The Secret to Not Being Manipulated

In December 2000 a story appeared in several British newspapers, including The Guardian, about a man in New York, George Turklebaum, who had been dead at his office desk for five days . . . and no one noticed! Coworkers at “the publishing-services company” often passed by his cubicle and said hi without it registering that he hadn’t responded. “We just assumed that George was taking time to go over the text very carefully, as he always did,” said his boss.

Anything sound odd to you about that story? Anything odd besides a man being dead in an office for five days without anyone noticing?

Anything odd like, “Why did British papers report about a man being dead in New York instead of New York papers?”

Or odd like, “Why was the publishing-services company not named?”

Or odd like, “Wouldn’t a body start stinking to high heaven long before five days?” (Spoiler alert: it would.)

You’ve probably heard this story or variations of it which have circulated for at least the last twenty years. The truth is, it was first published by an American tabloid, the Weekly World News, which also publishes such important stories as “Newest U.S. Judge is 5-Years Old,” and “The Yeti Is Behind Cryptocurrency,” and former Vice President “Mike Pence Is a Cyborg.”* You get the idea.

The only source of this report for all the British newspapers, even for one as highly reputable as The Guardian, was the tabloid. There was no other corroborating evidence.

When David Mikkelson did some research at Snopes, he found that no one named George Turklebaum was listed in the Social Security Death Index, and the New York Medical Examiner’s office had no information on the death of anyone named Turklebaum for 1999 or 2000.**

Yet so many of us hear stories like this one about the dead office worker, and we think, “Weird. But I can actually see that. Don’t we all feel like nameless cogs in a machine sometime?”

We take it in, often uncritically. Yet right on the surface are aspects that should make us question what’s going on. Not just a rotten corpse, but the lack of specifics (like the company’s name) and of sources (like a police report).

The key word is uncritically. We don’t stop to question. Thinking critically about what we read or hear doesn’t mean being critical in the sense of finding fault. It means asking questions.

To some extent it doesn’t matter what questions we ask. Almost any question will do. The point is to ask a question and not stay on autopilot.

The question can come at the beginning, the middle, or the end. It can be profound or prosaic. Regardless, doing so engages us. We become actors in the drama, dialogue partners in the conversation, friends in the relationship. We are not merely passive receptacles into which entertainment, advertisements, opinions, information, or disinformation are poured.

Many people (including those we agree with) want to sway us for their own purposes. Nurturing the habit of asking questions about what we hear or read can, among other benefits, provide us with a vaccine against the virus of being manipulated by others.


*These are actual headlines from https://weeklyworldnews.com/, accessed January 28, 2021.

**David Mikkelson, “Man Dies at Desk,” Snopes, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/working-stiff/. See also https://www.truthorfiction.com/deadatwork/.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

A Message to the Future

What if you wanted to send a message to someone in the future. Would you need a time machine? Would you have to reverse the polarity on your deflector array to transmit a message through a supernova? Maybe you would need to harness the power of a black hole to energize the system.

That might not even solve all your problems. After all, sending a message into the future can be a tricky business. What could make sure that it didn’t degrade as it passed through the space-time continuum? The technology could break down. Human error or human limitations could prevent the message from being transmitted. And because language and culture change significantly over time, our words and syntax could be difficult to understand by those in the future.

Yet if these difficulties could be overcome, who would you write? To yourself in five years? To your children in fifteen years? Grandchildren in fifty years? To those living five hundred years from now?

What would you write? Your hopes and dreams? Your hard-won wisdom? Stories from your life of sadness and joy? Or just the funny thing that happened today?

It wouldn’t have to be profound. The very commonness of our letters to the future can profoundly communicate our bonds as humans across time and culture.

What can encourage us in this rather daunting project is that people have been sending messages to the future for almost ten thousand years. Some of those earliest messages scratched on clay tablets were very commonplace—a shopping list, a record of livestock sold, a recipe for beer.

We also have records of how teachers taught students to read and write five thousand years ago. They used some rather sophisticated techniques (both semantic and phonological) and unsophisticated (the cane).

