It’s the System, Stupid

Hillary Clinton at the DNC.  Disney | ABC Television Group via Flickr.

Hillary Clinton at the DNC. Disney | ABC Television Group via Flickr.

Back in 1992, when Bill Clinton first made a run at the presidency, his campaign strategist James Carville is said to have hung a sign in campaign headquarters reading, “The economy, stupid.” Oh, if it were still so. If it were, Hillary Clinton, despite her flaws, would be coasting to victory this November. The unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent; in 2015, middle-class income grew at the fastest rate on record; and Wall Street is hitting historic highs. Not all the economic indicators are positive: Housing starts are down, and the income gaps between rich and poor, as well as black and white, continue to grow. Nevertheless, in any “ordinary election cycle,” as we’ve grown used to saying these days, the economic news would be a boon to Clinton.

But this election is not about the economy, stupid. It’s about “the system.” The “corrupt, horrible system” has been Trump’s electoral trump card.

The idea of “the system” has been fundamental to the sciences and social sciences since the middle of the twentieth century, when systems science, systems theory, and systems thinking came to dominate the U.S. academy. It was the academy in the middle of the last century that gave legitimacy to “systems” as accounting for the ways things really work, or don’t work, in the world. As in the human body, aging, a poor diet, genetics, and a sedentary lifestyle work together to cause heart disease, so “systems” integrate parts with a whole to produce results that transcend any one cause. Continue reading

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Law, Religion, and Confident Pluralism in the University

UVA chapel. Bill McChesney via Flickr.

UVA chapel. Bill McChesney via Flickr.

Law and religion point to the deepest questions of our existence, but they exist in the world only in their particulars: not “law” as such, but a liberal understanding of constitutional reasoning, or a conservative view of statutory interpretation. Not “religion” as such, but Roman Catholicism, or Sunni Islam. There are no such things as beliefs, rituals, or adherents in “law” or “religion” in general.

The particularized forms of law and religion are sustained by tradition-dependent practices—communities of people and institutions with histories that shape their purposes and values. These practices are constantly renegotiating both their internal norms and their relationships to the world around them.

The interaction between people who hold different and particularized beliefs leads to the challenge of pluralism—the fact of deep and incommensurable difference around us. We don’t choose pluralism; rather, we encounter it in the world as we find it—a world of competing religious and legal claims and practices.

I see three responses to the challenge of pluralism: chaos, control, or coexistence. Chaos is not sustainable in the long-term. It falls flat as a political possibility. It leads ultimately to a violence that destroys lives. Fifteen years ago, I sat in the Pentagon as people who saw only the possibility of chaos smashed a plane into that building. Avoiding chaos is a matter of survival. Continue reading

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“Putting the Soul to Work”: Reflections on the New Cognitariat

What color is your parachute? Image via Wikimedia Commons.

What color is your parachute? Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know how careers are seen in other countries, but in the United States we are exhorted to view them as the primary locus of self-realization. The question before you when you are trying to choose a career is to figure out “What Color is Your Parachute?” (the title of a guide to job searches that has been a perennial best seller for most of my lifetime). The aim, to quote the title of another top-selling guide to career choices, is to “Do What You Are.”

These titles tell us something about what Americans expect to find in a career: themselves, in the unlikely form of a marketable commodity. But why should we expect that the inner self waiting to be born corresponds to some paid job or profession? Are we really all in possession of an inner lawyer, an inner beauty products placement specialist, or an inner advertising executive, just waiting for the right job opening? Mightn’t this script for our biographies serve as easily to promote self-limitation or self-betrayal as to further self-actualization?

We spend a great deal of our youth shaping ourselves into the sort of finished product that potential employers will be willing to pay dearly to use. Beginning at a very early age, schooling practices and parental guidance and approval are adjusted, sometimes only semi-consciously, so as to inculcate the personal capacities and temperament demanded by the corporate world. The effort to sculpt oneself for this destiny takes a more concerted form in high school and college. We choose courses of study, and understand the importance of success in these studies, largely with this end in view. Continue reading

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A Christian Movie that Embarrasses Christianity

Ben-Hur_2016_posterThe new Ben-Hur is bad. As scathing reviews have noted, this implausible remake is treacly, pietistic and rushed. Replete with gooey flashbacks and clunky transitions, it begins with the famous chariot race, just in case we didn’t think the central Ben-Hur-Messala relationship would climax there.

The clunky dialogue is dependably risible: Upon hearing Jesus preach, Judah remarks, “Love your enemies? That’s very progressive.” The male leads appear to be unaware that, despite the film’s location, they are not acting in in a nativity play. Deservedly, the film is on track to be a financial failure of epic proportions, costing a whopping $100 million but grossing a meager $11.4 million on its opening weekend.

I, too, disliked the new Ben-Hur, but not simply because it is bad. Nor can I put my objection down entirely to my man crush on the late, great Charlton Heston or my nostalgia for the 1959 masterpiece. The bigger problem is that it’s another movie made by Christians that fails to do justice to their faith. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: August 12, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week (or so):

“Monstrous Births,” Sarah Blackwood
“Perhaps it might be time to abandon altogether the idea of childbirth as a moral experience?”

“Are you dating a Fox News spy? Read it at Gawker, as the news site careens toward bankruptcy sale,” Matt D. Pearce
“It is time to soak up Gawker Media’s final days of freedom before the irreverent, influential and financially doomed media company goes up for sale next week.”

