news isn’t already familiar with, but it’s still interesting to hear it coming from someone intimately familiar with how the business works:
How to describe the things we see onscreen, experiences we have that are not ours? After so many hours (days, weeks, years) of watching TV -- the morning talk shows, the daily soaps, the nightly news and then into prime time -- after a decade of studying the viral videos of late-night hosts and Funny or Die clips emailed by friends, how are we tell the difference between them, if the experience of watching them is the same? To watch the Twin Towers fall and on the same device in the same room then watch a marathon of Everybody Loves Raymond.  
To Netflix an episode of The Care Bears with your children, and then later that night (after the kids are in bed) search for amateur couples who’ve filmed themselves breaking the laws of several states. To videoconference from your work computer then click on an embedded link to a jihadi beheading video. How do we separate these things in our brains when the experience of watching them -- sitting or standing before the screen, perhaps eating a bowl of cereal, either alone or with others, but, in any case, always with part of us still rooted in our own daily slog (distracted by deadlines, trying to decide what to wear on a date later) -- is the same? 
Every piece of media you consume impacts your worldview, whether you realize it or not. There are a lot of people who view politics through the lens of Harry Potter. Is it any wonder than a former reality TV star is now our President? Does Donald Trump actually perform the duties of the President, or does he just play one on TV? And is there even a difference anymore? Does CNN exist to cover the news or does the news exist to provide content for CNN?

The book explores what it’s like to be caught in the middle of the TV fishbowl through the life of Scott Burroughs, a 40-something painter who caught on a ride on the plane through a series of fluke encounters and becomes an unlikely hero when he puts a 4-year old on his back and swims him to shore following the accident. Burroughs, like all overnight celebrities, watches his life played back to him, as the media delves into his past in ways almost designed to mislead. Only a saint could hold up to that much scrutiny, and none of Hawley’s characters, either on page or screen, could ever be accused of being that.

Burroughs lives the type of rootless existence that becomes progressively sadder the older he gets. He chases pleasure and career success without any greater purpose behind any of it, and the things he paints (disasters and their aftermath) only deepens his existential crisis. Like several of the characters from Lost, he is a man without anything in particular to live for until the crash gives him meaning. He develops a bond with the boy he rescues and starts to look after him when he is handed off to his well-meaning aunt and scheming uncle, neither of whom is prepared to become a parent.

Were it not for the child, Burroughs would probably have drifted back into aimless hedonism, parlaying his fame to a more lucrative career. Instead, with someone else counting on him, he is forced to grow up. He has a zen-like indifference to the way his character is assassinated on TV, but when it starts to impact the boy, he has to act. Having no attachments is one way avoid suffering, but our relationships are what give life meaning in the first place. That’s the message of Before The Fall. Turn off the TV. Invest in others. Don’t let work (or pleasure) define your life. We only have a limited amount of time to spend in this world. Make the most of it.
There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” 
- Ecclesiastes 4:8

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Vision Of The Anointed

The people in power need a reason why they are in charge. It used to be birth. The nobility were elevated over the rest of society because of their superior breeding, and they handed down authority from generation to generation. The US, at least in theory, is a meritocracy. Our elites weren’t born into their positions. They earned them. They went to better schools where they learned more about the latest advancements in human knowledge, giving them the wisdom needed to rule the country, if not the world. That’s what most people in Washington D.C. believe, regardless of political party. In The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell paints a disturbing picture of how that mentality has impacted our society, and what it means for the future.

The US government has gotten steadily more powerful over the last century, and it’s hard to see that dynamic changing anytime soon. At this point, it doesn’t matter all that much which politicians are placed at the top. They are the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of an imperial bureaucracy whose tentacles stretch far beyond our own borders. What Barack Obama and Donald Trump have found out, to varying degrees, is that the tail wags the dog in D.C these days. That’s why there’s such a continuity of policy between the last few presidents, despite how differently they were sold to voters. If there’s a common thread running through most public policy, it’s increasing the importance of decision-makers in the federal bureaucracy over everyone else.

Justifying that power is easy when you believe the people wielding it are wiser, more knowledgeable and more virtuous than the unwashed masses. Eight of the nine current Supreme Court Justices went to either Harvard or Yale Law. The ninth went to Columbia. The tools to educate yourself have never been more accessible in human history, yet the pathways to the top are narrowing. While the internet and social media connect people from every corner of the globe, they also allows them to build echo chambers of like-minded people where they never have to listen to those who disagree with them. During the height of conservative opposition to Obama, liberal thinkers accused their opponents of “epistemic closure”, meaning they had created a belief system that didn’t have the capacity to acknowledge outside criticism. Of course, it’s a charge that can just as easily be turned back on the ones making it.