But wait, there’s more. Two and a half thousand years ago Homer, Confucius, and Isaiah sent messages to the future. From hundreds of years past Dante, Scheherazade, and Shakespeare still speak to us. More recent messages to our day come from Hemingway, Achebe, Borges, and Solzhenitsyn.

Writing and reading are so commonplace we forget how almost magical the whole process is. We can receive and send ordinary and exceptional stories as well as knowledge across thousands of miles and hundreds of years with people we have never met and who may not know our language.

And what technology shall we use for this? While our words can easily be multiplied thousands of times digitally, ink on paper may still be the most likely to survive into the next millennium.

Today, then, read a message for the future that was written long ago. Today, write that those in the future might know you and as a result know themselves better.

Credits: Pixabay eli007 (black hole); Pixabay Pexels (writing),

America’s Most Polarized Election?

They say, America’s polarized in unprecedented ways.

Is that true? Consider the election held in 1800 too.

Just twelve years after ratifying the Constitution, President John Adams ran for re-election against his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson. The rhetoric was superheated by hyperpartisan media, making it one of the country’s most acrimonious episodes.

Jon Meacham’s outstanding volume, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and David McCullough’s excellent biography, John Adams, reveal the apocalyptic language that was common on both sides of the aisle. Federalist papers supporting Adams and Republican papers behind Jefferson were the equivalent of FOX News and MSNBC.

“Hyperbole was the order of the day,” Meacham writes. “For Republicans, Adams was an aspiring monarch. Americans, one Republican wrote, ‘will never permit the chief magistrate of the union to become a king instead of a president.’ For Federalists, Jefferson was a dangerous infidel. The Gazette of the United States told voters to choose ‘GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT or impiously declare for JEFFERSON__AND NO GOD.’ ” (Meacham, 322)

McCullough tells us, “In almost daily attacks in the Aurora, Adams was belittled as ‘The President by Three Votes,’ mocked again as ‘His Rotundity,’ excoriated as a base hypocrite, a tool of the British, ‘a man divested of his senses,’ . . . a man ‘unhinged’ by the ‘delirium of vanity.’ ” (McCullough, 485, 498)

Adams ended up third behind Jefferson and Burr who were tied in electoral votes. Yes, this was the election in which for Jefferson, “It might be nice. It might be nice to get Hamilton on your side.” Hamilton’s tilt toward Jefferson helped break the deadlock in the House between the two Republicans.

One irony is that Jefferson and his Republican friends feared that Adams wanted a stronger executive leaning toward that of a monarch. Yet it was Jefferson who expanded the power of the presidency far more than Adams ever contemplated. Not the least example of this was doubling the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase, though the Constitution was very unclear (silent?) about such a transaction. (Meacham, 389-391)

Extreme political language is not an invention of the last twenty years. And if we are looking for the period when the country was most at odds with itself, we dare not forget a Civil War costing the lives of six hundred thousand. That level of violence seems to be more polarized than anything we are experiencing today.

Am I saying the issues we face now are unimportant and not worth vigorous debate? Not at all. Rather, we should put today’s conflicts in perspective. The end of the world is not at hand pending the outcome of the next election. Nonetheless, we should always work for the common good, to support those who are in need, to ensure justice and fair play for all.

Do you want more insight on how to think, to act, and to understand our current situation? Then read a good history book or two and stay away from Twitter.

Finding Good Books

I am always on the lookout for something good to read. By that I mostly mean books.

I love browsing books at a library or at a bookstore or online, but that can be hit and miss. Sometimes the title or cover or back cover pulls me in, and then I am disappointed when I do read it. Also at the back of my mind is this nagging fear that in just browsing I may have missed something better.

I also get recommendations from friends, read books by authors I’ve already read and enjoyed, and look at bestseller lists. I can usually get higher quality, more focused suggestions in those ways.

