‘Book Deserts’ and the Consequences of Ideas

Father and son reading

I just finished reading an intriguing and depressing article on “book deserts” in impoverished urban neighborhoods. The problem is even worse than you might imagine. “In a community of concentrated poverty in the same city, on the other hand, there was only a single age-appropriate book per 300 kids—or about 33 titles total, all of which were coloring books.” All of which were coloring books. Considering the importance of reading for intellectual and spiritual development, it would be hard to exaggerate the degree to which these “book deserts” are stunting their inhabitants.

But where did the books go? The article describes a new study which tallied up the tiny collection of stores which sold children’s books in a few impoverished areas. “Overall, they found just 75 such stores—or about 2 percent of all the businesses in those neighborhoods—selling print resources for children ages 0 through 18; many of them were dollar stores. And especially after breaking down the data by neighborhood and age group, it became clear: Children’s books are a rarity in high-poverty urban communities. The likelihood that a parent could find a book for purchase in these areas, Neuman and Moland write, ‘is very slim.’… The new study adds to a growing body of research demonstrating how income-based housing segregation undermines the prospects of America’s youngest citizens, with the rich leaving ‘the poor and the near poor to scramble for resources that would have otherwise benefited a larger share of the population.'”

But are the poor actually scrambling for these particular resources? The article implies that all would be well if we could just get bookstores into poorer neighborhoods, but one might want to pause to consider why stores in poor neighborhoods do not bother stocking children’s books in the first place. As a rule, stores will sell anything their customers are interested in buying, and a cheap book costs about as much as a pack of cigarettes; it’s not as if we’re talking about luxury goods. And what about totally free books? The article notes in passing that poor families “are far less likely to utilize public libraries,” but does not seem to find that fact suggestive. Perhaps impoverished families do not have books, not because they have no way to get them, but because many poor parents have no interest in getting them.

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The Place for Patriotism

Mount Rushmore

With 4th of July festivities under way and flags and tri-colored streamers filling the air, it is a good time to consider the much-maligned virtue of patriotism. Along with many other natural affections, patriotism has been staggered by successive blows from modernism, which sees such emotions as irrational and useless, and postmodernism, which sees them as dangerous.

For sterile, scientific modernism, the idea of having particular pride in one’s country is simply absurd. After all, one’s place of birth is mere happenstance. Every nation has its merits and demerits, and comparison between our own country and the rest of the world will never be entirely complementary. As Virginia Woolf wrote grimly of her own land, those tempted to an irrational local enthusiasm should “compare English painting with French painting; English music with German music; English literature with Greek literature… When all these comparisons have been faithfully made by the use of reason, the outsider will find herself in possession of very good reasons for her indifference.”

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Brexit and the Fallacy of ‘Better People’

Brexit newspaper headline

The UK’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union has certainly generated much rending of garments among media and political figures on both sides of the Atlantic. I am still unclear how some breathless reporting on Google search trends plus interviews with a few clueless “Leave” supporters proved that all 17.4 million votes to leave the EU were cast by idiots, but I suppose that sort of incisive commentary is why we have media professionals.

I have little to say about the merits of Brexit itself. It will cause some short-term economic pain to Britain and to the global economy, but I am very sympathetic to the desire of the British not to be governed by unaccountable technocrats in Brussels (who celebrated Brexit with sweeping new regulations on electric kettles and toasters across the continent). For the moment, though, I am less interested in the merits of Brexit itself than in why the EU is seen as so essential by so many. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to support the EU, some of them quite sound, but much of the angst over Brexit seems to be driven by a sentimental attachment to the idea that the EU was a step in the direction of wiser, more dispassionate European governance. As such, it is part of a larger tendency, particularly common on the left, to want to solve social problems by putting Better People in charge of them.

