25 June 2015

Brown-bag technology

My nerves must be shot. Or maybe I'm just too sheltered.

The other day I happened to overhear a television newscast on a television a few rooms away. The news involved events that probably represented, for some very real people, the end of the world -- but the news presenter, who was no doubt no worse than most, rushed through the details with a loud, glib, superficial presentation that just got on my nerves, and I had to get away. I think I'm becoming allergic to the commercial culture. It's just as much a commentary on me and the aging process as on the world around me.

Seven years ago, when I bought a Sony Vaio laptop to take with us to Russia, I wrote here about how even the process of turning it on for the first time drove me nuts, as I had to endure all the bloatware and trial software (some deeply entangled into the system, such as the antivirus virus-ware). That's why I installed Ubuntu Linux on that shiny and expensive new Sony computer, altering the partitions and probably voiding the warranty.

That computer is now nearing retirement, and I don't want it to fail when I'm far from home, so I just bought its replacement. The Sony's hardware took a lot of punishment over the years and served me well; based on my experience with this Vaio and its predecessor (another Vaio, which cost nearly $2,000 in 2004 dollars!), I was sorry to find out last year that Sony went out of the laptop business.

This time, I decided to spare myself the annoyance of bloatware and conversion, and shopped for a laptop computer whose original operating system was Linux-based. To my surprise, they almost don't exist, at least not from known-brand companies building their own products. Dell is one of the few exceptions, selling Ubuntu laptops both at the low end (that's me!) of their laptop range as well as at the high end. Their Ubuntu laptops are not exactly prominently featured on their Web site, but you can find them by going to this page or by searching for "Ubuntu" on the site.

New Dell computer (left) and faithful retiring Sony Vaio, getting acquainted.

This Dell Inspiron 14, 3000 series, Ubuntu Edition, was the first laptop I ever bought sight unseen, but I had found a very helpful review by Jim Mendenhall online. Thanks to this review, I skipped the "create a restore disk" in the startup process, but more about that later. First, I want to describe the wonderfully anti-glamorous packaging that the computer came in:

Brown bag -- that is, box....
That's it! The laptop came suspended in the box between those two baffles. The "quick start" guide assumed that the operating system was Windows, but since its two-pages-plus-diagram said nothing that wasn't obvious, that didn't really matter at all. In case I'd forgotten that a new laptop needs power, there was a delightfully simple picture on the plastic sleeve around the laptop.

When I turned it on, Ubuntu did its little dance as Jim Mendenhall describes, collected my name and location, and then asked me whether I wanted to pause the setup at that point to make a recovery disk. I couldn't imagine why I would need one so soon; I hadn't done any customizing or adding files, and if the computer was going to need recovery so early in its career, I was going to send it back! And if the operating system seems unsatisfactory later, or I replace the hard drive with a solid state drive as recommended by many, I will replace Ubuntu with Linux Mint, the operating system I now have on my old Sony Vaio, and which I already have on a flash drive.

The startup process lasted less than five minutes. I could have begun working right at that point -- the computer came with LibreOffice (word processing, spreadsheet, slideshows), photo-viewing and cataloging software, a music-library and player program, a media player, and Chrome browser, among other basic items. But I decided to see how many updates had been released for Ubuntu since the version installed on my laptop was published ... and that update process, on our relatively slow Internet connection here, took over an hour. Oh, well, by the time it all ended, the battery was nearly charged.

Then I began customizing. All of the programs I've listed below can be added for free and by anyone; no special Ubuntu or Linux or geek knowledge is required, thanks to the Ubuntu Software Center program that comes with the operating system.
  • Gimp, for editing photos
  • VLC media player, which accepts a wider range of formats than the built-in player
  • Filezilla, for uploading files to the service that maintains our Web site
  • Skype
  • Firefox browser
  • Dropbox (from the Dropbox Web site)
  • Grsync, for easy transfer of files from our external hard drive to the laptop's hard drive, and later for syncing folders between the laptop and the external hard drive
  • Audacity, for editing audio files
  • Handbrake, for handling and converting video files, adding subtitles, etc.
Other customizations were easy to do from the settings menus -- for example, getting a Cyrillic keyboard and other Russian-language enhancements, and putting my own wallpaper on the desktop.