Another avenue I’ve found helpful in recent years is Goodreads. This social networking site is just about books. Friends post what they want to read, what they have read, give books a rating, and sometimes offer a review. Every day I get an email listing about two dozen books my Goodreads friends have read or want to read. (You can change the frequency of these email alerts too.)

Unlike other social networking sites, the goal is not necessarily to gather as many friends as you can—at least that’s not the way I use it. Rather, I try to find people whose tastes and interests overlap with mine.

When I see a book given good ratings and good reviews by several different people, I pay attention. That’s how Where the Crawdads Sing and Educated have made it on my “Want to Read” list. And that’s why I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota which proved to be just right for me.

Since I tend to like history, science fiction, biblical studies, and literary fiction, I try to get people on my friends list who do too. At the same time, I don’t want my list of friends to be too narrow. I want to be stretched to read in areas I might not ordinarily think of. Sometimes I just want beach reading. So I have friends who read a lot of those. Sometimes I want to read something from a different political or theological perspective. I have friends who point me to those as well.

Goodreads has lots of other features for those who like to track the books they are reading or who want to comment on a friend’s review. You can also suggest something to a friend.

Aggregate ratings and all the reviews for a particular book are available from the whole Goodreads community—not just those from your friends. I find that reading the most positive and the most negative reviews helps me get a handle on whether a certain book could be for me.

Goodreads is an excellent tool. But however you pick books, by all means, read books.

The Day I Flunked English

When I was in elementary school, I struggled to read.

I remember one particularly embarrassing episode when I was required to make a oral book report in third grade. I chose Winnie-The-Pooh, thinking it would be relatively easy to get through.

Whether due to lack of discipline, lack of focus, or lack of confidence, I only managed to struggle through one chapter. I still remember the look on my teacher’s face and the question when I finished my much truncated report: “Is that all?” Yes, I had to admit, head hung low, that was all.

Then there was the F in English I got in seventh grade. That called for a family meeting, with me at the center. I couldn’t figure out then and I still don’t know how that happened. I thought I was doing fine. I didn’t remember getting low scores in tests or failing to turn in papers. But there it was. I had flunked.

Yet one year later, in the summer before high school. I thought it would be a good goal to read Moby-Dick. And I did.

What changed? What transformed me into not just a good English student but someone who loved to read and loved to write?

I am sure part of it was just taking time for my brain to mature. Part of it might have been simply needing years of practice till the disciplines of study finally became second nature.

One important factor, though, that I still remember is the influence of my older brother and sister. I always saw them reading. They had books on their shelves and belonged to a book club. Seeing those arrive in the mail every so often was always exciting. Since I wanted to be as smart as they were, I thought I needed to read.

Do you want your younger siblings, your children, your grandchildren to become readers? By all means, read to them. But let them catch you reading too.

Books That Can Change Lives

On November 3, I was honored at the annual InterVarsity Fall Leadership Meetings in recognition of my 42 years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and my upcoming retirement in February. About seventy key people from across the country in InterVarsity attended. After hearing some generous comments from Interim President Jim Lundgren and IVP Publisher Bob Fryling, they let me offer a few words. Here is what I said.

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Six Influential Books

What books have shaped me the most? Taking IVP books out of consideration (to keep bias to a minimum), the books below have formed my thought life, my spiritual life, my sense of aesthetics, and how I view and interact with the world.

After making the list I noticed that I read most of them before I was twenty-five. And I suppose that’s to be expected. In midlife and beyond, most people have already been shaped, and it’s harder for any one book to have a significant impact. The last book in my list (presented here roughly in the order in which I read them) is the exception.
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Schaeffer’s Gift

My first exposure to InterVarsity Press came when a friend, George, handed me a copy of Escape from Reason by Francis Schaeffer over forty years ago. It was the original edition imported to the U.S. from Britain. I was in high school at the time and had heard of some of the philosophers and theologians and artists he mentioned. (Being raised Catholic, Aquinas was at least familiar.) Many were completely new, however. Even though I only had a vague sense of what he was writing about, I devoured the book.
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