A Battle Between Good and Evil?

Wesley

A friend posted this meme, a quote attributed to John Wesley that seemed quite appropriate to our mid-term elections. I am writing this on Tuesday afternoon, while the polls are still open. So I don’t know anything about winners and losers and whether there has been a shift in political power between the time I am writing this and you are reading it. Actually, it really doesn’t matter to what I’ve been thinking about.

What I want to question is whether we will continue to frame our political discourse as a battle between good and evil–with those in opposition the “evil” party? These thoughts have been sparked not only by the Wesley quote but also by a book I’ve been reading, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. They talk about three bad ideas that have crept into education that actually undermine both personal and societal well-being. The third of these is life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

It seems to me that this has been the thesis of much of the political advertising and rhetoric in recent elections, and particularly this one. The knight in shining armor in one party’s ads is the incarnation of evil in the other’s. This is not particularly new.

What does seem new is that we have extended the penumbra of evil to cover the supporters of these candidates. It troubles me that there is an increasing perception that America consists of two opposing sides, each seeing the other as evil and detrimental to the nation’s future. The sides mirror the views of the candidates they support. One sees it in the ugly images of angry faces shouting at each other across barricades. More quietly, it sometimes means that someone decides that another can no longer be their friend.

The reality, of course is far more complex. People who vote for different candidates actually have many common concerns and aspirations–a desire to make a living, to see their children educated well, to have good heath care when we need it, to live meaningfully. Many of us struggle when voting, because there are some emphases in each party with which we agree, and we must choose between them. Most of us don’t see one party as all right, and the other all wrong, when we assess the policies they advocate against our own deeply held values.

What concerns me is that the narrative of a battle of good against evil may not end with words. In fact, some, whether in violent confrontations, or violent acts have taken the battle beyond words. For now they are outliers–kind of like John Brown was prior to the Civil War. The question that disturbs me is how long we can continue using this narrative in our national discourse without increasing instances of our social fabric descending into civil disorder–or resorting to authoritarian measures to maintain order.

We cannot stop politicians, advertisers and political advocacy groups from using this rhetoric. But we can stop enabling it. We can refuse to support appeals that divide us from our fellow citizens, or even our fellow human beings–that propose that some particular class of humans is evil and ought to be opposed. I wonder what would happen if we wised up enough to turn our backs and walked away from any politician who turns their opponents (and their constituencies) into evil enemies.

Any of us who have worked on teams realizes that good teams use all the different skills and perspectives within the team. Differences can be good, because none of us is as proficient, strong, or smart as all of us. I’ve sometimes been at loggerheads with another until we did the hard work of understanding why the other thought the way he or she did. Not simply or quickly, but often, in the end, we ended up with a better solution or program than either of us could have designed alone. I would contend that it is unpatriotic to rob our country of the gifts and contribution of all of us, just to favor a particular political base.

You may ask, “are you saying there is no evil out there?” Hardly. Rather, apart from sociopaths and the corrupt, I would contend that a truer portrait is the one that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offered when he said, “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” The most dangerous people, I believe, are those who fail to reckon with the line of good and evil running through their own lives. I become that person when I attribute that evil to a political opponent, and virtue to myself or my party. A far saner approach, it seems, is to see all of our parties as imperfect human structures, striving for proximate rather than ultimate goods, which belong to God alone.

For those of the Christian faith, I am also reminded of Paul’s word to the Ephesians when he said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12, NIV). Paul reminds us that we make a great error when we battle against other people, because that is not where the real battle is.

At bottom, these are my reasons for refusing to adopt the narrative that life is a battle between good people and evil people.” I neither want to be found blind to the evil in my own life, nor be found to have misspent my life fighting the wrong battles. Will you join me?

 

Why I Sing

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Capriccio Columbus

In less than an hour, I leave for one of my favorite activities of the week–rehearsals with Capriccio Columbus. This is now my eleventh season of singing with this choral group and it continues to be one of the joys of my life. Why do I sing?

Fundamentally, singing reminds me that there is goodness and beauty in an ugly and sometimes evil world. Every time we come together to make music, we declare out loud what we intuit deeply in ourselves–that evil and ugliness cannot and will not have the last word.

Therefore, singing for me is not an act of escapism, of forgetting the hard things around us, but rather resistance, a form of declaration, of demonstration, that the deeper story of life is one of goodness, of truth, and of beauty. It is striking to me that civil rights marchers, and even those who grieved in Pittsburgh recently gave voice to their longings, their grief, and their prayers, in song.

