Another Week Ends

1. Not knowing much (at all) about Pope Francis, maybe you were as pleasantly surprised […]

David Zahl / 3.15.13

1. Not knowing much (at all) about Pope Francis, maybe you were as pleasantly surprised as I was to read David Brooks’ irenic column about “How Movements Recover”, in which he articulated a philosophy and approach quite near and dear to this mocking-heart:

Augustine [of Hippo], as his magisterial biographer Peter Brown puts it, “was deeply preoccupied by the idea of the basic unity of the human race.” He reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside. He wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world. This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities. It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect… His ideal church was firmly rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery.

tumblr_m0utoqbCCT1qccxk8o1_500This second tendency is also found in movements that are in crisis, but it is rare because it requires a lack of defensiveness, and a confidence that your identity is secure even amid crisis.

Like most of the world, I don’t know much about Pope Francis, but it’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers “accidents on the streets” to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who stands by traditional Catholic teaching, but then goes out and visits Jeronimo Podesta, a former bishop who had married in defiance of the church and who was dying poor and forgotten. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who ferociously rebukes those priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers.

To that list I might add admiration for anyone who closes his first homily in the Sistine chapel with the following sentiment:

I would like for us all, after these days of grace, to have courage, precisely the courage, to walk in the Lord’s presence, with the cross of the Lord; to build the Church upon the blood of the Lord, which was poured out on the cross; and to confess the only glory there is: Christ crucified. And in this way the Church will go forward.


2. If such ecclesiastical optimism sounds a bit out of place on this site, maybe it’s down to the amazing news about the Veronica Mars movie. In any case, the next few items should balance things out… First, there’s Janet Maslin’s review of Douglas Rushkoff’s new Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now in The NY Times, which caught my eye. The book sounds like an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the whole issue of identity and social media and the human condition, ht SMZ:

MK-CB575_FUTURE_DV_20130313171704Your new boss isn’t the person in the corner office; it’s the P.D.A. in your pocket. And there are the discrepancies between age and appearance that are increasingly possible in our malleable present. The book contends that young girls and Botoxed TV “housewives” all want to look 19; that hipsters in their 40s cultivate the affectations of 20-somethings, to the delight of marketers; and that apocalyptic types just want to opt out of time altogether. “Present Shock” gives them good reason to feel that way.

But in the end only some of the ills in “Present Shock” can be chalked up to dehumanizing technological advances. “I am much less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people that what people are choosing to do to one another through technology,” Mr. Rushkoff writes. “Facebook’s reduction of people to predictively modeled profiles and investment banking’s convolution of the marketplace into an algorithmic battleground were not the choices of machines.” They were made by human intelligence, because present shock’s ways of targeting, pinpointing and manipulating aren’t just shocking. They’re very lucrative too.

3. Also pushing back on techno-utopian ideals this month was Evgeny Morozov’s op-ed in The Times about “The Perils of Perfection”, which contained a handful of truly mind-blowing stats and quotes. The main “-ism” that Morozov is interested in debunking is what he calls “solutionism”–“an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are “solvable” with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal”. The piece doubles as an expose of Silicon Valley hubris:

Veronica MarsSolutionists err by assuming, rather than investigating, the problems they set out to tackle. Given Silicon Valley’s digital hammers, all problems start looking like nails, and all solutions like apps.

Silicon Valley, oddly, likes to wear its “solutionism” on its sleeve. Its most successful companies fashion themselves as digital equivalents of Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, not Wal-Mart or Exxon Mobil. “In the future,” says Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, “people will spend less time trying to get technology to work … If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.”

The ideology of solutionism is thus essential to helping Silicon Valley maintain its image. The technology press — along with the meme-hustlers at the TED conference — are only happy to play up any solutionist undertakings. “Africa? There’s an app for that,” reads a real (!) headline on the Web site of the British edition of Wired. Could someone lend that app to the World Bank, please?

4. On a related note, and as a nice rejoinder to that recent article about optimism being good for you, (as well as a possible follow-up to last week’s post about John Gray), The Atlantic made “A Case for Pessimism” citing a pretty fascinating longitudinal study of the effect various outlooks had on the health of a bunch of Germans:

What was surprising was that the people who were most likely to underestimate their future satisfaction — the pessimists — had better health and higher income at the outset than those who were more optimistic. This may have been a case of “defensive pessimism” at play: They anticipated coming challenges and had the resources to prepare for them, giving them a health advantage. The authors also suspect that accepting the possibility, or even anticipating the certainty, of future loss may work to immunize people against being blindsided by hard times.

How pessimistic the participants revealed themselves to be, through the survey, was a more accurate predictor of five-year mortality than income, education, having a disability, being a man (a strike against longevity), or self-rated health. “Foreseeing a dark future,” the researchers concluded, “is beneficial for survival.”


5. Next, love him or hate him, but Russell Brand is always at his best when talking about addiction and recovery. The editorial he penned for The Spectator last week, to promote his new Comic Relief fund “Give It Up”, is chock-full of compassion and insight and humor:

There are support fellowships that are easy to find and open to anyone who needs them, but they eschew promotion of any kind in order to preserve the purity of their purpose, which is for people with alcoholism and addiction to help one another stay clean and sober. Without these fellowships I would take drugs. Because even now the condition persists. Drugs and alcohol are not my problem — reality is my problem. Drugs and alcohol are my solution…

I looked to drugs and booze to fill up a hole in me. Unchecked, the call of the wild is too strong. I still survey streets for signs of the subterranean escapes that used to provide my sanctuary. I still eye the shuffling subclass of junkies and dealers, invisibly gliding between doorways through the gutters. I see the abundantly wealthy with destitution in their stare. I have a friend so beautiful, so haunted by talent that you can barely look away from her, whose smile is such a treasure that I have often squandered my sanity for a moment in its glow. Her story is so galling that no one would condemn her for her dependency on illegal anaesthesia, but now, even though her life is trying to turn around despite her, even though she has genuine opportunities for a new start, the gutter will not release its prey. The gutter is within.


6. The Onion got off a few shots of non-Pope-related hilarity this week with “450-pound Man Didn’t Go to Doctor for a Lecture” and “Mom Calmly Emptying Dishwasher As If Shrieking Argument Didn’t Happen 10 Minutes Ago”.

7. A revealing and fairly hilarious post on Jalopnik entitled, “Have You Ever Been Haunted By The Thought Of Yanking The Wheel And Crashing While Driving?” I think we all know the answer, but still… ht DM.

8. Looking for an uncanny case of the contrast between law and grace in the world of “mommy-blogs”? One that underlines how impossible laws aren’t something that only celebrities deal with/perpetuate? There’s the judgment-thinly-masked-as-loving-advice of “Dear Mom on the iPhone” and then the wonderfully incarnational “Dear Mom on the iPhone, I Get It” and the confessional and undeniably true (if not exactly lacking in self-righteousness itself), “Dear Mom Judging Me for my iPhone”, ht BPZ.

9. Finally, Steve Brown’s talk from last month’s Liberate just hit the web, and it is very, very much worth your time. Enough one-liners to fill a twitter feed for a month! If the whole grace-guru thing doesn’t pan out, the man should look into stand-up comedy:

Liberate 2013 – Steve Brown from Coral Ridge | LIBERATE on Vimeo.


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