A Q&A with Slate’s Betsy Woodruff

Betsy Woodruff is Slate’s staff writer for politics and the co-host of Bloggingheads’ Woodruff & Strauss We’ve really enjoyed Betsy’s coverage of the midterm elections and her insightful podcast commentary, so we reached out by e-mail to get her thoughts on her work, gridlock in Washington, and the political landscape over the next two years. 

Congratulations on your new position at Slate!  What sparked your interest in political reporting?  What do you like most about your work?

My family always followed politics closely. We had lots of dinner table conversations about it, and I grew up very aware of the way public policy impacts people’s lives. It’s always been really interesting to me.  The best part of my job is that I get to meet a huge variety of people, which is really fun.

We hear a lot of talking heads these days lamenting the politicization of journalism and the erosion of even a basic consensus about what the facts are. Yet there are also pundits who take the “This Town” view of DC as a place where politicians and reporters alike are steeped in this common worldview that is totally out of touch with what “real Americans” outside the Beltway think and believe.  As someone who’s worked for outlets like National Review and Slate that come at things from notionally different ideological angles, which of these perceptions would you say has more merit? 

I think that’s probably a bit of a false dichotomy. My top pet peeve is when people refer to “the media.” The media is not a monolith! There are reporters who are really close with top Hill aides, and reporters who cover DC from thousands of miles away, and reporters who are very open about their partisan/ideological allegiances, and reporters who are total straight-shooters and will never betray any bias. And all of that is good. Variety is good. There are stories that outlets like Free Beacon and Talking Points Memo will get that mainstream outlets would miss. And there are stories where Politico and Washington Post will blow everyone else out of the water. “The media” contains multitudes. That’s good, because it means news consumers have a huge number of choices, and it means old media empires have to watch their backs (which makes them better!). Today, people have more access to high-quality political journalism than they have ever had in human history. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but forests, trees, etc etc.

My main concern is that people can get ideologically siloed — in other words, you have liberals only reading liberal outlets and conservatives only reading conservative ones. It’s easy to get lazy and stop thinking critically about the policies you like and the politicians you admire. That’s bad. Conservatives should read Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo. Progressives should read National Review and The American Conservative. Moderates should read all of those. You miss a ton of good journalism if you only read writers who agree with you.

What do you think can be done to ameliorate the gridlock we see at all levels of government? Do we need more politicians willing to engage and compromise with the other side, or more partisans who will resolutely argue for their convictions and push hard to implement their vision?

One man’s Gridlock-mongerer is another man’s Horatius at the Bridge, so I’m disinclined to say that gridlock is necessarily a bad thing. Here’s a non-answer answer: One example of gridlock is in drug sentencing reform. I’ve written a bit about the bipartisan backing this has on the Hill — when Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren are on the same side, you’d think something would get done. But many politicians are terrified of changing mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws because they don’t want their opponents to run TV ads against them saying “Rep. McGillicuddy is Soft On Crime!! Why Won’t He Protect The Children?!?!?! Why Does He Support Heroin?!??!” In that case, I think it’s voters’ responsibility to pay attention to complex issues, to call their congressmen (phone calls make a difference!) when important votes are coming up, to pay attention to advocacy groups who work on issues they care about (in the case of sentencing reform, it’s FAMM), and to shame candidates who use cheap, mendacious scare tactics.

Another point: The same politician can happily compromise one week and resolutely argue for her convictions the next week — in other words, voters don’t always have to pick between “politicians willing to compromise” and “partisans who will argue for their convictions.” Many politicians fit into both categories, depending on the issue. Ted Cruz is a good example of this.

We’ve really been enjoying your Bloggingheads episodes with Daniel Strauss.  How did the idea for the show come about? 

I met Daniel at CPAC this year and he suggested we start doing Bloggingheads. As you can tell from listening to his BH commentary and reading his stories at TPM, he’s an insightful, funny guy who is great to work with. We have a really good time.

Based on the midterm elections, what trends or potential events should we be aware of in the next two years?  What are you most looking forward to covering during the 2016 campaign season?  Any predictions about how the presidential race will play out?

