The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Shades of Gray: A Review

David K. Shipler,a New York Times reporter based in Jerusalem during the early 1980s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for  Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. His book, rather than attempting to give a history of the conflict, was an honest look at the relationships between Arabs and Jews. It contained interviews with many people who were deeply involved in the conflict, yet it refused to advocate for one side over the other. In his preface to the first edition, Shipler wrote:

This is not a book about the diplomatic, political, or military dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor is it a chronicle of Israel’s domestic evolution. Those elements are presented only insofar as they shed light on the subject at hand. Rather, the purpose here is to examine the attitudes, images, and stereotypes that Arabs and Jews have of one another, the roots of their aversions, and the complex interactions between them in the small territory where they live together under Israeli rule: the strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (xxviii).

9780553447514In 2015, the book came out in a revised and expanded edition, and I’ve been reading that edition over the last several months. While I have spent lots of time studying the ancient history of the area, I knew relatively little about its more recent history. And while, as mentioned above, this book is not a history book, I found it to be an enlightening window on the day-to-day lives of people who live under a great amount of pressure.  Shipler organizes the book into three parts:

First, the broad forces that contribute to aversion, namely the engines of war, nationalism, terrorism, and religious absolutism. … Second, the catalogue if images, each of the other, some held in parallel, some unique to the Arab-Jewish relationship, some reminiscent of stereotypes between other groups in other societies. Third, the complexities of interaction, from cultural and religious affinity to the idealistic efforts of a few Jews and Arabs to reach across the gap of ignorance.” (15–16)

The conflict boils down to this: both Jews and Arabs want to live in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and both believe they have a legitimate claim to that land. Beyond that, there are what seem like a million shades of nuance. There are not just Arabs who live in the West Bank and Gaza but also Arabs who are citizens of Israel. There are Bedouins. While most Palestinian Arabs are Muslim, there is a minority of Christians among them. There are also different kinds of Jews—the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, who emigrated from different places and generally have different statuses within Israeli society.

Shipler presents the nuances of the conflict so well that by the end of the book I could only arrive one conclusion: it’s complicated, it’s a mess, and I don’t know what ought to be done. There are no clear good guys and bad guys in this book. Jews may have the political power in their society, and so it is easy to conclude that Arabs are the only victims. On the other hand, Israeli Jews are also surrounded by hostile neighbors and are haunted by memories of their own victimhood in the Holocaust. What does Shipler himself think should be done? He doesn’t offer particular policy proposals, but rather points toward empathy:

Because I am a writer, and I write about what people think, I naturally believe that it helps to know the other side’s viewpoint, even if you don’t accept it. So in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the narrative of the other needs to be heard. Jews see the creation of Israel as a rebirth founded on historical justice. That does not mean that it was a rebirth for Palestinians. That they see it as al-Nakba, the catastrophe, doesn’t mean it was a catastrophe for Jews. But the two narratives must somehow be spliced together, not to endorse the other side’s story but to recognize it, to acknowledge it, to say, okay, yes, you had that experience. We had our experience. We honor your story. We honor your experience. You honor ours. That is the hardest task, much more difficult than drawing lines on a map. (682)

This is a long book at 700+ pages (200 or so more than the first edition), so I could only recommend it to committed readers with a bit of time on their hands. It’s not beach reading, unless you go to the beach to contemplate the tragedies of intractable cultural conflict (I know there are some of you out there). But it is a worthwhile read, and contains many wonderful stories and vignettes from various slices of society in Israel and the West Bank. Readers who have already decided that they are on one side or the other will more than likely not find it satisfying. However, those who, like myself, are newcomers to the conflict and are looking only to listen will find in this book a wonderfully thorough introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.


Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: A Review

With 2012 being a presidential election year, politics is constantly in the news. One perennial question is what role evangelical Christians will play. But who are evangelicals, and how did they come to occupy the role they do in American politics?

