Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Gray Lady flashes her colors

When I was soliciting advice a few weeks ago about my tentative decision to intern for the New York Post this summer, Professor Jack Pitney paid the Post a compliment that, like the best compliments, was meaningful because it was descriptive. Sure, he said, the Post may go for the flashy headline, but it's also "gritty" and "real." This, I'm learning, is what distinguishes it from certain other newspapers, which one can only describe as unreal.

Here's what I mean. I started my internship on Monday, and one of my main tasks for this week has been to read all the big New York newspapers--the Post, the Daily News, the Sun, the Times, and the Wall Street Journal--to get a feel for the style of each and for what's been going on around the city.

One of the big recent stories, I discovered, concerned two separate incidents in which police had detained members of the street gang called the Latin Kings. In the first, a large group of Kings were allegedly being disorderly on their way to a funeral for a slain comrade; in the second, a crowd wearing the Kings' gang colors was arrested at New York's Puerto Rico Day parade. There, the gang had been denied its request to participate, and the police were concerned that they would attempt to crash the party.

Clearly, there are lots of different angles to this story. A few bystander kids at the parade were detained simply because they happened to be wearing the wrong colors, raising the question of how broad police powers to preempt possible threats to public order should be, and to what extent they should employ various sorts of profiling. The Post, for its part, pointed out the disorderly behavior of the kids on the way to the funeral and argued that the various "community leaders" who praised these kids for "standing up for their civil rights" were simply enabling a PR-savvy group of street thugs.

The New York Times, however, determined that the story needed some, uh... broader perspective. Apparently "many New Yorkers" are under the impression that street gangs stopped existing when West Side Story left Broadway. Gang colors, the author helpfully explains, are just like Gucci "horse bits" or children's soccer referees' uniforms in Riverside Park--they help you express your identity.

Or maybe they're just like the uniforms of that other street gang, the NYPD. At least, so says "Almighty Sire," a member of the Kings that this reporter interviews for her story. Sure, she eventually gets around to talking to the police, who present a very different view of what the gangs are and what they do, but nothing in the story indicates that she takes them any more seriously than the Kings themselves.

I guess this reporter would tell you that she was just being "objective." If so, it's a mighty strong indication that "objective journalism" simply doesn't exist, or at least that it shouldn't exist. All journalists should be fair, which often involves admitting that there are things they either don't or can't know. But they should also acknowledge that even when the truth doesn't come down clearly on one side of an issue or the other, it comes down somewhere.

This "he said, she said" blather that passes for journalism at the New York Times, however, isn't fair or good. It may be "objective," but it's also a blatant shirking of a journalist's first responsibility, which is to figure out what's going on. Meanwhile, this reporter lets her own cultural background and biases shine through as if they were completely normal.

Read the two columns linked above, and then tell me what should be New York's "paper of record."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On Loving God

The 21st chapter of John's gospel might very well be my favorite chapter of the entire Bible. It comes right at the end, and it recounts Jesus' post-resurrection appearance to his disciples, and particularly to Peter, along the Sea of Galilee. It's a deeply moving passage, and there's so much rich and various stuff that can be taken from it. I'm sure entire books could be written based on reflections from this chapter, and I'm sure they have.

But I'm not going to write a book here. (At least that's not my intention--you, reading the final version of this post have a better idea than I do of how long this is actually going to be. For me, promises of brevity tend to come at the beginning of especially long reflections.)

Anyway, one thing in particular has struck me about this passage over the past few days, and that's Peter's peculiar boldness. At this point in John's gospel, Peter has already seen the resurrected Jesus once before. Surely he shared in the joy of the rest of the disciples, but he played no prominent role in that first meeting. Now, as this passage opens, he's gone back to his old pre-Jesus occupation of fishing, and we can be sure that fresh in his mind is his three-time denial of Jesus the previous Friday.

If Peter is feeling ashamed of his denial, Jesus does nothing to ease the burden, at least at first. He calls him by his old name, "Simon, son of John," and he asks three times, "do you love me," mirroring the three times Peter had denied even knowing him. By the third time, John even tells us that Peter felt hurt by the questioning.

And this is where Peter's response is so interesting. He says not just "yes, Lord, I love you," but "you know that I love you."

"Really?" a less friendly Jesus might retort. "The evidence would indicate the contrary. Sure, you were my best friend when I was doing all sorts of miracles and the crowds thought I was great, but when times got rough, when I could have used a friend, you said you didn't even know me. Is that love? What separates you from the rest of the crowd that was praising me one day and demanding my death the next?"