Jim Mendenhall is right -- the hard drive is this laptop's weak point. It's not slower than my old Sony Vaio, but it's also not as much faster as I expected from seven years of presumed technological progress. Well, if it drives me crazy, I'll do what the bloggers suggest and replace the hard drive with a solid state drive. The smaller capacity wouldn't bother me; we don't use our laptops as archives anymore.

The display is also not as good as my Sony Vaio's display. Sony was famous for its gorgeous displays, and that is one thing that has not deteriorated on my veteran Vaio. But, honestly, I really only notice the difference in quality when they're side by side. Otherwise, the Dell's display seems excellent to me.

Despite having a larger footprint, the Dell is lighter and a lot thinner. Well, for one thing it doesn't have an optical drive for CDs and DVDs. That's not a problem -- we practically never use them anymore. If we need something that's only on a CD or a DVD, we have an external drive we can plug in. The Dell is also far quieter than the Sony, whose aging fan rasps away whenever I'm putting any sort of load on the system.

In the past, I've been very particular about keyboards, which is the reason I normally wouldn't even consider buying a laptop by mail. This Dell keyboard isn't as luxuriously responsive as the Vaio's, but it's acceptable. Also, in recent years I've taken to putting laptops up near eye level to help my posture, and therefore using an external keyboard most of the time, so this factor isn't as important as it once was. I don't like the Dell's touchpad, especially the integrated mouse buttons that are activated by pushing down on the sides of the touchpad. That seems to me to be a weak spot in a lot of economy computers these days, but again I'm almost always using an external mouse with my external keyboard. So, it's not a big regret.

The USB ports (2 USB version 2.0, one USB 3.0) have firm grips, and I like the solid feel of the display hinges. Overall, this new laptop seems very well built for an economy version.

All in all, it's great to see a reasonably-priced non-geeky Linux computer on the consumer market.

It is understandable that the attack at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has generated an enormous amount of agonized reflection among white Christians. A lot of it seems to be either self-flagellation, which I sometimes find disempowering, or dominated by impersonal we-must rhetoric. In this midst of all this flood of words of wildly varying helpfulness, I was glad to find these reflections from Lynn Gazis-Sax.

If I never see another swastika or Confederate flag, that would be too soon for me. But I also appreciated David D. Flowers writing about Flags of the Heart. We as a community confronting pervasive racism, elitism, and objectification, may desperately want and need a symbolic victory. Go for it! Get rid of that racial wallpaper, as Jon Stewart named this ancient embedded symbolism of which that flag is an example. But I am still haunted by the virus of sin that goes undetected by our righteousness. "War is not the answer," says the Friends Committee on National Legislation; and I agree when it comes to carnal warfare with outward weapons. But the Lamb's War goes on until we are victorious over our own willingness to put condemnation before discernment. (This is aimed at me as much as anyone!)

I downloaded my own PDF copy of the encyclical on "care for our common home" by Pope Francis, and am about a quarter of the way through it. I honestly can't understand where the vociferous criticism comes from. So much of Francis's rhetoric is invitational, at times even lyrical. Why can't his critics engage with the substance of what he says, even where they don't agree, rather than trying to diminish his credibility? (That is a rhetorical question!) Since I've not finished reading it yet, here are some good comments from someone who has.

Sean Guillory (Sean's Russia Blog) interviews Joy Gleason Carew, associate professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, and author of this (PDF) article, "Black in the USSR: African diasporan pilgrims, expatriates and students in Russia, from the 1920s to the first decade of the twenty-first century." A fascinating article and podcast.

"Stranger in a Strange Land." Charlie Musselwhite at the Waterfront Blues Festival a few years ago. I'm in the audience that you can occasionally glimpse in the video. Next week at this time, I hope to be at this year's Festival for three out of the four days. If I manage to post anything here next Thursday, it won't be much!

