The meaning of the word “infinity” is impossible to comprehend. It contains multitudes, literally. In fact, it contains everything and keeps coming for more. It is the the most famished concept in math and cosmology, devouring all sums and spaces, gleeful as it swallows exponents and parsecs alike. It is sinister, for everything that lives will eventually disappear into it without so much as a ripple or blemish on its mirror surface. No human mind can grasp it. The vertiginous vastness of its nature is beyond communication. It’s one of the first ideas children encounter that truly blows their minds. I’m still not over it.
Mathematicians have tried to tame it; infinity is useful and necessary in that abstract realm. They selected a symbol for it, as if it could be captured in a mere rune. But in practice infinity is a Hell’s Angel badass singularity that is fatal to applied logic and reasoning. All you have to do is ask a computer to divide any number by zero, the result of which is axiomatically infinity, and the computer will promptly behave like a a person injected with an LSD-PCP-Bath Salt speedball. The poor computer will immediately generate a deeply felt and wounded message reading simply “Divide by zero error”. The computer is saying “OMG did you just seriously ask me to try to calculate infinity? I just cannot even. I don’t even know where to go from here.”
My point here is that infinity is really, REALLY beyond humungous, akin to an ineffable deity. We can name it, try to talk about it, but never truly know it or grok it. And, like an angry god, its name should not be invoked for cheap effect.
And so a few days ago when I was listening to a Laura Sydell story on All Things Considered, as one does, I was suddenly struck by this comment, made by a worthy named John Seely Brown.
“The ability to imagine is the key challenge, because we have infinitely powerful tools to build whatever we imagine. As a result we’re limited by our imagination.”
Do you see the problem there? If not, read it again. There it is: Infinitely powerful tools.
Yeah, as they say, no. “We have infinitely powerful tools” is something only comic book super-villains should say with a straight face, usually followed by a prolonged, evil cackle and some kind of intimidating knife-switch being closed.
John Seely Brown doesn’t have infinitely powerful tools. No one has infinitely powerful tools. No human will ever have infinitely powerful tools. Theologians even debate whether or not the omnipotence-claiming god of Abraham truly has infinitely powerful tools. Can God throw a curveball so sneaky even Jesus can’t hit it? Is God constrained to moral actions? (The answer to the latter seems like a big old “No!” of course. #theodicy)
But John Seely Brown is thought-leading us to believe he is not constrained by the mere finite, but only by the interdisciplinary artist-in-residence-curable constraint of imagination.
After hearing this howler of a hyperbolic claim I unwittingly began a Twitter conversation in which I was quickly accused by an NPR reporter of being hubristic and having neither a life nor an imagination. No, really. Here it is:
Ouch, right? Plus I was obviously applying the hubris tag to claims of infinite power, not to Sydell as she seems to have misinterpreted. Of course one might be justified in accusing her of something like hubris-by-proxy…
The proper response was, if anything, “allow John Seely Brown a moment of exaggeration in his exuberance at the cool stuff he’s doing”, not a spit-take inducing doubling down on “infinitely powerful.” If Sydell had accused me of being over-literal in my reaction to the word “infinitely” she might have a fair point, but her mama-bear ad hominem broadside is over the top. How am I the hubris-befuddled party here?
Were Airbag Moments a blog about language peeves I would have cause to opine about the overuse and cheapening of the word “infinite” simply on the basis of style, like the overuse and cheapening of the word “literally”, but there are actually much more serious reasons, especially for journalists and industry spokespeople, to eschew tech triumphalism and to treat it with skepticism when it appears. This idea that “the only limit is our imagination” is the obnoxiously perfumed Disney-film epitome of tech triumphalism. The same exaggeration can equally inappropriately describe a pencil, or Play-Doh ™.
Tech triumphalism flourished, as one would expect, in the mid twentieth century, when the development curve of fundamental invention was arguably at its steepest. Magazines like Popular Mechanics boasted unintentionally hilarious (even then) covers featuring flying cars and plans for working robots you could build with free boxes from your neighborhood grocer.
Wired magazine periodically takes up the mantle of Popular Mechanics for contemporary techno-gushing, and has proven to be almost as hilarious in some of its predictions over the years.
Sydell is not the only public radio personality to overestimate just how awesome our present and near future are. Remember when that guy from 99% Invisiblesaid we now have everything from the Star Trek tv show except the teleporter? Good times! When I thoroughly corrected him on the inanity of that claim he also refused to back down. I guess nobody likes corrections. Or reality.
The idea that there is eventually going to be a technological fix for all of our problems is a deadly one. It inculcates lassitude and inattention towards very real, very, very hard to fix dynamics in the world. If Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity gadget then I guess anthropogenic climate change is nothing to worry about. In fact if it’s even close to true that the only limit to his power is imagination I hope the United Nations will quickly dispatch John Seely Brown to start fixing some things real quick, like the anthropogenic hellscape living nightmare that Fukushima Daiichi has turned into.
There’s actually a benighted school of thought in Economics comically named “Cornucopianism” that is accepted as dogma by some noted economists. It essentially teaches that we humans are such clever little buggers that we will always invent ourselves out of every hole we are capable of digging ourselves into, including problems like disease, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. (Sounds like hubris to me.) The effect of this is to encourage us to dig ourselves into ever deeper holes. Jabbering about infinity devices, or flying cars for that matter, encourages that delusion. Who needs to recycle or buy a fuel-efficient car or practice safe-sex when Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity machine?
