Apparently, a lot of people think the world is going to end in 2012. The ancient Mayan calendar ends in 2012, you see; also, a hidden planet named Nibiru is about to crash into the earth, destroying all life.

The apocalyptic warnings are being spread online through email and pseudo-scientific websites. A NASA scientist tells the LA Times that two different teenagers have told him they are considering suicide to avoid facing the end of the earth. “‘I’m getting more and more questions from people who are upset and scared,’ he said. Some people say their children are refusing to eat.”

Because earth is about to be whacked by stealth-planet Nibiru.

The seeming ease with which significant numbers of Americans fall for conspiracy theories like the 2012 scare, despite clear evidence to the contrary, is a disturbing phenomenon, particularly in a democratic nation. The thought that large numbers of American voters are actually convinced that the government orchestrated 9/11, to pick one example, makes one slightly queasy. It’s true that popular delusions are hardly a new phenomenon, but surely in today’s age of widely available information such large numbers should not fall for claims so easily refuted?

The problem is that Americans are no longer taught how to think critically, how to evaluate an idea on its merits or lack thereof. Today’s education is almost entirely centered around accumulating information, rather than evaluating truth claims. (After all, it is intolerant to point out that someone else’s truth, isn’t.) Even at the university level, the educator’s job is to present students with a set of facts, and their job is to assimilate and remember those facts.

Having become accustomed to uncritically accepting the statements of authoritative figures, is it any wonder such habits persist beyond school? Politics becomes a battle of slogans, because we rarely think to look deeper and ask, “Why?” Internet rumors and conspiracy theories are given credence, because we have not been taught how to evaluate claims before accepting them.

Like any other skill, critical thinking must be taught and practiced before it can be used effectively to distinguish between the plausible and the implausible. In a world buzzing with an unprecedented supply of facts and information, claims and counterclaims, it is small wonder that unpracticed judgments are often less than reliable.

Selfish consumption and the recession

I visited a new church today and thought the pastor’s message was worth a comment. He suggested that “the Fed, the politicians, and the bankers” were not ultimately responsible for the recession, the true cause of which was our own selfish race to acquire ever more material comforts and pleasures. I found myself strongly agreeing with his comments on the insufficiency of anything less than God to bring true happiness, while disagreeing equally strongly with his argument that selfish consumption was the primary cause of our current economic woes.

Certainly, selfishness was a contributing factor, but blaming it for the recession is like blaming gravity for plane crashes. Gravity is always a factor, and it can cause a crash, but only when something goes wrong in the plane itself. Similarly, human selfishness helped create our current mess, but only because government distortions of the free market created perverse incentives that eventually built up too much pressure for the economy to bear. Bad economic policies caused the recession; human self-interest contributed only insofar as it has contributed to every economic phenomenon, whether good or bad.

Why does this matter? After all, any message opposing selfish consumption and trust in worldly values should be encouraged, should it not? Well… no. Not if the heart of the message is false. God is never honored, nor his kingdom advanced, by falsehood – even well-meaning or unknowing falsehood. In this particular cause, blaming the recession on human greed poses a number of dangers. To begin with, ignoring the real causes of the recession increases the likelihood that it will deepen or recur.

As Christians, we ought to love our neighbor, which means seeking his best. I only state the obvious in observing that losing one’s job, seeing one’s life’s savings evaporate, or losing one’s house due to an unsustainable mortgage is hardly best. If we are commanded to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, surely we ought to do our best to prevent their becoming hungry and naked in the first place! The Christian duty of loving our neighbor translates into a responsibility to seek the economic policies which are most conducive to social wellbeing. When we ignore the true causes of economic failures, we neglect this responsibility and set the stage for further suffering.

Some might argue, though, that the recession offers long-term benefits which outweigh its costs. By undermining our financial wellbeing, it creates a de facto curb on greed and envy; an ironic twist in which our society’s selfish consumption undermines itself. By taking away the material flimflam on which we have glutted, the recession forces us to value what truly matters.

Or not. Does selfishness come from the outside? If we could only wipe away big screen TV’s, luxury cars, overpriced McMansions, and all the other vestiges of conspicuous consumption, would selfishness trail away with them? Of course not. Take your generic selfish modern man, strip him of everything he owns, drop him in a primitive hunter-gatherer society, and he’ll soon be envious because the bone through Gorgog’s nose is fancier than his. Selfishness, greed, and envy exist independent of their objects; they are entirely subjective. So long as I am I, I can be selfish. What I am envious of is more or less immaterial. (After all, it isn’t as if greed is ever satisfied, even by the most outrageous consumption. The richest billionaire is no closer than the poorest subsistence farmer to filling the black hole of selfishness.)

