Like a Madman Who Throws Firebrands

Over the past few days, the good Lord decided to play a cruel trick on the GOP for the second straight election cycle, aiming a hurricane directly at New Orleans just as the Republican Party was rolling out the red carpet and striking up the fanfare for its National Convention, at which it would formally introduce to the world a candidate with whom we have long since become familiar to the point of contempt, and would rally its troops with battle cries, “Down with the socialist!” 

A major hurricane aiming for any stretch of the US coast threatens to upset the spirit of such an occasion, calling for unity when division and partisanship are at their highest pitch, calling for sobriety when self-congratulatory effusion is the order of the day.  But a hurricane headed for New Orleans, as Gustav was during the 2008 RNC and Isaac was this year, is the worst scenario imaginable, summoning up the haunting memories of those dark days in late August and early September 2005, when Katrina dealt the US its deadliest blow in more than 75 years and drowned one of its great cities.  In 2008, several key attendees at the Convention were forced to stay at home, some of the proceedings were abbreviated, and the tone was greatly sobered.  Thankfully, Gustav spared New Orleans—just—while dealing much of the rest of SE Louisiana a punishing blow. This year, the same scenario was being replayed, but made even worse by two additional factors.  First, some genius bigwig in the Republican Party, undeterred by the experience of Gustav, had the bright idea of scheduling this year’s convention in Tampa, FL, on the US Gulf Coast at the height of hurricane season.  Isaac duly made its lumbering way toward Tampa at first, frightening the organizers into canceling the first day’s events.  Then, having opted to spare Tampa, Isaac set his sights for New Orleans and timed his arrival to coincide exactly with the seventh anniversary of the Katrina catastrophe.  A distraction like this was almost worse than the Convention being cancelled.

Unlike Katrina, then, Isaac didn’t even have to make landfall yet before igniting a political firestorm, as both parties jostled to make whatever hay they could out of this sensational turn of events.  Understandably, the Republicans were in much the more difficult position, and so their fiercest champion strode forth, wielding the vorpal sword of his untamed tongue with a rare ferocity, and all but suggesting that the Democrats were steering Isaac via a remote control hidden deep in the dark fortress of Democratic Party headquarters.  I am speaking, of course, of Rush Limbaugh.  


Of course, he didn’t really say that about the remote control, so far as I’m aware, but his actual claims and insinuations were scarcely less ridiculous.  Indeed, so much so that may people will say that it’s a silly waste of time even engaging them, or that I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill because he was so clearly joking.  Jon Stewart, they say, makes outlandish, clearly false statements and no one bats an eye, because it’s a joke.  Let’s give Rush the same benefit of the doubt, they say.  Well, was he joking?  In some remarks perhaps; in others, it certainly seems not.  It is, at any rate, far from clear—unlike Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have a laugh-track studio audience, and doesn’t burst into a silly grin at his own jokes (not that we can see, at any rate), to clue us in.  This lack of clarity means that he bears a greater responsibility for the reliability of his remarks, and how they might be taken, than a mere satirist (and even a satirist isn’t off the hook entirely, as we shall discuss below).  Moreover, for millions of Americans, Rush is their chief source of political news and opinion, their source for facts.  Limbaugh has been called “The Number One voice for conservatism in our Country,” and has received the William F. Buckley, Jr. Award for Media Excellence and a “Defender of the Constitution Award” from CPAC; in a 2009 Zogby poll, he was rated “the most trusted news personality in America,” garnering 12.5% of responses.  That being the case, he has to be taken seriously, whether we want to or not, and his remarks have a great capacity to do harm.


So what were these remarks?  Well, there were a great number, over several broadcasts. But among the most controversial were the following (see also here and here):

“The media is now out there saying that Hurricane Katrina is hanging like a pall over the Republican convention in Tampa. So this whole thing has been politicized, as the Democrats politicize everything, and that’s why we are talking about it. Now, I want to remind you: All last week… And, no, at no time here am I alleging a conspiracy. At no time. With none of this am I alleging conspiracy. All last week what was the target? Tampa. What was going on in Tampa this week? 

The Republican National Convention. A pretty important one, too. Introducing the nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s only after the convention that Romney can actually start spending all of this money that he’s raised, so this convention is very important. It’s a chance to introduce Romney to a lot of people who don’t know him yet. And I noticed that the hurricane center’s track is — and I’m not alleging conspiracies here. The hurricane center is the regime; the hurricane center is the Commerce Department.

It’s the government.

It’s Obama.

And I’m noticing that that track stayed zeroed in on Tampa day after day after day. And the Republicans reacted to it accordingly over the weekend, canceling the first day of the convention. What could be better for the Democrats than the Republicans to cancel a day of this?

And at eight p.m. Saturday night I see one of the biggest, one of the largest shifts in model forecast I have seen since 1997 when I moved down here and started caring about this stuff and started studying it….This was a beeline. This is gonna follow the coast of Cuba right up to New Orleans, in every model.  Again, I’m alleging no conspiracy. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m going somewhere with this. I’m just telling you what happened.

I’m sharing with you my thought process, ’cause I know full well that if you give these people the slightest chance and they’re gonna turn this into Katrina and they’re gonna scare the hell out of New Orleans and they’re gonna revive, “Bush doesn’t care about people” and revive all of it. They’re gonna politicize everything ’cause they do it. And now they had the model runs allowing them to do it.

Now they had these model runs allowing them to start scaring the hell out of people in New Orleans and make political connections to Bush.

It was all there.” 