Of course I could be wrong. Maybe John Seely “Thanos” Brown actually owns and operates an infinity machine. But the examples from Sydell’s story of what our nation’s infinity labs are doing certainly don’t inspire the expected awe. For example I’m sure the 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is attractive and interesting, but it isn’t exactly a cure for Malaria, much less a fix for the continents of plastic debris laying waste to our oceanic biosphere. In fact I’m guessing odds are good that the plastic 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is fated to choke a Sea Lion in the not too distant future, shortly after the forgotten gewgaw is discovered in an attic and junked by a mystified tenant.
Now, in spite of her vituperations against yours truly and her not-very-imaginative or infinite dreams of a smart fridge, I do generally respect Sydell. So I went ahead and looked up this Doctor John Seely Brown as she so icily demanded.
Instead of finding a list of Tony Stark-like world-changing inventions, I discovered that Doctor John Seely Brown has a lot in common with none other than my frequent target, professional religion-adorer Krista Tippett. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown won admission to Brown University. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is the eponym for his own website. And like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is clearly a very talented, intelligent person, an accomplished self-marketer, and sometimes talks in ways that, while verbose and grandiloquent, fail to convey specific meaning to the average listener.
Here are a few TED-talk-ready Seelyisms (Holy Cow does he give a lot of lectures!) from his website:
“Today, I’m Chief of Confusion, helping people ask the right questions, trying to make a difference through my work”
“Learners craft their own pathways, through a rich ecology of learning experiences” (I guess they craft their pathway through the ecology with some sort of imagination machete?)
“Welcome to the Imagination Age where the arts, humanities & sciences fuse creating a new kind of alloy.” (applause, presumably)
“For the problems we now face in the 21st century we need vividness and texture to sense what might be needed given their complex nature.” (who can argue with that?)
“His personal research interests include digital youth culture, digital media, and the application of technology to fundamentally rethink the nature of work and institutional architectures in order to enable deep learning across organizational boundaries – in brief, to design for emergence in a constantly changing world.” (emphasis mine)
Do those mean anything tangible to you? It’s all a bit vague for my apparently raisined, lifeless, and pride-distorted imagination. I assume he has nurtured vivid imagishperical ecologies that have enabled deep utility for the world, such as the copier his team developed at Xerox PARC that could actually predict when it was about to break and call for repair – which is very cool, except, you know, Malaria and all – but he sure has produced a lot of triumphalist techno-evangelical jargon as a by product. A lot of research outfits manage to produce incredible breakthroughs without that sort of hype. Hell, Apple Computer is a shrinking violet compared to this stuff.
But Sydell clearly drinks the rhetorical Kool-Aid and so do a lot of very smart and successful people in business and the academy, so I’ll check to see if Google Translate has a “Thought-Leader Lecture –> Unimaginative Egotistical Zombie Grunts” translation mode.
If not I’m just going to have to sharpen my imagi-machete and get to work crafting a new path through my personal learning ecology.
Journalists are routinely required to disclose conflicts of interest and even recuse themselves from stories or even their jobs. Michelle Norris, for example, left her position as host of All Things Considered when her husband took a position with Obama’s reelection campaign. Yet religion gets something of a pass in this regard. It is routine for reporters not to discuss their personal beliefs and practices even when they are reporting on religion. This is an obvious double-standard. How can a Catholic reporter, who seriously believes in transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Ex-Cathedra utterances of the Pope, etc., possibly be objective when covering Catholicism if the assumption is that Norris can’t be objective about Obama because her husband works for the campaign? I mean I sort of get it about Norris, although I credit her with having a totally independent brain from that of her husband and personally think she needn’t have stepped down, but a person’s religion is a deep part of their personal identity – not just something their spouse does.
I’m a bit of a purist on this issue and think that religious folks shouldn’t be religion reporters because they are, by definition, biased in favor of religion in general and biased against the tenets other faiths. But at the very least reporters should tell us what religion, if any, they follow.
As a strict agnostic I have a sensitive ear for bias in religious journalism. I don’t mean bias towards one religion or another, I mean the underlying, nearly axiomatic assumption by many American journalists that being religious is good per se. This is something the journalists themselves have a hard time noticing, because they swim in a sea of what Daniel Dennett has called “belief in belief,” which is the idea that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but it matters that you believe. Statistically I’m guessing most public radio reporters actually are religious/spiritual. I have no way of knowing across the board, but if they come even close to representing the American demographic histogram – nine out of ten Americans believe in God – they must be. I do know some of them are religious or constitutionally friendly to religion, and I’ll be listing them below.
One thread common among agnostic/atheist “believers in belief,” whether my own friends or public figures who go on record about their feelings about religion, is that they grew up in religious families and have an autonomic “respect” for those who are religious. I suspect some of them feel like their own lack of faith is a personal failure that they might manage to rectify in the future. (Bill de Blasio seems to fall into this category.) Sometimes I think such feelings can cause those who have lost faith to value those who have it even more than believers do. In any case religion-friendly journalists absolutely must check their bias when talking about religion. Otherwise you can end up with the kinds of stories I am listing below and will continue to update as I have time.
I’ve mentioned this situation in passing in many of my posts, of course, but I’ve noticed that when I make comments to this effect on relevant message boards the usual chorus of right-wing public radio-haters drown me out with brainless claims that public radio hates hates hates religion the way they must hate Mom and Apple Pie – because they are so LIBERAL!!!
It is beyond the scope of this post to address the dumb notion that public radio is radically liberal, as so many conservatives convince themselves. The purpose of this post is to provide the evidence requested by the trolls that public radio in general and NPR in particular are pro-religion in their coverage as well as in their personal lives.
I am going to continue to update this as time allows and as examples present themselves.