What was needed before the recession, what is needed now, during the recession, and what will be needed after the recession, is a change of heart. Consumption is merely a symptom. Even if guilt or necessity leads a Christian to cut back his consumption, nothing is gained unless the selfish and disordered affections that lead to conspicuous consumption are eradicated.

Selfish consumption didn’t cause the recession, and the recession won’t cure selfishness. Pretending otherwise merely increases the likelihood that neither problem will be properly understood or effectively combated.

Thoughts on video games

A recent discussion in one of my classes regarding video games inspired me to summarize my thoughts on the topic here. There are two issues that must be considered when evaluating if and to what extent a video game is acceptable.

The first area to be evaluated relates to the content of the game itself. Any game in which a player is rewarded for behavior which would be wrong in real life should not be tolerated. Grand Theft Auto, in which players are encouraged to shoot police officers and prostitutes, is an obvious example of this sort of game. Some might argue that the rules are different in virtual reality – after all, you aren’t actually shooting anybody, and a computer pixel is just a computer pixel. Nobody is actually hurt when you beat up the prostitute or line up your sights on the back of the police officer’s head.

And that’s true. The problem, though, is not what you are doing to the policeman; rather, what shooting the policeman is doing to you. Every choice we make inexorably changes who we are on a fundamental level. We create our character by the choices we make, and no choice is without consequence. Every time I look away when someone is in trouble, I become a little more of a coward; every time I ignore the bank error in my favor, I become a little more of a cheat; every time I kick the dog, a little more cruel. Our choices make us. Hoping otherwise is like wishing that gravity would relent.

How does this apply to video games? Because video games make us choose as well. We must choose to beat the prostitute or shoot the policeman. Of course, doing so in virtual reality is less-worse than doing so in real life, but it’s merely a question of degree. American soldiers train with video-game-style simulators because experience in virtual reality transfers so easily to real life.

Beating the prostitute draws you a little closer to being the sort of man who beats women. Shooting the cop makes you value innocent life a little bit less. Obviously, this does not mean that everyone who plays GTA will becoming a cop-killing woman-beater. However, their soul has been nudged a bit farther in that direction. It is simply impossible to choose evil – even virtually – without effect. Do we really want to make the argument, “Well, yes, my soul is becoming more and more the soul of a man who would beat a woman, but I wouldn’t ever actually beat women, so it’s okay”?

It should be noted that the foregoing is not intended to be an argument against all violent video games. After all, violence is not inherently evil. Who would not want a man to be ready to defend those in need, or fight against an invading enemy, or perhaps braid a scourge of cords and clear the Temple courts? Now, I’m not suggesting that video games are the best training for such acts of appropriate violence, but a game in which players battle a legitimate enemy while following specified rules of engagement (like many war games, for example), would at least not carry the same inherent moral danger as a game in which the violence is unequivocally immoral. On the other hand, there are other concerns to be raised against even a game with unobjectionable content, which brings us to the second issue that must be considered in a discussion of the value of video games.

In a nutshell, the interactive, immersive quality of video gaming (one that will only increase) creates the possibility of its serving as a sort of “life placebo.” Why bother with the challenges, struggles, and hard-bitten victories of real life when you can pull up a game and experience the same feelings of triumph without the trouble and with the added benefit of a “reset” button if things get out of hand? In Boys Adrift, Dr. Leonard Sax writes,

It’s not hard to see how boys motivated by the will to power might have been successful in earlier generations. They might have grown up to be successful entrepreneurs, daring innovators, explorers, politicians, or soldiers. They could readily create a productive niche for themselves. […]

If these men were reborn today, it is less likely that they would undertake a meaningful career. I suspect that a boy born today with the DNA of General Patton or Howard Hughes would more likely become a video game addict. He might have a job, but there’s a real risk that his drive and his energy would be directed into the video games rather than into his career. […]

Football coach Greg Sullivan, Mr. Welsh’s colleague, says that he sees fewer and fewer boys playing outside when he drives around northern Virginia. “They are inside playing video games,” he says. “More kids are finding real sports too demanding.”

I’ve talked with other football coaches who describe, with amazement, teenage boys who think that because they can win at Madden NFL, they therefore know something about playing the real-life game of football. “These guys are five-minute wonders,” one coach told me. “They get out on the field, run around for a few minutes, and then they’re done. They have no endurance. They’re in pathetic shape. And they don’t want to do the work that they would have to do, to train the way they would have to train, to get in shape.”

