- There are a surprising number of people standing around wanting to hand you things–even if you’re obviously walking around empty handed, unencumbered, and pretty happy about that situation. Pieces of paper advertising various bands at off-campus venues and various lectures with academically obfuscated titles that mostly seem aimed to get you to leave mad about something or maybe everything. Coupons. Self-published fiction (in hardback!) with links to apps printed on the dust jacket.
- There are not nearly enough recycle bins ten paces beyond these people.
- College kids rely very heavily on their peripheral vision, especially the upper peripheral. This is because their heads are typically pointed down at their phones or at least down below the visual plane where they might make eye contact with someone.
- There is very, very little eye contact.
- But, especially not from the guy on a bench who either couldn’t think of an excuse fast enough or was just too polite when two eager young fellas offered to come up and read their Bibles to him while one sat on the facing bench that was rather intimately close, like knee-to-knee, and the other stood blocking the exit.
- Lots of college kids have really big, colorful headphones that don’t plug into anything and just sit there on their ears which, you know, wireless stuff exists but it’s still kind of new and strange to see so that, remember that TV in The Shining that Danny and his mom watched a movie on even though it wasn’t plugged into
anything? It sort of makes campus look like everyone’s just a little crazy in a Kubrick kind of way. And, you wonder, does staying in your own head space like that, cocooned all the time in sound that has to grow predictable after a while, does that start to make everyone actually crazy in a Kubrick kind of way?
- On the campus I work at, there’s a main road made out of the same material as the sidewalk which looks really nice but, given the aforementioned tendency of students to walk around with headphones on while looking down, those visual cues 2-3 paces in front of them become really important for their navigation and the seamless aesthetic kind of makes it a little dangerous because they can’t tell when they’ve left the sidewalk and wandered, say, into the path of an oncoming minivan (whose driver honestly isn’t doing that great a job paying attention either). It is funny to see the college kids jump like scared house cats when the minivan lurches to a stop just inside their lateral peripheral vision, though.
- An oddly high number of young men walk around with gallon jugs of water. Seems strange to make it where you have to leave and pee three times during an hour-long lecture to which you paid an admission fee you’re going to be paying off well into your 40s. Their muscles are pretty big, though.
- There are sidewalks everywhere. Except on the straight line that you would most want to walk to get somewhere.
- This last one may be too peculiar to be universal, but someone in the building I work in (the campus library) leaves their office door open and they have a life-size little cutout of a kitten standing on the floor in the doorway and it tricks me every time. I ought to pop my head in and congratulate them sometime.
Here’s an excerpt (that actually made it in the final edit) from a recent essay for Christ and Pop Culture. You can read the rest here if you’re a member (which is pretty affordable). It’ll pop out from behind the paywall in a couple of months, otherwise. I’m sure I’ll post again when that happens. Unless I forget. Either way, thanks for stopping by.
The other stone that a skillful mason needs is the capstone. The capstone makes possible the vaunted arches that fill our Gothic cathedrals with so much air and light that a person could walk in and feel in their tingling spine that the presence of God could indeed fill such a place. Whereas the cornerstone is square, the capstone is carefully tapered so that its weight can push not just down but also out through the curvature of the arch. This tension holds the pieces in place so that stone can defy gravity and reach to heaven.
And so we now circle back to the life of Christian faith, which begins with the fear of the Lord. Its cornerstone is Jesus Christ himself who, by the way, brings divine blessing and stability to the foundation with his own blood sacrifice, perfecting the ritual all that weird shadow-crushing imitated. On this firm foundation, the Spirit builds the arches of Christian virtue—sacrifice and service, contentment and joy, generosity and self-forgetfulness—otherworldly as they reach to heaven and defy the gravity of our Fall. It’s this cathedralic shape that makes the life of faith so distinctive and compelling, unsettling even. And it needs a capstone. Only a certain fearlessness in the face of death can rightly complement the fear of the Lord. It’s a weighty call, but our assurance of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven should settle into place and keep the entire life of faith and virtue from falling apart, even in those risky times when death gnashes its teeth (or smiles a placid smile while teasing and calculating our end with its barbed-wire bat).
Every once in a while, Anonymous pops up on social media being feted for publicizing some list or other of dirty deeds and ghastly associations which they’ve uncovered on a server somewhere. The last one I saw claimed to report members of law enforcement who were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. The general consensus when these unveilings circulate is one of celebration. People seem delighted that this faceless entity (if it can even be called an entity, disorganized as it is) has the power to drag bigotry out into the light where it can be properly brought to shame. As for me, I’m skeptical.