19 June 2015

Dear "God With Us" AME Church, Charleston

The murders of nine Emanuel AME Church members by an apparent race warrior, who sat through a Bible study with these believers before turning his gun on them, have left me numb. I'm grateful for the many who have already written and spoken eloquently on behalf of those who sorrow with Mother Emanuel, especially on behalf of us grieving brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ worldwide. Through their words and tears and prayers and solidarity, the "God with us" of Emanuel's historic name is being lived out.

Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian newspaper commented on two of the most eloquent speakers, Jon Stewart and Barack Obama. He observed that "both the presenter and the president struck the same tone. They matched each other in weary resignation."

Resignation. Maybe that's a state similar to my own numbness.

After reading Freedland's article, I went to a blog written by a priest we know here in the Pacific Northwest, Brandon Filbert, rector of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Salem, Oregon. Here I found a bit of healing and perspective. In a post entitled "The Courage to Hope in the Face of Hate," Brandon wrote,
... One of the most counter-worldly things we can do—and perhaps one of the greatest threats to the established order of this broken world—is to be faithful and committed to the study of the Scriptures as a community, taking in the Spirit’s power and direction to live out the Gospel of peace, truth, and divine justice in the face of human and spiritual fallenness. To gather in study, praise, and prayer is a radical rejection of the norms and preoccupations of a consumerized and morally stricken society. In this sense, the people of Emanuel AME Church were doing work that put them at additional risk. They were gathered for nourishment in hope and power, in direct opposition to a world urging us to become angry without action, fearful without freedom, and despairing without direction.
Based on what I've learned of Emanuel AME Church's history, I believe that the church already knows this to be true on an elemental, visceral level. Living in the faith and practice of "God with us" doesn't guarantee safety in any worldly sense, despite the comfort and security that some of us in Christendom have come to believe is ours by right. I close my eyes and see scenes of Hebrew scholars being kicked and taunted by Nazis in the buildup to Hitler's holocaust. I see the mushroom cloud over Japan's "most Christian city," Nagasaki. I even see Christians killing Christians in Rwanda. And still there are those who keep the faith. How can we thank you enough?

Are the emotional options limited to resignation and endurance? Is there a place for anger? On the BBC News Web site, a video clip entitled "Charleston shooting relatives: 'We feel nothing but love'" caught my attention. "In this extended interview with the BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan, Chris and Camryn Singleton said they wanted to focus on moving on in a positive way. Their mother, Sharonda Singleton, 45, was one of nine people shot dead."

When these two teenagers say that they have already forgiven the shooter, the interviewer can hardly believe her ears. Meanwhile, their state's chief executive is already demanding the death penalty. If their ability to forgive (and they're not the only ones) is evidence of "God with us," I couldn't imagine a more powerful proof that Mother Emanuel's legacy is alive at this very moment. (Personally, I have been through this process with Tyrone King, the murderer of my own sister, when I was eighteen.) I unreservedly honor their testimony against hate. Still, I humbly want to insert a tiny footnote on behalf of anger: the Holy Spirit is competent to deal with anger, but church culture generally isn't. I hope that we don't abandon those who find that anger isn't a phase they can pass through easily.

Finally, a word to those who talk about the real nature of the crime in Charleston as being an "attack on Christians." This line is being ridiculed by some commentators as an attempt to divert attention from pervasive racism as well as resistance to gun control, and to exploit the tragedy for the political purposes of those who trade in the "Christians as victims" theme in U.S. politics. But, on the face of it, as an expression of racism, this massacre was very much an attack on Christian faith, as is racism in all its ugly forms, the exaltation of violence, and all the other ways we objectify each other. They are incompatible with Christianity!

