Having Friends Again

The cause of our increasingly polarized society is not primarily due to political conflict but to loneliness. That is the surprising conclusion of four books from four different authors I mentioned in my last post.

Because more and more of us in society feel isolated and disconnected, we are drawn to twisted forms of community to fill the void. These tribes are bound together by a common enemy rather than by the common good.

What is the solution for loneliness? As there is no one single cause, there is no one silver bullet that will solve this. Here’s a small sampling.

Limit time on devices. Every hour in front of a screen is an hour we are not spending with other people. We don’t have to go cold turkey. We can reduce the number of social media apps we engage with from five to two. We can cut the time we follow the news in half. Instead of using our phones to help us relax before sleeping, we could read a novel. Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family has all kinds of great ideas—as well as just a lot of wisdom for life.

Reengage with lifelong friends. Admittedly it can be hard to make new friends. An easier but still very fruitful path might be to renew connections with old friends near and far. In recent years I’ve deliberately increased the emails to, calls and zooms with, and visits to several longstanding friends. Some I’ve had spotty contact with over the years, and some I hadn’t seen in decades. But I’ve so enjoyed the results of more regular connection with all of them.

Join a group. I’ve always enjoyed singing, so joining a choral group is an obvious option for me. Community theater groups and bowling leagues usually welcome newcomers. Volunteering offers the satisfaction of giving back to your community while enjoying new social connections. Just Google “volunteering” and the name of your town and you are bound to find opportunities at hospitals, forest preserves, food pantries, park districts, tutoring, homeless shelters, or humane societies. Or ask a neighbor!

Walk the neighborhood. Speaking of asking a neighbor, Bilbro says in his book Reading the Times that one of the simplest ways to combat our isolation (and get a bit of exercise) is to go for a walk (pp. 165-69). When we walk out our front door, rather than drive, we have the opportunity to chat with a neighbor walking her dog or someone weeding his garden or kids playing basketball. We find out such folks aren’t mere political units. We get to know flesh-and-blood people who have problems with aphids or are celebrating a birthday or have an elderly parent living with them.

Of the four authors, Sasse has the most practical ideas to offer. In addition to a chapter on technology in Them, he has three constructive chapters on re-educating ourselves on how democracy works, putting politics in its place, on finding ways to be rooted even in our nomadic culture, and more (pp. 133-256).

All of these and other options can rehumanize our world and ourselves. Both Brooks and Sasse emphasize that getting to know people face to face can break down the hate that unnecessarily divides us from each other. The guy who doesn’t vote like us is not an enemy, but someone who also has good ideas on home repair, has a special needs child, and knows a good new restaurant in town.

Meeting neighbors? Joining new groups? Some of us are still intimidated by all this because we just have trouble knowing what to say when we meet someone. That’s the topic of my next installment.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Why All this Hate?

Why is so much political vitriol spewed these days, not just from politicians and commentators but from ordinary people? Why is social media full of such extreme rhetoric? Why can’t we have a simple conversation anymore?

Yes, cable news and talk radio hosts have taken advantage of our situation. And yes, there are more than 50,000 Russian-linked social-media accounts fueling outrage by sending automated messages on both sides of issues. But these only feed on a pre-existing condition.

In the last few years I’ve read four books which all give the same answer. Interestingly, two books were by conservatives, one was by a liberal, and one was by an independent observer.

What did all these agree on? That the primary cause of all this contentiousness is not political differences. Rather it is loneliness.

In his book Them, Republican Senator Ben Sasse notes that since World War II single-person households have tripled to 26 percent. Rates of depression and addiction are increasing. At the same time, “Between 1975 and 1995, membership in social clubs and community organizations such as the PTA, Kiwanis, and Rotary plummeted. Same with labor union membership and regular church attendance” (p. 26). The trend continues with Covid exacerbating the situation. The causes are multiple but the result is what Sasse calls a Loneliness Epidemic.

Second, conservative commentator David Brooks made the same point in The Second Mountain. Brooks thinks our increasing isolation from one another has led us to gravitate toward twisted forms of connection. As Brooks says, tribalism is the evil twin of community. The first is defined by who is our foe. The second by who is our friend.

In a third book, Upheaval, Jared Diamond, a scientist and historian with a more liberal bent, likewise notes that a hundred years ago Americans were involved in book clubs, bridge clubs, church groups, community organizations, town meetings, unions, veteran’s associations and more. This fostered trust and reliance on each other.

Then radio, then TV, then video games, then the internet, and then smart phones increasingly kept people in their homes. As a result, “heavy TV viewers trust other people less, and join fewer voluntary organizations than do people who are not heavy TV viewers” (p. 352). In short, we are increasingly separated from each other, increasingly isolated.