Not too long ago, I happened to catch part of a documentary about Anne Braden on KET. Anne and her husband landed themselves in a bit of hot water back in the 50s when, on behalf of a black family called the Wades, they bought a house in a Shively, a white neighborhood in Louisville, KY. The Wades had been stonewalled in their attempts to purchase a suburban home on their own. As you might imagine, things got hot and were pretty quick about it.
Someone(s) burned cross in the front yard either the night the Wades moved in or some night shortly thereafter. Before long, someone actually bombed the house, put dynamite right under the window of the room where the Wade’s young daughter slept. God’s mercy, the family was out at the time and nobody was hurt.
What brings this to mind when I think of Anonymous sifting the ether to expose Klan affiliations is the obvious issue of racism, but also this. The 50s weren’t just a time of racial upheaval, this was also the McCarthy Era. Communists were lurking inside ordinary-looking Americans like lit dynamite ready to explode and rip apart the fabric of our society. The Braden family were witch-hunted as such. Anne’s husband Carl was tried and jailed for sedition for buying a house that persons unknown tried to blow up because of the skin tone of the inhabitants. There was a right and a wrong way to think and the halls of power were at work to get everyone thinking in line.
One might think that their mutual opposition to racial animus puts the likes of Anne Braden on the same side as those whomevers in Anonymous, but this couldn’t be further from true. The Red Scare was driven by an institutional fear of ideas that thrived on the clamor of people accusing each other. When you look at 50s as a time when the relatively secret wheels of government power churned in an effort to make mincemeat of scary thoughts, it seems plain to me that Joseph McCarthy’s legacy runs right to Anonymous via a straight, unbroken line.
On the subject of Klan affiliation, Anonymous opposes what I oppose. But, they are not my ally. Their chosen methods make them a foe of another stripe. When power is exercised behind the blank slate of anonymity, that has all the totalitarian trappings of a police state. By delving into citizens’ private lives and policing privately-held beliefs, dredging up some muck to be brought to shame and, I’m sure they hope, retribution, these digital thought police are a disgrace to liberty (and this is not even getting into the fact that just posting a found database with no context or actual reportage shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity that makes a gossip and a mockery of the standard of press a free society requires). But, Anonymous gets away with it because they have cherry-picked an easy ideology to attack. They exploit our cultural blind spots to make alarming power plays.
Consider the Nazis. Nobody would say now that hunting down Jews and their sympathizers was a noble thing, but within the bubble of Nazi Germany, it was the height of national pride to do so. I mean, they threw some pretty damn extravagant parades to celebrate some pretty damned egregious acts. Point being, it’s hard to see your gross totalitarianism when everyone agrees with you. And to act so from a place of hiding is beyond bad, it’s frightening.
* * *
Let’s take a full stop here. Racism is a moral wrong. I personally anchor this thinking in the belief that the same God made us all and that gives us a terrific depth of dignity not to be mocked. I do not in any way believe that we as people should leave racist ideas unchallenged, especially in places of authority like the justice system. I do in every way believe that we as people should listen to our neighbors when they’re hurting and angry and join with them in seeking reconciliation. I shy away from using the word justice here because that term is so fraught and so righteous that I pale to think of human attempts to exert it. Let justice roll, but don’t ask me to roll it. I’m unqualified. I like the idea of reconciliation better because it implies a mutual work on all sides. But! I believe this mutual work should start in the camp that’s hurting least, because the camp that’s hurting most needs people to listen and care.
* * *
Back to faceless hackers. You might say that ordinary people need the protection of anonymity to stand up to tyranny, and that may seem true. But, can individual acts of tyranny actually resolve institutional acts of tyranny? Put another way, if the people succeed in changing the balance of power in their favor, will they then give up their own tyrannical power or will they double down to ensure that the world stays as they like it? I’m not a trained historian, but I know enough about my own human nature to bet on power preserving power, not virtue.
What it comes down to is this: privacy is threatening. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? These days, we all do. Our always-on, always-wired-in world has given us a vision for much more darkness than we could have ever imagined even 20 years ago. Not only has the Internet revved the news cycle up to redline levels of horrors per minute, but it has given people a space to air out the darkest corners of their hearts and minds. Complete depravity is but a comments section away. Seeing the havoc in the human heart on full display shouldn’t necessarily be surprising—especially for those like me who take something like the Sermon on the Mount at face value—but it is certainly bracing. I understand the impulse to stamp out the flames. Privacy is threatening.