Side Note: No True Scotsman
“No True Scotsman” is a fallacy that many people, including journalists, engage in when they talk about religion. It boils down to assuming that religion is a positive force and then using that assumption to retroactively define negative religious forces as definitionally not religious. This is the heart of the tragically and willfully stupid “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam” assertion made by journalists and politicians alike from Reza Aslan to Bush to Obama.
Entire Public Radio Shows That Are Religious or Pro-Religion
On Being with Krista Tippett, (formerly Speaking of Faith.) This show is embarrassingly pro religion, hosted by a Yale Divinity School grad.
Interfaith Voices. Their treacly, obsequious-to-religion slogan on Twitter is “Approaching the world’s religions with an open, humble mind.” Hosted by a Catholic Nun. (I always find it ironic to approach religion with a “humble mind” given the unfathomable arrogance so many religious folks have involving their evidence-free certainties about reality and personal relationship to the infinite almighty.)
Shockingly I just heard the contributor credits at the end of Science Friday and was horrified to learn that the Templeton Foundation is a sponsor. The missions of that very wealthy foundation include trying to prove various religious notions like the efficacy of prayer, and to promulgate the misguided assertion that science and faith are compatible. I have not detected much bias in this direction on Science Friday, but I am not a regular listener. I don’t know when this unfortunate relationship began.
Public Radio Staff Who Are Religious or Pro-Religion
Ari Shapiro. I don’t have an opinion about him yet, but since he reports on religious subjects from time to time I asked him on twitter. So far no reply. He is gay, so that may inflect his feelings about groups like ISIS that hurl homosexuals and apostates off of roofs.
Krista Tippett of “On Being”, née “Speaking of Faith”. Never met a religion she didn’t love.
EJ Dionne is usually the liberal half during ATC’s version of point/counterpoint. He often mentions his Catholic faith. This is an interesting position that some in media critical circles have called for more of: Dionne admits his biases. I suppose this ghettoizes him sometimes as an editorialist, but it’s a good start. When he reports on the church at least we have a broad idea of his perspective.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a religion reporter for NPR and was raised as a Christian Scientist. What she is now I don’t know, but her journalistic output is consistently pro-religion and pro-religious figures. I’ll list some of her worst stories below.
Scott Simon (for whom I have otherwise great affection as a host) often speaks warmly of religion and religious figures, even some nasty ones like Oral Roberts. On August 1 he interviewed Nick Tosches, author of Under Tiberius which portrays Jesus as a villain. Simon once again revealed his naked affection for religion. As soon as the conversation became a bit critical of religion, Simon pulled out this:
I have been around the world in a lot of different wars and scenes of savagery. And in I believe all of them, you will find very selfless priests and nuns trying to help people.
The problem with this sentiment is that it represents the one-way filter used by people predisposed to religion. The claim is that when people do good things it’s because of religion, but when people do bad things, even in the name of religion, it’s somehow not because of religion. This is how the press in general and NPR in particular refuse to blame Islam for the actions of ISIS even as they give Christianity the credit for the good actions of Christians. They refuse to admit religion can be a bad influence, even though examples abound, from monumental atrocities of ISIS to quotidian indignities perpetrated against gays and women. Tosches gave him a pretty good answer:
I am saying that those same good human people would be behaving the same way without a god to tie it onto.
NEVINS: Do you know where you’re going? I don’t believe in heaven or hell. So…
SIMON: No. I know what I tell myself, but do I know that for sure?
NEVINS: What do you tell – what do you say?
SIMON: Oh, I – you know, I believe in a heaven and I’ll be reunited…
NEVINS: You think that?
SIMON: I’ll be reunited with my parents and with my lost sister and with, you know, every pet I’ve ever had and loved. And I’ll be up there waiting for my wife and children. Is that for real? Of course not. But that’s what I tell myself to get through the day.
This is totally fascinating. They say genius is the ability to hold 2 opposing ideas in your head at the same time, but I’ve always thought that was a stupid thing to say. Scott Simon basically just described a theology that I think is common to many intelligent “believers.” They’ll say they believe, they’ll even tell themselves they believe, but, if pressed by someone they respect they’ll often admit they do understand it’s all a fairy tale.
Tom Gjelten is now on the religion beat at NPR. Judging by one of his first stories (see below) he is pro-religion, but I don’t know yet if he is religious. UPDATE: Gjelten is a gentleman and replied thusly on Twitter: “Lapsed Norwegian Lutheran (ie, unaffiliated) but humble enough not to claim I grasp anything cosmic, respect those who do.” That last clause is part of the problem. Nobody is owed respect simply because they claim to grasp the cosmic. I would argue people who claim to grasp the cosmic deserve more scrutiny than those who profess ignorance. Countless people have fallen for con men who claimed to grasp the cosmic. I suspect he knows this and couldn’t fit more nuance in a tweet, but religion reporters must be more clear-eyed than others when they approach people who claim to grasp the cosmic. Otherwise you risk becoming Krista Tippett. I highly recommend Gjelten and any other religion-beat reporters go see Book of Mormon as a corrective.
(8/18/15) It has come to the attention of Muslim-despising Republicans that law school drop-out and AT&T sales rep turned presidential candidate Carly Fiorina once said some nice things about Islamic cultures, not long after 9/11. Fiorina was responding to the brief and predictable outbreak of various anti-Muslim hate crimes at the time. She did so with some well-worn platitudes about the contributions to world culture of the Ottoman Empire and other Islamic apogees. Discovery of Fiorina’s heinous crime against Republican orthodoxy caused a particularly inept rhetorican named Bethany Blankley to emit an incoherent tantrum-level diatribe against her. (It’s worth reading for her hilariously clumsy sophomoric metaphor usage alone.) This caused Tom Gjelten to defend Fiorina on Twitter with the statement “True words, and sorely needed.” I don’t dispute the truth of Fiorina’s words or that they were sorely needed at the time. I mention to this very minor incident simply because it demonstrates the eternal autonomic drive on the part of the press in general and religion reporters in particular to magnify positive statements about religion and minimize negative ones.