The fourth book comes from independent author Jeffrey Bilbro who is editor of Front Porch Republic. He writes in Reading the Times, “As Robert Nisbet puts it in his classic study, The Quest for Community, an individual thus alienated ‘not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it.’ Loneliness has now become an epidemic in Western liberal democracies. And, apparently, being lonely is worse for some¬one’s health than being a smoker.” (p. 127)

We are homeless and so search, even yearn, for new types of community, which we are finding on line. “In other words, perhaps it is because we are lonely and detached from our places that we put such outsized importance on the news of the day” (p. 129).

What can we do about this? I’ll take that up in my next installment.

Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

Our Strange New World

The world is a weird place. Have you ever wondered:

♦ Why do most people, even those in Africa and Asia, wear western-styled clothing?
♦ Why do people believe that reason and science are the only ways to sure knowledge while simultaneously believing that we should make decisions by following our hearts?
♦ Why was every country in the history of the world a third world country until the 1800s?
♦ Why is soccer (aka football) the world’s most popular sport?
♦ Why are there now only six countries in the world that say they aren’t democratic when 250 years ago none said they were?
♦ Even though the western world has largely cast aside Christianity, why do we still tend to embrace the distinctly Christian values of love, freedom, justice, and human dignity?

Andrew Wilson thinks he knows the answer. And that answer is 1776.

In Remaking the World Wilson contends “that 1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are” (p. 7). In that year we find not only the birth of democracy in the American Revolution, but also of globalization, the industrial revolution, the enlightenment, the dawn of romanticism, and the rise of our ex-Christian world.

The year 1776 saw the publication of Adam Smith’s seminal ode to capitalism (The Wealth of Nations) and of Edward Gibbon’s (Christianity was the cause of) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That year James Watt installed the first steam engine in a commercial enterprise, and Rousseau began writing his landmark book on romanticism, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker.

But wait! There’s more!

And Wilson fills in his premise with impressive amounts of fascinating detail, vigorous synthesis, and penetrating insight. All the while he brings in contemporary illustrations from Hamilton and The Hunger Games to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

Yes, he overplays the point that 1776 was the critical year for everything—but not by much. His case for the importance of that decade and the late eighteenth century generally is extraordinary. More to the point, when it comes to why our world is the way it is, he exhibits vast and highly illuminating explanatory power.

Wilson closes with three Christian themes from the 1770s to help navigate the weird world that decade has bestowed on us.

Grace. We do not bear the impossible burden that our (enlightenment and romantic) world places on us of creating our own identity, status, and value. Rather, God shows his favor to us regardless of our accomplishments, intelligence, or wealth.

Freedom. Though Christians have often failed to live up to Jesus’ model of offering good news to the poor and liberty for the oppressed, we still have the opportunity to champion both. By the Spirit we can battle two opposite lies. On the one hand we can oppose the idol of materialistic (industrialized, affluent) success in the church in favor of spiritual flourishing. On the other hand, we can fight the gnostic heresy that the material world doesn’t matter by combating the lie that the physical lives of the poor and oppressed are not important.

Truth. Reality is not lodged in abstract, impersonal, scientifically verifiable principles. Rather truth is graciously personified in the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus, who was full of both grace and truth, again is our model. We dare not separate the two.

If you want to understand what’s going on in the world today and respond to it fruitfully, don’t follow the news. Instead read my “Book of the Year”—Remaking the World.

The Environmental Crisis Is Over

A year ago today, the environmental and energy crises ended.

“What? Seriously? They ended? Did I miss something?”

Yes, you did. And so did almost everyone else.

We now have the solution to pollution from oil and coal-burning power plants along with a nearly endless supply of clean energy.

So what is this miracle technology? And why don’t we know about it? Both questions are incredibly important.

What Is the Technology?

The technology is fusion energy. On December 5, 2022, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California demonstrated fusion ignition in the laboratory for the first time after six decades of research and effort by a dozen countries.

Instead of splitting the atom (the fission technology that makes nuclear bombs possible), “nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy.” Unlike today’s nuclear power plants, no radiation is created, and the technology cannot be made into a weapon—as evidenced by the fact that even during the whole Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated on fusion research!

There are nearly fifty companies working now on implementing this technology. In ten years the first nuclear fusion power plant could be contributing to the grid. In twenty years a hundred plants could be online. And in forty years all coal- and oil-burning power plants could be decommissioned. Much remains to be done, but the solution is here.

Why Didn’t We Know About It?

How could we have missed something this monumental? That is an equally important question. This could be the most important news story of the century, and yet people don’t know it. Now that I’ve reminded you, you may vaguely recall hearing a report about this first successful fusion test. But you likely don’t remember much about its implications.