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Charles Spurgeon's phrase, "the virus of sin." By analyzing the Emanuel tragedy in terms of our own favorite scapegoats -- the lone racist or racists in general, or persecutors of Christianity, or liberals, or conservatives -- we miss the point: the virus of racism and violence is likely in us, too. We need "God with us" desperately, NOT to distinguish us from the ungodly or any other scapegoat, but to confront this virus.

18 June 2015

My privacy and your transparency


Maybe you saw several news sources reporting last week that Russian and Chinese intelligence services had decrypted some of Edward Snowden's purloined files and, as a result, British intelligence was forced to move some of its agents from hostile fields. Anonymous "senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services" were cited in these reports, which added that Snowden had "blood on his hands."

At first I was not at all happy, since Snowden had explicitly said that the files he was making available would put nobody in danger. Then, after a few moments of reflection, I thought, "Do I trust these anonymous people who perhaps have some motivation other than pure virtue for throwing mud at Snowden?"

Today I came across Glenn Greenwald's response to these recent allegations--"journalism at its worst." Clearly, Greenwald has motivations of his own -- he has a central role in the Snowden epic -- but his article includes a detailed inventory of falsehoods and innuendos that somehow never made it into those same news channels that told us about the urgent transfers of agents and the blood on Snowden's hands -- at least not with the same level of visibility. And that vague discomfort that I felt reading the original story is crisply defined in his article. You and I are intended to assume the following: If some anonymous government officials said it, and journalists repeat it while hiding who they are, I guess it must be true.

Snowden, Greenwald, and their allies have been campaigning to expose our governments' abuse of power and avoidance of accountability in spying on citizens' telephone and Internet communications. In the U.S., their allies include politicians as varied as Senators Rand Paul (R) and Jeff Merkley (D). Recently, their legislative efforts as well as developments on the legal front have resulted in some progress in the fight against universal surveillance. However, at the risk of sounding totally inconsistent, I don't think this is a simple human-rights vs big-government controversy.

We're actually dealing with two separable but related controversies:
  • violating citizens' privacy (which no government likes to admit doing -- there's usually some veneer of legality in the form of warrants, tribunals, etc., to excuse exceptions), and 
  • official secrecy (which hides government operations that we're not supposed to know about -- including conspiracies to violate our privacy). 
As a rule, I'm in favor of government secrecy when that secrecy actually protects the privacy of citizens. I don't want tax or Social Security files, government personnel records, or unproven allegations in criminal investigations to be made public ... and you can think of lots of other examples of reasonable secrecy. But however reasonable that secrecy might be, there is simply no way to guarantee it 100%, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, as I argued in my blog post, "Leaks," on the original Wikileaks scandal. To tell the truth, the less I trust the government, the more I'm going to hope for breaches of secrecy.

Beyond those reasonable exceptions, I'm all for total transparency in government. What about the transparency of our lives as private citizens? If we're not violating a law and thereby giving cause for a warrant to be issued to spy on us, shouldn't we have a near-absolute right to expect inviolability for private behavior and private communication? I'm not sure.

For example: because of my many overseas contacts and frequent conversations with them, I could imagine accidentally appear on a list somewhere that I would not have chosen to appear on, but turns out to be linked to a criminal or terrorist. Why should I object to a momentary intrusion to verify my harmlessness? Wouldn't any filter that absolutely prevented such a happenstance also be weaker than necessary?

I've also been part of protest movements that clashed dramatically with government policies. To my knowledge, every such affiliation I've ever had has held a firmly nonviolent position, and for most of my life they've also been explicitly Christian, but some of them have included civil disobedience. Wouldn't it be prudent for government to take a quick look at these affiliations and see whether or not they are indeed nonviolent? In fact, by doing so, wouldn't the government's agents learn something about the ethics of nonviolence that they might not learn in other areas of their job?

Speaking of Christianity, what areas of our lives are we disciples, as disciples, entitled to conceal from others? (This isn't a rhetorical question; my list would start with conversations with pastors and counselors about personal dilemmas and crises.) Is there any effective evangelism that doesn't involve showing the disbelieving world what it looks like to have Jesus at the center of our lives, rather than the idols prescribed by the world, or for that matter, our addictions? What are the implications for our privacy? If we preach against fear-based government "national security" propaganda, how do we show what living fearlessly means to us?