Singing in a choral group is a living metaphor of our longings for a unity in the midst of diversity. The very nature of harmony is that different voices, different parts, when we are doing it right, blend together to make something far more beautiful and interesting than if all of us were singing the same note. If only we could figure out that a monotone society is no more interesting than a monotone choral group!

Making music involves every fiber of my being. We learned in a vocal workshop that we sing from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads. Not only does singing involve the whole body, it engages the whole mind. To focus on rhythms, notes, and words, to tempo and dynamics, and to do all of that at once uses every one of my ever-diminishing brain cells (although some research suggests that singing enhances brain function and forestalls some forms of dementia).

Every fiber of my being includes my soul, that inner, spiritual part of who I am. To sing well means to reflect on what we are singing, and how the music accentuates phrases and moods. To sing well is not just to be technically proficient, but to incarnate the music–to sing out of oneself and what that music has come to mean to us. If I am paying attention, music often speaks of realities beyond the rehearsal, beyond the concert, to the deepest thoughts about meaning, and love, and the transcendent.

Making music is handling particular pieces of music, noting with pencil particular directions for singing it, holding it in folders, doing all this next to others, some who sing your part, some who sing others. It is trying, and failing, and learning, particularly when we first read through new music. It is holding music at a certain level, high enough that you can glance over it to follow the leading of your director, who is trying to keep 80 plus people singing four to eight parts singing together. It is real, it is physical. It is active. There is nothing passive or virtual about it.

Singing is people. One makes friends, and begins to really care not only about the rehearsal but about job losses, deaths, babies, engagements, and weddings. In a world of increasing isolation, choral groups bring people from all kinds of backgrounds into what are often called “mediating institutions.” They stand between the isolation of our individual lives and the big impersonal institutions of modern society.

Well, it is about time for me to leave. For all these reasons, this is why I sing tonight.

Our Tolerance for Lying

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Pinocchio By Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Are you disturbed by the rampant culture of deceit around us? Does it bother you that truth takes a back seat to getting things done? Is it troubling when people around our president contend that “truth isn’t truth” and that there are “alternate facts?” Or that leaders will deny statements they are recorded as making and attribute it to “fake news?”

We are in the middle of another electoral season as I write, and I find myself deeply disturbed by the outright lies and misleading statements in much of our political language, often in scare language to arouse fears. Now I’ve been around long enough to know that this is not new. Lyndon Johnson characterized Barry Goldwater as a nuclear warrior and then led us into the quagmire of Vietnam. I remember the lies we were told about Watergate.

What concerns me is that I fear we are a nation increasingly inured to lies. We don’t expect politicians, advertisers, or even religious leaders to tell us the truth but to simply promise us an ever more prosperous life. As long as job and economic numbers are good, nothing else seems to matter. Tell me how to have my “best life now.” Don’t bring up the connection between zip codes and life expectancies of others. Don’t bring up the millions being displaced globally because of climate change. Don’t bring up ballooning national debts that our children and grandchildren will have to find some way to address. What happens when all our tax revenues go to repaying debt?

What disturbs me about an acceptance of what Marilyn McEntyre has called “a culture of lies” is how the erosion of integrity in our institutions leads either to corruption and graft, not unlike what we see in the failed states in many parts of the world–or totalitarian rule, where lies are told so long and so loud that they become accepted as the truth because the absolute power that can make a person disappear if they challenge the lies. Ask anyone in international business what it is like to try to do business where the rule of law and the observing of contracts has lapsed. Ask Jamal Kashoggi what happens when one tries to tell the truth about a totalitarian regime.

In other words, what disturbs me is less the lies of politicians than the fact that we let them get away with it and do not seem particularly bothered by being deceived. We don’t want our doctors to lie to us (at least most of the time) because the truth may be hard to swallow but it just might save our lives. Our politicians are among the stewards of our societal health and the life of our nation depends on them telling the truth and acting in accord with it.

It is a true statement that “reality bites” and the teeth of that bite is truth. We ultimately cannot make up the world the way we want it to be. If we don’t invest in our children, we will invest in prisons. If we don’t start paying for the government we receive, and do so equitably, we will pass along a Ponzi scheme that will collapse someday. We can deny the signs of a changing climate, but you can bet your insurance company will not.

That illustrious philosopher, Cecil B. DeMille observed:

“It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.”

I would suggest that truth, from which law derives, is like that. We may try to deny it, or lie about it, but ultimately, we either allow it to define reality for us or break ourselves against it–whether as individuals or as nations. Is it time to stop tolerating lies and demand truth of those who lead us? Time and past time, I would suggest.

Don’t Get Faked Out!