(5/14/15) Gjelten had a few revealingly odd moments hosting the Diane Rehm show episode dedicated to the recent poll showing Americans are becoming less Christian and less religious in general. He seemed alarmed by the fact that an online poll on the show’s website was showing listeners were 36% atheist and 19% agnostic. He hastened to point out that this didn’t necessarily reflect NPR listeners in general, just the ones who took the poll. Then, as if feeling guilty about the whole topic, he twice encouraged the Catholic Priest to explain to listeners why they should return to the faith, including letting the Priest have the last word on the show. Imagine if he had been doing a show on tobacco companies and encouraged their PR person to sell the listeners on smoking in the face of declining rates!
Eric Deggans was quick to defend religion against Peter Sagal in the following Twitter exchange:
This is some serious apologetics. “Religion can’t be blamed because it’s human and humans are bad!” Religion is a powerful cultural tool often employed effectively to further nasty human ends. It doesn’t get a pass because it’s part of a generalizable description. The universe tends towards entropy, but that doesn’t mean general human misbehavior is absolved.
Rachel Martin, talented host of Weekend Edition Sunday, recently tweeted that ex-Wonkette Ana Marie Cox’s Daily Beastlove letter to Christ, “Coming Out Christian,” was “worth reading.” This prompted me to ask Martin if she practiced a faith, to which query she generously replied “I don’t. But grew up in a religious home and have a lot of respect for many people who do.” I appreciate her addition of the word “many,” because it allows room for judgment in the cases of those who fake or otherwise mis-use religion.
Reza Aslan is not a staffer but is often interviewed on public radio as an expert on religion. He has the kind of animus for new atheism that middle schoolers have for the person who stole their boyfriend/girlfriend. Literally. Wait Wait Don’t Tell me broke my heart by recently featuring him as a panelist.
More to come…
Public Radio Staff Who Chose Not To Answer My Inquiry About Their Religion
Pro-Religion Stories in Public Media
– This ATC story about an increasing demand for exorcists in the Phillippines just takes it as read that demonic possession is, you know, a thing. A real thing.
– This one-sided treatment of a Catholic family’s decision not to euthanize their suffering daughter. As the blog Why Evolution Is True points out, when NPR ran a story about a woman who chose euthanasia they throughly covered both sides of the debate.
– This travesty was constructed of 2 parts speculation and one part Reza Aslan by Tom Gjelten. According to it there is a potentially violent group of extreme “anti-theists”. It’s laughable. Still waiting for more on this non-development. Hey, by the way, whatever happened to this case? Maybe brief spasms of Twitter outrage from the professionally offended isn’t the best way to prioritize production and air time?
– Every episode of “Speaking of Faith” and “On Being”.
– NPR is in the midst of a well-intentioned and well-produced (as usual) series about Muslims in Europe. Today’s story about an abandoned church in Bolton, England filed by Ari Shapiro is a good example. It’s an interesting story about a very ecumenical project that is just the sort of narrative people who are reflexively pro-religion love to promulgate. I don’t have a problem with the story itself, but its “celebrate diversity” and “yes, we can all just get along” message is practically the only one you’ll hear throughout this series. Yesterday there was the oddly-headlined and very sympathetic story “British Muslims Still Feel the Need to Explain Themselves” (filed by Audie Cornish) in which Muslims described hate emails they get from anti-Muslim extremists. It’s too bad about the hate emails, but until an anti-Muslim extremist walks into a building full of innocent artists and starts shooting up the place we need to keep things in perspective. (And shouldn’t we ask religious folks to explain themselves all the time?) I’m waiting for a story in this series about radical imams who encourage violence or the like, but I doubt we’ll be hearing one. It appears to be a “feel good” piece except for the parts where we are meant to pity the plight of European Muslims. Muslim groups in Britain are attempting to pass anti-blasphemy laws, for example, but nothing like that is discussed in this series. So far it is mostly an attempt to understand and reify the ways in which Muslims feel bad about living in their chosen countries rather than why those countries might have some difficulty with immigrants whose religious choices are antithetical to the founding principles of the host country.
– When Evangelical cash machine Robert Schuller died NPR once again, as with Falwell, delivered a pointless, timid press-release of an obituary.
– Giving Barbara Bradley Hagerty a 5-PART-SERIES about her book on science & religion.
MANY more items to come as they are produced and from the archives when I have time to update… (if you can’t wait just peruse old posts here.)
Religion-Unfriendly Events Ignored or Downplayed by Public Media
– In 2013 a numbskull named Richard Loewen tried to cause a whole bunch of carnage at the Wichita airport with a truck bomb – right before Christmas. Oh, yeah, apparently by total coincidence he also happened to be a radicalized Muslim convert. NPR published exactly two stories as part of the “The Two-Way” news disposal on their website. One was from the initial arrest in 2013, and the other was from his conviction. This means the story of what could have been a very major tragedy was never mentioned on air. (I’m increasingly concerned that “The Two-Way” is just some kind of plausible deniability landfill for not putting things on the air. Does anyone get their news from these pages?) Both stories are brief and minimize the Islamic terrorism angle. In neither story are the rather interesting and important issues surrounding his conversion and radicalization explored.
