Affordable Care Act: Just another failure

2 Oct

On Day 2 of the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare), trending headlines tell us that the ACA is off to a rough start: web sites are freezing, people are running into delays, a few states are still dealing with paper applications–that sort of thing.

It all reminds me of other governmental efforts that had difficult and sometimes disastrous beginnings, often in the face of severe opposition, including the human genome project, the space shuttle, the mission to the moon, civil rights, World War II, recovery from the Great Depression, the end of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution.

On the other hand, Vietnam, President Nixon’s second term seemed to start out OK …

Yes, yes–of course this is a selective list. Someone could create a list of things that started out poorly and were disasters–or vice versa: successful starts that led to ongoing success. The point, in case there’s any question, is that ultimate success–or ultimate value, for that matter–can’t be judged by early problems. Day Two is too early to tell. For my part, now that it’s law (yes, it is the law), I hope it succeeds and that the problems get ironed out as quickly as possible. A lot of people need good, dependable, affordable health care, and this is a start.

Hiatus

22 Jul

Confession: I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while, but here we are.

Apology: This blog has been on an unplanned hiatus for about a month. I’m sorry about that.

Declaration: Now it’s time for a planned hiatus.

The last month was eventful, especially because of my younger daughter’s wedding in June. (Congratulations, Rachael and Corey.) It’s also been full of normal summer things — a little bit of travel, some chores that were on hold during the academic year. It’s nice to see the shrubs in front of my house again. I adopted a couple of cats from the shelter. Some out-of-town visitors came. Good things, but before I knew it, a month came and went since my last RPM post. Hiatus by accident.

I’ve also been reading a lot. Nothing weird about that, except that in addition to the usual kind of summer reading — the want-to reads and the must-reads for my upcoming Milligan classes — much of my book time connects with the planned hiatus. I’m going back to school.

I’m starting work on a master of fine arts program in creative nonfiction at Goucher College in Baltimore. It’s a two-year, low-residency program, which works well for someone like me who wants and needs to keep working a day job, particularly one as fulfilling as teaching at Milligan College. I’ll spare you the details about the MFA, but you can go here if you’re curious.

It’s obvious that life is about to get more complicated, probably in ways I can’t even anticipate. (I’m not complaining; just stating a fact.) So I’ve been looking at my schedule and trying to find some glitch in the space-time continuum — the Higgs boson is no help here — to figure out how I can faithfully and intelligently blog about religion, politics and media while teaching full-time, pursuing this MFA, working on other writing projects, and taking care of other bits of life as they come. The bottom line is that something has to give, and it looks like it will have to be this blog, at least for the time being.

RPM isn’t shutting down, but it is scaling back. I don’t have a specific plan for it yet; I want to see how my schedule shakes down over the next few months, and we’ll take it from there. I hope to post something occasionally, and if you follow this blog or me personally on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll receive alerts when some new content goes up. (I encourage to follow me on Twitter if you don’t already. That will be easiest.) If there’s overlap with my MFA work — some piece we read that might interest you, for example, or some writing that might fit RPM — then I’ll post it.

I intend to one day reactivate RPM or a successor. I’ll let you know. In the meantime, be well and stay in touch. Grace and peace to you.

Wired and worried: Why we’re anxious about our technology

18 Jun

In my previous post, I wrote about a stream of critiques that are asking serious questions about the new technological world we’re inventing and investing in: Where is all this leading? Maybe it’s some kind of Rorschach test, but there’s a pattern to these articles and books–at least a half-dozen connected anxieties that keep emerging, at least the ones I see. You might recognize more. If you do, chime in with your comments.

1. We’re connected, but are we really detached? We have all sorts of digital ways to “network,” but what about the face-to-face connections? Can a Facebook friend ever be like a flesh-and-blood friend? Are cyber-communities real communities?

2. The Internet might want to be free, but are we actually trapping ourselves? All so-called developed nations–and more and more of the developing societies–depend on electronic and digital technologies just to keep our basic services functioning. Have we wired ourselves into a corner? The nightmare scenario, of course, is that, by accident or intent, our energy grids, water supplies, and transportation systems fail, bringing on a new dark age of catastrophe and chaos. Security experts are working overtime on preventing cyber-attacks that could paralyze us.

3. We invent and use technology to gain unprecedented power, but will our technology one day take control?  This corollary to No. 2 is a staple of the sci-fi canon: What happens when our machinery gets smart and powerful enough to take over? Think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sinister rabbit-hole world of The Matrix, the rebellion in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. But we don’t need some fictitious future. The potential is as close as Google. As Nicholas Carr noted in 2008,

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.”

4. Is our technology changing us from being citizens to being merely consumers? As much as I like George Orwell, he got it wrong in his famous dystopian tale, 1984, in which an all-powerful, all-seeing government runs people’s lives.