1 Bob TrubeDid you get this message on Facebook recently? Did you forward it to other friends? How did you feel when you found out it was a hoax? Or did you?

One of the sad and dismaying aspects of online life are all the ways people try to mess around with you or even defraud you. From countless spam emails with dubious links to clever attempts to “spear fish” and get your log in credentials, to viruses that either scoop up personal identities, or turn your computer into a virus propagator, one has to constantly be skeptical of what one is seeing–and don’t click on that link.

I’m currently reading a new book called Democracy Hackedby Martin Moore, that explores the various way different entities attempt to influence our political behavior using personal data that we offer up online, through psychological profiling. We’ve heard the stories of fraudulent accounts set up on Facebook and Twitter to disseminate targeted “news” where it will do the most harm, or reinforce already existing beliefs.

What is most troublesome to me in all of this is the jettisoning of anything that remotely resembles the truth–whether it is a meme, a photograph, or a “news” story. The real intent of most of this is not to inform, but to provoke a reaction–usually negative–against an individual (usually an opposition political candidate) or a group (immigrants, some ethnic or identity groups, social classes, or simply those of another political party).

So, along with the tactics I use to avoid getting scammed by those after identity information, there are practices I’m developing to avoid getting scammed by “fake news” and other ways entities try to manipulate, rather than inform, me.

  1. Look at who is publishing the story or meme or photo. Do you recognize the source? What do you know about them? While some want to question established news outlets, which do have their own bias, you definitely want to question outlets with names you haven’t heard of.
  2. Are they making a negative claim about someone? Are they making a statement of supposed fact, either to support their own work, or undermine someone else? I find it a good idea, and do this increasingly, to fact check the story. Snopes.com is one of the best, being rated “center” by AllSides.com. This Make Use Of article suggests five unbiased fact checking sites.
  3. If you care about truth, get out of your “echo chamber.” Do not listen only to things you agree with or portrayals of what you disagree with by those who share your outlook. I follow both the National Review and The Atlantic.  I might check what Fox News, PBS, NBC, and even the BBC say about an important story, paying attention to the differences. Realize that social media will tailor news stories to what you have shown interest in. It’s no accident that you see products advertised that you’ve searched online. The stories you see in your feed are not an accident either.
  4. I don’t listen to PAC sponsored ads, and listen to candidate sponsored ads with a grain of salt. Our courts have said that the big money interests, conservative and liberal, can dominate our political conversation over the airwaves. I guess that is the price of free speech. That doesn’t mean we have to listen. Or if you do–fact check! Pay attention to the way the ad attempts to manipulate your emotions.
  5. Do your own research. The League of Women Voters often provides extensive information on candidates and issues. Look at records for those who have been in office. They will tend to do what they have done if they have the opportunity. Don’t rely on ads or even news stories to accurately represent this.

When many of us first discovered the internet, we thought this was an incredible place to be informed. We have to understand that for many, they see it as an incredible place to manipulate political behavior. In this as well as in areas of our private information, I don’t want to be scammed or faked out. That means vigilance as I read what comes across various feeds online, especially via social media, but also even in our more traditional media. The manipulators assume we will be too distracted, too credulous, and perhaps unaware of the psychological profiling they have done. I don’t want them to be right. Do you? Our democracy’s future may hang on how we answer.

 

When We Cannot Reason Together

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Raphael, The School of Athens

It seems to me that in many quarters of the United States, we’ve reached a dangerous place of no longer being able to reason together when we have differences–whether the aim is simply understanding one another, or arriving at some agreement of how we will live together with our differences, or how, without achieving perfect agreement, we can arrive at measures that we can agree on and implement that make things better for all. Whether it is in dysfunctional politics or the use of obstructive tactics to shut down speakers on a campus or violent confrontations on our streets, we seem to be becoming an increasingly angry society more concerned about our own rightness and power than the pursuit of the good,the true, and the beautiful, that, when I last checked, none of us has a corner on. It makes me quite concerned for our country.

I’ve seen it on social media. The most grievous is when I see people who don’t know each other attack one another’s character because they differ. I’ve seen it on my Facebook profile where two people I count as friends, but who don’t know each other, end up attacking each other, having no idea what a fantastic person the other individual is. And why is it that whenever one voices an opinion there are those who feel it is their mission in life to jump in, argue, rebut, or simply pronounce how wrong-headed and stupid you are? How refreshing it would be if someone were to say, “you seem an intelligent person, and you see things differently than I do. Would you tell me more about why you think that way?” It just doesn’t happen, sadly. Sometimes it tempts me to limit myself to posting cute memes and pretty pictures or uncontroversial articles–although that is an increasingly narrow category–it seems we have a difficult time talking civilly online about anything.