Daniel Webster asserted, and Justice Marshall agreed, that the power to tax is the power to destroy. The power to violate privacy is similarly coercive, which brings us back to the issue of trust. I want to live a transparent life, and I (usually) don't mind being observed to be doing so. But an uninvited observation that is ultimately for the purpose of compelling my obedience, or tracking my relationships with others, or enforcing political uniformity, is completely unacceptable. Therefore I circle back to governmental secrecy. If those in power want to compromise our privacy in any way, however urgent the need might be, then they should expect our untiring efforts to require trustworthiness and transparency in them. Hopefully that won't require leaks....

See also "Was it something I said?", part one, part two.

Our options in Iraq and the role of unreflective blind faith: Washington in Wonderland.

Micah Bales: Why Pope Francis' encyclical matters. And from the Telegraph: Why this pope could make the world greener.

Margaret Benefiel: Sustaining ministry through soulful entrepreneurship.
I learned that it wasn't a sin to reach out to people who might be a good fit for my programs; in fact, it was part of the ministry of serving them. And I learned that it wasn't a sin to desire a living wage.
Does education still serve the cause of basic social fairness? Andrew Delbanco is worried....

Elisabeth Elliot, 1926-2015: Obituary and many links.

Blues from Madrid:

CAFÉ NEGRO. El tren de la Habana from Café Negro on Vimeo.

11 June 2015

"My sin is always before me" ...

Farmers' Shopping Center, Elektrostal - source.
(Psalm 51:3) ...

... but let's be honest: we're often far more concerned with other people's sins!

A few weeks ago, Judy and I went into a store at the Farmers' Shopping Center on Pobeda street, looking for Epsom salt. I began chatting with the sales clerk. She was intrigued by the fact that we lived just a block away from her store. "How long have you been here?" she asked.

"Seven years," I answered.

"So you know we aren't the kind of bad people that the West says we are! You know we are normal, decent people!"

I agreed. "We love our neighbors here. We tell our friends in America about the people we know here."

She spontaneously gave me a big hug and said, "So you know that we Russians are normal people like anyone else in the world. We have never attacked anyone!"

It didn't seem like the right time to pick apart her assertion. I didn't tell her that I had been a student at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at my university, and that nearly half my professors were from countries that were either occupied by or dominated by the postwar Soviet Union. I didn't mention our visit a few years ago to the fascinating and horrifying Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga.

(And when I go back to buy more salt, I won't be handing her a copy of the European Parliament's new detailed (PDF) list of official Russian sins.)

I interpreted her statement, not as a declaration of Russian perfection, but as a complaint about the negative way Russians are portrayed abroad compared to the genuine and elemental decency of Russian people like those she and we know.

This isn't just a Russian experience. There is a definite gap between American virtue as we see it in ourselves, and the experience of American influence in much of the rest of the world. For example, the values of due process and equal protection of the laws is a precious heritage of American democracy, and it is hard for us to realize that we appear to protect those principles at home by selectively ignoring them outside our own boundaries. We can hold prisoners indefinitely in our little Cuban colony, support governments abroad who deny freedom of religion or equality of the sexes, use covert forces and drone-delivered missiles with impunity, and the list goes on. Even within our boundaries, "equal protection" often doesn't extend to non-citizens, victims of racial profiling, and other groups who are invisible to middle-class voters. And in the meantime, every time I come back to the States, I'm struck by the increasing militarization of our society. It's not that Americans are flocking to join the military -- it's just much easier to glorify the military than to engage in an honest national debate about our imperial behavior.

I appreciate Philip Evans' article "Why Russia watchers should listen to Glenn Greenwald" -- that is, why those of us who look critically at Russia's human rights crisis should "start paying a little closer attention to what's going on at home as well as abroad."