No, it’s looking more corporate all the time. As Neil Postman pointed out a generation ago, we’re closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than to Orwell’s vision. (For another take on the same idea, check out David Mitchell’s excellent mind-bending novel, Cloud Atlas.) To quote Carr again:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

5. We can dive into the world from our TVs and desktops, but are we just swimming in the shallows? So much information, so little depth. You name it: Relationships, knowledge base, attention spans. We have more information at our finger tips than ever before, but it’s not clear that we’re better educated or more perceptive thinkers. (I haven’t read it yet, but I wonder if Thomas Bergler’s new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, excerpted in June’s Christianity Today, strikes a similar chord. Anyone?) Wisdom? There’s not an app for that.

6. We have more portals to humanity than ever, but are we becoming less human? The answer to this question depends on how we define “human,” of course. But whether it’s in how we experience the world around us, in how we relate to other people, in how we think, in what we value as a culture and, more and more, how much technology will literally get under our skin and become part of us, the unsettling question is: What are we doing to ourselves as people? (The Matrix, again, anyone?)

So what to do? Diane Ackerman, writing in her New York Times blog, offers a couple of suggestions, and they’re not a bad place to begin: “I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. … One solution is to spend a few minutes every day just paying close attention to some facet of nature.”

What we can’t do is pretend this stuff doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, or that we can somehow go back to the days before … when, exactly? Not that I want to. I like most of these tools and toys. I’m writing this on a Mac that’s wirelessly connected to the Internet, for heaven’s sake, and I’ve been able to almost instantly connect to books and articles published all over the globe. My cell phone just buzzed with another text. On Saturday I carried on a real-time conversation with friends in Egypt, and we could see each other. Later I got to watch a soccer match, live from Poland.

But that’s not to say these things are unalloyed, all good and no bad. There are always trade-offs and we have valid reasons to ask questions.

Just getting in the habit of thinking about these questions is a start. That’s got to be better than handing ourselves over to research labs or the marketing departments of Silicon Valley.

Digital civilization and its discontents

13 Jun

A funny thing is happening on the way to digital paradise, and I’m not talking about the Facebook stock dive or the LinkedIn password hacking.

Intelligent, inquiring minds want to know: What is all our technology and connectivity doing to us? We may not be downloading the devil, but some voices are asking what hath Google and Facebook wrought.

Technology angst isn’t new. Some folks in the 1400s predicted cultural and theological catastrophe when Gutenberg re-invented the printing press. We might just be updating old anxieties—Technophobia 2.0–but that’s not to say we shouldn’t be asking these questions, and several writers are. A select list:

Four years ago, Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic, asked, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” (Yes, the misspelling was intentional.) Maybe not making us exactly stupid, he concludes, but something else: turning us into “pancake people,” borrowing a phrase from playwright Richard Foreman, people who are “spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

Last month, Stephen Marche asked a companion question in the same magazine: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Based on new research, Marche says the answer is, roughly, yes. More narcissistic too.

Journalist Maggie Jackson wrote on similar themes in book length a few years ago in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2009).

The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention–the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. … The seduction of alternative virtual universes, the addictive allure of multitasking people and things, our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion: these are markers of a land of distraction, in which our old conception of space, time, and place have been shattered. This is why we are less and less able to see, hear, and comprehend what’s relevant and permanent, why so many of us feel that we can barely keep our heads above water, and our days are marked by perpetual loose ends. … We are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus. In short, we are slipping toward a new dark age.

And then this week, science writer Diane Ackerman asks in the New York Times, “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” She’s not a Luddite, but she frets that we are cutting ourselves off from the world, even as we try to “experience” more of it online:

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.

But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature.

I can see at least a half-dozen interconnected anxieties that keep surfacing in these various critiques. I’ll save those for the next post. (This is a blog, after all, and so this post should stay fairly brief. Irony? You betcha.)

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’re thinking about the impact of our new technology. What do you make of these concerns and questions? Please add a comment to the blog and get in the conversation.

~~

(I found the photo illustration here, but I could not find information about who created it, permissions, etc.)

Gas prices fall. Obama gets credit. Critics apologize. (Multiple choice. Pick one.)

31 May

I noticed this afternoon that gasoline has dropped to $3.29 per gallon at a Shell station a mile or so from our house. We’re lower than the national average, but gas prices are falling almost everywhere.

The national average price for a gallon of regular last week was $3.78, according to the most recent Lundberg Survey. That’s 12.4 cents lower than it was a year ago.

So we should expect the praise for President Obama to start rolling in any day now, especially from those folks who blamed him for the spike in petrol prices earlier this year, including some fairly prominent ones. Any day now … any day …

The president can’t be credited with the drop in gas prices, of course. But that also means he shouldn’t be blamed when they go up either. We can’t have it both ways. Fair is fair, or should be, even in an election year.

Any day now … any day.

American. Christian. One of these is not like the other.

19 May

Last week I finally started reading a slim volume that’s been waiting on my bookshelf since last fall. Not a moment too soon.

A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf (Brazos Press, 2011) tackles a chronic, nettlesome question: What kind of relationship should Christians (and perhaps by extension, other people of faith) have with their culture?