Is this what was running through Peter's mind as Jesus asked him "do you love me?" the third time? Was Jesus just waiting for the right answer, that he clearly didn't? But Peter's third answer, even through all the hurt and the pathos, is even more emphatic: "Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you."

This passage has been on my mind because I've felt a lot like Peter in the past few weeks. It's not that I've denied my Lord recently, at least not directly. But having just graduated last month, and starting work next week (I started this post last week), I am in the middle of a big transition. My familiar roles and relationships and surroundings--the concrete, day-to-day stuff through which I sought to follow and came to know Christ--are gone, and they haven't been replaced by anything comparable yet. And not quite sure what to do with myself, the temptation is to go back to fishing, as it were--to entertain again all the old habits and ambitions and attitudes that defined me before I found my firm identity in Christ.

And this is where Peter's boldness is so striking. I think that in Christian life, the doubt we sometimes struggle with the most is not so much whether God loves us, but whether we love God. It's a dignifying doubt, because it means that we're not satisfied with being passive receptors of God's one-way love, and we realize that that's not what a true loving relationship looks like anyways. But it's also an especially difficult doubt, because like with Peter, an honest look at our lives will turn up mountains of evidence that we don't really love God all that much.

Sure, we can come to an understanding that God forgives us for this or that sin, but what does that look like practically? How do we sort through the ugly stuff our sin reveals to us about who we are?

If this is what Peter is wondering, then Jesus asks the perfect question. It's not, "are you very very sorry for what you've done?" or "do you promise never to do it again?" It's "do you love me?" framed in such a way as to make clear to Peter that his answer means everything.

And Peter says yes. Think about the implications of that for a minute. When we say "God loves me," we see ourselves as fortunate, grateful recipients of an amazing love that we could never merit on our own. This is all both true and wonderful. But it's never quite satisfied me--or at least, I've never felt like I understood the love I was receiving well enough if I just left it at that. But to say as well, "I love God" is another matter entirely. It's a plain and bold assertion of the self to presume that such a statement would even mean anything at all. We not only receive with gratitude but stake our claim as free beings to a part in the eternal plan of our creator.

What I'm missing, then, in thinking of myself as simply receiving from God is that sense of my own self, that what I do matters, and even that it matters eternally. This is also, I think, why I sometimes have such a hard time understanding God's forgiveness. How does one hear "you're forgiven" without hearing also, "it doesn't matter what you did--your actions don't have consequences"?

And so we return to Peter, and realize that while we may be free beings, we're broken ones as well. Peter has the boldness to say "I love you," but he's in no position to back up the claim with evidence of his own. As we've seen, the recent evidence largely points the other way. We may want to stake our claim to a place in God's eternal design, but it's plain that we have no business doing so.

But Peter doesn't just say "I love you" like he's entitled, or like he can back it up. He stakes his case of Jesus' knowledge. "You know everything. You know that I love you." The famously bumbling Peter has a knack for stumbling upon the exact right answer when it really matters, and here, he seems to intuit that despite the great evidence against his love, there is a deeper truth, firm within God's all-encompassing knowledge, that acquits him.

Because the truth is that Peter really does love Jesus. He wouldn't have followed him for three years or jumped out of the boat and swam to shore this last time if that weren't so. God knows this and counts it to our credit, even when we make a weak and poor show of expressing it, and even when we're tempted to doubt it ourselves.

This is not to say that in our love for God we somehow merit his response by our own power. Rather, God's interest is in accepting our weak love because he is the one who planted that love within us. And Peter can be so confident that Jesus knows his love because he recognizes Jesus as the source of that love. It was Jesus who called Peter, Jesus whose spirit inflamed and excited Peter's along the journey, and Jesus who returned to claim and regenerate Peter's love when Peter was tempted to return to his old ways.

There is amazing comfort in this passage, especially in times of spiritual dryness. To borrow from Reagan, it's often the case that in our Christian walks, we don't need to be taught nearly as much as we need to remember. So John 21 is a good passage to reflect on in times of uncertainty or self-doubt, because it reminds us that if we've ever felt God's love in our lives, or if the Gospel has ever excited our minds and our hearts, we can say with a boldness that isn't our own, "you know that I love you."


One final thought. It strikes me that this passage may have some significance, if only as a clarifier, in the theological debates that sprung from the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church has always adhered to the formula that we are saved through a combination of faith in Christ and good works, while Luther raised the banner for "faith alone." The Catholic formulation is founded in scripture--it comes from the injunction in James 2:14: "what good is it, brothers, if you say you have faith but do not have works?", arguing that such a faith is dead. Nevertheless, it can be a fairly misleading way of expressing the Catholic doctrine on justification, leading to the conclusion--played out in Catholic popular piety throughout the ages--that it is the works themselves that justify us before God.

