Monthly Archives: September 2016

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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