I really wrestle with what to do. I would love to have discussions with people who want to have genuine discussions that don’t reduce to “you’re wrong, we’re right.” But I’ve pretty nearly concluded that Facebook is not the place to do it. And frankly, I don’t have the time to dialogue with those who really aren’t interested genuine dialogue, but simply feel compelled to counter any point that they disagree with. And sooner or later on any issue of substance–someone makes a pronouncement with an implied (or explicit) put down of any who differ, ending any rational conversation. Over the years, that has come from different ends of the political spectrum, depending on the issue. Sometimes conversations end with battling pronouncements. On more than one occasion, I’ve just taken the whole thread down because it became toxic. But this bothers me–is that the end the commentators were striving for–to silence anyone who disagrees?

I’ve also considered one or a combination of these option

  • Deleting conversation stopping comments–but I don’t like cutting off my friends.
  • Deleting all comments–this has the effect of saying–“I just put this out there to think about” but precludes real dialogue.
  • Blocking people–in this case I might just as well unfriend them–tough when you do value them as friends.
  • Include a request that if people simply want to make pronouncements, they should do it on their own pages–except that those who do this tend to ignore such requests.

Probably my preferred option at this point is generally to stop making those posts. I don’t think they change minds and the virtual world seems to just foster either incivility or echo chambers and I don’t want to add to it. In the future, when you hear from me on Facebook, know that it is something that cuts pretty close to the bone.

What will I do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear from others who have wrestled with this:

  • I will keep blogging and reviewing books. Know that my blogs and reviews will reflect things I care about, and are consonant with the ethos of this blog–the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
  • I will work hard in my own online behavior to listen to understand before I write to respond. I can’t change others, but I can be the change I hope to see. Whether it works or not, at least I can live with myself.
  • I will look for ways to take real action in the real world about things I care about rather than talk in the virtual world.
  • I will find people who I can have face to face conversations with who are different from me–but committed to dialogue with civility.
  • I will vote for people who have track records of reasoning together with their political opponents to serve all their constituents. I will not vote for people who foster divisiveness. Sometimes, that may mean I will not vote for any candidate for a given office.
  • I will not expect politicians to implement ideologically pure policies or utopian solutions. I will not look for them to bring in the kingdom of God. I will expect them to legislate and lead in ways that serve not merely their “base” but to reach proximately good solutions that fairly serve all their constituents–in my school district, city, county, state, or the country.
  • I will also look to the role we can play in our participation in mediating institutions-churches, volunteer organizations, neighborhood groups, and other more local groups. When we put so much stake in the political arena, we give away the power and influence that may be exercised through these groups.

Perhaps what I’m realizing, even as I write this, is that online life is a poor substitute for real citizenship. I still believe that the online world can be a great place to learn, listen, and understand, and even change our minds if we are open to it. It doesn’t encourage deliberative argument, or careful, “longform” thinking between people. I don’t think that’s what it is made for. I, for one, will be looking for other ways to reason together.

I’m not sure I like this conclusion or feel I’ve reached a landing place that I’m content with. I’d really value your help!

Owning Up to Our Sorry Record As Men

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CDC/ Dawn Arlotta, Public Domain, via Free Stock Photos.biz

It has been deeply unsettling to follow the parade of revelations that have arisen out of the #MeToo movement. I’ve found it disturbing to read reports of respected leaders, doctors, pastors and priests, coaches and media figures, all men, who have harassed, assaulted or forced sex on children, athletes, and women against their wishes. In the late 1970’s, novelist Marilyn French wrote, “All men are rapists and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes.”

It’s really tempting as a man to say, “not all men.” But when I consider the pervasiveness of violence against women and children, and sexual predation, I realize this just doesn’t wash. I don’t know a woman alive who has not at least been harassed by a man, or felt the threat of sexual violence, or experienced it, and had what is most precious, their own bodies and their wills, violated. Saying “not all men” may make us feel better, but it really doesn’t even begin to take on board the deep pain and fear in the lives of our wives, our daughters, our colleagues, our friends. We really just need to shut up and listen, if the women around us trust us enough to take them seriously.

Scholars of race speak of systemic racism. It might be just as painful to face the reality of “systemic rapism.” There is something to what French says about eyes and laws and codes. Who of us men have looked at a woman and paid attention only to shape and body parts, and failed to consider the person? Who of us men have not benefited from inequities in our laws and customs that have the net effect of conferring higher wages and better opportunities? Who of us men have not sometimes benefited from unspoken ways of doing things, or social codes in churches, organizations, and businesses that protect power and control? Even the rights women gain such as suffrage, have had to be wrested from men.