I’m really excited about covering the Republicans. How do they talk about immigration, 4th amendment issues, and foreign policy? Who are the dark horses? Does the Tea Party make up some of the territory it lost in 2014? Does Sarah Palin win back any of her nigh-nonexistent relevance? Do we see the apotheosis of Kingmaker Mitt Romney? I have zero predictions. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Hooray! America!

We’d like to thank Betsy once again for taking the time to answer our questions! Be sure to check out her work at Slate and her Bloggingheads series with Daniel Strauss.

The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition: Standard Time vs. Daylight Savings

This is the second installment of “The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition”, a spin-off of RM’s “Moderation Conversation” feature.  The topic this time was something that seems inconsequential but has inspired one of our most adamant disagreements in ages: is Daylight Savings Time better than Standard Time or vice-versa? 

Chris

Matt, I’m feeling a bit down at the moment and I need your help.  I’m writing this to you on October 30, which means we only have three days left until Daylight Savings Time ends.

For me, this is perhaps the worst time of the year, at least outside of the cold doldrums of February.  The end of Daylight Savings Time means that it will start to get dark around 4:30pm from now through March.  This is terrible!  Two weeks ago, we were enjoying warm, breezy fall days, but by next week, it will be cold and completely dark by the time I leave my office each afternoon.

I love Daylight Savings Time.  I’d endorse a petition to make it the year-round standard in a heartbeat.  What’s the point of changing clocks twice a year?  What’s the benefit of manipulating time such that evening falls before most people clock out for the day?  I’d rather grab an extra hour of sun in the afternoon than an extra hour in the morning, when I’m barely conscious enough to hate the morning traffic, let alone appreciate the beauty of fresh light.

Word on the street is that you actually prefer Standard Time to Daylight Savings Time.  I find this unfathomable and I’m inclined to completely, vehemently disagree, but I’d like to hear: what’s your rationale?  Can you help convince me that there’s value in adopting Standard Time?

Matt

Chris, I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling down, but I do think I might be able to help. What if I told you that getting rid of Daylight Savings Time might literally make all of us a little bit happier?

Before I explain why, I want to point out that one alleged benefit of DST is greatly oversold. The primary motivation for instituting DST was the belief that it would conserve energy by reducing the need for artificial lighting on summer evenings. This argument dates back at least to the time of Benjamin Franklin, who thought that people would burn fewer candles if everyone agreed to wake up and go to sleep earlier during the summer. It was also invoked by Congress as a reason for lengthening DST starting in 2007.

Unfortunately, there’s scant evidence that DST actually saves energy, and some reason to think that it actually has the opposite effect. In a 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, economists Matthew Kotchen and Laura Grant analyze the impact of an Indiana law that required all counties in the state to adhere to DST, many of which had not done so previously. By comparing patterns of energy usage in those counties that had practiced DST before the passage of the law to those that had not, Kotchen and Grant were able to isolate the effect of the time shift on electricity consumption.

Their results show that DST may paradoxically increase the amount of electricity used, perhaps because any savings realized from the “Benjamin Franklin effect” are swamped by an increased reliance on air conditioners or fans (since more sunlight in the evenings also means that the evenings will tend to be warmer). The increase is not enormous – Kotchen and Grant estimate it at a few percentage points – but at the very least it calls into question the main rationale for DST.

But why would I say that year-round Standard Time has the potential to make us happier? Well, science has shown that exposure to bright light in the morning is mood-enhancing, and therapy involving “light boxes” is sometimes used as a treatment for depression. Such therapy is most effective for individuals who suffer from the aptly acronym-ed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that strikes mainly during the winter months.

Although patients with SAD generally start to feel worse in the late autumn and better in the springtime, some clinicians report that they struggle with the start of DST (when the mornings suddenly become darker) and experience the return to Standard Time as a kind of reprieve (when the mornings become brighter).

Even for those of us who don’t have to deal with SAD, the “spring forward” can still have deleterious consequences for our health. In addition to its effects on mood, there are studies suggesting that heart attacks and suicides also spike around that time of year.