Writing “as a Christian theologian to followers of Christ,” Volf offers an alternative approach to the extreme positions that can define the boundaries of faith in the public square: “totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion” or “secular exclusion of all religions from public life.” (He might have added an older reflex among many Christians, to vacate and try to ignore the public square altogether.)

The timing was good because, along with the rest of the universe, I was trying to digest President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, which came on the heels of the North Carolina amendment that banned such unions in the state.

But that was only the biggest headline among several in recent weeks that reminded me how hard it is to navigate a believer’s “dual citizenship.” Michelle Bachmann’s recent Swissues are nothing compared to the complications of being a Christian and an American.

For starters, there was military college course, now suspended, that advocated total war on Islam, using the World War II firebombing at Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as models for how to deal with Muslim sites.

There was a budget proposal in the U.S. House that would have reduced the deficit by drawing down education, welfare and other social-aid programs, while increasing defense spending and not touching tax rates. (The Senate voted down this budget on May 16.)

Closer to home, several readers didn’t like a piece I wrote in a Christian magazine, which reported on a survey that found that Fox News viewers were not as well informed about the Occupy Movement as consumers of other news outlets and that Fox viewers have a significantly more negative view of the Occupy protesters.

I’m not surprised by criticism. But one reader baffled me when he said he didn’t want to believe that “a professor of communications from the restoration side could believe that swill.” (He was referring to my church heritage and that of the college where I teach, which has its roots in the Stone-Campbell, or “Restoration,” Movement.) His remark left me wondering: When did uncritically accepting Fox News—or any media outlet—become an essential of the faith?

Miroslav Volf

I can spot a thread running through these events: some American values and ideas—including good ones—are not necessarily Christian ones.

What I mean is that as an American, I cherish free speech, equal rights under law, freedom of religion and a long list of other civic virtues. But as a Christian, I have other principles besides, expressed most obviously in Sermon on the Mount and modeled most powerfully by Jesus himself.

No doubt that American and Christian values peacefully co-exist much of the time; sometimes they even agree.

But not always. As the last few weeks show, there’s often tension if not contradiction or outright conflict. For instance, I can’t see how to honestly interpret Jesus’ words or life as condoning “total war” against people of other faiths.

And maybe I’m missing something, but the thrust of that proposed budget seemed to turn upside down those Scriptures that warn against God’s people relying on chariots for their security, as well as dozens of texts that call for generosity and justice for poor people (Isaiah 1:17, 10:1-2; 25:4; 47:6; 58:7; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; 31:8-9—just for starters).

Then there’s same-sex marriage. As an American, I believe in equal rights under law for all people, including gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, same-sex marriage is not biblical. We can debate whether all those Jewish and Christian Scriptures that govern sexual conduct are relevant or binding or even rightly interpreted, but four millennia of teaching and tradition places the burden of proof on those who say same-sex unions should be consecrated by the church.

To put it another way: While same-sex marriage may be American, a matter of equal rights and social order, I can’t say it’s Christian.

I find Volf helpful when thinking through these kinds of tensions, in large part because he starts by recognizing there’s no single way in which Christian faith ought to relate to culture as a whole. “The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that,” he writes. “Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more.”

Volf uses his book to answer three “simple questions”:

  1.  In what ways does the Christian faith malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions?
  2.  What should be the main concern of Christ’s followers when it comes to living well in the world today?
  3.  How should Christ’s followers go about realizing their vision of living well in today’s world in relation to other faiths and together with diverse people with whom they live under the roof of a single state?

I’m not sure they’re actually that simple, but if you’re interested in thoughtful answers to these questions, pick up this book. Volf is accessible—a fine, formal and clear writer who keeps the theological jargon tamped down. He’s helping me think about the tension I’ve been feeling, as keenly as ever, of living as a Christian in America.

Paper or plastic? Most Americans still prefer newspapers

8 May

Dinosaurs we love

The Rasmussen Reports said last week that two-thirds of Americans still prefer reading newspapers over the online versions of the news.

That’s a surprise. Conventional wisdom says newspapers are dying, and it’s no secret that they are financially struggling. But I suppose there’s a difference between what we prefer and what we accept. I might prefer to travel on a vacation — Vermont or Switzerland would be nice — but I’ll accept a “staycation” if I need to.

So I wonder if people prefer paper but accept online news. After all, it’s usually cheaper than a newspaper subscription, sometimes even free. The Internet has made the old business model for newspapers obsolete: Paper is the most expensive part of the production cost. Ad revenue, especially from the once-lucrative classifieds, is flowing away from newspapers like a mountain stream. A lot of people produce a lot of content for a lot less money (sometimes even for free).

Bottom line: It’s getting harder and harder for newspapers to stay viable, and so while we might prefer paper, we’ll go with plastic and one day, it will feel normal. There was a time, after all, when getting news on radio or TV felt strange too. The economics seem to point to a day when most–but not all–literal newspapers will be lining the dustbins of history.

What about you? Do you like your news on paper or … um … plastic? Feel free to comment.

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