Virtual success is much easier than real life, and no less satisfying if one doesn’t think about it too much. The flood of endorphins from a virtual touchdown or a virtual military victory is just as real, even if the accomplishment itself is not. Because video games so effectively mimic the rewards that once could only be achieved by actually living, they can divert the drive that pushes a young man toward lasting and meaningful accomplishment. If a boy has been too busy developing his skills in virtual reality to learn how to grit his teeth, dig his heels in, and do something real, when will he ever learn?

Of course, a few hours of Halo aren’t going to destroy a boy’s life, and most boys who play video games are able to do so in moderation. Picking up a joystick doesn’t immediately condemn you to a life in which your greatest accomplishment is saved on a hard drive. However, video games should be approached with the cautious awareness that they offer a powerful draw to invest too much of ourselves into struggles which are ultimately without meaning. As Plutarch observes in his Lives, “He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.”

German homeschooling family flees to US, seeks asylum

From Knoxnews.com:

Romeike, his wife, Hannelore, and their children live in a modest duplex about 40 miles northeast of Knoxville while they seek political asylum here. They say they were persecuted for their evangelical Christian beliefs and homeschooling their children in Germany, where school attendance is compulsory.

When the Romeikes wouldn’t comply with repeated orders to send the children to school, police came to their home one October morning in 2006 and took the children, crying and upset, to school.

“We tried not to open the door, but they (police) kept ringing the doorbell for 15 or 20 minutes,” Romeike said. “They called us by phone and spoke on the answering machine and said they would knock open the door if we didn’t open it. So I opened it.” […]

He had to pay fines equivalent to hundreds of dollars for his decision, and he’s afraid that if he returns to Germany, police will arrest him and government authorities will take away his children, who range in age from 11 to 3.

The dangers of risk-avoidance

Kids sometimes get hurt playing in treehouses. If we create exacting national safety standards for treehouses, fewer kids will get hurt. That can only be a good thing, right?

Medical researchers in Ohio published a paper this month suggesting national safety standards for treehouses after statistics showed that 2,800 children a year are hurt in accidents linked to them. The injuries ranged from bruises to broken bones, but all were serious enough to send the children to the emergency room.

It’s the same instinct that motivated this lady’s neighbor to call the police because her children were climbing a tree.

A woman, upset, saying, “You could fall and get hurt and not be able to walk again!”

So I approached her and said, “It’s okay with me if they climb the tree.”

“It’s not okay with me! They could get hurt!” She repeated some variations on this theme.

I agreed: “You’re right. They could get hurt. It’s still okay with me.”

“It’s not okay with me! I’m calling the police.”

Because if you aren’t in a tree, you’ll never get hurt falling out of a tree. It’s a simple, feel-good solution to an obvious danger. And because it’s so obvious, we never consider the hidden costs. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes,

One U.S. researcher suggests that a generation of children is not only being raised indoors, but is being confined to even smaller spaces. Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor of kinesiology (the study of human movement), calls them “containerized kids” – they spend more and more time in car seats, high chairs, and even baby seats for watching TV. When small children do go outside, they’re often placed in containers – strollers – and pushed by walking or jogging parents. Most kid-containerizing is done for safety concerns, but the long-term health of these children is compromised. In the medical journal the Lancet, researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland reported a study of toddler activity where the researchers clipped small electronic accelerometers to the waistbands of seventy-eight three-year-olds for a week. They found that the toddlers were physically active for only twenty minutes a day. […]

As the nature deficit grows, another emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. For example, new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.

Leonard Sax points out another hidden cost of risk-avoidance in Why Gender Matters.

Let’s go back to Lizette Peterson’s study, where she rigged up a stationary bike so kids could “ride” through a hazardous environment. Peterson then asked asked all the parents whether their kids had ever been injured riding a bike, injured badly enough to require medical attention. She found that kids who had been injured were less fearful doing the simulation than kids who had never been injured – even after controlling for the degree of confidence kids felt riding bicycles. She calls this the “invulnerability” effect. When a kid has fallen and (let’s say) scraped a knee or gotten a cut, they recover. One week later that kid is thinking, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I got hurt and now I’m fine.”

Child psychologist Wendy Mogel has written a charming book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Without mentioning the theory of learned helplessness, she points out that shielding children from injury makes them more risk-averse. And, letting them explore their world – at the cost of a few scrapes and cuts – builds their character and gives them self-confidence, resilience, and self-reliance.