Kenneth J. Collins presents his readers with a historical survey that answers that question, focusing on evangelicals’ pursuit of political power since the late 19th century. Collins is a professor of historical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, an evangelical school from the Wesleyan tradition. The book comes in six chapters, which mostly follow chronological order. In the first chapter, Collins looks at the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. He discusses factors that led to the decline of Protestant Christianity’s public voice starting in the late 19th century, including Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible. In the second chapter, Collins narrates the growth of fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism from the ’30s through the ’50s. In the third, he describes the turbulent ’60s and the influence of the Religious Right from the ’70s to the ’90s. The fourth chapter brings a break from Collins’ chronological march, in which he looks at two of evangelicalism’s responses to Darwinism: theistic evolution and intelligent design. In the fifth chapter, he looks at the rise of the evangelical left, focusing particularly on the careers of Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren and Jimmy Carter. He also includes a discussion of the Manhattan Declaration, an attempt at nonpartisanship that was received tepidly by the evangelical left. In the first pages of chapter six, called “Beyond Ideology,” Collins brings an end to his historical survey with the rise of Barack Obama. He then argues that evangelicals’ desire for power has prompted them to restrict their public voice to an exclusively political idiom, leading to disastrous results. His positive proposal is for evangelicals not to abandon politics altogether, but to craft an evangelical political philosophy that is informed by Scripture and natural law, and is wary of being co-opted by the non-Christian ideologies of the right or the left.

This book is a well-done survey of evangelicalism’s involvement in American politics for the reader who wants to place current political debates in their historical context. I have read other accounts of American evangelical political involvement, and this one stands out for two reasons: first, Collins includes discussions of the Wesleyan/Holiness/Pentecostal stream of evangelicalism, which has sometimes been left out or given short shrift. Second, he depicts the rise of the evangelical left, which is not narrated in older historical accounts of American evangelicalism. Readers who are already familiar with the history of American evangelicalism will not find a lot that is new in the first 100 pages or so, but the latter part of the book makes it worth reading even if you have some familiarity with that history. I especially recommend it for those who have interest in, but little or no knowledge of, the history of evangelical political involvement in the United States.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.

Publisher: Intervarsity Press
Reading Length: 260 pages
Rating: 4 stars

The Slavery of “Freedom”

We Americans love to talk about freedom.

We call ourselves “the land of the free”; our Declaration of Independence talks about liberty as an “inalienable right”; there are still few things that can get an American riled up like the threat of a loss of freedom.

But our freedom is in jeopardy, says Os Guinness in his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (there is a very good three part interview with Guinness by Timothy Dalrymple). Guinness doesn’t find the primary threat to our freedom in an external source, like another nation, or even “big government” or “big business” or special interests. No, the enemy is us. Freedom cannot be won for all time and then left alone; it needs to be sustained. And, Guinness writes, Americans are failing to sustain the freedom our nation’s founders worked so hard to win: “The problem is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor. Powerful free people die only by their own hand, and free people have no one to blame but themselves” (37). The vision of freedom we Americans are pursuing is “short-lived and suicidal” (29).

(Side note: The title A Free People’s Suicide might seem bombastic, but it comes from a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”)

The problem with our vision of freedom is that the freedom we love to talk about and claim for ourselves focuses exclusively on freedom from external constraints. There are two kinds of freedom: freedom from constraint (negative freedom) and freedom for cultivating virtue and becoming the people we ought to be (positive freedom). Modern Americans are only interested in negative freedom. We claim rights and entitlements for ourselves, but do not care about duty, virtue, character, or pursuing excellence. Negative freedom alone is unsustainable. Freedom from external restraint, without self-restraint, undermines itself.

What can be done? Guinness argues that we need to return to the founders’ vision of freedom, which he calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.” He demonstrates that the founders did not have a vision of freedom that stopped with freedom from constraint. Rather, their vision of freedom was part of an interdependent triangle: freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; faith requires freedom.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this triangle of freedom in our time is faith (Eric Metaxas wrote a good review of this book in the Christian Post focusing on this point). The point for Guinness, and I agree, is not necessarily that the founders were Christians (though some were). Rather, the point is that the founders (even the Deists) were unanimous in their approval of faith of any kind, because faith fosters virtue, and only a virtuous people can remain free.