Political debate has become a stage where people try to prove their moral superiority. My favorite example from the book is the criticism of the Mercator projection, the world map most people used in school. It exaggerates the size of land masses near the top and bottom of the globe, making Greenland look nearly as big as Africa. It didn’t become controversial until modern times, when people criticized it for a Eurocentric approach that minimized the relative size of countries along the Equator. However, the reason those distortions exist is because the projection keeps latitude and longitude lines straight to make navigation easier. Practicality, not prejudice, is why it became popular. No mapmaker can represent every part of the globe accurately because they are trying to fit a 3-dimensional object on a 2-dimensional space.

Public policy, like mapmaking, is a series of trade-offs. Our criminal justice system is based on the idea that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to go to jail. The harder it is to convict an innocent man, the easier it becomes for a guilty one to get off. There are no right answers: how much additional crime will those 10 guilty men commit once they are released back into society? At some point, whether it’s 100 guilty men or 1,000, the trade-off no longer becomes worth it. The only question is where, as a society, we decide that point is. There is no way to create a perfect criminal justice system. That’s where the saying “hard cases make bad law” comes from. Focus on one circumstance which highlights the worst problems with a particular law and you can miss all of the situations where the law works well.

The problem is that not seeing the forest for the trees is the easiest way for a politician to get elected. They campaign as if trade-offs don’t exist, and there are cost-free solutions to societal problems. One great example is Obamacare, which was supposed to increase access to health care while also making it more affordable. However, there’s a basic tension between affordability, accessibility and quality that exists at the heart of any health care system. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to insure more people, but any dramatic change to the current system will have wide-ranging consequences, intended and unintended. “If you like your plan, you can keep it” was never an option, and a few years after Obamacare was passed, no one pretends otherwise. It may take decades before we know whether or not Obamacare was successful.

The ultimate effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, the education reform bill signed in 2003, and NAFTA, a free-trade agreement passed in 1993, are still hotly debated among scholars. For a politician, though, the long-term results are almost beside the point. They need something tangible they can sell to voters as proof they should stay in office, and they are always looking for accomplishments that will build their legacy. There’s a bias towards action over inaction, even though doing something can often be more harmful than doing nothing at all. Saddam Hussein was a problem for the US, but the power vacuum in Iraq created by removing him was ten times worse. Just because a problem exists doesn’t mean trying to fix it is necessarily a good idea.

The world is not an ideal place, nor will it ever be. Idealists confuse the difference between what is and what ought to be, and they think believing in an ideal is proof of their moral superiority, regardless of when happens when they apply that ideal to reality. Those who want to make society more equal just tend to accuse their opponents of being in favor of the status quo, even though their proposals often have the exact opposite of their intended effects. There is more poverty in the US today than when the War on Poverty started more than 50 years ago. Maybe things would be even worse without governmental intervention, but that argument is essentially unfalsifiable. If the only two possible outcomes are that a policy makes things better or stops things from being worse, we are assuming it to be true without any evidence.

The other word for that is faith. Modern people pretend we are rational thinkers who only believe what science tells us, but that’s because we assume science confirms what we already believe. No one really bases their worldview on what can be proven by scientific experiments. They start off with their desired conclusions and look for science that backs them up, rather than the reserve. The conclusions of the people in power these days only go in one direction: we are better than everyone else, so we deserve more power. Pundits can’t admit they are wrong because their sense of self-worth is based on being right. The cognitive dissonance is too intense. When reality differs from their beliefs, it’s not their beliefs that have to change, but reality.
The [presidential] aide says that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued, “We’re an empire now, and we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”  
-- An aide to George W. Bush to a New York Times reporter, 2004 
Throughout the book, Sowell contrasts the vision of the anointed with what he calls the tragic vision, a more pessimistic outlook on the human condition which questions how much we can truly know and how much we can actually change the world. That idea doesn’t have much appeal to those with the power to shape society in their own image, and they aren’t interested in any belief system that doesn’t flatter their ego or appeal to their vanity. Nor do they have much time for anyone who questions their right to dictate the nature of reality. Our secular priesthood will not tolerate heresy. The March For Science had things backwards. We have been living in a theocracy the whole time.