Where do we begin in owning this stuff? Perhaps the place to begin is to stop justifying ourselves and sit with the tremendous havoc wrought by our gender in the lives of women and children. Stop saying “not all men.” It ends conversation. Instead, we might say “tell me more” and acknowledge the pain that is being expressed without offering justifications or excuses. Sometimes wrong is just wrong. Any way in which a man threatens or forces himself on a woman, child, or another man against that person’s will is just wrong. This is a bright-line offense that needs to be understood as unambiguously wrong, and the violation of that bright-line must never be protected, never justified, never covered up.

The other thing I believe we as men need to do is to assume full responsibility for our own sexuality. We must stop blaming women for our sexual longings and desires. We must stop blaming what women wear for our sexual responses. A sexually responsible man does not need a woman to tell him “no.” He makes it his responsibility to understand and honor the boundaries of a relationship. I would go so far as to say that men should not say with their bodies what they are unwilling to say in their commitments to a woman. I would go so far as to say that a man should not engage in the activity that can father children unless he is ready to assume the responsibility of being a father (and the woman wants him as the father of her children).

Women have been trying to call us out on these things for a long, long time. Men, we need to start calling each other out on this stuff. “Locker room humor” and all the ways we demean women should be treated as unacceptable and juvenile. Women shouldn’t have to call out these things because we as fathers, brothers, colleagues, and friends are doing it first–at the first hint of disrespecting the dignity of women.

I’m going to be controversial here, but I’m going to suggest that men declare a moratorium on trying to prevent women from having abortions. Please understand me here. I am pro-life. The inherent contradiction in celebrating conception when we want a child and destroying a fetus when we don’t should be readily apparent. The global abortion holocaust, particularly of female babies is a horror as awful as anything. Period.

What I want instead is for men to start talking about their own responsibility for the conditions that lead to abortion. We ask women to use methods of birth control that are often detrimental to their health. When these fail or are not used, we ask women to undergo a procedure that carries physical risks and psychological implications. Often, not always, it is the pressures of male lovers that force women into abortions. Women often choose abortion because they know the man won’t support them in raising a child, or don’t trust him, and they will end up carrying the burden of a child themselves. Men, if we really cared about preventing abortion, there is a great deal we could do without ever telling women what they should do or passing a law to prohibit abortion–refraining from fathering children we’re not ready to father and assuming responsibility for birth control for starters. In other words, assume responsibility for your own sexuality! Don’t put it on women.

Men, we need to own what those of our gender have done against women. No excuses. No shifting the blame. It’s not pretty. We’ve covered up for each other and arranged our power structures to sustain those coverups. We’ve joked about what is despicable. There are no excuses. To say “not me” or “not all men” is just a dodge for facing hard truths about ourselves and our brothers. Perhaps facing those truths unflinchingly may be the most “manly” thing we can do.

 

 

 

Five Years Later…

Stats ‹ Bob on Books — WordPress com

I received this little recognition from WordPress, where my blogs are hosted, on Sunday. A day after I registered, I wrote my first post, Writing on Reading, and took the plunge into the world of blogging. That was on August 13, 2013.

It has been, on the whole, a delightful journey. What has made it so special are the interactions with so many who follow the blog, either on WordPress, or via social media. Many of those interactions are online, and often, I feel I am learning as much as I’m sharing. Perhaps some of the most delightful interactions, though, are with people I would call “anonymous followers” who I run into at a conference or other gathering and tell me how much they appreciated a particular post, or the blog more generally. It reminds me that there is a world of readers out there beyond the comments and the likes and the stats.

But if you like stats, here are a few. Currently 1099 people follow the blog. Actually, a month ago this number was more like 3300, but included all my Facebook friends on my personal profile as well as my WordPress followers. Facebook changed their policy recently and would only count and allow posting to those on your Facebook Page. Actually, that’s OK, because the current number is a more honest reflection of those really interested. Over the past five years, I’ve written 1630 posts and, as of writing had 301,787 visitors and 439,774 views on the blog. That’s an average of 240 views a day over five years–which in blogging circles is modest success.  The all-time top post was Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Top 10 (from 2015) that has had 19,966 views to date. Nearly since the beginning, I’ve posted six days a week, taking Sundays off, with a couple of breaks, one for a conference I was directing, another for emergency foot surgery.

