Archive | March, 2011

Learning to love nuclear power

30 Mar

One reason I appreciate a good newspaper/news site is its potential for stopping people like me in our tracks to make us think fresh thoughts (if not always change our minds) while events are fresh, maybe even still in progress. Strike while the iron’s hot, right?

A column in the Guardian, a national British newspaper, provided a valuable example this week. Like any good column, this isn’t objective “reporting,” but it uses “reportage” to make a point. In this case, George Monbiot, a regular writer for the Guardian, makes the case FOR nuclear power, which isn’t what you’d expect from an environmental activist. His column came out just a few days ago — that is, after the tsunami hit the Japanese nuclear plant in Fukushima, sending entire nations, such as Germany, into full retreat from their nuclear programs.

The fearful responses are understandable. I’m not all that comfortable with nuclear power, and the Japanese disaster has resurrected old fears around the world. On the other hand, living in southern Appalachia, I’m not all that thrilled with what the coal industry is doing to the environment either. Mountaintop removal, anyone?

I don’t discount for a moment how many jobs rely on coal mining. But we need a long-term energy plan that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, both coal and oil, and we have only so many options.

That’s Monbiot’s point: nuclear isn’t perfect, but by analyzing data he’s concluded it’s not only a viable option, but a more desirable and safer option than fossil fuels.

What to do? It’s not a simple issue, and I’m not really sure. But I’m grateful for Monbiot and other writers who don’t impose artificially simple solutions on complicated problems and retreat into predictable positions. Rather than steer away from complexity, he did his homework and drove a surprising route right into the middle of it.

I wish more journalists would do that.

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Disaster … That’s entertainment

17 Mar

[T]ragedy is promoted on television as if it were entertainment: the trial of O.J. Simpson for a grisly murder, the car-crash death of Princess Diana, Chilean miners trapped below ground and yes, even the combination earthquake-tsunami-nuclear calamity in Japan. It is the nature of TV that everything is promoted the same way, no matter how ghastly the event.
There are rewards for doing so. According to FishbowlDC, “The Japan tragedy sets a new record for CNN.com with more than 60 million viewers watching.”

So writes Roger Simon of Politico.com. His complaint (posted March 17) echoes Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 classic critique of the “Age of Television,” which includes prescient passages like this:

There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now … this.” The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds, that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let’s say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.

That’s not precisely what’s going on now, in the age of 24/7 cable TV information, but Postman was on to something.

Go here to read Roger Simon’s column, which includes several other trenchant points.

The Adjustment Bureau: Stylish, thoughtful, clever and full of holes

7 Mar

The Adjustment Bureau is a fine, fun movie that’s a good place to start a conversation about free will, fate, “God’s plan for my life,” and all that. But it’s not a good place to finish that conversation. Go see this movie — it could make for a smarter-than-usual date flick — but do not let it change your theology, cosmology. psychology or any other -ology.

The Adjustment Bureau, based on an old story by  legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a talented, up-and-coming New York politician who meets and falls in love with Elise Sellas, a talented, up-and-coming modern dancer played by Emily Blunt. But they’re not supposed to be together, according to a cosmic plan sketched out by a godlike “Chairman.”

We never see the Chairman, but we are introduced to members of the Adjustment Bureau — supernatural “case officers” dressed in 60s-style suits, overcoats and fedoras who monitor people’s comings and goings and, if necessary, perform incremental “adjustments” to make sure the humans stay on their life plans. John Slattery  (AMC’s “Mad Men”), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”) and Terence Stamp are the main “bureaucrats” working on the David-Elise case.

The Adjustment Bureau could have either veered off into silliness or into a cinematic slog through existential philosophy. To the film’s credit, it does neither: We get to enjoy a very human story while playing mind games with what it all means.  Damon and Blunt make the movie click: they have great on-screen chemistry. (Note to casting directors: Return to this pairing, but not too often. Please don’t make them a cliché.) The movie finished second in the box office during its opening weekend.

The ideas behind the story derive not from just a good question, but some of the great questions that have inspired and haunted humans for ages, from the 4,600-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh (perhaps the world’s oldest written story) to meditations on the Nazi Holocaust. How much of life is controlled by fate, by God? Do humans have free will? Is there anything such as pure, random chance?