Guinness’ book is intended not just for Christians or religious people, but for all Americans who care about freedom. For that reason, I understand his arguing for faith as part of the golden triangle of freedom on pragmatic grounds (he follows the founders in adopting this tactic). Nevertheless, I think his argument ought to have particular force for Christians. The Bible also understands freedom as not merely freedom from constraint.

Seven times in the book of Exodus, God (through Moses) says, “Let my people go so that they may serve me.” (Exod 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36), but he also said, “Take my yoke upon you” (Matt 11:29). One of the earliest Christians’ favorite self-designations was “slave of Christ” (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 7:22; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1; Jas 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1; Rev 1:1). Freedom, for the Christian, can never be merely about freedom from external constraints. It begins with freedom from constraint, but doesn’t stop there. Christian freedom is not just freedom from, but freedom for: freedom to serve God and others. From a Christian perspective, those who begin by thinking freedom is merely the absence of external constraints end by becoming slaves to their own appetites: greed, lust, and desire for power.

I applaud Guinness’ effort to prod Americans to do the hard work of sustaining freedom. I hope his argument gains a wide hearing. In particular, I hope his argument gains traction among Christians, who are just as prone to only care about negative freedom as anyone else, but who have the least reason for doing so.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.

The Idolatry of Ideology

It was the spring of 2009, and I was visiting my friends Neal and Danielle in Massachusetts. They both had to work one day, so I decided to go to Cambridge on my own and take a look around Harvard. While I was there, I felt the irresistible pull of a used bookstore and found Political Visions & Ilusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies by David T. Koyzis inside. I immediately snapped it up, but didn’t make time to read it until this month.

What I found was an excellent overview of five popular political ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism. Koyzis, who teaches political science at Redeemer University College in Ontario, examines each of them from a Christian perspective and finds them to be incomplete understandings of the world God created. That is because “every ideology is based on taking something out of creation’s totality, raising it above that creation, and making the latter revolve around and serve it. It is further based on the assumption that this idol has the capacity to save us from some real or perceived evil in the world” (15). In other words, ideologies are modern idolatries.

We commonly think of idolatry in terms of its ancient manifestations: worshiping a literal idol that represents a god who exerts control over some aspect of the physical world. But that is only the shape idolatry took in the ancient world; idolatry in its modern forms is still with us. Idolatry is taking a contingent thing and turning it into an ultimate thing. I’ve heard it attributed to Augustine that “Idolatry is worshipping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that is meant to be worshipped.” This means that even nominal believers in God may be idolatrous, in the sense that while they profess to worship God, they may actually serve success, political power, or any number of other things.

Ideologies tell their own stories of evil, salvation, and eschatology (even if they do not always use those words), and they locate all of these things within the created order. They begin with a fundamental problem and present a solution to that problem. They argue that if their solution is accepted and pursued on a broad scale in the way they endorse, it will lead to an ideal future. Here is a sketch of how each of the ideologies Koyzis writes about views the world:


Source of evil: Any involuntary authority that can be imposed on an individual.
What it makes a god: Individual freedom.
Eschatology: A society where each individual pursues rational self-interest, and the only contracts we are obligated to are ones we enter voluntarily. Liberalism is by far the most popular ideology in the United States. Both the Right and the Left subscribe to different versions of it; they are just at different stages. “Conservatives” are conservative in that they want to return to an earlier form of liberalism. Those on the Right subscribe to classical liberalism, whereas those on the Left subscribe to what Koyzis calls “late liberalism.” Last year I often heard the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement insisting that they had nothing in common, but that’s not strictly true. They’re both liberals; they’re just at different stages of liberalism.