If children never climb trees and are only exposed to industrial-strength treehouses “lower than 10 feet up, [with] several inches of soft mulch below it and using solid, 38-inch-high barriers instead of guardrails,” they well be very safe. They may be physically and emotionally weaker and less capable of healthy risk-assessment, but they will be very, very safe.

Men unmanned

A depressing story from the UK.

A judge has hailed the heroism of an 83-year-old war veteran who tackled a gunman during a robbery at a bookmakers while nine other men stood by.

Sidney Bannister, who served with the Royal Artillery Corps during World War II, put 30-year-old robber Henry Rockson in a headlock.

But the pensioner’s calls for assistance met a wall of silence and up to nine other men in the shop – most far younger than Mr Bannister – stood by as Rockson smashed him twice in the head with the butt of the gun. […]

[T]he widower, of Lees near Oldham, Greater Manchester, said: ‘There were nine other blokes in the shop and most of them were either half my age or younger. I just wish one of them had shown some gumption. […]

After the court case, Mr Bannister expressed his gratitude for the judge’s comments but added: ‘I wasn’t being brave that day – I just acted on human instinct which I would have hoped most men have.

‘I had seen this man raise a gun at a woman and grab some money … and when he started to make a run for it I just thought, “Why should he be allowed to get away with it?”

‘People don’t want to get involved these days. In my day we were brought up to have a go and not be a shrinking violet when we saw something happening that was very wrong.’

After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, Mark Steyn remembered Canada’s most famous mass-murder.

Yet the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lepine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate — an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history. The “men” stood outside in the corridor and, even as they heard the first shots, they did nothing. And, when it was over and Gharbi walked out of the room and past them, they still did nothing. Whatever its other defects, Canadian manhood does not suffer from an excess of testosterone.

One more: the story of a young Chinese woman, decapitated last week in a Virginia Tech cafe while half-a-dozen people watched.

Authorities gave this account: Virginia Tech police, responding to two frantic 911 calls about 7 p.m. Wednesday, found Zhu standing in the Au Bon Pain cafe on campus, with Yang’s severed head in his hands, according to an affidavit. A large, bloody kitchen knife lay nearby, and Zhu’s backpack, on the floor, was filled with other sharp weapons. Seven people witnessed the attack, which came without as much as a raised voice as the two drank coffee.

Decapitation is a bit more involved than simply stabbing someone. Did it not occur to any of those seven people that perhaps they could do something?

Perhaps not. In times of stress, higher cognitive functioning falls by the wayside while instincts and emotion take over. We can take it as a given that the instinct for self-preservation is going to be clamoring for attention, but, for men throughout history, another instinct would chime in: Protect the weak. Better death than dishonor. Note Sidney Bannister’s explanation of his actions: “I wasn’t being brave that day – I just acted on human instinct which I would have hoped most men have.” He doesn’t understand that the other nine men in that store also acted on instinct. They just had different instincts. In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes,

Stress releases cortisol into the blood. It invades the hippocampus and interferes with its work. (Long-term stress can kill hippocampal cells.) The amygdala has powerful connections to the sensory cortices, the rhinal cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the ventral prefrontal cortext, which means that the entire memory system, both input and output, are affected. As a result, most people are incapable of performing any but the simplest tasks under stress. They can’t remember the most basic things. […] Although strong emotion can interfere with the ability to reason, emotion is also necessary for both reasoning and learning. Emotion is the source of both success and failure at selecting correct action at the crucial moment.

Instinct – what Gonzales calls emotion – comes through practice. In a society where courtesy to women is an insult, where a disproportionate fear of pedophilia discourages male interaction with children, how exactly do we expect men to develop the instinct to protect those weaker than themselves? Describing the Lepine massacre mentioned above, Crime Library says, “They wondered whether they should try to overpower the gunman, protect the women, or leave. The choice as to what was best was unclear. But after a few moments, the male students and teachers walked outside. In weeks to come, many of them would have nightmares about this moment, reliving it over and over, wishing they had acted differently.”

At the crucial moment, stress forced these men to operate instinctively. Their most basic selves stood bare in the face of danger. And stood. And blinked impotently. And quietly walked away, because at a fundamental, instinctual level, they had nothing to tell them what to do. They were not all cowards. Most likely, if they had had time for reflection, time to reason through what was happening and decide what they ought to do, at least some of them would have reacted differently. But they didn’t have that time, so they needed instincts that our culture gave them no chance to develop.