So, we need to have courage. We need to have the secure conviction that resists fear. To begin with, we need known people working to know each other. We need to have compassion and persuasion in our arsenal. About that word. Arsenal used to simply indicate a wharf, a place to dock and repair boats. It literally means a house for craft or skill. These days, though, we use the word indicating a place to make and stockpile weapons. This seems to illustrate our tendency to weaponize all craft, to make our human arts into instruments of power and victory. I imagine this drift in meaning might have come as ships became more instrumental in conquesting war, fighting abroad, and the industry of shipbuilding came under the claim of warmakers. Maybe it’s that we can’t travel without fighting because we find contrary cultures so threatening. In any event, it’s a shame that we feel the impulse to weaponize every tool we have for handling injustice and disagreement.
I propose we de-escalate a bit. When it comes to handling distasteful and even horrific ideas, let’s make our arsenal back into a house of craft. Not the craft of war, but the craft of peaceableness. I’m borrowing that word from a hero of mine, Wendell Berry, because I like it so much. It doesn’t presume that the success of peace is guaranteed or even always possible, but it it puts the weight on us to make peace an option. As scary as that is in the face of the horrors of the human heart, it’s pretty sound advice. If two parties are armed for war, war it will be. Inevitability. If one party is willing for peace, there is actual possibility. When it comes to opposing racism, we must resist the pull of war in our gut. War we have. Making peace, the art of reconciliation, is a much more complex path. It is choosing vulnerability while insisting on dignity. It is a high calling and it is risky, but it is good. And it takes far more courage than hiding behind spoofed IP addresses, proxy servers, and nameless names.
I believe that in order for a society to flourish, there has to be an unshakable trust that anyone can be reached and turned aside from violence. Even if this turning aside does not always actually happen—and surely it hasn’t, and surely it won’t—the possibility that it could must live among us for us to be sane in the root sense of being healthy. This is about believing that anyone can be redeemed, but I don’t mean redeemed to Western, progressive, liberal consumerism. I mean redeemed to the far less debatable truth that people are important and shouldn’t be killed by other people.
What happens if we don’t believe this particular redemption is possible? First, we become suspicious. People become potential threats. This starts out in the abstract, but it does not stay so removed. We become suspicious of communities and groups that unknowable by their very remove and so are obviously different from us in some way (geographically, ethnically, religiously, culturally). This is the root of our assent to any manner of foreign war. But, suspicion follows us home. We begin to distrust people in our own cities and towns because they, too, look different or live in different circumstances. And here’s the problem: once one barrier to our belief that people can be redeemed goes up, once we start being suspicious of people we don’t actually know just because they’re other than us, there is no real place to re-draw a circle of trust. We stop risking relationship. Instead, there is a slow creep of us keeping our guard up until even neighborly relationship becomes difficult. Look at homes going up for sale in a rich neighborhood if a black family moves in. Look at the distance people will keep if someone on the block keeps their house or yard in disarray or keeps odd hours doing odd things. Such behavior is not rooted in the belief that you can forge a strong enough relationship with any kind of person that will bind you together in mutual thriving and even affection. Such behavior is rooted in the belief that anyone could be out to get you.
Another troubling thing. As the list of people we trust with our own care dwindles, the list of things we fear balloons. Now, we no longer fear just murder, but theft, home invasion, rape, riot, or someone not returning the rake they borrowed. We no longer just fear that someone here from a foreign land might be building bombs and laying them out in the streets, we fear anyone we meet for an exhausting list of possible threats they might pose. It’s a crazy way to live.
I know there are awful things in the world and people are the ones doing them. I’m not saying we should be naive and completely regardless of our safety. I am saying, though, that there’s a hard thing here that must be embraced. Relationship is the only hope for defusing some of the people that would otherwise harm us. Certainly, strict separation from the ‘others’ either by rejecting them from our vicinity completely or cordoning them off into ghettos surely isn’t going to prevent anything. In fact, such separation will surely only intensify any animosity some may already feel, and might even sow fresh animosity where none was before. Imagine, though, bringing people near and seeing to their flourishing, not just economically buy relationally as well. Of course, this is an individual act, not a ‘societal’ one. This kind of hopeful activity wold necessarily be personal, the act of caring for those around us and possibly going a little beyond what’s easy and comfortable in order to care for just a few more. That is the way to urge someone away from violence, to build a relationship that would not easily be violated. It is the only way. It cannot be legislated as a big solution to a big problem, it can only be lived out on a scale that seems almost microscopic in our supposedly ‘global’ world. We can remember, though, that it takes good microbes in the dirt to grow a crop. We may still get burned, perhaps even literally, but we as a people would still be able to hope for better and not resign ourselves to worse.