“Better” invariably means membership in the intellectual class, with the education, assumptions, and values which go along with it. In the case of the EU, governance by officials who share the elites’ cosmopolitan internationalism (or anti-nationalism?) is supposed to avoid the conflict which has characterized most of the continent’s history, but this same instinct for putting Better People in charge plays out in a million ways in modern politics. In America, it has resulted in everything from the nationalization of health insurance to nanny-state oversight of parenting.

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Two Ways to Go Wrong About Free Speech

When it comes to free speech, we’re losing our minds in multiple directions at once. On the one hand, some, mostly on the left, are crusading against unwelcome or unpleasant speech with tactics ranging from mob criticism to thuggish violence to actual state censorship. Others, mostly on the right, have reacted by dismissing civility and mutual respect as mere political correctness. It’s past time to regain the self-restraint–in our own speech and in our reactions to others–that makes free speech livable.

The urge to censor is natural. People (other people, of course) say awful, hurtful things. It is easy to see how the world would be better if that guy over there could just be shut up, and the excitement of joining together in righteous indignation to make him shut up is only an added inducement. So lives are ruined over ill-considered social media posts, controversial campus speakers are threatened and shouted down, and violent mobs assault their neighbors for the crime of attending a Donald Trump rally.

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‘Transgender bathrooms’ are not the problem

If you came within 100 feet of a television last week, you know that the debate over “transgender bathrooms” heated up when the Obama Administration unilaterally ordered every school system in the country to allow male and female students to use whichever bathroom they choose. Let’s start with the obvious: the mandate is egregious, both morally and constitutionally, and any possible pushback is appropriate. Because identification as transgender is entirely subjective–completely divorced from biological facts–the practical effect of the bathroom mandate is to give male students carte blanche to enter girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms at any time.

The danger of sexual assault is obvious, but the assault on modesty is equally troubling. Propping open the door to the locker room in the name of inclusion casually devalues both male and female bodies by implying that there is nothing sacred or special about an uncovered body–nothing worth shielding from prying eyes. Apparently, the right to privacy guarantees abortion and gay marriage, but has nothing to say about the protection of unclothed young women. (We can thank pornography for how unremarkable this proposed violation seems.)

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‘Inflammatory’ pro-life rhetoric: Sometimes telling ugly truths is necessary

Given the Planned Parenthood shooter’s recent outbursts in court, declaring himself to be “a warrior for the babies” among other references to abortion, it seems clear that Robert Dear was motivated at least in part by specific animus toward the abortion provider he targeted. Of course, his mental instability suggests that analyzing his motivation in logical and linear terms may be giving him too much credit, but whatever mental process led him to that Planned Parenthood office was probably informed by anti-abortion rhetoric. Which raises a tough question: Were those whose words probably influenced Dear’s actions in any way responsible for those actions?

The aftermath of the shooting has seen a flood of condemnation for “deeply irresponsible” pro-life rhetoric which is blamed for all of the relatively rare attacks against abortion providers in recent decades. Because the pro-life movement calls the abortion industry evil, the reasoning goes, they are collectively responsible whenever someone decides to fight the evil of abortion with the evil of extrajudicial violence. Though the pro-life movement consistently denounces violence against abortion providers, many on the left argue that pro-lifers should still be held accountable for the choices of those who may have been influenced by their condemnation of abortion.

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If #ShoutYourAbortion wants to talk about it…

The campaign to defund PP “relies on the assumption that abortion is to be whispered about.” #ShoutYourAbortion

On Saturday, a tweet from writer Lindy West created the #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag to encourage women to talk about their abortions. Her hope was that open conversation would help to overcome the stigma of abortion. As she explained in an article in The Guardian,

The fact that even progressive, outspoken, pro-choice feminists feel the pressure to keep our abortions under wraps – to speak about them only in corners, in murmurs, in private with our closest confidantes – means that opponents of abortion get to define it however suits them best. They can cast those of us who have had abortions as callous monstrosities, and seed fear in anyone who might need one by insisting that the procedure is always traumatic, always painful, always an impossible decision. Well, we’re not, and it’s not. The truth is that life is unfathomably complex, people with uteruses own their bodies unconditionally, and every abortion story is as unique as the person who lives it.