There are a great many points to pick up on here, but let’s first deal with the obvious issue: his non-conspiracy theorist conspiracy allegation.  Repeatedly in the broadcast, he hints that there must be some conspiracy, for there is just so much coincidence that it’s “unbelievable,” but repeatedly states that he is alleging no conspiracy.  This is of course the oldest game in politics—”Hey, I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’…”  He suggests that there’s something very fishy and unsavory going on, but makes sure he can protest innocence of having actually accused government officials of criminal breaches of the public trust—although in this particular quote, he comes very close to it.  I expect that Limbaugh is too smart to actually think that the NHC deliberately distorted the forecast.  To this extent, people who have defended him to me on the basis that he was deliberately making an outlandish claim just to enrage the liberal media are probably right.  But neither was it a mere joke, an isolated outlandish claim.  On the contrary, the entire broadcast was dedicated to a meticulous (though in fact highly distorted and inaccurate) point-by-point narrative of the timeline of various forecasts regarding the hurricane, suggesting various things that didn’t add up, that were too odd to be coincidence.   

Of course, his dark hints didn’t seem to add up with one another.  On the one hand, he notes that the computer models shifted the forecast track suddenly away from Tampa and toward New Orleans immediately after the Republicans decided to cancel the first day of the Convention, suggesting that the forecast toward Tampa was merely an attempt to disrupt the convention, and once that mission was accomplished, the convention could then be best further disrupted by forecasting a hit on New Orleans.  Both the original forecast toward Tampa and the later forecast towards New Orleans were, on this view, politically motivated.  But what about the fact that the hurricane did in fact make a bullseye hit on New Orleans, just as the later forecast called for?  Does that not vindicate the new forecast?  Did the NHC just get lucky?  On the other hand, Limbaugh elsewhere in the broadcast chides the NHC for not acting immediately on these new model runs (which they had apparently conjured for political ends), and staunchly maintaining its near-Tampa forecast well beyond when it was justified based on the computer models.  Clearly, these two sets of accusations don’t fit together.  If the NHC made up the model runs (which, in any case, is impossible, as they are generated by a whole slew of different agencies and research institutions around the world, many of which are not under US gov’t control) to cause a panic about New Orleans, then why would they hold off on actually updating their forecast track accordingly?  Or if the accusation is that the NHC was foolishly disregarding its reliable models, then what was the point of casting doubt on the trustworthiness of the models?  If the problem is that the forecast is all just politically motivated, then how was it so amazingly accurate in the end (once the NHC figured out that New Orleans was under the gun, it nailed the forecast track, missing by only 25 miles with its 48-hour forecast, compared to an average error of 80 miles over that time frame).  The fact that the various dark hints don’t even add up with one another, much less with the real world lends credence to the suggestion that a lot of this was just an act.  But to what end, we must ask? 

Some will say, “Just to make the liberals mad.  To make them freak out and actually believe that he meant it, and waste their energies attacking him.”  So his defenders will say.  Even if this is true, it is a weak defense indeed, since I’m not sure when saying something offensive just to make your opponents mad became a legitimate purpose of public speech.  (We will return to this later.)  But I think clearly there is a further motivation—which is to undermine public trust in the government, and encourage conservatives in a sense that everyone is out to get them, and perhaps in league against them.  These inchoate convictions rarely operate quite at the level of propositional logic, but are more like gut emotions.  Therefore, Limbaugh does not have to make actual hard and fast accusations; he merely has to create an atmosphere of suspicion, a sense of unease, a sense that there are dark dealings afoot, and that the one entity you can never trust is “the regime, the government.”  

This notion of Limbaugh’s that the National Hurricane Center is “the regime.  It’s the government.  It’s Obama” is sufficiently striking as to call for us to pause and comment.  Rarely has the right’s totalitarian pathology been more neatly showcased.  The right has in recent years forgotten entirely what “the government” is—namely, a widely-dispersed collection of agencies, bodies, and leaders, each with different defined spheres of authority, representing different sections of the body politic and serving it in a wide variety of ways.  We have this nifty thing called separation of powers in the US, and also a division of levels between federal, state, and local, so that there is no unitary abstraction that one can simply peg as “the government,” much less “the regime,” but really just a bunch of people doing their jobs, some badly, some well (and needless to say, they aren’t all under the direct control of Herr Obama).  For this good old American constitutional perspective, modern conservatism has substituted a baldly totalitarian conception, in which we find ourselves faced with a united Leviathan, subsuming all authorities and directed by a single baleful will, which it has pitted against the American people using all its resources.

Now, conservatives may respond that this is not what they want, but what the liberals have created.  The Constitutional separation of powers has broken down.  State and local functions have been devoured by the federal government.  Well yes, to some extent.  But not so completely as folks like Limbaugh pretend.  And the terrible thing is that with this sort of rhetoric, conservatives are accelerating the process.  We must not underestimate the power of the imagination when it comes to politics—this is one of the best lessons I learned from the work of William Cavanaugh.  Political realities can only proceed so far, unless empowered by the collective imagination.  If oppressive regimes capture the imaginations of the people, making them yield to fear, then they become as powerful as feared.  If the people see through the pretensions of the regime, and see themselves as free, then they become so.  If we make a Leviathan of the government in our imagination, then it becomes a Leviathan.  If we see it as just a collection of fallible representatives and often petty bureaucrats, then that is what it becomes.  If we see it as an enemy standing over against us and trying to quash our freedoms, we will find liberty and authority in inescapable conflict; but if we see it as a guardian of our liberties, or still better, as a representative apparatus through which we can exercise our corporate agency, then we may be surprised to find that freedom and authority begin to work in harmony.   All that is merely an aside, but an important one.  Limbaugh wants his listeners to see the National Hurricane Center, and every branch of government, as part of “the regime,” part of “Obama,” part of the enemy.  This, combined with his conspiratorial suggestions, has the clearly-intended effect of undermining public trust in the NHC.  