* * *
These thoughts were originally sparked by the issue of our country, our neighborhoods and cities providing harbor for people fleeing war-ravaged places, hence the immediate issue of violence. What is violence, though, but the ultimate in a long list of ways we can reduce other people? I think you can take our fear of violence and how we react to those whom we fear will bring it and pretty easily translate those fears into understanding how we reduce people to ‘enemies’ just because we disagree with them politically. That is to say, I don’t think fearful people on the so-called ‘right’ are the only people who are letting suspicion and disdain metastasize among us. We all have to fight our inherent xenophobia both foreign and domestic, even people on the so-called ‘left’ who seem to be talking about Trump supporters in about the same apocalyptic terms a Trump supporter might talk about a Syrian. Just something to think about.
Electricity, Kaizen, and the Devil On Our Shoulder
Consider the electric generator. Whereas the steam engine burned fuel to create motion, a generator uses motion to make fuel. Spinning a copper barrel in a magnetic field makes electricity start to flow. It is something of a misnomer, though, to call this electricity ‘fuel’ or even ‘energy’. It is actually a byproduct of using up fuel and energy. Split hairs aside, this new ‘energy source’ was heavily favored over the old source (fire) as seen in the fact that people will burn combustible fuels for the sole purpose of spinning an electric generator. Reliable electricity would have to be the crowning achievement of the engine revolution and the seed of a whole new series of revolutions.
An apparently limitless source of electricity handed a new tool to the innovators, and they ran with it. Experiment followed experiment, leveraging each breakthrough to the end of further exploration. Send current through a coil of wire in a vacuum-sealed glass bulb. Electric light. Send electricity through a highly-resistant alloy inside a metal box. Electric oven. Modern life came into view. The discoveries were only limited by the materials on hand. Conveniently enough, parallel to all these experiments, those mechanical engines had been scouring the earth above and below not only for their own fuel, but for any other new ore to further the innovation. Keeping the front lines of progress well-supplied. This was highly lucrative, but also very destructive. Materials ripped as quickly as possible from the earth and often burned have left quite a few scars. Our appetite for mechanical haste and efficiency, though, emerged unscathed.
It must be something innately human to always want to improve. No good world is good enough. Innovation piles on top of innovation, each building on the last, each begging the next. If we try to take some notion of all of this expansion into our minds, it’s hard not to see innovation itself as one great engine. One of such potency that it fuels itself, improves itself, grows itself. A vast, whirring array of component parts each united in an intricacy of doing, always trying to outdo. This engine, with all its fecund potency must be no less than the human imagination, the very thing, stretched out over generations, stretching out to unknowable ends.
Measuring the full impact of this imagination engine, wouldn’t we have to admit that it hums inside a head with the devil at one ear? For every power we unleash, we endure a power struggle. For every innovation, the fear of eradication. Our acts of creation germinate in our acts of destruction. Lately, this so-called ‘creative destruction’ has been quite fashionable, but this concept refutes the very essence of creativity. We should call it what it is. A mere rearrangement of dwindling resources both cultural and material. Treading water.
The advances of engineering—mechanical, electrical, soon giving birth to the software engineer—have brought us into the digital age and left a wide trail of exhaustion in its wake. We must pause, though, to answer the objection again. Innovation itself is not the problem. Taming the world around us, drawing out its best potential through care and study, this is the most fundamental charge of being human and one of our great pleasures. This act of drawing forth, though, must be held in check. Much is possible, but less is good. More than that, though, apparent good can be deceiving, hiding deep consequences that unfold much more slowly than the initial reward. Innovation must be held in check by care and sober foresight, by prudence.
We are as naturally inclined to prudence as to innovation. We all balk at something new and strange, even if only for a moment. We sense normality very strongly, like an instinct. This instinct gives us pause as we exercise our urge to create and in those pauses we have the blessed opportunity for wisdom. In that moment when we must contain two opposing forces inside us, navigating an animate balance, we are most alive. Yet when two impulses must live in tension like this, we become vulnerable to motives that would have us choose one side or other as a default and so choke out wisdom. Our sense of normality is either contracted to accept no change, but on the whole, I think it’s more likely that it has greatly expanded to accept even alarming changes as a matter of course, or at least as an acceptable price to pay for whatever dazzling newness is promised to us. We have been conditioned to a fast-paced world.