This is like native soil for director and screenwriter George Nolfi, who carries both an enviable box-office record (Ocean’s Eleven, The Bourne Ultimatum) and a notable educational pedigree: After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton (public policy), he did graduate work in philosophy at Oxford and in political science at UCLA.

No surprise, then, that he’s given us a movie that’s not only stylish, clever and often slyly humorous. (Metaphysical case workers doze on the job, misunderstand the boss and must deal with staff shortages — some truths really are universal.) It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking too.

Still, I felt frustrated at several points. For instance, Nolfi seems to lump all concepts of god and/or fate together, without any nuance: ancient Greek myth, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, pantheist … it all comes out in the wash. I don’t know his personal religious views, but his movie’s concept of a deity was like an Impressionist painting: interesting and engaging when considered from a distance, but fairly muddy when viewed up close.

As enjoyable as The Adjustment Bureau is (yes, I’d watch it again), it won’t take long during a post-movie chat to start poking holes in the movie’s “universe.” That random events seem to happen isn’t the problem: that’s one of the movie’s central questions. But there are also points of incoherence that aren’t satisfactorily covered by the “laws” of the story. What was Elise’s motivation at a key point in the story? What was the “fate” of one of the agents who bent the rules? Is a very good, really long kiss actually that powerful? (I’m trying not to give away any spoilers.)

And where can I get a hat like that?

Reporting on priestly celibacy in Germany … sort of

2 Mar

All Things Considered,” NPR’s evening news program, ran an interesting segment on Wednesday about how some Roman Catholics in Germany “pray” that the church will rethink its teaching about celibacy for priests. Here’s the start of the text story on NPR.org., which follows the audio closely:

In Germany, calls are going out for the Catholic Church to rethink some of its basic principles, including the rule of celibacy for priests.

Many say the German church is experiencing a period of crisis. It’s been rocked by sex and abuse scandals and no longer even has enough priests to serve its parishes. These days, even more traditional-minded Catholics in Germany have begun calling for far-reaching reform.

That’s fine for a general summary lead. The problem is that the rest of Kyle James’ story doesn’t dig much deeper than that. Aside from hearing the voices of four individuals, we get very little information about what is really going on over there.

There’s no indication of who are the “many” making these calls or who say the church is in crisis, or if there’s been some recent development in this controversy. The story mentions surveys and projections, but doesn’t offer specifics about the surveys, not even percentages.

As it turns out, more than 140 Catholic theologians in Germany, Austria and Switzerland issued a petition in early February, calling for changes in the church, including celibacy. But we didn’t learn that on NPR.

The  individuals who are quoted apparently represent various segments within the church: a former priest, now married with children and still in the church; a theologian; a Religion News Service correspondent who covers the Vatican; and a “well-known conservative Catholic politician.”

The four are unanimous about how clerical celibacy — among other “rules” — is an albatross around the church’s neck, sure to drag it down.

They may be right about that, but the story would be stronger if there were more evidence that these voices run the gamut of German Catholic opinion, which seems unlikely. No one in Germany, not even a bishop, was available to offer a different view? How about more detail on where these “calls” for change are coming from? How about a little background or explanation?

“Celibacy rules were originally introduced on practical grounds, and so I think that they can be changed for practical reasons as well,” claims the politician in the story, Hermann Kues.

Really? What’s that about? Is he correct? I thought there was actually some doctrine involved, but we’d never know from this story. A little historical background would have helped — not to mention hearing from a church leader or  theologian who could explain Roman Catholic teaching and the Vatican’s position. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not arguing for or against priestly celibacy right now. I’m just talking about how this story was covered.)

This was an anomaly. NPR usually airs stronger religion stories, especially when Barbara Bradley Hagerty is on the case. (She was busy on Wednesday, reporting on the Supreme Court free-speech decision, providing listeners with a closer-than-usual look at the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which was at the enter of the court’s ruling.) But this story from Germany, sorry to say, was an example of how news media — even the Normally Pretty Reliable news media — can get the reporting not … quite … right.

By the way, this gives me a chance for a shout out* to Get Religion, a blog by journalists that looks at how mainstream news media** cover religion and how they can get it right … or not. You might want to check it out.

* Do people still say “shout out”?

** Are there really any “mainstream media” anymore, or is that just an old concept?

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