Source of evil: Grand schemes for the betterment of society that ignore what the past has taught us.
What it makes a god: Tradition. This means that conservatism varies from place to place. In the United States, as noted above, conservatism simply tries to preserve an earlier form of liberalism: the kind originally articulated by John Locke and others, and interpreted by the founding fathers of the United States.
Eschatology: A society which looks to tradition as a source of norms, and in which we have respect for tradition, and humility regarding the effectiveness of new proposals. Unfortunately, conservatism as an ideology has no way of evaluating new proposals other than criticizing their novelty.


Source of evil: Being ruled by someone unlike oneself. This applies to any kind of interference of one sovereign state by another, up to and including colonialism.
What it makes a god: the nation, of course. Our nation.
Eschatology: A world in which each nation commands the ultimate loyalty of its citizens, and each nation is able to be self-directed, without outside interference.


Source of evil: Being ruled by anyone else.
What it makes a god: The voice of the people. But not all people; the majority of the people.
Eschatology: A society in which those who have any authority on behalf of the people are in some sense following the will of the people. This includes not just government, but non-governmental institutions as well, like church and family. By the way, Koyzis draws a distinction between democracy as structure and democracy as creed. It is democracy as creed that is an ideology.


Source of evil: Inequality brought about by the division of labor.
What it makes a god: Material equality.
Eschatology: A society which embraces communal ownership of property by a class, leading to the elimination of the oppression of one class by another. This, according to Marx, will be the consummation of history.

All of these ideologies get something right about the world; otherwise they would not have so many followers. But what they get wrong, according to Koyzis, is that they begin from the standpoint of human autonomy. They emphasize self-direction; governing yourself according to a law that you choose. This means that they are not just ideologies; they are idolatries. They take God out of the picture, or worse: they turn him into something that the sovereign individual can choose or not choose to worship. God is not the sovereign Lord of creation; he is just another option on the menu.

But I would not go so far as to say that anyone who identifies herself as a liberal, or a conservative, or a socialist, or any of the other ideologies, is automatically an idolater. It is not common to find someone who follows any of these ideologies in its purest form. Most people realize, whether on a conscious or subconscious level, that an ideology cannot make complete sense of the world as they experience it. These ideologies do become idolatrous, however, when a person truly puts his hope in that ideology, rather than in God, to bring about justice in the world. And that varies from person to person.

All this has been a rough sketch of the main part of Koyzis’ book, combined with my immediate reactions to it. For a more nuanced discussion, I highly recommend reading the book. I think it would be helpful to any Christian who is seeking to make sense of politics, especially in the North American context.

Book Review: Fixing the Moral Deficit

In his newest book, Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget, Ron Sider writes that there are three crises facing America today: a deficit crisis, a poverty crisis, and a justice crisis. Seen together, these three add up to a moral deficit. This short (171 pages, including notes and an index) book is his attempt at a solution.

In the brief first chapter, Sider argues that the crisis is a real one. He then argues that in order to solve the crisis, we need an understanding of the economic facts (which he provides in chapter 2) and a set of biblically grounded moral principles (which he provides in chapter 3). Then in chapter 4 he looks at current proposals, such as the budget proposed by Republican congressman Paul Ryan last year (Ryan, a Catholic, was in the news recently when he was criticized by Catholic bishops and Georgetown University faculty for saying that his economic views were informed by Catholic social teaching). In chapter 5 he gives his own proposal. In a short concluding chapter, he makes a final appeal for readers to take the crisis seriously and do something about it.

The greatest strength of this book is that it is a serious attempt to look at a huge public issue from an explicitly Christian standpoint. The current state of U.S. political discourse puts pressure on people to conclude that there are only two political choices: radical individualism on one hand, and communal collectivism on the other. Christians all too often allow this pressure to push them into one camp or the other, rather than questioning the terms of the debate. Sider does this, and concludes, I think rightly, that “[b]iblical faith combines an amazing personalism with clear communalism” (44). He critiques both the followers of Marx and of Ayn Rand.