– It’s the anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings that killed over 50 people. Morning Edition had a moving report about victims and responders today, but the event itself, while referred to as a bombing, was treated more like a natural disaster. There was absolutely no mention of the bombers or their motivations. That was a dramatic and obviously purposeful omission. Why did they choose to treat it that way? Were they worried that simply mentioning the Islamist terror that caused the bombings would seem “islamophobic,” or did they just not want to give the bombers the attention they sought in the first place? Guessing it’s the former. There will be more coverage on All Things Considered this afternoon and we’ll see if they treat the event the same way. UPDATE Sure enough the second report on ATC also failed to mention anything about the bombers. This is akin to journalistic malpractice.
– The documentary film “The Wolfpack” is about the strange isolated upbringing of the children of a Hare Krishna father. Scott Simon did an interview with the filmmaker and her subjects. It’s clear that one of the major sources of the bizarre and mentally abusive family culture was, as is so often the case with such families, religion, specifically the father’s interpretation of the Hare Krishna branch of Hinduism. This was never asked about by Simon in the interview. It’s too bad, because public attention to the role religion plays in nightmarish family cultures, from keeping gay kids in the closet all the way to murdering children by denying them life-saving medical care, could help diminish tolerance for such practices.
Simon was kind enough to respond to my tweet asking about this “I’m reluctant to label those beliefs Hindu, even if he does. A billion Hindus in the world don’t lock up their children.” Isn’t it interesting that he self-identifies as Hindu? This is the same argument that inspires NPR guidelines to specify that ISIS must be referred to as the “self-described Islamic State.” Just because most followers of Islam don’t behead people on a daily basis does not mean Islam doesn’t inspire some to behead people. Meanwhile the denial that religion inspires the small number of very horrible atrocities masks the fact that it indisputably inspires the millions of daily indignities and aggressions suffered by millions/billions around the globe.
– There are secularist conventions happening all the time all over the world, but you’d never know it listening to public radio. On the other hand every time there’s a political prayer breakfast or CPAC circle jerk you’ll hear about it for days. On the other hand given the snide tone public radio uses when it talks to or about secularists it may be better they stay away from such meetings.
– A classic today from Peter “The Non-Tweeter” Kenyon on Morning Edition. He did a whole segment on violence against women in Turkey without mentioning Islam. Yes, most cultures outside of Wonder Woman’s home island are rife with sexism, but Islam has ancient, terrible and unique problems with women. Not bringing this up in the context of a story in Turkey is nearly journalistic malpractice. (He did mention head-scarves.) I can only imagine internalized fear of accusations of Islamophobia caused this omission.
– On February 26 a Bangladeshi-American named Avijit Roy was hacked to death by Muslim Extremists who were unhappy with his writings critical of fundamentalist Islam. No word was heard on NPR, though their “Two Way” news blog did cover it. Meanwhile they did see fit to run a trivial Islamophilia story about a moderate German Muslim who encourages people to ask him about his faith.
– There have been several recent stories in the US and Canada regarding children who died because religious parents refused them the treatments that would have saved them. You wouldn’t know about them listening to NPR.
– Coverage of the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber on NPR routinely downplays or fails to mention the Islamic Extremist ideas behind the mass murder.
– (3-23-15) 7 children died a few days ago in a fire that was caused because ridiculous Orthodox Jewish tradition demanded a hot-plate could not be turned off on the sabbath. On numerous occasions today the deaths/burials were reported on NPR without the crucial information about the circumstances of the death.
– (4-2-15) Robert Schuler, the man who made himself and his family very wealthy while his Crystal Cathedral ministry went bankrupt, was pre-eulogized during today’s NPR News round-ups because he has fallen ill. The mini-bio mentioned his Cathedral and his “Hour of Power” TV show, but, as usual, failed to mention any hint of greed or financial misbehavior on his part.
– (5/18/15) Five days ago 45 reformist Shia were murdered in cold blood execution style on a bus in Pakistan by decidedly less reformist Sunnis. So far not a peep about this on any of the flagship NPR news programs. Somehow the news choosers for every major NPR show decided this hideous event wasn’t worth considering. On the other hand there was a hard hitting interview with the guy behind “The Bachelor” TV show. Priorities? It may have nothing to do with fear of being perceived as Islamaphobic, but it certainly does make one wonder.
I’m so sick of all this Papal coverage, but I found this item of interest:
Supreme Deity “Has Concerns” With Newly Elected Pope
March 14, 2013 Vatican City
(AP) At His day-after-the-election news conference Thursday, The Lord of Hosts said He wants to meet with the newly elected Pope Francis I as part of a search for common ground on policy issues. Jehovah said He was eager to work with Vatican leaders and listen to “good ideas wherever they come from.” But He said He “has concerns” that it will not be easy to reach agreement on contentious issues.
The Lord of Lords has frequently been in conflict with previous occupants of the Vatican’s highest office on a wide variety of matters facing both the Vatican Curia and all of humanity for all of time. The new Vatican leader does not appear to be likely to change that disconnect in spite of conciliatory language from both sides.
The first question from reporters after the King of King’s initial statement concerned the issue of abortion, perhaps the most difficult area to find congruity between the parties. All previous Popes, as well as all priests and cardinals, including the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio himself, frequently and totally condemn all forms of abortion, while the Maker of Heaven and Earth continues to abort or miscarry an estimated 50% of all fertilized eggs globally, an activity He has engaged in for all of human history. God confirmed that He will continue this initiative and allow no interference from Vatican officials, saying He stands by His record of over twelve thousand billion so-called “spontaneous” abortions.
Anticipating a direct request from the newly chosen Pontiff, Jake Tapper of ABC News asked the Ultimate Power of the Universe if He would consider changing His stance on Earthquakes, adding “especially those which cause terrifying tsunamis that kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Your constituents.” Elohim replied that, as with rape, disease, and many volcanoes, Popes and other Vatican officials often pray for the victims of such events and circumstances but rarely proactively ask for their prevention. As a result The Lord “sees no reason to consider changing His policies” on any of these issues in the next fiscal year or, for that matter, all future time until the end of both the Universe and the very concept of time itself.