It is not hard to see why this is a big deal, but I will dwell on it, because it is a pet peeve of mine.  There are few agencies of the federal government that do finer work than the National Hurricane Center, few that more obviously fulfill the purpose of good government—identifying threats to its citizenry, and working to disseminate information to the citizenry to warn them of dangers, and to the authorities to help them coordinate a response.  The NHC is in fact one of the US gov’t agencies with a substantial altruistic component, as it supplies data to other governments in the Caribbean and Mexico to help them warn and prepare their citizens as well.  It is no exaggeration to say that many thousands, indeed tens of thousands of lives, have been saved in recent years by the NHC’s work.  In terms of its forecasting competence, the NHC far outstrips its international counterparts, such as the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, and it is always improving the accuracy of its forecasts.  It is admirably unflappable when beset both with bewildering storms that seem downright unforecastable (as Isaac seemed at times), and the political tempests in which it regularly finds itself.  For the NHC’s is a terribly thankless job.  For all its advances, the science is still far too poorly-understood for forecasts to be as precise as we would like.  The NHC must therefore always walk a fine line between excessive paranoia, with devastating economic consequences as unnecessary evacuations are ordered, and complacency, with devastating human consequences as people are not adequately warned, and death tolls mount.  In either case, it faces severe public backlash and pressure from public officials and the media.  Indeed, usually in any given major storm, it manages to receive both accusations simultaneously.  Such has been the case with Isaac, as some in SE Louisiana, like the President of Plaquemines parish, have chided the NHC for under-forecasting the danger from Isaac, and from classing it as a Category 1 when they think it clearly deserves a Category 2 or 3 designation, from the level of devastation.  As a matter of fact, the very serious storm surge risks posed by Isaac were clearly emphasized in every forecast the NHC put out for the last 48 hours before landfall—with a maximum surge of 12-15 feet predicted, which may have been just slightly surpassed in one or two communities that reported 16 feet.  Likewise, the NHC thoroughly evaluated all the evidence regarding intensity, and there was none to suggest that Isaac was in fact a Cat. 2, but the NHC did emphasize that because of Isaac’s size, Cat. 2 and 3-level effects would be felt.  On the other side, many, including Limbaugh, accused the NHC of over-hyping the danger.  “It’s just a Category 1, for goodness’ sake!”  The same accusation was leveled after Hurricane Irene last year (which became the fifth most damaging storm in history), and this is a dangerous accusation to be bandying about.  If the public gets it into its head that the NHC is over-hyping the danger, or has tended to over-hype the danger in the past, then the public is inclined not to take warnings so seriously, at present or in the future, and not to act on these warnings.  Evacuations that are ordered do not take place, lives that should have been saved are lost.

This is particularly difficult for the NHC because it relies so much on the media to get its message out that the public often identifies or confuses the two.  The NHC’s sober, carefully-worded forecast is mediated through breathless and hyperbolic reporters, and when they prove unreliable, the blame frequently falls upon the NHC.  The problem here, of course, is that the media, through which the message reaches the public, has a rather different agenda than the NHC, an ulterior motive.  And it is not, as Rush Limbaugh is convinced, that the media is hell-bent on undermining the Republican party.  If that were the case, why would they bother to report on the convention at all?  Why not just give it the silent treatment?  Conservative claims of a conspiracy in the “liberal media” are as old as the hills, and they aren’t getting one bit more convincing with age.  To the extent that we can speak of the media as a whole (and it’s worth pointing out that the reified abstraction “the media” is every bit as much an imaginary bogeyman as “the government”), its primary objective, far more important than any political preferences among newscasters, is to make money.  And they make money by increasing ratings.  And they increase ratings by generating hysteria or controversy.  This weekend gave them an immense opportunity for both.  If the media over-hyped the risk to the GOP convention (as I have little doubt they did), it was not because they were trying to sabotage it, but because they knew it would keep viewers glued to their screens.  (There is certainly no reason to blame the forecasters here—on the contrary, they were always very modest in the claims they made of the potential threat to Tampa.  Hurricane expert Jeff Masters, for instance, put out regular updates on the odds that the storm would force an evacuation in Tampa.  They never climbed above 2 or 3%.)  If they then over-hyped the risk to New Orleans (and, though I wasn’t watching them, I’m not sure that they did—for Isaac posed a very grave risk indeed), it was for the same reason: money.


This leads to consideration of another of Limbaugh’s startling claims in this broadcast—that there is no reason why an imminent deadly threat to New Orleans should affect the convention at all:

“Last night on NBC Nightly News, the anchor Lester Holt is speaking with the chief White House correspondent F. Chuck Todd about Tropical Storm Isaac and the Republican convention.  And Lester Holt said, ‘You have this storm churning offshore. It may not make a big deal in Tampa, but is there some concern about the tone of the convention if we are seeing communities along the Gulf Coast suffering some heavy damage?’  Now, why would that have anything to do with the Republican convention?  In the real world, why would a hurricane striking anywhere in the Gulf have anything to do with the Republican convention?  With the tone of the Republican convention?”  

Rush elaborates on this in follow-up broadcasts—how dare “the liberal media” act like the potential crisis in New Orleans should distract in any way from the important proceedings in Tampa?  This is not merely the Republican National Convention, he tells us. It’s “a pretty important one, too. Introducing the nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s only after the convention that Romney can actually start spending all of this money that he’s raised, so this convention is very important. It’s a chance to introduce Romney to a lot of people who don’t know him yet.”  Indeed.  That is the one tragedy of this election cycle, isn’t it?  That we’ve heard so little about Mr. Romney.  For the past 18 months, Americans have been desperately flipping channels, hoping to learn something about this person, but they’ve scarcely had the chance to see his face.  All kidding aside, Limbaugh displays here a frightfully distorted sense of what politics is about.  For him, politics is a war, a fight to the death which “we” (the conservatives) must win, and which “they” (the liberals) must lose.  But that’s not what politics is supposed to be about.  Politics is the business of serving and protecting the people of our country, caring about and pursuing their well-being.  If the Republicans are genuinely interested in that, then it should be deeply relevant to them that the lives of thousands are in danger.  It may not be feasible to call off the convention, but it must clearly affect its tone, and any responsible Republican should be more than happy for the convention’s proceedings to take a backseat to the unfolding crisis.  