From his examination of the Bible, Sider comes away with seven foundational principles, which I think are important enough to quote in full:

1. In our understanding of persons we must hold together two truths: persons are made both for personal freedom and responsibility, and for communal interdependence. Radical individualism and sweeping collectivism are both fundamental mistakes.

2. We do have responsibility for our neighbors. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But genuine love for neighbor requires not unending handouts but a tough love that does what is in the genuine long-term interest of the neighbor.

3. God and God’s faithful people have a special concern for the poor. Since God measures societies by what they do to the people on the bottom, we must evaluate proposals to end the deficit crisis by what they do to the poorer members of society.

4. Justice does not demand equal income and wealth, but it does require that everyone has access to the productive resources (land, capital, education) so that, when they act responsibly, they will be able to earn an adequate living and be respected members of society. It also requires that those unable to work (children, the disabled, the elderly) enjoy a generously sufficient living.

5. Economic equality is not a biblical norm. But economic inequality that harms the poorer members of society and prevents them from gaining access to productive resources (e.g., quality education) is wrong. Furthermore, economic inequality that places most of the political power in the hands of a few will almost inevitably lead to great injustice.

6. Government is only one of many crucial institutions in society, and its power must be limited. But in biblical teaching, there is a significant, legitimate role for government in caring for the poor and promoting economic opportunity. It is simply unbiblical to claim that caring for the poor is only a responsibility of individuals and private organizations but not the government.

7. Intergenerational justice is important. One generation should not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another. Scripture clearly teaches that parents should act in ways that help their children to flourish (Deuteronomy 6:7; Psalm 78:4; Joel 1:3). To continually place current expenditures on our children’s and grandchildren’s credit cards is flatly immoral (69–71).

It would be a huge step forward if all Christians followed Sider’s example and talked about the deficit crisis from a particularly Christian perspective. In other words, there is a theological debate that we should be having, rather than simply taking our cues from the wider cultural discourse. We should be asking what people are for, and what our responsibilities are to our neighbors, and what the Bible says about all of this. Too often we just kind of drift into the political tribe that our friends and neighbors are a part of. That’s irresponsible.

I’m sure that not even everyone who agrees with the above principles will agree with Sider’s specific policy proposals, but everyone will benefit from reading a thoughtful discussion of budget issues that is not shrill or accusatory.

Note: I received a copy of this book from Intervarsity Press as part of the Goodreads “First Reads” program. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Václav Havel: 1936–2011

Václav Havel, the playwright and dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and the Czech Republic in 1993, died on Sunday.

Havel was still president when I went to Prague to teach English in the fall of 2002. I was there in early 2003 when his term as president ended. For the last month of his time in office, he placed a large neon heart above Prague Castle (where the president lives and works) to show his love and gratitude for the Czech people. During my year there, I not only learned how to pronounce Václav (vahts-lahv), I read a collection of his essays, Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990. I found many of his writings courageous and inspiring, and his idea of “living in truth” is particularly powerful. Here are a few passages I underlined in my copy of Open Letters:

From “Letter to Alexander Dubček”:

There are moments when a politician can achieve real political success only by turning aside from the complex network of relativized political considerations, analyses, and calculations, and behaving simply as an honest person. The sudden assertion of human criteria within a dehumanizing framework of political manipulation can be like a flash of lightning illuminating a dark landscape. And truth is suddenly truth again, reason is reason, and honor honor (48–49).

From “It Always Makes Sense to Tell the Truth”:

I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate anything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative coordinates. And when this happened, man began to lose his inner identity, that is, his identity with himself… It’s as if we were playing for a number of different teams at once, each with different uniforms, and as though–and this is the main thing–we didn’t know which one we ultimately belonged to, which one of those teams was really ours (94–95).

From “The Power of the Powerless”:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them (133).