The reason few people are aware of it is that the news industry almost never reports what’s important. The sensational, the visually arresting, the emotionally compelling—these dominate our news. And these daily reports have almost no lasting significance to us personally or to our communities.

The news industries emphasize these ephemeral items because their purpose is not to inform but to make money. As I’ve written about before here and here and here, they focus on what will get them eyeballs and ratings.

What’s the solution? How can we be better informed if the news media (or worse, social media) is not the way to do it. This requires multifaceted, multilayered answers, but here is just one: Stop following the news and instead read books.

I have a much better understanding of what’s going on in the world by reading books like Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, or Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. These consider important issues and trends from the last forty years which have much more explanatory power about our crazy world than anything you will ever hear on CNN, FOX, or MSNBC.

I also include long form journalism in this category—whether print or electronic. I learned about the massive implications of nuclear fusion by listening to one of the in-depth (usually three-hour!) interviews by Lex Fridman.*

When we stop following the news, we can be calmer, kinder, and better informed people.

* Lex Fridman Podcast, “Dennis Whyte: Nuclear Fusion and the Future of Energy, “ January 21, 2023.

Image credit: Pixabay

An Antidote to Fake News

Sadly, fake news and widespread misinformation are probably here to stay. So many fabrications appear so fast that there’s no way we can correct every wrong claim someone makes.

But there is hope. We can use a few quick, handy tools to make us less susceptible to being conned on social media and elsewhere.

With the fun, free, and easy to use Cranky Uncle app, we can start to train ourselves to spot false reasoning and errors in logic. The colorful game in the app introduces us to the five-point acronym FLICC.

Fake experts
Logical fallacies
Impossible expectations
Cherry picking
Conspiracy theories

Cranky Uncle, for example, offers this statement: “A Nobel Prize winner in chemistry says vitamin C can cure cancer.”

Which of the five FLICC techniques listed above is that statement an example of? I missed this one the first time. This is an instance of a fake expert. A chemist is an expert but not in the area of cancer research.

What about this: “Scientific models don’t perfectly match observations so they can’t be relied on.” Which FLICC is this? You probably got this right away—it’s impossible expectations which demand unrealistic standards of certainty.

You can find Cranky Uncle, the brainchild of John Cook from the University of Melbourne, at the Apple App Store or on Google Play. There’s even a version you can use on a browser.

If we can get better at spotting logical fallacies like oversimplification, ad hominem, false analogies, red herrings and more, it’s less likely anyone will make a fool out of us.

More Amusement

A few months ago I posted on Andy Unedited some brief thoughts on re-reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. At the invitation of The Gospel Coalition, I extended those thoughts. This time I saw that it wasn’t the loss of our print culture that grieved Postman the most. To find out what did, you can click this link. Enjoy!

Reading the Times

For the last dozen years I have consistently avoided the news, and I feel I am a better person for it. In the spirit of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Jeffrey Bilbro goes even deeper in his literary, social, and theological analysis found in Reading the Times.

Bilbro hits his stride in Part Two with his penetrating comments on time. That may seem especially theoretical, but it makes all the difference whether we are beholden to chronos time (chronology; quantitative clock time) or kairos time (often defined as qualitative moments of significance). The news is imprisoned by chronos. It isolates and disconnects events from their meaning and leaves us barren.

The author goes even further, saying that with kairos time “history’s true meaning emerges in the light of Christ’s life.” Our lives are not empty, trivial moments that are doomed to be forgotten centuries and millennia hence. Rather, quoting Paul Griffiths, “the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus lie at the heart of time. . . . Time is contracted by these events, pleated and folded around them, gathered by them into a tensely dense possibility.” Every laugh, every tear, every act of love is caught up in the kairos of Christ for eternity. Death is defeated. In Christ, nothing is lost.

How do we apply all this to the dilemma of our current hyper-contentious news environment? Bilbro, perhaps surprisingly, critiques the conventional wisdom that we need more fact checking and that we need to diversify our news feeds. I’ll let you read the book to find out why, but here’s a hint: it has to do with forming community.

In this way Bilbro offers more ways forward than Postman. “Instead of allowing the news to create our communities, Christians should seek to help their communities create the news.” This can begin with the simple act of walking our neighborhoods rather than isolating ourselves in cars or behind screens. On another level we can, for example, pursue redemptive publishing by reading, he suggests, things like Civil Eats, American Conservative, The Atlantic, Commonweal, Hedgehog Review and more.

This book is so much more than about the news. It is a rich and profound book about life. And you can easily find the time to read it with all the free time you will have from not following the news.