Domenico Fetti - The Parable of the Mote and the Beam.jpg
"Domenico Fetti - The Parable 
of the Mote and the Beam" by 
Domenico Fetti - Metropolitan 
Museum of Art, online collection 
(accession number 1991.153)
Licensed under Public Domain 
via Wikimedia Commons.
There are lots of ways we demonstrate our preference to look at the motes in others' eyes rather than the planks in our own. In the USA, one of the favorite ways is to compare our current degraded state with the good old days when life was simpler, children could play in the streets freely, and (according to the song "Those Were the Days") "girls were girls and men were men." In reality, all we've done is reshuffled the lists of prevailing social and personal sins. For most people without wealth or power, there was not as much good in the old days as today's middle-class nostalgia might imply.

When I'm tempted to compare people or countries or historical epochs in terms of sinfulness, I try to remember Charles Spurgeon's great line: "The virus of sin lies in its opposition to God." Whether we're trying to carve out space for personal self-indulgence or for national-scale oppression, or simply prefer to shut our eyes to others' misery, we end up setting ourselves against God.

But neither rich people nor poor people, neither we nor the Russians, are especially wicked; sin is a virus that ruthlessly seeks and finds hosts everywhere. Like addiction, sin is unendingly clever at wrapping itself in rationalizations -- including national conceits as well as personal entitlement. There is no formula that guarantees a cure; the only antidote I know personally is to live in community with Jesus at the center ... and, with the support of that community, work to learn what God wants in my life and in the world, and what seems to be getting in the way.

Interpreting Russia ... the uses and abuses of history.

What came first: postwar evangelicalism or the religious right?

How evangelicalism built its brand loyalty.
Evangelicals ... trusted nondenominational institutions like MBI [Moody Bible Institute] to supply them with Christian workers, periodicals, and radio programs, just like they trusted the smiling Quaker gentleman to serve them "pure" oats. Churchly Protestants, by contrast, placed faith in denominational hierarchies and divinity schools to ensure quality, just like customers had once placed faith in the local dry goods store manager and his unseen supply chain. As we know, one mode of purveying spiritual and physical food proved more successful in the 20th century than the other.
The Internet Monk's Chaplain Mike believes in conversion. (So do I.)

A good prayer for my eleven-year anniversary as a blogger: Kyndall Rae's prayer for writers.

Moyers Moment (1990): Johnny Cash on Our Personal Prisons from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

04 June 2015

Transatlantic shorts

Goodbye, Elektrostal. See you next school year.

On Facebook, Darlene Ortega quoted Richard Rohr as follows: "[A]ll mystics are positive people--or they are not mystics. Their spiritual warfare is precisely the work of recognizing and then handing over all of their inner negativity and fear to God. The great paradox here is that such a victory is a gift from God, and yet somehow you must want it very much (Philippians 2:12b-13)." (Hyperlink added.)

I'm not sure I agree with the first part, or maybe I'm missing something. Can't there be melancholic mystics?

But aside from the sweeping generalizations, I agree that the victory mentioned by Rohr -- the victory over inner negativity and fear -- does involve a great paradox, maybe the central paradox of the God-human relationship, one that cannot be wrestled into submission by Calvinists or Arminians or anyone else. Paul, a mystic if anyone ever was, urges us to "continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling," but Paul doesn't claim that this "fear and trembling" is a permanent condition or requirement. At some point, we not only believe but experience that "it is God who works in [us] to will and to act" (my emphasis) in order to fulfill God's good purpose.

Start with fear and trembling, but you won't stay there!

The thing is, desire is important, but it isn't enough. Yes, we want this good outcome. We don't want to live in fear, but still we struggle to remember this desire when other desires threaten to eclipse it, and this struggle of desires really is a fearful one. As I confront my various appetites and distractions, I even worry that in yielding to God I will lose my identity -- now that is fear! "I no longer live but Christ lives in me" (from Galations 2:20) ... so, is that still me?!

