Political nostalgia

One of the fascinating things about American political culture is the sense that both parties believe that America’s postwar growth and international strength is the natural order of things. Yuval Levin expressed this well in an essay at First Things:

America’s postwar strength was a function of unrepeatable circumstances. Our global competitors had burned each other’s economies to the ground while ours had only grown stronger in the war years. And a generation of Americans was shaped by the Great Depression and the war to be unusually unified and unusually trusting in large institutions. That combination was hardly the American norm; it was an extremely unusual mix that we cannot recreate and should not want to. Yet that WWII generation and its children, the baby boomers, came to expect American life to work that way.

The biggest problem with our politics of nostalgia is its disconnection from the present and therefore its blindness to the future. While we mourn the passing postwar order, we are missing some key things about the order now rising to replace it.

I think that the first two paragraphs are right on target. The next paragraph describes what the nostalgia prevents us from seeing:

Perhaps the foremost trend our nostalgia keeps us from seeing is the vast decentralization of American life, which has characterized the early years of this century and looks only to grow. The postwar order was dominated by large institutions: big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities, mass culture. But in every area of our national life—or at least every area except government—we are witnessing the replacement of large, centralized institutions by smaller, decentralized networks.

The way that Levin develops this point is worth thinking about, as is Alan Jacobs’ brief note of criticism that “Levin is confusing the appearance (decentralization) with the reality (increasing consolidation of data in the hands of a few powerhouse organizations)” like “TimeWarner, Comcast, Microsoft, Google, Apple.”

Quick thoughts on Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”

How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeHow Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by Bart D. Ehrman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I knew where Ehrman was coming from before I read it, but it was still pretty disappointing. He’s a gifted writer and can explain his points clearly, but I was hoping for something more scholarly than popular. It seemed to me that writing for a popular audience allowed him to float over other scholarly perspectives on early Christianity if he wishes. I would have liked to see him interact with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that makes an extended academic case for the presence of eyewitness testimony in the gospels, but that perspective is never considered. Ehrman also seemingly approaches Christian sources, especially the New Testament sources, with the attitude that if an author does not mention something that appears somewhere else (especially in the birth or resurrection accounts of Jesus), then that author never heard of it or disagrees with it.

Perhaps the disappointment is my fault for not knowing that it was a popular rather than academic book. Also, Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is, I think, the only academic work of New Testament scholarship that I’ve ever read, so I’m hardly an expert on what needs to be responded to and what doesn’t. I did think that Larry Hurtado, whose work Ehrman uses in the book, provided some thought-provoking praise and criticisms here.

View all my reviews

The weakness of Italian nationalism II

I was looking up a quote that appears in my history textbook from an unnamed “Italian official” in the 19th century: “We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians.” I could have just looked up my previous post on Italian nationalism, but I had forgotten about it until I started writing this post and forgotten even more (if that’s possible) that a version of the quote was in there.

The phrase was coined by Massimo d’Azeglio, and my search for the quote led me to this article from 2011 in the Telegraph, which gave an interesting sketch of Italy’s continuing cultural divides:

And nowhere is the question [of the success of Italian national unity] put more angrily than in the pocket of ice-capped Dolomite mountains and forested valleys that make up South Tyrol.

“Many people want South Tyrol to leave Italy altogether and rejoin Austria,” said Ruth Kaufmann, 35, a shop assistant, as she strolled down Rauschertorgasse, a cobbled alleyway in Bolzano, the Germanic-looking provincial capital. “They’re sick of being told they should speak Italian, and they’ve never felt part of Italy.”

Alex Corso, a hotelier who has an Italian father and a German mother, recalled how during the 1960s and 1970s German speakers threatened violent action against the Italian state.

“They were preparing a revolution – they wanted to kill all the Italians,” he said. “They said South Tyrol was taken by force and that they were assimilated against their will. Speaking German was almost forbidden – the Italians even tried to ban black bread!”

In South Tyrol, where wurst sausuage is a popular street snack and mustachioed men drink Bozner beer in cavelike cellars, bitterness towards the Italian state reaches the highest levels of politics….