Hurricanes and natural disasters are one of God’s chief ways of keeping us humble.  All of our plans and preparations can be suddenly brought to naught by immense powers beyond our control.  Political maneuvering that once seemed so important is suddenly put into perspective, and recognized for the relative pettiness it really is, while life-and-death decisions take center stage.  One mustn’t be hasty to read divine intentions into particular weather events, but ultimately, it was God—not the liberal media, not the National Hurricane Center, that was interfering with the Republican National Convention, taking it out of the limelight, humbling its pretensions.  Limbaugh’s bizarre accusations against everyone from Lester Holt to Obama to the National Hurricane Center to computer models run by the “European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts” the National Hurricane Center are the result of his refusal to accept this humbling.


Now, what about the “satire” defense—the idea that Limbaugh was so obviously making outlandishly exaggerated claims that he did not really intend anyone to believe them, and so they are to be excused?  As I have argued above, I find this a very unconvincing reading of the broadcasts in question.  Many of his claims he did intend to be believed, and others, while not necessarily intended to be taken at face value, were clearly intended to encourage in his hearers a deep-seated suspicion of authority—well, every authority but himself, at any rate.  Even if this were not the case, and he meant for such remarks to be taken in jest, this does not give him a free pass.  Even comedians can cross the line and say something so offensive as to merit condemnation, and even a comedian cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.  When there are lives on the line, as there certainly when someone questions the trustworthiness of the NHC during a dangerous hurricane, the standards are necessarily much higher.  And the “satire” defense can really only work when the speaker’s joking intention is manifestly obvious, as it clearly was not in this case.  When I asked one faithful Limbaugh listener for clarification, he told me, “You can’t listen to the man in sound bites to see from where he comes. You have to listen for three hours a day five days a week for about six weeks to begin to understand something of the man’s thought process.”  Unfortunately, many people are not willing to listen to Mr. Limbaugh for three hours a day five days a week six weeks in a row, and the nature of radio in today’s era is that it comes in sound bites.   If Limbaugh knew that his insiders, his faithful following, would have recognized that it was all just one big joke (which still seems implausible), he must surely have known that many others would hear his remarks and take them seriously—either (for the conspiratorially inclined) as a serious indictment of the NHC and Obama, or (for the rest of us) as serious evidence of his derangement.  In either case, Proverbs 26:18-19 is strikingly apropos: “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, ‘I was only joking!'”

Limbaugh’s remarks, in short, are an excellent example of the danger to society that comes when “free speech” becomes a free-floating subjective right, a liberty whose exercise never needs any justification beyond the whims of the speaker, instead of being firmly anchored, as it once was, within a nexus of objective public duties that it was to serve.  Public speech comes with an obligation to contribute to the public good, an obligation to speak the truth, and a legal guarantee of free speech is intended as a bar to oppressive censorship that would prevent such healthy truth-telling in public debate.  Such a guarantee only works when the citizenry still understands that they are bound by a moral duty to use this freedom responsibly; otherwise, it becomes a mere license to abuse, offend, deceive, distort, incite, and enrage, a license whose effects often prove far more harmful than the evils of censorship.  When such speech proceeds to the point of insinuating to citizens that their leaders are willing to gamble away their lives for the sake of immediate political gain, it qualifies as what would have once been recognized and prosecuted as sedition.  If we continue to feel that it is safer to leave sedition unprosecuted than to give the government power over speech that it might abuse, then the burden that falls on us as citizens is correspondingly greater.  If the authorities are to remain passive in the face of madmen who throw firebrands, then we as citizens must be active, active in speaking out against liars and allowing them no place of influence, boycotting them and refusing to give them our advertising dollars.


Some will complain that it is unfair to single out Limbaugh—there are a host of talking heads on the right and the left that are just as bad.  That may be so, and to the extend that it is, this applies to them as well.  Rather than continuing to accept the proliferation of absurd and untrue speech on both sides of the political divide, Christians need to embrace their responsibility to be guardians of the truth and haters of falsehood wherever it may appear.  

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Climate Change

This past weekend, while tens of millions sweltered and withered in the triple-digit heat and all-time heat records snapped like matchsticks across the eastern United States, I had a small epiphany: We need climate change.  Just think about it.  What would our society do without it?  

In our day, records, we might say, especially if preceded with that scintillating qualifier “all-time,” are the opiate of the masses, and hence the lifeblood of the media.  In every area of human endeavor, increasingly sated by the sheer ubiquity of entertainment and “news,” we have come to require an extra source of stimulus to keep us interested.  Merely winning a game or an award is not enough—“unprecedented” feats must be achieved, records must be broken.  But of course, the problem with records is that, almost by definition, they should usually become more and more difficult to break as time goes on, and hence more and more rarely broken.  It is relatively easy to establish a new record when they’ve only just started keeping them; rather more difficult when they’ve been tracking for a couple hundred years.  (I was reminded of this recently when a garden-variety warm spell in Scotland prompted a newspaper headline to exclaim “Record-breaking heat hits Scotland”; upon looking more closely, I learned that one recording station had managed to beat its record for that date, and that station had been established in 2007.) 

And so we have had to come up with ways of outwitting the recalcitrance of the record books, and the ways in which we have done so are a testimony to human ingenuity.   

