Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Smartphone Generation

August 11, 2017

If you have anything to do with people teen-aged or younger, you should read Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generationby Jean M. Twenge.

When I told my son Chase about it (he has two little boys), he asked whether it was another of those old-fogey articles about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

“Kinda,” I said. The thing is, it seems genuinely scholarly, full of cautionary statistics and studies. (I’d love to read a critique from other social scientists. Knowing The Atlantic, where it was published, I’m sure we’ll get one.)

Twenge says that she has studied generational change for decades, and usually the changes are subtle and gradual. In this case, she says the changes are mountainous and dramatic. She makes the point that the post-millennials are the first generation native to smartphones. They have never known anything else. Smartphones are not an addition to their reality, they are part of reality.

She offers a lot of detailed info, and I won’t try to summarize it. I will say that there is a very strong correlation between smartphone use and depression. The more kids use smartphones, the more likely they are to be unhappy. Of course, suicide goes with that. The post-millennials are also much more prone to rely on their parents, Twenge says (which may look very positive to those parents), but are slower to grow up and much less independent than previous generations. They have fewer friends, much less social interaction in person, and are often lonely. Rather than going to the mall or the skating rink like previous generations, they stay in their room with their phones.

Most young parents I know are trying to limit screen time for their kids. Alarm bells go off when they see how addictive devices are for kids at a very young age. Even if they’re not exactly sure what the harm is, it’s not hard to guess that this can’t be good. Twenge’s article will fill in the background, and make the matter much more urgent.

Trump’s Support

August 11, 2017

I mostly quit blogging after last year’s election, because I realized that all I was going to do was fulminate. In the nine months since, I’ve tried to listen carefully to Trump supporters, and to read anything I could find explaining their motives. I don’t want to moan, I want to understand.

I haven’t heard anybody claim that our president is a good man. Not even his most ardent defenders say they want their children to grow up like him. They voted for him knowing his character, since he makes no attempt to hide it.

They don’t necessarily approve of his character, but other powerful forces motivate them to support him. I’ve tried to understand what those forces are. I’ve been particularly interested in evangelical Christians, the heart of his support. They have always been very interested in morality—passionately so–but suddenly they don’t care about morality at all. What is driving that?

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Certain issues are very potent for Trump supporters. Most of them are non-economic. They are more emotional and cultural. Among these issues are:

–immigration and the ethnic and religious makeup of America

–gun control

–LGBTQ and their rights

–abortion

–land regulations

–minorities getting “special treatment”

These are all significant issues. If we were simply discussing policy choices, we could probably find room for discussion and compromise on most of these. But as they have all become highly emotive cultural symbols, they easily become litmus tests. (This is as true on the left as the right, of course.)

Emotions are fueled by a deep distrust and dislike of Democrats. It’s not just the what, it’s the who. Hilary Clinton became the epitome of this mistrust: she was deeply and viscerally disliked. Some of this was no doubt because she had been targeted by relentless Republican propaganda for 30 years. But some of it was because she lacked the charisma to escape the generic dislike of her party. Among a large share of the American public—30%? 40%?—it’s axiomatic. Democrats are faceless, careless, lying politicians. Everything they say should be regarded with deep suspicion. The party is owned by gays, minorities, feminists—that’s all they care about, not you. (Many people have similar feelings about Republicans. For “gays, minorities, feminists,” substitute “rich people.”)

Nostalgia and resentment are fueled by the pace of change. Conservatism has always featured a measure of the old-fogey complaint that the world is going to the dogs. That’s been ramped up by a world in which change has accelerated. Who could believe how quickly gay marriage triumphed, and marijuana was legalized? Churches are shrinking, whites are becoming a minority, America can’t impose its will on the world. Rural whites have become the leading victims (and perpetrators) of drug addiction; who saw this coming? Naturally many people are unsettled by such change. They don’t believe all this change is inevitable progress, and they want somebody to stand up and say so. If that person says it rudely, good. Maybe somebody will listen.