Image by Q K from Pixabay

Still Amusing Ourselves to Death

After re-reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, I thought about taking a 24-hour fast from media. No TV, no radio, no smart phone, no laptop–for a whole day. Then I remembered it’s winter here in Chicago and weather forecasts are nearly a prerequisite for citizenship. And I’m expecting important emails soon. And what about those text messages I’d miss? And . . .

And I realized that though I think I control my technology, maybe it controls me as much as the next guy.

When Postman wrote his book in 1985, Pac-Man was five years old. USA Today was three. The Mac computer was one. Cable TV was in its infancy. Google was twelve years into the future. Netflix wouldn’t open for business for fourteen years. We’d have to wait twenty-two years for the iPhone and Kindle. Despite this or perhaps because of this Amusing Ourselves to Death is a classic that remains as important as ever.

The problem is that such media have created an entertainment culture, and all the new technologies have only reinforced that. What have we lost? The substance of public discourse that a print culture offered us in the previous centuries. Thousands heard Lincoln and Douglas debate in three- and four-hour-long sessions. But it was the dominance of print that made it possible for listeners to be able to follow and to be interested in these events.

Our civic life has been consumed by sound bites and Twitter feeds, reducing millions to passive consumers of media instead of active citizens. Even those outlets that are supposed to provide substance are mostly focused on capturing audiences. MSNBC and FOX have more in common than we think for neither are in the news business. Rather both are trying to make as much money as possible in the entertainment business.

In the introduction for the twentieth-anniversary edition of book, Postman’s son points out that though we are not dominated by network television anymore, the underlying issues of our entertainment-saturated culture remain the same. Has media improved our democracy? Has it made our leaders more accountable? Are we better citizens or are we better consumers? Have our schools improved as a result?

Solutions? Postman admits he has few. Certainly recognizing our disease is a necessary step. Asking questions about media is also needed to break the spell technology has over us. So are periodic fasts such as technology-free family nights once a week or even once a month. We must start somewhere. And reading Postman’s book can be just the place to begin.

Two Visions of the Future

Two novels written decades ago have shaped the genre of dystopias–grim tales of the near future. From these have come The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Matrix, even Pixar’s WALL-E, and many more. What are the two landmark books?

George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949) imagines a future dictatorship in which Big Brother knows everything that everyone does and thinks. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published in 1932) imagines a highly technological society in which humans are genetically bred, indoctrinated, and drugged into passive obedience.

I’ve been rereading Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, and was once again struck by his opening comparison of these two. He writes:

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, or there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

What do you think? Was Postman right? Is our world closer to Brave New World than to 1984?

The Current Events Entertainment Industry

I stopped reading, watching, and listening to the news twelve years ago. Although I believe in the importance of an educated and informed electorate, the news just made me mad and agitated me. It was simply not good for my soul. In Stop Reading the News, Rolf Dobelli adds a myriad of other compelling reasons in a series of short chapters. Here are a few.

News is irrelevant. Since news operations are out to make money by capturing eyeballs and eardrums, they do not focus on what’s important but on what gets attention. Crashes, explosions, murders, earthquakes, however, matter little to our individual lives or even national life.

News distorts reality. What’s a bigger problem—terrorism or suicide? We are about 800 times more likely to die by our own hand than by terrorism. Yet what do we hear about more? Likewise we hear lots about shark attacks, politicians, banking collapses, the Kardashians. We hear little about nurses, teachers, diplomats, ocean acidification. And which of those two groups is more important?

News encourages terrorism. Before Gutenberg, before mass media, there was no terrorism. There were attacks, sabotage, and murder, but the intent was to inflict strategic damage, not manipulate public opinion.

Dobelli offers more including how it disrupts our peace of mind, leads us to wrong conclusions, and wastes our time when we could be doing something more productive.

Before giving his reasons, he provides practical suggestions for cutting out the news, including a “soft option” and one for going cold turkey. He also deals with objections: How will I find out when something important does happen? Won’t I feel embarrassed when people ask me what I think about a new event? Isn’t being informed important for democracy?

Are there alternatives? Yes, he says. Read long-form journalism and books. If we do we’ll be much better informed citizens. Another constructive suggestion is to start “news lunches”—meeting one to one or in larger groups where one or two people take 15 minutes to focus on one thing they are working on or thinking about. Then discuss.

The news enterprise (shouldn’t we really call it “the current events entertainment industry”?) is broken–exacerbated by social media, fake news, foreign subversion, the politics of outrage, the lost art of compromise, talk radio entertainment, and the loss of the fabric of community locally and nationally. Dobelli’s analysis does not have the depth or insight of Neil Postman’s prophetic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. But surely he is right when he says, “News is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetizing, easily digestible and extremely damaging” (p. 16).

It’s time to change our diet.