The simplest, cheapest, and most versatile means of “record inflation” is of course inflation itself, usable in any context where the records in question are economic (which nowadays, means almost any context).  The simple fact that money is forever becoming less valuable means that, for any record measured in dollar amounts, one can indefinitely keep establishing new records.  “The largest bankruptcy in history”; “the largest IPO in history”; “the largest budget deficit in history,” etc.  This fact has proven particularly useful in the entertainment history, which thrives on the collective buzz we all receive at the mention of the word “record.”  Box office statistics accordingly give the impression that we are forever being overwhelmed with brilliant, immensely successful films, each more wildly triumphant than the previous, despite our nagging sense that today’s films feel more like an epidemic of mediocrity.  Indeed, box office statistics, not content with the benefits of inflation (and ticket prices have risen faster than the average inflation rate) and of ever-increasing populations and theater counts, have resorted to additional stratagems, such as premium-priced 3D and IMAX tickets, gimmicks like midnight showings, and more, to make sure they are always establishing new records.


In pursuits where physical rather than financial achievement is at stake, the record barriers cannot be so easily swept aside.  After all, the human body does not naturally inflate in its capacities as time goes on, and medicinal and nutritional advances can only do so much.  The bluntest way of confronting this problem is the steroid, by which human muscles can indeed be inflated by artificial means.  This has proven baseball’s preferred means of supplying the needed record inflation; unfortunately, however, it tends only to achieve consistently positive effects on batting statistics, so baseball has increasingly lagged behind in the record generation race, perhaps part of the reason for its decline in popularity. 

Basketball has discovered a more elegant solution, one that requires no physical intervention in the sport: simply invent new record categories.  After all, there really is almost no theoretical limit to the number of different records that could be tracked.  If you have the choice between reporting of a game, “The Miami Heat trounced the Lakers tonight after a sterling performance by Lebron James” and saying, “In a stunning performance against the Lakers tonight, Lebron James established a new record for consecutive games with at least 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists against teams from California!” which would you choose?  It’s a no-brainer, as the sports journalism industry has shown us.

The Olympic Games, as might be expected, has pooled the best ideas from different sports to address this problem, making extensive use of steroids and record category invention, plus its own specialty—new forms of scorekeeping.  By overhauling the scoring systems used in gymnastics and figure skating, the Olympics gave competitors a clean slate for creating new record scores, which was a boon to commentators tired of breathlessly informing the public, “That was the first time anyone’s ever landed a triple-axle, triple-toe-loop, double-jump combination in international competition, although last year we did see a triple-axle, triple-jump, double-toe-loop combination several times!”  But the Olympics’ bread-and-butter, when it comes to record inflation, is technological innovation.  New shoes and new ergonomically-designed suits can get runners to the finish line several tenths of a second faster than Harold Abrahams in those old-fashioned white shorts.  Best of all, in swimming, not only can they forever tweak the suit design, but the swimming pool design as well.  Both in Sydney and Beijing, bedazzled audiences were treated to a stunning barrage of record-breaking thanks to “the fastest pools ever designed.”  I have little doubt that scientists preparing for the London Olympics have been experimenting with ways to create frictionless water.  


Weather, then, is the last great unconquerable frontier.  Lying outside the realm of human manipulation (so we had thought), it seemed doomed to thwart our record-breaking ambitions.  Left to itself, nature was sure to produce fewer and fewer “unprecedented” events the longer we sat around observing it closely.  To be sure, you will occasionally get the heat wave that comes along to set a new record at a station with 200 years of observations, but unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen again for at least 200 years, statistically speaking.  Meteorologists have of course made extensive use of the record category invention strategy, so that it is not uncommon to read reports like this, “While not setting any absolute record maximums, this heat wave did establish a new record at several sites for consecutive days with a maximum above 90 degrees and a minimum above 70 degrees.”  But this strategy is heavily subject to the law of diminishing returns, especially as the media, always strangely prone to befuddlement when it comes to matters meteorological, find such records too much of a mouthful to report.  No, if the media is to whip up the masses into a frenzy of glued-to-the-screen enthusiasm, they need a steady stream of snappy-sounding new records to report.  

For this, climate change is our savior, providing a veritable ratings bonanza over the past decade or two.  Worst heat waves, worst cold waves, strongest low pressure systems, biggest blizzards, strongest hurricanes, most hurricanes, earliest hurricanes, latest hurricanes, most tornadoes, strongest tornadoes, worst floods, worst droughts, warmest months, “ever recorded”—the superlatives roll on and on.  And best of all, since climate change should keep on worsening for the foreseeable future, we can count on all these new records being broken over and over again.  What more could a weather buff want?

A Snapshot of America

More than ever today, we hear handwringing among the press, politicians, and pollsters, about how America is “headed in the wrong direction,” and eager finger-pointing over who is to blame.  Naturally, we assume that it is our politicians (especially the ones on the other side of the aisle, of course) who are responsible for the general national malaise.  But how much of it, I can’t help but wonder, is due simply to the steady inebriation of our senses with electronic media, and abandonment of reading?  One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to be sobered by the following statistics (taken from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows):

1150: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends online (on a computer)

49: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends reading any form of print publication.  

2,272: number of texts per month the average American teen sends (that’s 75 per day)

153: hours per month the average American spends in front of the TV (still rising despite increased internet usage)

Unsurprisingly, Americans outstrip Europeans by a long shot, spending 50% more time surfing the Net and three times as much time in front of the TV. 

(These figures are all from 2009, I should add, and are most likely considerably worse now, as they had been getting worse at a rapid pace through 2009.)

And consider that, as of 2006, 42% of those watching over 35 hours of TV programming a week (the national average) also used the Net for over 30 hours a week, for a total of over 65 hours per week, nearly 2/3 of their waking hours.  