But, speed always eventually spills the banks of control with destructive consequences. How have we kept at it for so long, continually destroying good worlds for the sake of continual change? Why has ‘good enough’ eluded us? For a complex variety of reasons, but the list would have to at least include the availability of profit, the dopamine surge sponsored by newness, and our desire for an anesthetic for the conscience. We were hungry and we didn’t want to feel bad about it. Subject to these motivations, our sense of normality has evolved to meet the changes wrought by the human dynamo. This was not an unattended happenstance. No, there was a devil at one ear soothing and urging. One last engineer, maybe the only one that matters. The social engineer.
The Art of Dissatisfaction
This engineer lives inside us all. It does our constant work of self-justification. In a broad and external sense, this role is occupied by anyone with a vision for the direction of culture and who tries to bring others along. I’m attempting social engineering right now, one might even call it essaying. But, like the engineer is the technical embodiment of our spirit of innovation, this justification impulse is specialized in the salesman, the marketeer. Paid to make every innovation desirable and therefore profitable.
Social engineering is possible because the human conscience is up for grabs. It is so because the conscience has been severed from its creator, its original guide and limit. Or, if you prefer (though I do not), it has risen out of a long chain of natural selections and so has no moral origin and is constantly waiting to be formed. Either way, the human conscience is up for grabs and the social engineer reaches for it to mold it to accept the world he or she most wants to see. If you can admit that people might occasionally act out of self interest, even if that interest comes at the expense of harm to others, then you can see that the social engineer is dangerous. They sculpt our culture, our bounds of acceptability that all other engineers operate in. Because we invest in what we love, our affections are a battleground. We ought to know the combatants.
Who has an interest in how the world turns out? Well, who is building engines? Who wants to use them? Who wants to sell them? And who would rather the engines not be used against them? This is far from a two-sided story. It is a tribal story shot through with contrary motivations, allegiances, and betrayals. All of this chaos has created ample work for the social engineers to mold the conscience to accept a long succession of innovations, each offering some victory to the more powerful players in any tribe, and even convenience and pleasure to those of middling power. That this innovation has been predicated on destruction is due to the fact that the model of competition is on par with that of roaches. Animal impulses. Do or die. Success is not just comfort, it is your very survival. Victory at all costs.
All along the way, the story has basically been this: if a gadget is potentially profitable, potentially offering a pathway to consolidated power for those in possession of it, then the attached social engineers go to work turning our affections to the immediate gratification offered with the use of the new technology. The conquest of enemies and securing of ‘freedom’, the dopamine release in the brain from watching images flicker across a screen, or just cheaper anything. These pleasures are used to separate the conscience from any hesitation between us the ‘purchase decision’, the moment when we put to death any notion of a world without this new device. We are asked to love the quick profit. In doing so, we accept the economic engine that ever-renewing (and ever obsolescing) technology helps crank. We are all supposedly beholden to this economy as the source of modern wealth, life, and even joy. Unending progress must be considered normal, this fast and accelerating evolution of new means and new things can never be considered reckless because to slow down and consider would be tantamount to an act of terrorism. Sabotaging with concern the world we all rely on.
Indeed, trying to quickly fix the deep errors of the past would be violent. The people responsible for old wounds are either dead or have profited from them so immensely that to challenge them would require a power play on their own destructive scale. You can’t build that kind of power without the recklessness and obliteration they had to expend to gain it themselves. And all the while you’re trying to rip up the past someone keeps building on it. I believe the better resistance starts with slowing the progress of the future-builders, not with authoritarian ploys, but by eroding the tacit assent they rely on to cast forth their vision. If the power for unchecked innovation rests on a sleeping conscience, how can you wake one up? What are the social engineers, those in service to unaccountable profit and power, what are they up to now? Perhaps we could meet them there and dull the cutting edge.
* * *
 It is notable that the mechanical revolution was entirely dependent on fuel that requires a machine to dig up. The destruction of mountains in my state to access coal, the disastrous failures of oil and natural gas wells and tankers, and other such calamities all begin to paint a picture of this vicious cycle where machines require destruction for the fuel they consume, and in turn put in our hands the means to be even more destructive through even greater machine power.
 Brought into being by the alchemy of silicon turning electricity into information.
 It’s funny that this degree of living can drain us. We are such frail creatures.
 And, of course, the most dangerous social engineers are not the ones who aim their marketing at us, but those who market only to power, behind closed doors so they can emerge armed with law.