Condescension turns resentment into rage. One friend described the feeling of being lectured about gay rights by people who less than five years ago publicly opposed gay marriage. Ah, the convictions of the newly converted! Look at the list of issues I listed. Can you hear the scornful and lecturing tone often employed by liberals when discussing these? Of course, I’d say an even more hostile tone is employed by the right wing, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m trying to probe why people support Trump. One reason is that they want to give the middle finger to people who condescend to them.

The book Hillbilly Elegy paints a portrait of an ethno-cultural group that is a mainstay of Trump support: an Appalachian Scots-Irish heritage that is closely bound to family and clan, but frequently unable to sustain family values like marriage and sobriety. They are proud people. Their lives may be deeply troubled, but they won’t stand for anything that sounds like criticism. I’d say Trump has been a champion for such people, as for lots of others who can’t stand being told what they can think and what they can say.

If my description is accurate, it’s not going to be easy to undo our current polarization. Most people say they want our politicians to work together and compromise to get things done, but these issues and the emotions that accompany them dominate our politics. Based on what I’ve heard, there’s no substance to the argument that Democrats only have to offer some clear economic appeal to regain the allegiance of the middle class/rural white/working man (pick one). Nor do I think that Trump himself is the key issue. Once he goes away or loses sway, these powerful feelings will remain. Trump is a catalyst, but the emotional chemicals that drove the reaction will remain.

That’s what I worry about most: that we get through the next four years but find ourselves unable to escape the dynamics that elected Trump. I think we need—all of us, on all sides—to rediscover how to talk about ourselves as Americans. We need to find a way of thinking and acting that can name our common and distinctive identity. Call it patriotism. Both sides have been complicit in losing sight of this. Republicans have been strong on waving the flag, but often with the aim of casting anyone who doesn’t agree with them as un-American. Democrats have fallen right into this trap. I was struck by the critique of the choice of speakers at the women’s march, right after the election. How many police or military veterans spoke? How many fire chiefs? How many clergy? How many school board presidents? In our local event, the speakers were all liberal politicians and activists fighting for some group. Fine, but did anybody speak for all Americans? Did we sing the national anthem?

What binds us all together?—gays, hillbillies, immigrants, software whizzes, school teachers, farmers, Hollywood producers, disabled veterans, opioid addicts, Christians, Jews, Muslims. Surely if we read the Constitution very carefully we can rediscover some ideas of what a remarkable nation “we the people” hoped to make. We won’t all agree on the issues. Our forefathers didn’t. But at least we would be arguing toward common ground, not toward cutting off “the takers” or “the deplorables,” as though they were a diseased limb.

Refugee Test Case    

March 7, 2017

President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US promises to be temporary, and I hope that turns out to be the case. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable and pitiable people on earth. Just over a year ago I was in Europe, interviewing scores of them. Their vulnerability will never leave me.

But how to treat them? This is one issue where the Bible is clear–not as to precise policy, perhaps, but certainly as to its general direction.

In ancient Israel, foreigners were a constant presence. This was not an age of walled borders or stamped passports. Foreigners found themselves in Israel because of economic opportunity—there was always international commerce—and as refugees from war and famine. Israel, preoccupied with threats to its survival, and concerned for a distinctive identity as God’s people, had an important choice: how would they treat foreigners? Would they see them as a threat? Or would they welcome them?

The Law makes it very clear:

Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Deut 26:12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

The welfare system included foreigners. Gleaning was not charity. It was legally mandated, embracing almost the entire productive economy. In addition the tithe was a 10% tax over the entire productive economy, directed to help those who could not participate in the economy (Levites) and those who were poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans and foreigners).

Lev 19:34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Foreigners were to be treated the same as citizens, and with love.

Lev 24:22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’

Numbers 15:15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.

Laws and rules must not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. Foreigners have the same rights as do citizens.