A better and more theologically precise way of expressing Catholic doctrine would be to say that we are saved through faith and love. Of course, the wide majority of Protestants, taking James seriously as well, would say that intellectual assent to the statement "Jesus Christ is God" is not enough for salvation. Someone--the devil falls into this category--could theoretically believe this about Jesus and hate him for it. Loving God is essential for true faith to be present.

The real debate concerns what is called the "process of imputation." Both sides believe that ultimately, we are saved by God's grace. None of us can achieve a saving faith or a saving love by ourselves. The faith we need is itself a gift from God. But what does the process by which God instills in us faith in him and love for him look like? I think I'll leave that as a cliffhanger for now, because I kind of want to go for a walk down by the river, and this post is plenty long as it is. I'll wrap up my thoughts and tie it all back to Peter in my next (?) post.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

On Harvey Mansfield and Jay Gatsby

Last month, Harvey Mansfield, the great Harvard professor and East-Coast Straussian, delivered the 2007 Jefferson Lecture, which is the highest honor the U.S. government bestows for intellectual achievement in the humanities. It's an absolutely brilliant lecture, and you all should read it if you haven't already.

In the lecture, Mansfield argues for a renewed appreciation of importance of the humanities, and literature in particular, for politics. The problem with modern political science, he says, is that it is far too much of a science, with science's inherent distrust of anything that can't be counted or measured. Our modern thinking about politics, therefore, is too focused on "who gets what, when, and how," with the emphasis (mine added) on the process and the quantity of the getting, instead of on the nature of the who.

But "who is man?" is properly the central question at the foundation of politics, and it is a question to which science--including social science--can only present inadequate biologically-based assumptions as answers. Such agnosticism, Mansfield seems to imply, is what leads to the weak pragmatism that informs our debased and entitlement-heavy modern political discourse. He contends further--and more fundamentally--that our natural understanding of ourselves and our self-importance is something far beyond what science alone can tell us. The way he puts it is that we think in proper names, while science wants to reduce everything to common nouns.

And this is where literature comes in. Social science can help us categorize our behaviors, but it cannot adequately explain why we do what we do. Certainly, there may be evolutionary answers to things, but those answers do not take into account our thumos--our unique sense of self-importance, or the way in which our passions, unlike those of all other animals, are channeled by reason into a broader sense of justice.

Anyway, enough about Mansfield. I won't delve into all the wonderful things in his lecture that flow from his premise. I'll only offer, for those of you that read the lecture, that the deep wisdom of what he uncovers about the human condition through his classical/literary approach is a strong testament to the legitimacy and primacy of that approach.

What I find fascinating, rather, is the way he extracts political wisdom from literature that, for all we know, was never explicitly written to convey such and such a point. He's discussing the origins of justice, and boom!, there's Achilles in Homer's Iliad as the perfect example of what he's talking about. It reminds me of the "Shakespeare's Politics" independent study I did with Harry Jaffa several years ago, in which we would just sit in his office for an hour or two a week and talk about the political philosophy themes in Shakespeare's plays. There was so much interesting stuff that Jaffa was able to squeeze out of them that I half believed that Shakespeare had studied under Leo Strauss as well.

It goes without saying, of course, that Shakespeare had never heard of Strauss, who died in 1973. But I would contend that neither Jaffa nor Mansfield is guilty of anti-historical proof-texting, of tenuously imposing their ideas on the greats of the past. Instead, their expositions point to the power of great literature to express something fundamental about the human condition. Shakespeare may not have been a political philosopher, but he was nevertheless brilliant at observing and comprehending how people interact with themselves and each other, and equally brilliant at putting it all in verse. And if I may be so bold, it strikes me that when we as modern men and women relate on a gut level with Hamlet or Homer, we are adding supporting evidence for the hypothesis (I won't quite say we're proving it) that there exists some kind of distinct and timeless human nature.

But I digress. The reason we relate in the first place, as Mansfield says, is that literature, like ourselves and unlike science, uses proper names. We're relating not to man as a species or a sociological grouping, but to Achilles and Hamlet and Gatsby as individual people. And literature, again like ourselves and unlike science, has to take a stand. All good literature (I don't think I'm exaggerating) makes an implicit or explicit statement about some aspect of who we are. The statement may be surrounded by mystery or confusion (or both--Tolstoy comes to mind) but it's out there in the world of the book being lived.

So then. Science, for all the wonderful things it has given us, needs the special perspective found through literature to understand us fully. In my limited travels, I've found it to be a good maxim that you never really understand something until you understand how it understands itself. And when the object of study is ourselves, I would hope--in fact I would assert, and Mansfield would back me up--that our self-understanding has a strong connection to the truth of who we actually are. And this brings me to the specific piece of literature known as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and to a long conversation I've been having with a worthy companion about the nature of self-deception.