In what could be yet another sign of problems to come, Pope Francis broke with more socially active clergy during his time in Argentina. He failed to support the “Liberation Theology” movement as they attempted to improve conditions among the poor via direct aid and via calls for government action. Very God of Very God refers to Himself as a “Biblical Originalist” on the issue. “While poverty has proven to be a greater challenge than I anticipated when I called for its eradication over 2000 years ago, I still firmly believe we can, and indeed must, do everything in our power to bring an end to it.” Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the pro-business American Enterprise Institute, speculated “if the omniscient and all-powerful Maker of All Things Seen and Unseen truly wanted to end poverty there’s a sense that He could do so very quickly.”
Even differences on something as seemingly uncontroversial as “the dignity of life” may cause strong divisions between the new Pope, who has frequently spoken in support of it, and God Almighty, whose record includes infinite varieties of hideous fetal mutations, flesh-eating bacteria, organ-liquefying hemorrhagic fevers, and continence-robbing brain injuries and diseases.
There are several areas of apparent agreement between the parties. On the questions of why bad things happen to good people and why Apple insists on changing the configuration of the iPhone recharger even though the old one was completely fine and now everyone has to buy a stupid adapter both parties replied in a joint statement that there would be “no comment at this time.”
The moderate success of Speaking of Faith has stimulated the New York Times religion section to emit a sticky-icky paean to our Krista, midwifed by Columbia journalism professor and web domain eponym Samuel Freedman. (Even Krista Tippett doesn’t yet use her own vanity web domain, and Krista Tippett barely allows people to use pronouns when referring to Krista Tippett.)
The short review: Get a room, you two!
The headline should have read “Self-Promoting Journalist Enjoys Time With Self-Promoting Journalist, Seeks Dinner, Movie.”
So that you can get the gist without actually subjecting yourself to the article, I’ve turned excerpts into a found Mad-Lib.
Please submit your best efforts. If it comes out porn it’s really not my fault. I promise this is really from the R-rated profile and is not the opening to a Harlequin Romance novel:
…all of which made her wonder why, with a fulsome __(noun)__ and a social __(noun)__ to match, she felt “really __(adj)__ in ways I couldn’t acknowledge or even explain.”
So it was odder still, as she moved onto __(noun)__ , to __(verb)__ with an old, unbidden sensation. She told herself at first that she just wanted to __(verb)__ . Then she admitted that what she was doing was __(gerund)__, returning not to the fierce __(noun)__ of her Southern Baptist upbringing but surely to the way it taught her how to __(verb)____(preposition)__ God.
“Religion is a touchy subject. You’re really getting at the core of people’s __(noun)__, an intimate place. This religious sphere in our public life is very charged, and I want to __(verb)__ that.”
Then she won admission to Brown and recast herself as an __(noun)__, taking up the study of German literature and history, and __(gerund)__ in the same __(noun)__ as John F. Kennedy Jr.
“Won admission?!?” “WON admission??!” Seriously? Did she have to defeat someone in mortal combat? Who the hell says that?! More importantly, who says that about Brown?! Shouldn’t the phrase be “weathered admission to Brown”, “covered up admission to Brown”, or just “settled for admission to Brown”? And what is it with the triumphalist verbs relating Krista Tippett to higher education? Avid readers of this blog will recall that she “emerged” from Yale Div. I guess it’s just my hyper-sensitivity to language. After all, I studied English Literature after wresting an Ivy League admission myself.
Can anyone enlighten me as to the relevance of her sharing a dorm with John F. Kennedy Jr? Is that some kind of euphemism? And, oh, while we’re non sequitur name dropping a K-Bomb, there’s another dweller in imaginary English castles, Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies, who “won admission” to Brown. I’ll expect them to mention that in the name-dropping errata section usually monopolized by glittery omissions from “Weddings of the Times.”
According to the article, Tippett claims “parsing” familiarity with ancient Greek. Is this hyperbole or does she prefer to secrete her polymathematics deep inside pop-theology books so as not to overawe her guests and listeners. Perhaps she publishes her New Testament exegeses pseudonymously with, of course, the Yale University Press…the same press that wouldn’t publish the Dutch cartoons of Mo- Mu- uhmm Mohu – wait – Muhammed in a book written exclusively on the subject of the Dutch cartoons of Mohammad. That’s the kind of bravery to which Speaking of Faith should dedicate an episode!
Or maybe she simply attended, excuse me, won admission to, one of Yale Div’s summer language classes. By that yardstick I’m a Catullus scholar. My pathetic seventh and eighth grade Latin teacher who was killing time until she won admission to Pharmacy school will be so proud to hear it.
Much is also made of her work as a “diplomat” during the cold war. I’d love to know the details of those adventures given that her mastery of statecraft evidently informs her career as self-appointed ecumenical referee.
And finally Krista’s boyfriend – I mean interviewer – gets in a little dig at, I have to believe, your humble servant.
…she has been criticized at times on the blogosphere for a perceived timidity.
Guilty as charged, Professor!
Of course in the long run she wins because, as noted Catholic Sunday School Teacher St. Stephen Colbertius so often reminds us, the market has spoken.
On the other hand since she produces a radio show designed to pander to the religious among us, i.e. pretty much everyone on earth, 600,000 listeners is only a drop in the bucket. She’s got a long way to go if she wants to placate and fail to challenge all 6 billion religious folks on Earth, many of whom can’t find a Minnesota Public Radio affiliate on their dials.