“Lives and Misfortunes of Lorenzo Da Ponte,” Antonio Muñoz Molina
“We imagine a very old man walking in New York in the twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century, recalling as if in a dream all the lives that he had lived, as remote as the opera performances that he used to attend in the Vienna of his youth, in an extinguished world.”

“Make America Austria Again: How Robert Musil Predicted the Rise of Donald Trump,” David Auerbach
“Trump is one of the most emotionally needy figures in American political history.”

“Delusion at the Gastropub,” Heather Havrilesky
“Food is personal. It’s sensual, it’s nostalgic, it’s political. But contrary to the slogans of our officious foodie overlords, food is not everything.”

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Desperately Seeking Relevance

Andrew Grill via flickr.

Andrew Grill via flickr.

“Relevance is the only job security that exists in today’s uncertain business world” proclaims the subheading of “4 Ways to Become More Relevant,” Geoffrey James’s 2013 piece for INC.com. The struggle for “relevance” isn’t restricted to anxious employees; it is said to be the burden facing movie stars like John Travolta, ambitious college basketball coaches, authors of children’s books, Baby Boomers, and, if the Trump campaign is to be believed, Mitt Romney.

In the strict dictionary sense of the word, relevance is neither virtue nor vice. That which is relevant could be true and good and beautiful, or it could be false and bad and ugly. Martin Luther King, Jr. was relevant to the American Civil Rights Movement, but so was Birmingham’s Commissioner for Public Safety Bull Connor. To grasp the former’s wisdom and the latter’s brutality, the discussion must extend beyond mere relevance.

In its current wave of usage, relevance talk tries to transcend this vacuity, if only slightly. According to motivational speaker Ross Shafer, for instance, “relevance is taking action to make sure you matter to your customers, your clients, your members, and your teams. If you don’t matter to your constituents, they can go away and not care if you exist.” Malevolent actors can “matter” and in the strictest sense meet Shafer’s criteria, but he obviously means to link relevance to success, popularity, and profit. Continue reading

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The Murderer’s Reckoning:
An Interview with John J. Lennon

 

john and mom CROP_FLAT5

John J. Lennon’s essay “The Murderer’s Mother” appears in our 2016 summer issue. In this interview, Lennon, who is incarcerated at Attica for a drug-related murder, tells us more about his background, how he came to writing, and what it’s like to be a journalist behind bars.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): What was life like growing up?

John J. Lennon (JJL): I grew up poor, with a single mother, in a Brooklyn housing project. But I had more opportunities than most kids in the projects because my mother made money running hot dog stands. She was able to send me away to boarding school from fifth to eighth grade. It was mostly upper class, privileged kids, about thirty of us, living in a mansion on the Hudson River. In the seventh grade, I won second prize in an essay-writing contest. They gave me a $75 savings bond. (Two years later, I would swipe it from my mom’s drawer, cash it at a discount, and buy drugs.) Things got bad in my adolescent years. I’d learned my real father committed suicide and then we moved to Hell’s Kitchen. Mom enrolled me in public school, and all of a sudden, life was much less sheltered. At the time, the reputation of a murderous Irish mob called the Westies—most of whom were sent away to federal prison in the 1980s—seemed to rule the neighborhood.

Just to give you a flavor of the time, here’s a short anecdote: It was 1991 when I first met Danny, a then-thirty-something Westie who had somehow managed to avoid indictment. My friend Terrence and I were holding down our street corner. Full of swagger with dark hair and blue eyes, Danny winked at me when he walked by, “What’s up, kid?” “You know,” Terrence told me after he passed by, “Danny killed a guy before.” When I heard that, it wasn’t just fear I felt, but admiration, too. It was then that I began to see murder more as a revered deed among gangsters than as the mortal sin it was among civilians.

THR: Tell us more about the crime that sent you to prison.

JJL: Alex, the man I killed, was, like me, in the drug game. At the outset, the murder was about money, drugs, and respect. As sick as it sounds, it was also about this need for me to complete my image. (I think many murders committed within gangster culture have a lot to do with broken boys and young men who want to earn status in a subculture that they otherwise cannot earn in mainstream culture.) I shot Alex several times with an AR-15 while he sat in a car, then dumped his body off a pier. It was a terrible crime, for which I’m deeply sorry. This all happened in December 2001. Continue reading

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Hacking Moneyball: What We Can Learn from the Cardinals

cardinals moneyball

Baseball is the most arcane of modern sports. For a typical fan, it takes years to learn its intricate, often counterintuitive rules and its odd terminology, let alone its statistics and their acronyms—BA, ERA, RBIs, and OBP. It was as if in embracing baseball, Americans made sport out of the statistics, managerial sciences, and bureaucracies that were coming increasingly to characterize their professional and civic lives.

Professional baseball, however, turned up the statistical game several notches during the early 2000s. Sabermetrics, or “Moneyball” as it came to be called, entailed the invention of all sorts of new metrics—BsRs, PERA, WARs, and numerous others—to predict better and more efficiently player performance and team success. Major league baseball front offices started hiring not only MBAs, but also PhDs with expertise in data science, programming, and other areas of statistical wizardry.

However, coming as it does out of a tradition of ritual and loyalty, a certain brand of American wholesomeness, even comic associations (“Who’s on first?”), baseball was distinctly uncomfortable with its turn to sabermetrics. Baseball executives lit up at the new profts promised by metrics, but they sheepishly hid the Moneyball operations in the back office. Continue reading

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