Deut 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

It’s well known that God is on the side of the defenseless poor. He is equally on the side of the foreigner, caring for their material needs.

Deut 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.

How do our farms and factories live up to that?

Deut 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Why should Israel treat foreigners so benevolently? The answer is consistent: because you were foreigners in Egypt. The treatment of refugees is a test case for empathy. Can you feel for others the way you feel for yourself?

Our treatment of foreigners is also a test case for America. History tells us that America has welcomed millions. It also tells us that episodes of fear and prejudice have caused us to exclude millions. (Most dreadfully, Jewish children were sent back to Nazi Germany just before WWII began.) What kind of people will our generation be? We are being tried.

More Newspapers!

February 1, 2017

Yesterday I subscribed (digitally) to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. I already subscribe to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (my excellent local paper) and The New York Times, and I really don’t need more reading opportunities. However, as I think about strategic action in these troubled times, I keep coming back to investigative reporting. We need reporters who dig deep and present facts about complicated matters. (We have plenty of opinions already.) Sorry, TV and the internet don’t do that. Newspapers do. And they need money!

I look on these added subscriptions just like my annual contributions to the Yosemite Conservancy and my local public radio stations and Amnesty International. They are for the public good.

Dinosaur News

January 31, 2017

You may remember I wrote about paleontologist Mary Schweitzer in The Adam Quest. Mary has continued her scientific work, and one of my pleasures is occasionally to come across summaries of it. Today Science sums up her latest in what they call a “milestone” paper. Its still astonishing (and controversial) that she found collagen in 90-million-year-old dinosaur fossils.

A Couple of Cultural Notes

January 12, 2017

Book Recommendation: News of the World is a great yarn, set in a very interesting time (1870 Texas), and beautifully written. The relationship between an old man and a very young girl who’s been a captive of the Kiowa is the heart of the book, but there’s plenty of adventure too.

Movie: Queen of Katwe is a story of some slum kids in Uganda who take up chess. It captures the rhythms of life in East Africa way better than any other movie I’ve seen. A sweet story, with the settings, the accents, the wordings, the clothes, the eyes, the attitudes spot on. This is some kind of miracle: a classically Disney inspirational story, but the look and feel are not Hollywoodized at all. Anybody who loves Africa should see it.

What To Do  

December 16, 2016

A lot of us are alarmed about the state of America, and many are asking what they can do. Here’s my answer: subscribe to a newspaper.

There are so many issues that require good reporting. Just to name a few, we have questions about whether the FBI or the CIA has been politicized, questions about whether, how and why Russia tried to influence our election, questions about the future of healthcare. None of these can be answered by pontificating partisans on TV, let alone by Twitter. They need careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting.

A bigger question is whether America has become a post-truth society, with citizens who think the world is just a big reality TV show. At the least, we are drifting that way. Countering these tendencies requires citizens who read careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting, and don’t get their information from TV talking heads and tweets.

Good reporting and reliable sources of information start with newspapers. Nothing so far has surfaced to replace them. Yet newspapers are economically imperiled, and their readership has dropped. Therefore, a very practical contribution to these difficult times is to subscribe. That way, the newspapers get your money to pay their reporters; and you get better access to information.

Waiting for Publication

December 13, 2016

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life. Writing is solitary work. I can tell you what I am writing about, but I can’t really share the stuff that preoccupies me: how to knit a subject or a scene in such a way that it becomes a seamless, almost dreamlike reality for the reader. Not even my wife Popie knows what I am doing at that level. I wouldn’t know how to explain it.

While writing is solitary work, it is not fulfilled in solitude. I write for an audience. It may turn out to be small or large, and I don’t usually know which it will be in advance. Actually the size of the audience doesn’t much affect what I do. What matters is that I will have readers. If there were no readers, writing would be something quite different.

While I’m writing, the work is almost a part of me. Then there’s an interim period, while the publisher edits and proofs and designs and markets. Finally, months later, sometimes after more than a year, I see a printed copy. By then I am usually pretty emotionally detached. It’s mine but it’s no longer me. Nevertheless, publication is an absolutely necessary part of the process. It’s then that my work finds its fulfillment in being read.