But the process I undertake is not mine alone. It's God working within me, right there alongside my will and my initiative, so that the outcome isn't my doom at all, but God's good purpose, which I've accepted as my own. So I want, and I yield. Both.

After experiencing the chaos and confusion of the Transportation Security Administration's screening lines at Kennedy airport yesterday, I was fascinated by a Washington Post article, "Why the TSA catches your water bottle, but guns and bombs get through." In a previous Post article on the screeners' amazing failure rate in catching TSA inspectors carrying guns and fake bombs, Homeland Security chief Johnson was quoted as saying that in the previous year, screeners had confiscated a record number of prohibited items. A more interesting fact would be how many of those prohibited items actually represented credible threats and were followed by arrests.

For some reason I was reading a two-year-old interview -- David Muir interviewing Obama strategist David Axelrod for the British journal Juncture -- and came across these words from Axelrod: "The thing about conventional wisdom is that you can almost always count on it being wrong." I wonder if the common assumption that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders can't possibly become the Democratic party's next U.S. presidential candidate qualifies as conventional wisdom.

If you missed my post from last week on being "offensive on purpose," take a look -- not because of what I said, but for the good comments.

Rebecca Christian's one-woman play about Lou Henry Hoover, wife of U.S. president Herbert Hoover, First Lady Lou, will be performed at George Fox University on June 19, during the conference of the Friends Association for Higher Education. (PDF poster here.)

Among the many interesting things I learned about Lou Henry in preparing this item: she spoke fluent Chinese, the only presidential spouse to date who spoke an Asian language.

Thanks to Paul Anderson for the performance information.

"Why more young women than ever before are skipping church."

John Feffer on why the world is becoming the Un-Sweden and "slouching toward illiberalism."

"Ukraine is not our war": Bill Yoder comments on Andreas Patz's interview of the president of Russia's Baptist Union.

Olga V. Solovieva: James J. Tissot's engraved illustrations for the New Testament "prodigal son" story hit the nerve of meritocratic thinking.

"Double Trouble"

I lay awake at night can't sleep just so troubled 
It's hard to keep a job, laid off and havin' double trouble
Hey, they say you can make it if you try 
Yes, in this generation of millionaires, it's hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear. (Otis Rush.)

Jason Ricci and The Bad Kind, recorded April 9, 2015 at Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, Florida. The song (BMI Work #335572; Conrad Music (CAE/IPI # 60791968)) was written by Otis Rush (CAE/IPI # 27054111) (b. 1935.) c. Ellen Hamby (ellen's eyes) No reproduction or distribution without written agreement. Feel free to embed, iff this entire description is included.
www.Moondog.org ... www.facebook.com/therealjasonricci ... www.BradfordvilleBlues.com

28 May 2015

Offensive on purpose...

Remember this bumper sticker?

Don't like my driving?
Call 1-800-EAT POOP*

* censored

For some odd reason that probably doesn't do me much credit, I've always gotten a little burst of pleasure from this sticker. In some way, its attitude strikes me as quintessentially American, even though we Americans actually drive in a much more orderly way than many other nations.

This forgettable little sticker came back to me for some reason as I was reading about the recent inclusion of "WTF" in Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary. Apparently this dictionary decision has drawn a lot of attention, judging by the number of links on Google's news page for "wtf dictionary."

Is casual use of rude and profane language in public increasing? Is Robert De Niro's commencement speech going to set a new norm? And should we be concerned?

I'm not as worried about the words lexicographers decide to notice as I am about people's capacity to know when to use profanity and when to ... well, when to shut up. The public space is degraded when we don't teach discernment and restraint, and when we don't respond to violations with at least a good-humored reminder that (to adapt a memorable line from Dog Day Afternoon) "our ears are not garbage cans."

There are of course grey zones, where bad (or in the Russian term, "non-normative") language might not be exactly desirable but it's not the end of the world. Buddy Guy's frequent use of the two top-ranked vulgarities, not just in clubs but in his all-age festival appearances (such as here) feels weird to me, but let's not pretend that blues music comes from some kind of sweet and sanitized context. And as Buddy Guy himself says, if you're shocked by his language, wait til you hear the words younger "urban" performers are using.