She’d better hurry, British Petroleum seems to be trying to set her a time limit.
The religion of “belief in belief” now has a saint!
Here is her icon:
How shocking that Krista “I’m Krista Tippett” Tippett would select this particular cover art. Did anyone suggest an image of Einstein? Or God? At least BB Hagerty had the good taste to slap a scientifical image on the cover of her recent “Some scientists are religious!” tell-all.
Note the mystical, crepuscular background of this auto-canonization. It symbolizes – could it be? – the half-lite of the day god (sun/knowledge) as it mixes with the night goddess (moon/irrationality).
Scott “There Goes Cryin’ ” Simon, NPR Nation’s reliably lachrymose Saturday morning sentimentalist, spent a tellingly lengthy, as well as tellingly mild, chunk of the show today conducting the full range of what public radio recognizes as religious discussion. On the one hand, in a segment entitled with gratuitous obsequiousness “Oral Roberts Leaves Personal Miracles Behind,” there were the red state red meat Oral Roberts adherents, who happen to be true believers in some rather specific and rather extreme doctrines. One of them claimed he was, as a child, on the receiving end of an actual healing miracle. (WTF? Is this NPR or CBN!?) And in this corner, representing the blue states, there was Mitch Albom, who declared his admiration for a more Krista Tippett sort of faith, where it’s the faith journey that’s good in and of itself, pretty much regardless of what the beliefs are or how sincerely they are ultimately accepted by their professors.
And that’s really the problem. The latter makes it impossible to robustly interrogate the former. A lack of confidence in one’s own belief system, something of which I’ve accused the public radio upper middlebrow intellectual ecosystem many times before, makes it impossible to offer thoroughgoing coverage of a subject.
An interview subject on a news program needs to be challenged, or what’s the point of having the interview? I admit, Scott soft-balled a question along the lines of “what if your miracle was just a coincidental recovery from an allergic reaction,” but that’s really, really not good enough. A leisurely 30 second googling of the Oral Roberts empire of Elmer Gantry charlatanism will yield untold treasures for the journalist wanting to talk about something of importance.
Here are a few suggested topics that are immediately relevant to Robert’s death:
What is the prosperity gospel? Is it uniquely American? What does it say about us as a country? Did it contribute to our recent economic downturn?
There is a spectrum of prosperity gospel purveyors. On one extreme you have Nigerian mountebank “pastors” who are so evil they cause little boys to be murdered in order to increase their own notoriety as witch hunters and thereby raise more money from their gullible flocks. On the other extreme, I assume, you may find sincerely misguided leaders who honestly think god will improve your material circumstances to reward faith and, of course, tithing. Where on this spectrum did Oral Roberts sit? (By the way NPR never covered the “little boy witches” story even though it’s perfect for Gwen Thompkins.)
Pentecostalism is growing rapidly all over the world. What is it? Why is it becoming so popular?
And so much more…
But instead of taking on these kinds of questions we get the standard kid glove treatment. Barbara Bradley Hagerty‘s not going to ask them. All she could bring herself to do in her unenlightening and pointless obituary was give him credit for reinventing televangelism and mention briefly his too-notorious-to-ignore-even-for-Barbara claim that god would kill him if he didn’t raise $8 million.
Why are they doing such a piss-poor job of this? There are two reasons. First, there is the aforementioned dearth of cojones as either journalists or philosophers that results in an inability to really take on these subjects. Second, they think discussions of religion that are anything other than “nice” are dangerous and unpleasant so they simply choose to pretend that religious activities and ideas that aren’t nice don’t exist.
For an alternative treatment of Oral Robert’s death I strongly recommend Karen Spears Zacharias‘ take on it. She, herself a faithful believer in a teleology a bit more specific and full throated than Karen Armstrongian Neo/Pseudo/Crypto deism, has absolutely no problem calling it like it is. But I don’t think you’ll hear anything like this on public radio, especially not on Speaking of Faaaaaith.
Come on Scott, I know you’d love to interview her. After all, she’s been mentioned in the same log roll with Fanny Flagg, one of your favorites I’m certain.
As a side note I’d like to thank “Entertainment Weekly” reviewer Jennifer Reese for describing Albom as setting “tough new standards for sticky sentimentality [and] insipid moralizing” in “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”. That’s right, a glossy excuse for movie and cosmetics ads puts Weekend Edition to shame, even at the risk of alienating an advertiser.
Public Radio could really use a bit more of this kind of attitude, which is only found on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “On The Media,” and then all too infrequently and inconsistently. I mean I understand the semi-ironic impetus for having on Andy Williams at Christmas time, but come on. The guy said Obama’s a Marxist who wants our country to fail. Now those are fightin’ words which, and this is the point, invite the same, not misty memories of watching Christmas specials last century.
A commenter who somehow managed to overcome the recent technical problems this blog has been having with too many people trying to comment at the same time posed the following question this morning:
What is Krista Tippett’s agenda?
This is an intriguing query. Since I can’t hear the vocal inflection of the person who asked it I can’t tell if it’s sarcastic or serious, but it deserves exploration. It spurred me to think and research more about the whole problem with much religious “journalism” in general and Speaking of Faith in particular.
It turns out that the agenda of SoF is a bit hard to tie down because they don’t seem to have an official mission statement on the SoF website. Their stated priciples are, unsurprisingly, couched in a warm miasma of platitudes:
When she [Tippett] emerged [like Venus from the sea!] with a Master of Divinity from Yale in 1994, she saw a black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be.
The black-hole-generating religion reporters who worked before 1994 have got to feel good about that one!
…she began to imagine radio conversations about the spiritual and intellectual content of faith that would enliven and open imaginations and public discussion.