Waiting for publication is completely passive. I do nothing. I don’t even worry. I know that the book or the magazine article is coming, and I wait with expectation. After publication, the work is mine but it belongs to the world. I can’t get it back. I can’t change it. It finds its life in my readers.

I know it’s hazardous to compare my work to God’s, but I wonder if God’s creative process is something like this. God’s creation begins with the making of the heavens and the earth, but that is just the introduction of the story. God goes on to draw out Israel, in all its dramatic detail: kings and prophets, wars and sacrifice, laws and songs.

Yet that, too, is only the beginning. What God wants to make is his Son, Jesus, born of Mary, raised a Jew, executed as an enemy, raised as King of kings. That is the work God prepares for us, his audience. He intends us not just to read, but to eat—to take into ourselves his amazing work, his actual self expressed in a human life, so that it becomes part of us forever.

Being God is solitary work. But it is not fulfilled in solitude. It is fulfilled when we take Jesus into our lives—all of him. And just as I wait for publication, so God waits to see his work completed, in us.

 

 

Predictions

November 11, 2016

No more gridlock! With Republicans controlling all three branches of government, we will see action on all kinds of fronts.

I realize that making predictions is a fool’s game, but I’m writing down what I expect to see in order to test myself. Nothing would delight me more than to be wrong on many of these prognostications… but we’ll see.

Health care. Obamacare is toast. Mostly we will revert to the status quo ante, which was not good. The one piece I can’t quite foresee is whether Republicans will repeal the law requiring insurance companies to insure everybody, regardless of pre-existing conditions. The one piece I am sure of is that they will repeal the mandate that everybody buy insurance. Without that mandate the economics of the insurance-based system don’t work, especially if the insurance companies have to insure everybody. Obamacare tried to patch up the existing system; it was questionable whether it could succeed even if encouraged. We’ll never know! I predict that health care will be in crisis within Trump’s first term. Eventually (in the next decade) we will end up with single-payer insurance, which we should have had in the first place.

Trade. Not much will change. There will probably be a show of saber-rattling, maybe with China, but Republicans are the party of big business and business interests are strongly for maintaining the status quo. .

Immigration. Not much will change. There will be an early show of building a wall—a Potemkin wall about 10 miles long somewhere in Texas. Immigrants, legal and illegal, will continue to come, but there will be a great reduction in the number of refugees accepted through legal processes. The millions of immigrants living without papers will continue doing as they have done; they will not be deported—business and farming interests will make sure of that–nor will they be given a path to citizenship.

Tax reform. Taxes will be cut, especially for the rich along the lines of Paul Ryan’s proposals. This will result in huge deficits, which will result in legislation cutting programs for the poor. The deficits will continue to mount until we reach a financial crisis.

Infrastructure. We will finally get money for roads and bridges. This will last until huge deficits catch our attention, probably in 2-3 years.

Regulation. The regulatory apparatus of the federal government will be reduced in every area, but especially regarding banks and financial institutions, consumer protection, and the environment. The impacts of these changes will be diffuse and hard to measure, except regarding banks and financial institutions, where they will inevitably create a crisis that will require a bailout. How long before this happens is hard to predict, but that it will happen is as close to a sure thing as we know. Banks and financial institutions have not learned how to regulate themselves; and Republicans both hate regulations and love banks and financial institutions.

Climate, coal, solar. Attempts by the federal government to slow climate change will end. Problems with climate change will continue to grow (as they probably would even if we did our best). I can’t foresee how cataclysmic the problems will be, nor how soon they will become cataclysmic. The coal business in America will continue its death spiral, as fracking spreads (with less regulation!) and keeps the price of energy low. Solar and wind energy will grow due to their efficiencies and also because some large states (California) will subsidize their use.