Somewhere over the past five years, I went from posting book reviews to becoming a reviewer. The transition was one of simply reviewing whatever I read to developing relationships with various publishers to review newly published books, either in print or e-galley form, sometimes before the books were published. I’ve learned the value of becoming a reliable reviewer, producing clear content related to a book in a timely fashion. The payoff is the chance to review more of that publisher’s books. Sometimes I’ve had the chance to interact with authors as well. I love it when an author reads a review, and whatever I thought of the book, says, “you understood what I was trying to say.” It is gratifying when I learn that I’ve been able to connect an author whose work I deeply appreciate with a reader who will find the work amusing, informative, or even, on occasion, transformative.

Booksellers are another group of my heroes. In the age of online sales, I so appreciate the work of those who curate a selection of books in a way that is responsive to their customers, work hard to build a customer base, host book events, and attempt to pay the bills every month. I appreciate those who have taken the time to let me into their world, even a little.

I mentioned a Youngstown post earlier. This was something I think I fell into by accident. It began with a post where I talked about one of these conversation exercises used at conferences. The question was, “what is something I probably don’t know about you that you should ask me about?” My answer was “what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown.” I wrote a post about that and someone said I should write some more about that. Early on, I wrote a post about food, which exploded when I posted it in some Youngstown Facebook groups. For the past four years I’ve been learning about everything from ethnic foods to city founders, reading more than a few Youngstown books, writing about it, and then learning a ton more from the comments of others. I’ve discovered that to know who you are, you need to know where you’ve come from.

Downsides? There is the struggle of every writer to figure out what you want to say and then making the words on the screen reflect the ideas in your head. Mercifully, I’ve had few “trolls”–perhaps I’m not that interesting. I’ve learned that your website can be wrongly blacklisted, and it can take months to undo. It happens often enough that there are businesses who deal with this stuff. Add this to all the ways people try to defraud you online and offline….

To end on a positive note, I have to give a shout out to the folks at WordPress, who have designed software that is easy to work with and gets you online quickly. Beyond that, I’ve found their support people among the very best to work with whenever I’ve had a question or problem. Most of the time, it all just works so seamlessly that you forget all the people working behind the scenes that make it work. After five years, though, it seems appropriate to say thanks to the folks at WordPress that help my voice be heard, my reviews seen, and all those great Youngstown conversations to happen. Thank you, WordPress!

One of the Problems With Our Politics

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The Ohio 12th Congressional District as of 2013.

This is the congressional district, the Ohio 12th, in which I live. Do you see the problem? Why would you create a district like this?

I live in northwest Franklin County, in the city of Columbus, just below the dotted county line above which is the word “Powell.” Columbus is the focal point of most of our lives–where we work, the teams we root for, the politics we pay attention to, the parks we play in, the libraries and other public services we use. There is a highly populated sliver of this district in northern Franklin County outside I-270 with a tongue reaching down into Clintonville, significantly, all west of I-71, a significant ethnic demarcation line in that part of the city. Why would you carve up the Franklin County portions of the district like this?

Much of the rest of this weirdly shaped district is exurban or rural populations. Delaware County to the north has seen an explosion of affluent home construction by upper middle class individuals. Some contend that Delaware County carried George Bush in his slim election victories in Ohio. In national campaigns, Democrats come to Columbus, and Republicans to Delaware County. Morrow, Richland, Licking and southern Muskingum Counties are heavily rural counties. Why would you draw up a district like this?

The answer, very simply, is to make it a safe Republican seat. Only for eight years in the 1930’s, and two years in the 1980’s has the Ohio 12th been held by a Democrat. Why do I write about all this now?

As I write (a day ahead of posting), we are having a special election in this district. Pat Tiberi, the Republican representative vacated his seat in January. Troy Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville, and Danny O’Conner, a Democrat from the northern part of Columbus, are contesting the seat both now for the remainder of the unexpired term, and again in November for a new two year term. It is the one congressional election between now and November and HUGE amounts of advertising money on both sides have been poured into this race. Polling indicates the two candidates are separated by a mere point, statistically insignificant. Everyone is looking at this race as to whether there will be a “blue wave” in November.

Some of the craziness of this gerrymandered district is reflected in a remark made by the Republican candidate on his last campaign stop in his home town of Zanesville on Monday, August 6. He said:

“My opponent is from Franklin County, and Franklin County has been challenging. We don’t want someone from Franklin County representing us.”

It happens that one-third of the population of the district lives in that sliver of northern Franklin County and the remark seems to suggest that “us” somehow doesn’t include Franklin County, or that if the candidate from Franklin County were elected, he wouldn’t represent the “us” the Republican candidate was speaking to.