The Bible is not the Kama Sutra

In the course of appeals to men to avoid promiscuity, remain faithful to their spouse, or otherwise seek sexual purity, many Christians rely primarily on a popular argument: Explain cheerfully that the moral way actually, really and truly, based on scientific studies, will lead to better sex. Few seem to find this at all odd; a fact which strikes me as, itself, rather odd.

Yes, sex will always be a significant motivator for men. Yes, since God invented it, one can assume that following his guidelines is as wise a course to full enjoyment of this gift as of any other. However, might there be more productive and less condescending ways to urge male sexual purity than to enthusiastically declare that Our Sex Is Better Than Your Sex? If the church was battling an epidemic of gluttony, would we be writing books explaining that moderation actually offers more pleasure for the discerning hedonist?

Rather than debating the sensual merits of monogamy versus promiscuity, abstinence versus premarital sex, perhaps the church would be better served to issue a stirring cry to honor, a reminder of duty to God and women. The man who believes abstinence will pay dividends of better sex in the future may be no less likely to remain pure than the man who believes premarital sex will defile and dishonor the woman he loves, but which motivation produces the better man?

In C.S. Lewis’ Out Of The Silent Planet, the ruler of the planet Malacandra says to Weston, who is willing to massacre other civilizations in his quest to spread mankind throughout the universe, “I see now how the lord of the silent planet has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey. Do you know why he has done this? […] He has left you this one because a bent hnau can do much more evil than a broken one.”

Our culture has similarly inflated a good and natural desire, setting it up as a little, blind god in the minds of men. Collaborating with the bent god, hoping we can persuade him to act as we would prefer, is to accept defeat before the battle has been joined.

‘An androgynous median personality’

From Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future:

There is a disconcerting symmetry between Prozac and Ritalin. The former is prescribed heavily for depressed women lacking in self-esteem; it gives them more of the alpha-male feeling that comes with high serotonin. Ritalin, on the other hand, is prescribed largely for young boys who do not want to sit still in class because nature never designed them to behave that way. Together, the two sexes are gently nudged toward an androgynous median personality, self-satisfied and socially compliant, that is the current politically correct outcome in American society.

There’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is.

Brave New World

Who needs buttercups or bishops when you have broadband?

The Telegraph reports on the latest update to Oxford University Press’ children’s dictionary:

Oxford University Press has removed words like “aisle”, “bishop”, “chapel”, “empire” and “monarch” from its Junior Dictionary and replaced them with words like “blog”, “broadband” and “celebrity”. Dozens of words related to the countryside have also been culled.

The publisher claims the changes have been made to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multifaith society. […]

“We have a certain Christian narrative which has given meaning to us over the last 2,000 years. To say it is all relative and replaceable is questionable,” said Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment at Buckingham University. “The word selections are a very interesting reflection of the way childhood is going, moving away from our spiritual background and the natural world and towards the world that information technology creates for us.”

An analysis of the word choices made by the dictionary lexicographers has revealed that entries from “abbey” to “willow” have been axed. Instead, words such as “MP3 player”, “voicemail” and “attachment” have taken their place. […]

Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, a leading private school in Berkshire, said: “I am stunned that words like “saint”, “buttercup”, “heather” and “sycamore” have all gone and I grieve it.”

You should be ashamed if you are male. Or female.

Conservatives frequently lament the cultural attitude that it is a shameful thing to be male. It is certainly a sad thing when half of our population is ashamed of one of its most fundamental characteristics; when large segments of our society believe that men ought to cringe along through life, engaging in spiritual self-flagellation over the shame of being born with a Y chromosome.

A book I’m reading has convinced me that I have been underestimating the problem by half, however. A Return to Modesty is one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, and I’ll likely be posting more about it in the coming weeks. Wendy Shalit argues that our society’s decision to discard the virtue of modesty is “no less than an attempt to cure womanhood itself, and in many cases it has actually put us in danger.”

A young woman today has basically two options open to her: to pretend she’s a man, or to be feminine in a desperate, victim-like way. There’s Rene Denfield; she’s a boxer, her book jacket announces. There’s Camille Paglia; she’s very tough and even has a taste for gay male pornography! “Take your blows like men,” she advises young women in Vamps and Tramps. Then there are the women whose femininity is expressed by sleeping with a lot of men and then lamenting how much they resent men. Whether a young woman should opt for man or victim, the message sent by our culture is clear: it’s not a good thing to be female.

If you are male, you should be ashamed. If you are female, you should be ashamed. If you’re keeping score at home, we just reduced the options for living without shame by 100 percent…