Social issues. Abortion will continue unabated, though perhaps the Supreme Court will allow more restrictions in Southern states. Gay marriage will be universally accepted. There will probably be more latitude for people and institutions to discriminate by, say, refusing to bake a wedding cake or make facilities available for gay marriages, but people will care less and the issue will all but disappear. Marijuana legalization will continue to spread; problems with illegal drugs like heroin will also continue to grow. Over all, America will continue to move toward more liberal and hedonistic values, as seen on TV.

Social Security and Medicare. There will be benefit cuts. Social security’s finances will be stabilized, probably by raising the age of retirement; and Medicare will continue to grow hugely more expensive, prompting even more cuts. See Health Care, above.

Foreign relations. Not much will change. There is no appetite for “boots on the ground” nor for a policy that enables Iran to build a nuclear bomb. The world will be slightly friendlier for dictators, but they weren’t doing badly before. Terrorism will continue unabated for the foreseeable future; the problems of the Middle East will continue and the refugee crisis will grow.

The unknown. By definition, the unknown cannot be predicted, except for this: we will be confronted by problems that we do not anticipate. Some possible areas: financial meltdowns, events of nature (storms, earthquakes), cyber disasters, terrorism, war. But there may well be categories that we don’t even know exist. How will the new Republican/Trump administration respond? That is hard to foresee, but recent history does not encourage a rosy view of Republicans’ ability to cope with reality. For the last eight years Republicans running Congress have majored in outrage, not in governance. And President Trump has no experience in governance at all. He does not seem to be a calm and measured person. The category of “unknown” is by far the most frightening of all—as it always is.

 

 

After the Nightmare

November 10, 2016

 

The election results were a nightmare to me. I mean a real nightmare, the kind where you flee shape-shifting monsters and can’t escape. It took me a long time to get to sleep after the result sank in. The sun did come up this morning, and I feel better. Numb, incredulous, but pretty sure I am going to live.

I have no wish to rehearse all the reasons for fear. Better commentators than I have done that ad nauseum. Almost half of America chose to ignore those reasons. We live in a democracy. We honor our constitution. Time to move on.

But how do we do that? How do we behave, going forward?

I don’t want to duplicate what Republicans did to Obama. The quest for power through tearing down and obstruction is an approach I can’t respect. I want our country to prosper, whoever is in power.

I plan to pray for President Trump, persistently. It is not impossible or unknown for someone to become a better person.

Also, I think it’s imperative that we stay politically engaged, because there may be places where constructive engagement can result in positive action, and there may also be places where vigilant, forceful opposition is necessary. For example, maybe we can fix our roads and bridges. For example, I will do anything in my power to ensure that our authorities do not return to the practice of torture.

Finally, the practice of our personal lives will be, I believe, the most potent of all our responses. We all have the opportunity to care for poor people in our communities. We can strengthen our neighborhoods through cooperation in everything from Little League to hiking clubs. We can treat each other with kindness and respect despite our differences. I’m a believer that the political regime ultimately reflects the people’s character, lived out locally. We build from the bottom up. If our communities are rotten, degraded, violent, addicted, angry, that will be reflected in our leadership.

I’ve toyed with the thought that our troubles as a nation—our divisiveness and rancor, particularly—stem from the fact that we have abandoned God. I realize that’s old-fashioned. In the past I’ve tended to scoff at sermons that treated every problem as a symptom of religious failure. Now I’m not quite so sure. There’s no doubt that much of America—the left, in particular—has discarded faith and looks on religion with condescension and suspicion. It became obvious in this election that conservatives also—evangelicals in particular—have abandoned God, else they could not possibly go against everything they say they believe to support a serial liar and bragging adulterer for President. The truth is, I think, a lot of us have abandoned God. Some of us want him to disappear, others to co-opt him as a useful prop in our quest for power.

If things are going to change, it’s useful to review what God says that he wants from us: “to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) That applies under all political regimes, and it is primarily local.