But alas, it's already 2 am, and I'm getting up at 7 to bring my car to the mechanic, so Gatsby must wait for another day--sometime soon, I promise. I also promise posts in the near future that aren't quite so long and obtuse.

I leave with only one closing thought. If the social sciences need the help of literature to reach their ends, might we also say the same about philosophy, or even theology. Friedrich Nietzsche (who, lest we forget, was as brilliant as he was nuts) once said that proper philosophy should be sung. One might respond that proper philosophy should be expected to make sense as well, but I wonder whether he wasn't on to something. Oh well. It was a promising thought when I had it, but now I'm too tired to remember where I was going with this. In any case, don't trust a philosopher who can't tell you his favorite novel. And for all my philosopher friends out there--what's yours?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Start spreadin' the news...

I finally have a start date for my NY Post internship--June 18, and I'm pretty excited. I got my first taste of the city this week when I went up to accept the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in College Journalism. (Eric Breindel, by the way, was editorial page editor of the Post from 1986-1997; my internship comes as part of the award.)

The award ceremony was pretty sweet, and while I don't mean to drop names...well, yes I do. The winner of the corresponding professional award was Max Boot, about whom I've heard great things from my better-read friends. Mark Steyn, last year's winner, was there too, as was John Fund of the Wall Street Journal and several other notable pundits I didn't get to meet. Mayor Bloomberg was there, joking openly about his presidential chances.

There were also the bigwigs at News Corporation, which sponsors the award. Roger Ailes, president of Fox News, was emcee, and Rupert Murdoch made some remarks as well. From right to left, here's Rupert Murdoch, me, and Max Boot. Roger Ailes is on the end, and the woman between Boot and Ailes is Lally Weymouth, senior editor of Newsweek. Cool, huh?

I also got to meet some of the folks from the Post that I'll be working with. (I'm at the editorial page, by the way.) One of them, hearing that I went to Claremont, told me that I won't find anything "esoteric" about the Post. I'm thinking I might enjoy this internship.

By the way, here's the link to the article I won with. I wrote it last summer about homelessness in London, and it ran in the September 2006 Claremont Independent.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Getting started

So this is my blog. Welcome. My guess is that if you're reading this you already know me to some extent, so I will dispense with introductions. For the uninformed, I just graduated from Claremont McKenna College, a small liberal arts school outside Los Angeles, with a degree in Government. (That's kind of like a Political Science degree, only better.) I'm moving to Manhattan in a few weeks for a summer internship with the New York Post, and after that, it's anyone's guess.

I decided to start blogging for several reasons. The most immediate reason is that I figured it would be healthy for me to keep writing on a regular basis post-college. Of course, writing regularly is only a healthy exercise if one has something useful to say, and my hope is that I do. What I'll talk about will probably vary widely from post to post; I enjoy discussing just about anything, from good books and current events to theology and the latest episode of The Office. Some of my thoughts may be incomplete, and this may be intentional. I know that very soon I'll start to miss the all the wonderful intellectual banter I've left behind at CMC, so I welcome all comments on my posts, and comments on comments, and so on. Nothing would make me happier than if an actual discussion broke out once in a while. And if you don't feel like making a public comment, I always appreciate emails.

This blog will also be how I keep all of you--whoever you may be--updated on my life. I'm in New York for at least the summer, a location which is sure to produce its share of amusing observations and stories. I'll do my best to keep my posts personal without making them too personal; I will not be pouring my heart out all over the internet, and you will not become my closest personal confidant simply by reading what I've written. Call me old-fashioned if you must. If you really want to see me cry, you can come to my apartment and show me the baseball standings.

The long and short of it is that I'm experimenting here. I don't know yet what this blog will become. I won't be getting private or touchy-feely, but by the nature of the medium I'll be sharing a lot of myself. It's something I'm excited to try, but as a fairly private person, it's not something I'm used to, so I ask for your understanding.

Speaking of personal stuff, it's going to be relevant here that I'm a committed Christian of the Roman Catholic variety. As per my above promise, I won't be using this blog to explore my deepest spiritual struggles, but anything short of that is fair game. From time to time I might post a passage of scripture that I find particularly interesting or meaningful, and you'll probably find that questions about God and the Christian life intersect a lot of my thinking on lots of other topics. We'll see how that plays out once I get writing.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy my blog. I'll try to post again within the next few days. I just finished reading (and loving) F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and it's gotten me thinking about the relationship between literature and philosophy. Stay tuned.