If Western young people so often discover that retreat to an Indian monastery fails them as an individual or group solution, then this is obviously because, and only because, it lacks that element of universality, since not everyone can retire to an ashram. Christianity is an example of an opposite way out: it is a point of departure for me here and now–but only because anyone, anywhere, at any time, may avail themselves of it. In other words, the parallel polis points beyond itself and makes sense only as an act of deepening one’s responsibility to and for the whole, as a way of discovering the most appropriate locus for this responsibility, not as an escape from it (195–196).

From “Politics and Conscience”:

I think that, with respect to the relation of western Europe to the totalitarian systems, no error could be greater than the one looming largest: that of a failure to understand the totalitarian systems for what they ultimately are—a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for a global recasting of how that civilization understands itself…. They are, most of all, a convex mirror of the inevitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies, an extreme offshoot of its own expansion (259).

It is… becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters (270).

From “Six Asides About Culture”:

The more an artist compromises to oblige power and gain advantages, the less good art we can expect from him; the more freely and independently, by contrast, he pursues his own vision… the better his chances of creating something good—though it remains only a chance: what is uncompromising need not automatically be good (281).

From “Stories and Totalitarianism”:

[The totalitarian system] began with an interpretation of history from a single aspect, then made that aspect absolute, and finally reduced all of history to that one aspect. The exciting variety of history was discarded in favor of an orderly, easily understood interplay of “historical laws,” “social groups,” and “relations of production,” so pleasing to the eye of the scientist. But this gradually expelled from history the very thing that gives human life, time, and thus history itself a structure: the story (335).

From “New Year’s Address” (1990, after he had been elected president for the first time):

Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would also be wrong to expect a general remedy from them only. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all (392).

Book Review: Decision Points

Instead of proceeding chronologically, George W. Bush structures this memoir of his presidency around the various “decision points” from his time as president and before: his decision to quit drinking, to run for governor and then president, to put the United States on war footing after 9/11, to invade Iraq, how to deal with the financial crisis in 2008, etc.

While he does express regret at times (e.g., that there was a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, that he flew over New Orleans after Katrina rather than landing), he is confident that the major decisions he made were the best ones to make under the circumstances. In other words, if a decision is big enough to warrant its own chapter, then it was the right decision. This confidence can sometimes be maddening, but I believe that it flows inevitably from Bush’s understanding of leadership as primarily concerned with decision-making. Since Bush believes that decision-making is what makes a good or bad leader, he is heavily invested in his major decisions being the right ones. Through much of the book, he comes across as a genuinely likable person: thoughtful, caring, empathetic, desiring to put the needs of others before his own. But when it comes to evaluating the consequences of his major decisions, it’s like he puts blinders on. He believes that major decisions are what make or break a leader, and he wants to think of himself as a good leader. Therefore, his major decisions were the right ones.

I recommend this book, but not because I agree with every decision Bush made. In fact, I agreed with some and not others. This book is unique in that it provides a view of historic events from 2000 to 2008 that is available nowhere else, and for that reason it is valuable. Like him or not, Bush was the most powerful political figure in the world for eight years. Learning about his decisions, and the rationale behind those decisions, is important for anyone seeking to gain an understanding of what happened in the first decade of the 21st century, and why.

Note: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

The Goldilocks Principle and Journalism

I read three articles recently that put me in mind of the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” In it, three bears head out for an afternoon trip to the mall or someplace while a local vagrant, Goldilocks, breaks into their home. She tastes the porridge they have left out, saying that Papa Bear’s is “too hot,” Mama Bear’s is “too cold,” and Baby Bear’s is “just right.” She does a similar thing with the bears’ three chairs and beds, finding two extremes before settling on the third one that is “just right.” Eventually the bears come back and find her in their home. She is scared straight and becomes a productive member of society.

When I read these three articles over a couple of days, I decided that the difference between them could be viewed as a difference in how the writer views the subject. One was “too hot,” one was “too cold,” and the last was “just right.”

Too hot: Richard Dawkins, an Original Thinker who Bashes Orthodoxy. This article, while presenting some interesting background, reads like it was written by a card-carrying member of the Dawkins Fan Club. It is no sin to like your subject, but it is not a good thing to like your subject so much that you don’t challenge them. You end up with a profile that doesn’t actually tell anyone anything they don’t already know. This profile ends up being mildly interesting, but breaks no new ground.