Narcissism Goes Social

Have you ever found yourself reading over your Facebook feed over your morning coffee (or after dinner, or when you’re supposed to be working, etc.), and wondering to yourself, “What inanity has possessed the human race?  Why do all these people think we want to read their banal witticisms, their soapbox pontifications, or their semi-daily log of what they’ve been doing for the past few hours?  Of course you have.  And no doubt you have also found yourself, as I have, blinking at my Facebook wall seconds after posting an update and asking, “Why did I bother to post that banal witticism, or soapbox pontification, or pointless revelation about my recent activities?”  

A recent study helps answer the question for us by translating into scientific precision what we all already know deep-down.  We like to talk about ourselves.  We get a real kick out of it.  In fact, we get a little chemical high from it, a spurt of dopamine, the same thing that gives us a buzz after delicious food or sex, or after vanquishing a foe in a game.  

 Dopamine, in fact, is virtually programmed into the internet, since dopamine thrives on novelty, the sense of perpetual discovery and accomplishment.  As we click our way through link after link, our tiniest effort is rewarded with a new array of images and information, and our brain celebrates each “discovery” with a little dopamine party.  Since dopamine circuits have a strong tendency to become addictive, it is no wonder that the internet has proven so dangerously addictive, whether it be pornography, RPGs, or just mindless browsing.  Such addictions are troubling enough, but perhaps even more urgent is the need to reflect on what we may be doing to ourselves by subjecting our social lives to the constant influence of such stimuli.  


Let’s go back to that inane status update, that banal witticism.  We may get a little wave of satisfaction simply from posting it, simply from speaking our minds to the world, but that satisfaction quickly evaporates if our utterance goes unacknowledged.  We get a kick out of talking about ourselves, yes, but not (usually) by simply addressing an empty forest, but by addressing another human being, one who appears to be listening to us.  We crave, in short, affirmation.  We each play the starring role in our own mental narratives, and we desperately want to see that role acknowledged.  How often have you posted that status update, or that cool link, or made that clever comment, and found yourself randomly checking back in on Facebook later in the day, hoping to see notifications announcing that someone else “liked” what you said, or commented on it?  Maybe never.  Maybe it’s just me.  But if it is just me, I doubt Facebook would be that successful.  The “like” button was a genius idea.  Every time someone likes your status or your picture, it’s a little pat on the back.  The reward circuits in your brain purr with satisfaction.  Well done, me, they say.  You have achieved something, however petty, and it has been recognized as worthwhile.  Perhaps we even find ourselves subconsciously keeping score with ourselves—”Ha!  12 likes this time.  Last time I only got 8.”  To be sure, comments are great too, especially when they function (as they often seem to do except when responding to a controversial opinion) as just a glorified “like”—”Oooh, what a lovely picture!”; “Hahaha!  That was hilarious!”  Even when we tell ourselves we really don’t give a darn about the stupid world and its stupid Facebook (as I tend to do), we are not immune—we can’t resist feeling gratified at that little icon of proof that someone is listening, and someone is interested.


And of course we can’t.  We’re social creatures.  Narcissism may be the product of sin, but a desire for community, for relationship, to love and be loved, is quite natural.  But sin (and I should point out that I see no necessary contradiction between identifying something as sin and identifying it as a physiological proclivity of the brain) means that we are terribly prone to distort this desire for sociality, preeminently by letting the desire to be loved take charge, at the expense of the desire to love.  In other words, while a need for affirmation is natural, it can readily become pathological.  Indeed, we recognize unhealthy sorts of relationships in just this way.  It is perhaps most glaring in young boys, who will do the most absurd and obnoxious things just to get attention, just to get recognized—even negative recognition can seem like a victory.  In teenagerhood, we’re a little more subtle, at least in our eyes, but to outside observers still shameless in our pursuit of recognition and acceptance.  The different sexes may do it somewhat differently, but they have plenty in common—we want people to laugh at our jokes, listen to our stories, invite us to parties (even if we don’t want to go to the stupid parties!).  At this stage, most of us no longer get a high from negative recognition (and when we do, that’s usually a sign that we’re really starved for recognition), and so we try to groom our self-presentation so as to get as many signals of positive recognition as possible, to get real-world “likes,” demonstrated through words, gestures, and privileged seating arrangements.  

Hopefully, we become mature enough to recognize before long that this isn’t the ideal form of sociality, that the temporary highs of this kind of recognition are followed by inevitable lows, as we worry desperately whether it will be repeated.  It doesn’t actually make us feel affirmed, or happy.  This kind of sociality, based heavily on narcissism, is not the opposite of loneliness, but usually simply another path to loneliness.  

What we really need to be happy are relationships that are so close, so firm, that we do not need to receive constant indications of affirmation.  In our superficial relationships with “the cool people,” we want to always be told that we are cool too.  But from a really good friend, we want criticism as well as affirmation.  I want a friend who knows me as I really am, rather than merely the facade I try to present to the world, who is willing to tell it to me like it is, to talk to me about my faults, and about his faults.  From such a person I won’t require constant tangible proofs that he finds me interesting, and so I won’t need to always say something clever or brilliant to elicit approval.  These friendships are truly healthy relationships, the kind of sociality that we should strive for, but alas, they are rare indeed.  Now, what is my point in all this?  I have already admitted that the unhealthy kind of sociality, the projected facade hoping for recognition, is perhaps most common in most of our lives.  What does Facebook have to do with this? 