That’s the problem with gerrymandering. Political leaders of either party don’t have to think about representing everyone–only the base that gives them an election margin. Draw the district along the right demographic lines and you usually don’t have to worry. Both parties do this, which helps account for our highly polarized political conversation and gridlocked political process. A March 26, 2018 New York Times article states that at that time, only 48 of 435 House seats were considered “up for grabs.”

The sad thing is that representatives end up representing only some of us. If the Republican candidate wins, I wonder if he will represent me because I live in “Franklin County.” If the other wins, I’m sure some will wonder if their voices will be heard. Furthermore, this focuses on how we differ and not on what unites us, as Ohioans, and Americans. It seems to me that one could run focusing on what unites us even in our current gerrymandered district. But failing to hew to current party orthodoxy could be costly. If more districts were competitive, candidates would have to develop positions that reflect the concerns of all the district. And they would have to serve and listen to all the district during intervening years.

I think it a good thing that the race in my district is competitive. But I am concerned that this reflects more a political moment of resistance to a president unpopular in some quarters than the result of a consistently competitive district. Our political process needs to be built on something better than waves of political discontent or balkanized districts of safe seats. We have passed redistricting reforms in Ohio this spring that await the 2020 census. The process won’t be complete until 2023. We’ve yet to see what will result.

What can we do in the meanwhile? One thing as citizens is to identify and focus on the issues that affect all of us and not allow ourselves to be divided by the political parties. All but the super-rich face the issue of the cost of health care. No matter what we think about causes, all of us face the effects of climate change. We may not have it so bad in Ohio right now, but what happens when other parts of our country come seeking our water, or start moving here when other places become unlivable? How are we dealing with opioid use that are turning cities into war zones and rural areas into places of despair and grief.

The other thing is to pay attention and communicate about the things that matter to us–call, write, email, visit, and if we are not being heard, use our free speech rights to write in newspapers, on blogs, and to protest publicly.

We’ve let this happen to our country. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into demographic units and played up to on “hot button” issues instead of demanding responsible governance across the board and political leadership that values all of us and calls us together to pursue the best for our country. Today, and in November, we vote in my congressional district. It’s easy to collect my sticker and say I’ve done my duty. But as citizens, it has only begun.

[Written Tuesday, August 7, 2018] Update: Republican Troy Balderson narrowly defeated (a one percent margin) Democrat Danny O’Connor. A Green party candidate accounted for much of the difference in the other two candidates’ vote totals. They run against each other again in the November general election.

“Popularizer” is a Dirty Word.

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C. S. Lewis, Public Domain via Flickr

If you are an academic, one of the worst things you can be called is a “popularizer.” It means you are not a serious scholar, even if you have published serious scholarly work.

This came up in Donna Freitas newly published Consent on Campus. She urges her colleagues to engage students in classes about questions about sexual ethics as it relates to course content. But she observes that academics are their own worst enemies. Faculty who refuse to remain detached but talk about the personal and real-life implications of their scholarship run the risk of criticism from colleagues as “popularizers.”

This is not a new problem. It was one that faced one of the most significant writers and Christian apologists of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis. Lewis graduated with a triple first and published landmark works on Paradise LostThe Allegory of Love, and The Discarded Image. Yet he never progressed beyond the rank of Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford. Only late in life, in 1954, was he awarded the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.

Why? He was a popularizer. His radio addresses during World War II made “mere Christianity” understandable to ordinary listeners. He addressed pressing issues that were barriers to Christian belief in clear and carefully argued best-selling books. He wrote creative science fiction. Perhaps his worst offense was writing children’s stories.

A continued source of longing I’ve encountered among thoughtful Christians is for the rise of another C. S. Lewis. What if the real issue is not intellectual brilliance or theological knowledge or spiritual devotion, but a willingness to descend from the ivory tower and risk being called a popularizer and judged as less than a serious scholar? What if the real issue is a willingness to risk career success?

I’m not sure how to distinguish a public intellectual from a popularizer. I suspect these may be positive and negative labels for the same person. It does assume someone whose public work is marked by intellect, serious thought translated into terms any thoughtful person may grasp. Such people are not limited to the academy, but the rigor of their training and credentials, and their regular practice of teaching students do qualify them for this work.

I wonder if it comes down to conviction and courage. For such persons might “popularizer,” “associate professor,” and “not serious” become badges of honor? I suspect it is not right to set out to be the next C.S. Lewis. But I suspect it will not come to pass unless a person accepts these badges.