In the Christian world, Tony Campolo years ago created another grey zone when, in one of his oft-repeated sermons he began using a four-letter word with deliberate intent to shock, then challenging his audience to consider why his dirty language distressed them more than the loss of 40,000 children's lives each day to preventable causes. (Story here.)

One of America's leading theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, has written about related themes in his autobiography (highly recommended!), Hannah's Child:
In 1974, I was promoted to associate professor with tenure. As usual, I paid little attention to the process. I suspect Notre Dame had not yet developed the tenure review process that now dominates research universities. I assume I must have been run through some university procedures, but I certainly had little sense that I might be in any trouble. I remember David [Burrell] telling me I had received tenure. He reported that the only worries about me were that some faculty thought I had come up a year too soon and that I needed to be more careful with my language.

Being careful with my language meant that I should not, as I was wont to do, use profanity. I had continued to talk like a bricklayer. there were certain words that I knew how to use and that were, not surprisingly, offensive to people at a place like Notre Dame. I also used a wide range of other words that people might have thought offensive. I used those words because that is the way I had learned to speak. I confess that I often found the middle-class and upper-middle-class etiquette that dominated university life oppressive. I certainly was not above sometimes using words that I knew would offend precisely because I knew they would offend. It took an article some years later in Lingua Franca, in which I was described as "The Foul Mouth Theologian," to make me quit using the most offensive words. I simply became tired of and bored with having that aspect of my life made into such a "big deal."
I doubt Hauerwas was as naive and casual about appropriate language as this extract implies. He's probably referring to lectures and conversations, and certainly not to his writing, which has always been lively and provocative -- without needing foul language. Within the bounds of reason, isn't it a good idea to give the same care to our listening audiences as we give to those who read us?

Campolo and Hauerwas had their reasons for going beyond the bounds of normative English. I wouldn't have made the same choices, but I can see their points. What I can't see is using vulgarities in an attempt to seem hip. Years ago a writer I usually respect used the word "a**holes" to refer to the sorts of legalistic, moralizing, clueless people who (in his estimation) give Christianity a bad name among non-Christians. The word itself doesn't shock me; it certainly fit the stereotype he was building up, and in a private conversation I might have been fine with it. But the use of that word in a book seemed to me to smell vaguely of pandering, of signaling how clued in he was, how sympathetic he was with any reader who had been offended by those obnoxious Christians. If that was a worthwhile goal, I'm convinced that it could have been achieved without flipping a verbal bird at those alleged losers ... who still are, after all, his brothers and sisters in Christ.

So it seems that some public Christians incorporate a certain amount of vulgarity into their writing for the sake of authenticity, voice, street credibility, or some such quality. (Is this at all similar to the "we're jerks" approach I looked at a few years ago?) A few weeks ago blogger Micah J. Murray was treating us to his "kick ass playlist" ... and I noted down this title at the time but now see that it's been edited to "kick-a jams." (Another Christian blogger offers music to "kick butt.") These playlists appear in Bedlam Magazine, which promises "We are Bedlam and we will not be adding to the noise—but we will be causing a commotion." Let's hope we retain the capacity to remember the difference.

It's also important to remember the difference between commotion and catharsis. Case in point, but before clicking, consider yourself warned. Justifiable anger, perhaps under-edited. Yes, such rants may be therapeutic for the writer, but what about that vulnerable segment of the audience who needs the solidarity of your anger but not the barrage of f- f- f-?

Christians in the Middle East: the West feigns empathy for a problem of its own making.

Nebraska gives the coup de grâce to the death penalty, narrowly votes to repeal. One version of the Quaker backstory. And Wilmer Tjossem's "Two Flowers in the Sanctuary" (PDF).

Music lovers: Nata Smirina has a gift for you, "just because."

One of my favorite clips from the young B.B. King. "Just a little bit of love."