She draws out the intersection of theology and human experience, of grand religious ideas and real life.
Evidently Krista didn’t study a lot of geometry at Yale Div, as I’m not sure how you “draw out an intersection.” I just can’t tell if she means “clearly delineate” or “smudge beyond recognition.”
So an outright mission statement from SoF seems a bit elusive, maybe ineffable or even transcendent. Sound familiar? Maybe you can only have a poetic way of knowing the agenda of Speaking of Faith. Maybe you have to look at it sideways.
Or maybe you need to look at their sponsor.
A primary sponsor of SoF appears to be, from the prevalence of their ads on the SoF website, the Fetzer Insitute. Luckily for my purpose they aren’t shy about articulating their mission statement:
The Fetzer Institute advances love and forgiveness as powerful forces that can transform the human condition.
Wow, who could be against that? “Advancing” is a weak, vague verb to use in the context of love and forgiveness, however, so let’s take a closer look what they actually do. Their programs range from extremely laudable sounding, if quixotic, world peace initiatives to less universally approved-of claptrap consisting of new age healing and spiritualism mixed with junk science some of which reads exactly like jacket copy for Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
So what we’ve discovered is nothing less than a teeming nest of modern Theosophers. These folks find the hardscrabblewonders of rationalist secular knowledge to be unfulfilling, uninspriring unless they are spiced with heaping helpings of tired, intellectually empty and dishonest but highly decorated teleologies.
These sentiments have a corrupting influence on public discourse and encourage what atheists call “woo.” Woo is a helpful category that refers holistically to irrational beliefs, especially in the realm of health care. The problem with woo is that it can kill. When Christian Scientists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or New Age cult members refuse modern medical help for their children, and the children die, that’s the dark side of all this spiritual role-playing. What if deluded, costumed, Klingon-speaking Star Trek fans refused actual medicine in favor of a spray painted salt shaker they claim is a treatment from the 23rd century? What really makes that different? And should we really be spending money on trying to detect souls with fMRI machines when, for example, vaccine production is so slow and antiquated?
The real “black hole” in religious journalism, at least since the “emergence” of Tippett, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Karen Armstrong and the rest of the weak teleologists, is the inability of such people to be objective. They see a noble heart in, as far as I can tell, every religious or spiritual idea they’ve ever covered.
Isn’t it frighteningly easy to imagine a friendly hour-long interview between Krista and, say, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson?
Ultimately what fails to satisfy about Speaking of Faith is the extreme ecumenicism Tippett’s “agenda” requires. It’s intellectually crippling, akin to a restaurant which tries to delight both big game bush-meat lovers and vegan PETA activists. Everyone likes to eat, right? They have that much in common, so it’ll be great!
Imagine if “On the Media” had a similar mission? The whole point of the show would disappear. No malefactor would be thoroughly investigated or subjected to cleansing, well-deserved ridicule. So when an agenda like that of Krista’s Theosophical Sunday School infects public radio for two hours every weekend, taking up space where a superior program might thrive, it annoys me. And I’m not alone.
You may not be surprised to learn that one of the most common google search queries leading people to this blog is as follows:
Krista “I’m Krista Tippett” Tippett’s latest cliff- standing- safely- away- from- the- edger, a shameless, sponge-brained, narcissistic infomercial for Yoga, is playing right now. Never have I been so close to sawing my own ears off with a plastic spoon. Toxics. Body Prayer. “I immediately have the sense that…every movement becomes a part of my devotion…” etc, et nauseating cetera.
The good works of the guest are admirable, but the discussion is excruciating.
If you’re a fan of public radio’s death obsession you’ll want to be sure to go to the website to find out about the guest’s father’s struggle with cancer. Yoga + cancer + Krista. What could be better!
“And this is…” <pause> “…Speaking of Faaaaiiiiith.”
How does she always manage to say it exactly the same way? And is it just me or does she say her name a lot more than other public radio hosts? Oh well, she’s Krista Tippett.
A probing, clear eyed analysis of religion in modern life is a great idea for a show, but SoF’s editorial stance, which seems to me to be something along the lines of “isn’t it just so nice that people are religious!” (what Daniel Dennett calls “Belief in belief“), leaves me a little cold. The episodes I’ve heard tend to sound like commercials for the ideas/dogmas the guests espouse. Krista rarely challenges them.
A laudable but all-too-brief exception occurred in a recent interview with a Mormon scholar. There is a Thanksgiving cornucopia of refutations to bring against Mormon historical and theological claims, but Krista chose only one. It was a good one, though. Mormon founder Joseph Smith miraculously “translated” some actual hieroglyphic scrolls (before anyone knew how to!) which were subsequently lost and then rediscovered in the 1960s, by which time humankind had mastered non-miraculous hieroglyphic translation. Inconveniently for Tippett’s guest it turns out Smith’s version was the very worst kind of bullshit. Krista actually brought this situation up with the scholar (go Krista!!) and received an amusingly meaningless response. (Imagine how entertaining and socially beneficial an hour of that kind of hot seat would be!)
You see, the scholar explained, that whole translation gotcha isn’t irrefutable evidence for Smith’s brazen charlatanism, rather it is simply one of the solemn mysteries of the Mormon faith!
Wow. Maybe in 150 years people will consider the whole Enron thing as a solemn mystery of some future faith which some future version of Krista “I’m Krista Tippett” Tippett can ask a believer politely about.
One other thing bugs me about SoF. In an oft-played promo for the show Krista states “you won’t hear many religious authorities” on the show.
I have two problems with this.
First of all, Krista has a Masters from Yale Divinity School. Doesn’t that qualify her as an authority?