No Longer a Caged Twitter Bird

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Alfred Gatty, Public Domain via Reusable Art

I found out the other day that bobonbooks.com, which had been blocked on Twitter for about a month, is no longer blocked. I can post links from this blog page and when people click on links, they no longer get scary warning messages that suggest all sorts of nefarious things could happen if they went to my website (even though this never was an actual problem). I never received an explanation from Twitter as to why I was blocked, what I needed to do to get unblocked, nor that I was no longer being blocked. I simply observed that scheduled posts were now posting to Twitter.

My reaction? I was glad, sobered, and educated.

Glad. One of the main things I do on this blog is post reviews of books, particularly recently published books I’ve received from publishers to review. Tweeting my reviews to the publisher is one way of alerting them I have a review up (I often also email a link to publishers’ publicists). Publishers also like to re-tweet reviews they think will help promote the book. None of that was possible and the scary messages were wrongly discrediting my website. I’m glad all this has gone away, hopefully for good.

Sobered. I hadn’t imagined something like this could happen. I am careful to observe the Terms of Service on social media and any admin rules on pages where I post. I’d never had something like this happen before. One day, I simply discovered that although I could post tweets, I could no longer post any links, even in shortened form, from my site to Twitter. I discovered that the likely cause was a “false positive” report on my site that was filed at PhishTank, a blacklisting site used by many institutions to block “phishing” sites. These reports are not verified nor are website owners notified. I discovered that two other blacklisting sites subsequently had me on their unsafe lists, and I learned from some friends that my website came up with warnings or were blocked at their work computers. I don’t know why this happened. I do post material related to my religious beliefs. I wonder if that was the reason. Maybe it was just random. Whatever it was, it was a personal encounter with a dark side of the web.

Perhaps the most sobering experience was how long it took to get “unblocked” by Twitter. To the credit of the blacklisting sites, when I asked them to review my site, it took minutes to a day at most for them to change the status of my site to safe. I submitted a ticket to Twitter as well. It took a month for them to finally unblock the site. As I said above, I have no clue why I was blocked or unblocked. I was surprised and glad that I was able to post links to bobonbooks.com. My son had suggested I just give up, which I about had, because, in his words, “there is no upside for them.”

Educated. Here are some things I learned:

  • Technically, because my site is hosted on WordPress.com, “drive-by” attacks that post malware or phishing links cannot happen because of their security protocols. I doubt whether this is foolproof, but if someone hacks WordPress.com, there are potentially millions of us compromised. However, if an individual user is blacklisted, you are on your own.
  • If you host your own website, or it is hosted elsewhere, you do need to take the security of your site seriously. Make sure your software, virus and anti-malware software is up to date and running, and you have a good firewall. There are also companies that provide website and reputation protection. If you do business on your site, some form of this protection could be a good investment.
  • I now use Sucuri SiteCheck to check my site daily. It scans your site for malware and phishing links and also checks nine of the top blacklisting sites. It may not be foolproof, but it is a good line of defense and helped me discover blacklisting sites where I was blacklisted. Sucuri rates my site “safe” and not listed on any of the nine blacklisting sites it scans.
  • I revisited my own security practices and added dual authentication to my blog site. Anyone else logging on results in a text to my cell phone. I also clear spam comments, moderate commenting, and block spammers. Visitors to the site never see this.
  • While you can take steps to secure your site, it is still possible for your site to be wrongly blacklisted. Blacklisting sites only check your site if you ask them, and once you are blacklisted somewhere, it spreads to all who use those sites to protect their systems or end users. It can seriously affect your web traffic and your site’s reputation. It can happen to you! I’m not a big fish and it happened to me. I’ve learned it has happened to others.
  • Social media sites like Twitter currently can do what they want. They are not regulated. They have no obligation to offer live support. To have real people available for users with a problem that requires immediate attention may, in my son’s words, “have no upside.” If anything, the death of internet neutrality rules may make it worse. From what I can tell, Twitter can block any links or content it wants. Period. They have the final say. If you don’t like it, there is really no court of appeal as far as I can tell, other than public opinion. I honestly didn’t expect to get back on apart from buying a new web domain name. I’m glad something worked.

If you are a blogger or have a website, I hope this doesn’t happen to you. It can. I didn’t even know this could happen. Now I do. It is sad and disturbing that we spend much of our lives online guarding ourselves from those who might harm or defraud or troll us. If you see anything weird going on when you visit my site, let me know. You can be sure it is not intentional. I still love all that you can do and find on the internet. But it’s a far cry from when I first downloaded Mosaic and discovered the wonders of the web. I think those of us who still see this as a place for dialogue and discovery will have to fight to keep it that way. I’ve always said this site is about promoting conversations about the good, the beautiful, and the true. Perhaps what can keep us going against all the weirdness is the belief that somehow, it is the good, the true, and the beautiful that will endure.