Well, the thing is that there are real limits as to how much we can ensure a constant stream of positive feedback in the real world.  Even the coolest of the cool people do stupid things.  And when you do something stupid in a social setting, the self-image you wish to project is broken, you are laughed at not for your wit, but for your foolishness; you receive negative recognition.  And indeed, rarely are we indulged with such self-enclosed cliques of mutual affirmation that we do not have to face criticism and questioning, people disapproving our actions whether than approving, all of which only the most self-deceived can ignore.  Our daily social lives, then, can never be a narcissistic dream come true.  We might still aspire to be the life of the party, the guy with all the great jokes, but we generally learn to settle for less.  We adopt strategies of self-deprecation and goofiness to make the best of our social shortcomings and faux-pases; we train ourselves to maintain a certain detachment both from praise and criticism so that we are not constantly lurching between psychological highs and lows.  In short, the unyielding reality of the real world of social interaction places great constraints on our narcissistic indulgence, and may indeed eventually condition us to be well-adjusted, psychologically stable inhabiters of the social world, able to love and be loved in due measure.


The online world is not like that.  Stephen Marche draws attention to the temptations it poses in an intriguing recent article for the Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely”:

“Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.”  

What the online world, and Facebook perhaps best of all, enables us to do is to curate our own self-presentation, our own terms of social engagement, largely free from external interference.  Sure, there can be disorienting moments, such as when someone else posts and tags a picture of you doing something embarrassing (though you can then at least remove the tag), or when someone makes an obnoxious comment on your wall (though you can delete it if you wish).  It’s far from perfect—indeed, to be perfect, it would have to be so removed from the real world as to cease to be a genuinely social medium.  But the possibilities are certainly tantalizing.  I can post only the pictures of myself in which I look most attractive, and when I’m doing the coolest activities; whereas in real social interaction, people see me from unflattering angles and at unflattering moments all the time.  I can choose which interests and hobbies to list, to make myself out to be a very intelligent, fun, and well-rounded person indeed.  But all of this is simply the canvas and the palette.  The real power of the medium is its freedom from the awkward give-and-take of conversation.  Perhaps I am almost incapable of making a witty rejoinder on the spot, but give me a few minutes on my own to think one up, and I might as well be Shakespeare.  To be sure, most of us are still not as responsible with the medium as we would like to be.  We still stick our foot in our mouth on Facebook (though again, we can delete the comment if we do).  But never before have we had such a platform for fine-tuning the persona we wish to project.  In Marche’s article, one scientist worries “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process,” and Marche goes on to observe,

“Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Australian study ‘Who Uses Facebook?’ found a significant correlation between Facebook use and narcissism: ‘Facebook users have higher levels of total narcissism, exhibitionism, and leadership than Facebook nonusers,’ the study’s authors wrote. ‘In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.’”


But all this is not the worst of it.  Let’s get back to that “Like” button.  Have you ever heard someone complain “There ought to be an ‘unlike’ button too.  That status/picture/link/etc. is just stupid, and someone needs to tell that person”?  Probably.  I know I have.  It’s only fair, isn’t it?  If someone’s going to put up a stupid piece of Republican propaganda or whatever, and get 37 “likes” for it, then the rest of us ought to at least be able to register our disapproval.  Why not turn Facebook into a 24/7 voting booth, where everything is constantly subjected to a popularity contest of likes and unlikes?  After all, Youtube does this.  I think Facebook’s programmers are too clever for that.  That would destroy the delicate psychological-chemical ecosystem they have designed.  We want to see that notifications button light up and know we’ve gotten something positive, some kind of affirmation.  When we see it, our brains release dopamine.  When we view it, and see the comment or “like,” dopamine again.  But if at every moment we faced the fearful possibility of an “unlike”?  That would cast an unhappy shadow over the whole user experience. 

To be sure, people can always make negative comments, but again, these are generally confined to disagreement on matters of controversy, like politics, in which the person posting often expects and perhaps wants to provoke disagreement.  But just as people will almost never tell you to your face that you look unattractive, or your baby has a stupid name, or your conversation is uninteresting, your jokes unfunny, your tastes frightfully gauche, your ignorance appalling, etc., people very rarely have the gumption to go and say these things on a Facebook status, either.  “You named your kid what?”—”Um, please tell me that wasn’t supposed to be funny”—”Are you trying to look like a slut in these pictures?”  How often do you see those comments?  Hardly ever, of course.  Most people don’t like to rock the social boat too much.  But didn’t I just say above that in real life, there are constraints on narcissistic indulgence, because of the negative feedback we can get?  Of course.  But most of this feedback doesn’t take the form of direct critical comments.  We have developed a thousand and one ways of manifesting skepticism, disapproval, or contempt without saying a word.  We have any number of social cues that say, “Dude, that was a stupid thing to say.  You’d better sit down and retreat to the corner so you don’t make a fool of yourself again.”  These cues are essentially lost in the online world.  In a medium like Facebook, then, we have a self-curated social space in which positive feedback, usually so ambiguous and evanescent in the real world, can be quantified, can be experienced as a direct chemical stimulus, and in which negative feedback, so crushing in the real world, can be muted almost altogether.  In short, we have a world where we can become increasingly insulated from criticism, from the brutally honest give-and-take relationships that actually make us mature and experience genuine fulfillment, and it becomes increasingly possible to live out our fantasy of being the hero of our own narrative of the world.


None of this is inevitable, I should hasten to add, and certainly the solution is not repudiation of all social media, especially as these tendencies are not unique to Facebook, but in blogs, email, chat, and almost everything about the internet.  As Marche’s article argues, those with otherwise healthy social lives can use Facebook effectively as a means to enrich them further (though I am skeptical that this is as easy as the article suggests; it still requires a good deal of discipline).  Our technologies are tools, which we can use for good or ill.  But we would be foolish to pretend that they are mere tools, in no way shaping us even as we use them.  Rather, they are intrinsically predisposed toward certain uses, and toward creating certain habits in their users.  We must not be heedless of the ways in which these “social media” may in fact erode the very foundations of healthy sociality, particularly in the young, the lonely, and those who have not yet formed healthy patterns of social engagement.  If these technologies are tools, we must remember that any tool is fit for only certain purposes, and only if we retain a clear sense of its purposes and limits can we continue to profit from its use.