My opposition to abortion stems from concern for the people within uteruses–the children for whom the idea of “living” an abortion story is sickly ironic. But while I am appalled by Ms. West’s sentiments, I do agree with one of her opening observations: “Not talking about our personal experiences with abortion wasn’t conscious.” No, the extreme reluctance of almost everyone on the pro-choice side to actually talk about what abortion is and does, as illustrated by the media’s allergic reaction to the recent Planned Parenthood undercover videos, is not at all “conscious.” If Ms. West wants to start a conversation about abortion, I am all for it.

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Resign or resist? Thoughts on the Christian official’s dilemma

I always tell my students that ethics is one of the most vibrant and challenging areas of philosophy, because it asks how moral principles apply to our everyday world–and while morality is objective and eternal, our world changes with all the speed and unpredictability of an overflowing stream. As technology, science, and politics toss up new challenges, we have to figure out the right course of action in situations which previous generations might never have encountered. For example, what should a Christian elected official do when a constitutional right to same-sex marriage is suddenly “discovered” and enforced?

Yes, this is another article about (or at least inspired by) Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who was imprisoned for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She was released from jail last week and announced on Monday that she would not block her deputy clerks from issuing the licenses, but even though her chapter of this story seems to be closing, her courageous stand raised issues for all of us to consider. I’m coming to the story late because, frankly, I wanted to take time to think about it. Morality doesn’t change, but human situations do, and Mrs. Davis’ particular flavor of moral dilemma has literally never existed before in history. I’m not just talking about same-sex marriage itself, but about the sudden imposition of same-sex marriage on a nation which is still unsure on the question and in which professing Christians hold elected offices which give them some degree of influence over marriage licenses. It is a unique moment, and one which calls for serious and prayerful thought about how those elected officials should respond.

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A few thoughts on Josh Duggar, last chances, and the mercy of God

Thinking this morning about Josh Duggar’s continuing and nauseating fall, I was struck by the timeline of events.

For “the last few years”: Josh has been unfaithful to his wife, including maintaining accounts on the Ashley Madison website. (Slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”)

May 2015: Media outlets break the news of Josh’s teenage molestation of several girls more than a decade earlier.

Presumably, thousands of Christians pray that Josh’s claims of repentance are genuine and that God would have mercy on him and his family.

August 2015: As a result of a bizarre hack of Ashley Madison’s records, the world learns of Josh’s ongoing infidelity.

As Jonah learned in the belly of a whale, sometimes God’s last chances don’t look like grace at first glance. I wonder if this summer’s prayers for undeserved mercy for Josh–from thousands of recipients of their own undeserved mercy–moved Heaven to offer one last chance out of the cesspool into which he was sinking. Perhaps being caught, publicly, in ongoing and vile sin, was the only thing that could shake him into true repentance. We should pray that he takes the opportunity seriously. “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6). No one but God can say when the last chance to repent has passed, but what an awful threshold that would be.

And to the guy out there who is using the failings of a famous Christian to justify your own sin (because I know someone is thinking just that)–please, please ask yourself if you want to be the man whose greatest remaining hope is that a merciful God has destroyed his life in order to save his soul.

Yes, the Bible does condemn homosexuality

In general, Christians will encounter two types of arguments in favor of homosexuality. The first simply casts the Bible aside as irrelevant, rejecting its authority, but the second kind of argument engages the Christian on scriptural grounds and argues that the Bible is actually not opposed to all same-sex intercourse. I recently came across a good example of this second kind of argument in “The Bible does not condemn ‘homosexuality.’ Seriously, it doesn’t.” Written by Adam Nicholas Phillips, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, it is a pretty characteristic summary of the main arguments that are offered for acceptance of homosexuality by Bible-believing Christians, so I decided to offer a point-by-point response in hopes that it would be helpful to those who have encountered arguments like this.

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