Too cold: What I Learned in Two Years at the Tea Party. This article is written by someone who spent a couple of years attending Tea Party meetings and observing the people there. The argument that the Tea Party is not all about economics is an interesting one, but the article itself is marred by the writer’s clear contempt for those he writes about.

Just right: Dubya and Me. This article, while written by a person who explicitly points out that he disagrees with Bush politically, is a wonderful attempt to understand who George W. Bush is and why he thinks the way he does. What makes this article great is that the author, knowing that he disagrees with Bush, still attempts to understand him. This is a character trait called empathy, which has never been common. In our world, it is positively endangered.

A lot of bad journalism comes down to being “too hot” or “too cold.” This amounts to a character flaw in the writer: either an uncritical love of the subject, or a contempt for the subject. Journalists who get it “just right” are able to show empathy for the subjects they find it hard to relate to, and challenge the subjects they find it easy to relate to.

Gandhi on Truth and Public Service

Lately I have been reading Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. There have been a few passages that I’ve skimmed over (like when he rattles off a string of names I don’t recognize, or when he dwells at length on his dietary habits), but there are also some great quotes like this one:

I now realize that a public worker should not make statements of which he has not made sure. Above all, a votary of truth must exercise the greatest caution. To allow a man to believe a thing which one has not fully verified is to compromise truth (264-5).

Especially during election season, when lies can seem about as plentiful as oxygen, I wonder how much difference it would make if we cared more about telling the truth than we cared about winning, getting our way or spinning things to our advantage.

In the last couple of years, I have heard more and more people encouraging one another to invest in gold because they don’t trust the economy and “gold has never been worth nothing.” Now I don’t want to give anyone financial advice; my brother is the one who got the financial smarts in our family. However, I will say that we would all be better off if more people, whether they are in public service or not, cared more about truth and wisdom than about trying to manipulate information or circumstances for our own advantage. After all, truth and wisdom are worth even more than gold:

Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction and understanding. (Pr 23:23)

How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. (Pr 16:16)

I Got Galluped

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from Gallup, asking me if I wanted to participate in a poll. I am not entirely convinced that poll results should be given the importance that they sometimes are, but I was curious to see what kinds of questions they ask, so I consented.

The pollster asked me a wide range of questions, from my political views to my income to my optimism or pessimism about the future to my job to my family to the role religion plays in my life. More than once, I had to think for a moment before answering a question because I don’t normally think about some of those things in the way that the question assumed I would. For example, she asked whether I approved or disapproved of the job Barack Obama was doing as president. I didn’t know what to say at first. I wanted to say that we have such outlandish expectations from the office of president that whoever occupies that office is bound to be a disappointment, no matter what our politics are. I knew that my response, whatever it was, would be use to establish approval ratings. In some ways, it would be nice to have a president who has such courage of conviction that he or she doesn’t care about approval ratings, because I don’t think approval ratings matter all that much in the long run. What I said was… well, it doesn’t matter, because I’ve already told you what I think.

She also asked me which Republican I would be most likely to vote for in the 2012 presidential race. She rattled off a list of about a dozen names. I recognized most of their names, but I knew anything about only half of them. So I named a name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would vote for that person. It just means that I have heard of that person and that I have a generally positive impression of them. I could learn something about any one of those possible candidates tomorrow that would make me decide I would not vote for them.

At the end of the poll, I was not satisfied. I knew that my answers to the questions would become part of statistics. Those statistics may influence the decisions of people I’ve never met and may never meet. When people see poll results, they won’t know that I didn’t like the premise of some of the questions. They will assume that the results of the poll accurately reflect what I (and thousands of others) think, when in reality that may or may not be the case.

I used to take poll results with a grain of salt. Now that I have actually been asked the questions in a Gallup poll, that grain just got a whole lot bigger.