(Anti)-Social Media and the Pastor

(This is the first of what I hope will be a somewhat informal series of reflections over the next few weeks on the promise and pitfalls of social media.) 

Mark Driscoll has in the past couple years gained a great many enemies (and, I expect, made few worthwhile friends) by his unguarded use of social media as an extension of his ministry; while he may have done much good at the same time (I don’t know), the nature of the medium is that the mistakes get magnified.  From several thousand miles away, nothing edifying or profitable Mark Driscoll has said online has ever reached my ears, but a number of offensive and divisive things have, things which, while they might only bother me slightly, I know will greatly and needlessly antagonize many of my Christian brothers and sisters.  Is this just because Driscoll likes to be obnoxious?  Perhaps.  But I’ve come to wonder increasingly how much of the problem is with the media, not the messenger.  Can Twitter serve as a tool of the pastoral office?  Or is this like trying to use a screwdriver to hammer in nails?  


The pastoral office, it seems, actually consists of two distinct but closely related offices—that of preaching, and of pastoral ministry.  While many pastors today seem to think that social media provide them a great platform for extending their reach as they pursue both these tasks, it seems to me that these media are, by their nature, almost certain to be detrimental to the faithful prosecution of these offices, unless they are used very judiciously. 

The task of preaching is to declare the word of the Gospel, the truth of Christ, to his saints and also, when they will listen, to the world—to expound and apply the teachings revealed in Scripture for illumination, edification, and training in righteousness.  How can this be done in sound-bites?  There may be a couple passages in the New Testament that manage to capture the whole essence of the Gospel in 160 characters, but to do the subject justice usually requires extended narrative and careful exegesis.  We Reformed have often been scornful of 10-minute Anglican sermonettes; why then do we think that Facebook and Twitter posts are likely to be any less superficial and uninstructive?  Of course, the problem is not merely one of length, but of impersonality.  It is quite important for our faith that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”; when the Word merely becomes pixels, it is a poor substitute.  Christ’s encounter with those to whom he preached was often a remarkably personal encounter, discerning the word of condemnation or encouragement that each needed to hear.  Preaching, it would seem, generally works best when it is rooted in personal encounter, so that the message may be tailored to the actual needs of those hearing, rather than merely being let loose upon the multitude to work its magic or wreak its havoc, as the case may be.  Again, we Reformed are generally scornful of megachurches, where mic-ed up pastors declaim to thousands of people they may have never met before; why should we be any less concerned when the mic is Twitter, amplified to reach potentially millions, without the pastor having any idea who is reading?

This concern applies all the more urgently to the task of pastoral ministry, which aims to shepherd the souls of believers, chipping away at the armor of hearts that are hardened, and strengthening the faint-hearted with words of grace and comfort.  The diseases of soul that pastors are called upon to diagnose and treat are countless, and the wrong diagnosis and prescription can, I suppose, do eternal harm.  I am very glad that I am not called to that awesome and heavy responsibility, and have great respect for anyone who undertakes it.  But I cannot see how this complex task—of discerning sin, its causes, and its symptoms, and of determining the appropriate word of challenge, of counsel, or of comfort to apply in order to root out the sin—can possibly be performed without great risk upon faceless, numberless masses sitting in front of their laptops or tapping on their smartphones.  One might profitably condemn some vice to a group of guys in a Bible study, whom one felt needed to hear the message, and who would be able to respond and interact to discern its application to them.  But unleashing it on the world at large, without the ability to make all the relevant qualifications, might well trouble tender consciences, who don’t realize you weren’t talking about them, or might turn off people who misunderstood your point and thought you were being needlessly judgmental.  The more flamboyantly-worded your utterance, the more likely to do harm rather than good.  Unfortunately, the medium almost demands flamboyant wording.


If we don’t go so far as to say the medium is the message, we must at least admit that it dramatically shapes it.  It is not hard to see how this is the case in the world of social media.  What are these media about?  Well, they are about grabbing attention, about making people notice you and hopefully share whatever you said, so that even more people will notice.  The medium thus constitutes a powerful temptation toward vanity, and, for the pastor, the still worse temptation of substituting fidelity to the unpopular Gospel for something that will prove popular enough to be shared far and wide, that is not automatically bad.  Of course, these temptations can be resisted, and there can be good reasons for wanting to get people’s attention with these media.  We should want to grab people’s attention with the words of life and prompt them to share it far and wide.  

But this leads to a subtler temptation.  For the problem is that social media are self-defeating in their goal of grabbing attention.  Diluted by the thousands, millions, billions of similar utterances coming through the Cloud all the time, and embedded in web pages or mobile devices engineered to distract us from intent focus on anything in particular, the vast majority of what is said on social media is no sooner read than it is forgotten.  Of course, this is why it has to be short and snappy (although, of course, this brevity, which  it takes real talent to pack a lot of substance into, exacerbates the transience)—because people don’t have much attention to spare.  In this overcrowded competition for ever more evanescent flickers of attention, one must try to be either extremely profound or extremely witty or extremely provocative.  Unfortunately, the first of these is the hardest, and the last of these is much the easiest.  Even if it were possible to make a balanced, nuanced, carefully targeted, and pastorally sensitive pronouncement in 160 characters or a Facebook status update, the medium would militate against such an utterance—no one, browsing through their feed full of witticisms and exclamations and flashy pictures and caustic political commentary, would even read to the end of the statement, much less be inspired to “Like” it or share it.  

For these reasons, I am skeptical that such media can really serve as an effective extension of the pastoral ministry, or even of preaching, unless it be, as some do, primarily just to share links and quotes (and if a quote on some contentious matter, ideally from those very few truly great writers like Lewis or Chesterton who could pack a year’s worth of sermons into a sentence).