It has been said that the only things that can unite Italians are war and football, and people take more pride in being Milanese, Tuscan or Genoese than Italian. They may all carry the same bland, EU-designed passports, but Italians seem as wildly divergent in temperament, culture and language as ever.

Those in the north-eastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have more in common with their Slovenian neighbours than with their political masters in Rome, while mountainous Piedmont in the north-west has a strong French influence.

Sicily’s Saracen past is still much in evidence in its Moorish architecture, passion for couscous and Arabic place names such as Marsala (originally Mersah-el-Allah).

In contrast to Britain’s swing towards linguistic homogeneity, Italy still boasts almost as many dialects as types of pasta. Romans find it impossible to understand Neapolitans when they speak in dialect, despite the fact that the port city is just over an hour away on the train.

Sardinians speak “Sard”, recognised as a distinct language, although around the town of Alghero a 15th century form of Catalan is still spoken.

Other pockets of the country converse in variations of Greek, Albanian, Croatian and, in the remote valleys of the north-east, Ladin – a combination of Celtic dialects and Latin from the time of the Roman legions.

Unfortunately, the article does get the timing wrong on Metternich’s famous quote about Italy being just “a geographic expression.” It was made in 1847, before Italy was a country.

20th-century centralization and 21st-century decentralization

Walter Russell Mead recently wrote on the Scottish independence referendum. The real point of his essay, though, was his contrast of the centralizing trends of the 20th century and, in his mind, the need for decentralization in the 21st:

The 20th century was an age of centralization. Industrialization made societies much more complex and increased the demand for uniform national legislation and policy, while the limits on communications and technology made the rise of large, centralized bureaucracies the most efficient and often the only feasible way to manage the affairs of large organizations. Moreover, with only a very small percentage of the population (only 1 or 2 percent early in the century, and not rising fast until after World War 2) having college educations, there was a shortage of people with the experience and breadth of knowledge necessary for many of the functions of government administration. Progressive ideology was all about creating effective bureaucracies and taking key issues out of politics and handing them over to (allegedly) meritocratic and apolitical administrators who would serve as the guardians of the public weal.

The 20th century was the golden age of the centralizing state, and the advanced industrial nations, including ones like the US and the UK where historically governments had been smaller and less intrusive, were marked by strong progressive and bureaucratic governments. This form of government had its problems and limitations, but it did many things well: improving public health and education, providing a framework for the development of a much more sophisticated and technologically advanced economy, organizing for victory in World War Two and the Cold War and so on.

However, in the 21st century it appears that the progressive ideal of the state will no longer suffice. A better educated and more sophisticated population is less willing to delegate important decisions to technocrats. Parents who feel they are as well or better educated than their children’s schoolteachers are less willing to defer to educational bureaucracies. Patients who surf the web want to understand their treatment options and look to doctors more as advisers than as authorities.

Additionally, in consumer societies people are used to getting satisfaction from their transactions with large entities. They refuse to stand in line for hours at the department store checkout counter, so why should they stand in line for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles? As commercial institutions get better at providing services that are individualized and convenient, our expectations for the delivery of government services also rise. That puts great stress on centralized bureaucracies; making ‘customers’ happy is not the way that government offices and bureaucrats traditionally work.

Beyond that, advances in communications and information management technology both enable and require new methods of working. The immense power of these technologies—whether related to the ability of the state to monitor more and more of what citizens do or to the potential that the collection and processing of vast volumes of data offers—means that government now has more power that can potentially be abused than ever before. (This is not what the naive prophets of the technological age forecast, back when technology was going to free us up into a new kind of benign libertarian anarchy, but life is complicated that way.)

If you favor decentralization, you may find him too optimistic that this is the wave of the future (and you may find his assessment of the 20th century progressive state’s accomplishments to be too positive). Still, it’s an interesting argument and might be identifying an important countertrend against the large-scale movements and identities of the modern period that I pointed to in my last post.

Urbanization, Pentecostalism, and Islamism

Writing at The Christian Century, Philip Jenkins notes parallels between the rise of modern Pentecostalism and modern Islamism among urban newcomers.

On Pentecostalism:

Most have moved to new megacities in their own countries, but other former rural dwellers have journeyed to cities in the Global North. In the challenging situations they face in their new homes, migrants naturally gravitate to those religious groups that offer them the means of survival. They find there opportunities for fellowship and community, but also the basic necessities of welfare, education, and health that the state cannot provide. Commonly, it is the Pentecostal and charismatic churches that are best organized to supply these needs, and in turn they benefit most from the repeated infusions of the uprooted.

Social change means religious transformation. People abandon the old sacred landscapes they knew in their rural homes, with all their saints and shrines, and a sacred year marked by religious feasts and fasts. In the cities, they adopt a globalized form of modern faith, characterized by sophisticated modern media and advertising, including the most contemporary social media. They abandon their old languages and dialects, so that pastors hold their revival crusades in the global languages of modernity—English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

But whatever new believers have lost through cultural change, they feel that they have gained much. However poor in material things, they know in their hearts that they are following a pristine form of apostolic faith.

On Muslim immigrants in the West:

In books like Holy Ignorance, [Olivier] Roy relates global religious change to such mega­trends as mass migration, urbanization, and modernization. He stresses how deeply integrated Islam was in traditional societies like Morocco or Pakistan, where faith was tied to particular communities and clan structures, to shrines, saints, and sacred landscapes, and to a sacred calendar. All were severed with the migration to the West, creating an Islam that was suddenly and painfully deterritorialized….

In the Muslim case, the young respond by rejecting both the lost traditional culture and the new Western alternative. They turn instead to the apparent certainties of a universalized or globalized Islam, which in practice offers the sternest and most demanding standards of the Wahhabis or Salafists. In return, believers receive a vision of themselves as the heroes of a glorious historical narrative in which faith defeats the temporary and illusory triumph of disbelief and paganism.

I think that this also works for the appeal of socialism and popular nationalism to urban workers in 19th-century Europe, who also were recently uprooted from their rural communities and traditions. This isn’t something that I came up with on my own, but I don’t remember where I read it.

The appeal of membership in large-scale groups – the global umma for Muslims, the (German, French, etc.) nation for nationalists, the working class for workers — is all part of the movement in modern times away from local identities toward large-scale ideologies, states, identities, and movements. Of course, with independence movements in regions of different European countries and the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, we could be seeing the limits of that trend in the contemporary world.

How to encourage parents with disabled children

My friend Rick put together a short list of things that parents of kids with disabilities appreciate hearing:

1. “I love his/her smile.” Or think of some other beautiful reflection of their humanity worth noting.
2. “What are his/her hobbies, favorite activities, sports?” Again, focus on a shared aspect of their humanity by inquiring about what they like. You can be a source of joy by providing a thoughtful gift oriented towards something he/she likes.
3. “What’s his/her favorite food to eat?” Another inquiry about shared humanity. You can be a blessing by perhaps dropping off a meal or snack or dessert that the child likes.

Rick also wrote a good response to Richard Dawkins’ recent comments about the moral necessity of aborting children with Down Syndrome.

Interpreting contemporary sexual morality

Alastair Roberts recently wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition that tried to summarize “the new sexual morality” in a systematic way. He believes that we should understand “that the shift we’re witnessing is not the abandonment of all morality but a shift to a new moral system, one with its roots firmly within the philosophical tradition of liberalism. This new moral system is loosely coherent, and its underlying principles will work like yeast through the dough of our moral vision. Rather than advocating mere amorality, it forcefully presses moral claims against Christian sexual and relational ethics: for this moral system, Christian morality isn’t just wrong, it is immoral.”

Here are the five principles, and the article contains fuller explanations of each:

First, sexual acts don’t have intrinsic meanings or purposes….

Second, our sexuality is a subjective sense and intrinsic to our self-identity….

Third, sexual agents are autonomous, rights-bearing individuals….

Fourth, freely given consent is the watchword for sexual relations….

Fifth, beyond the prevention of harm, sexual relations should be freed from social policing and constraint, from norms and from stigmas.

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