I agree with you that changing the clocks twice a year is pointless – so let’s stick with Standard Time all year long!

Chris

I appreciate your efforts to convince me why Standard Time should usurp Daylight Savings Time all year round.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time buying your arguments; even in tandem, they’re not persuasive enough to make me think that darkness at 4:30pm is a worthwhile trade-off.

I’ll readily accept the energy statistics you cite, but by your own evidence, it does not seem like Standard Time has an overwhelming advantage over DST with respect to electricity conservation.  It also sounds like the worst cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder occur during the heart of the winter when Standard Time is most acute and days are shortest.  And the instances you report regarding heart attacks and suicides imply causation with DST when only correlation may exist.  On the whole, all three points strike me as insufficient to justify a full year of Standard Time.

But there are distinct advantages to a full year of DST.  Joe Stromberg at Vox notes how a full year of DST would allow for extra time after work for leisure activities, including shopping, which is why retail sales rise a little bit during the summer.  It’s not a huge increase, but hey, it’s something.  He also reports that DST is correlated with reduced instances of robberies due to the extra light at night.

Benefits for school children are perhaps even greater.  Additional light in the afternoon would allow for more time spent in after-school activities, particularly exercise.  Interestingly, the National Parent Teacher Association has been a key opponent of expanding Daylight Savings Time in the past, arguing that light in the morning is necessary when children are traveling to school.  But this is easily solved by pushing back the start times for school, which is long overdue anyway (and perhaps a topic we could discuss in the future).

More important, though, are the lives that would be saved by full-year DST.  From Time (no pun intended): “Adding an hour of sunlight in the evening year-round would save the lives of more than 170 pedestrians annually, according to a 2004 study in Accident Analysis and Prevention. ”  Says Steve Calandrio, a professor who has studied the effectiveness of DST policies: “At 5 pm virtually everyone in society is awake.  There are far more people asleep at 7 in the morning than at 7 in the evening.”  It’s as simple as that.

Seems like there are benefits to both a full year of Standard Time and a full year of Daylight Savings Time, but the upside to 365 days of DST far outweighs that of ST.  What say you?

Matt

I admit that the research showing a link between the start of DST and heart attacks does not prove causality – it can never be repeated often enough that correlation does not imply causation! – but neither does the study you refer to which claims that DST reduces crime. That said, the evidence is pretty suggestive in both cases, so maybe we both need to acknowledge that our favored regime comes with costs and benefits.

I’m a little confused about the points one of the articles you link to makes regarding DST’s effect on retail sales. The article quotes Michael Downing, the author of a book called Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, as saying that “[t]he barbeque grill and charcoal industries say they gain $200 million in sales with an extra month of daylight saving—and they were among the biggest lobbies in favor of extending DST from six to seven months in 1986.” Downing also mentions the golf equipment industry, the fuel industry, and the “Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association” as advocates of that move.

What do these industries have in common? They all produce goods or services that are people are most likely to consume during the spring or summer. In other words, I can understand why extending DST to cover more of the times when people might be golfing or grilling or driving to the beach would benefit golf club makers or charcoal sellers or oil companies, but now that DST already runs from March to October I doubt that any further economic benefits could be reaped by making it year-round. I imagine that not very many people golf in the depths of winter (although I did see some mini-golfing going down earlier today, and it’s almost the end of November).

I wonder how you might feel about the following compromise, which would both address my concerns about rousing people while it’s dark outside and still grant you your cherished evening sunlight: shorten the workweek so that we can all awaken at the same time we do now and have time to frolic in the natural light after we come home. You might be familiar with the argument made by some economists that a shorter workweek would distribute paid employment more equitably across the population and simultaneously reduce both joblessness and overwork. I can’t say whether anyone has ever argued for such a proposal on the grounds that it would give us more evening sunlight, but it sure seems like that would be one of the consequences. I’d love to get your thoughts!

Chris

Agreed with you that it’s important to acknowledge our favored regimes both come with costs and benefits.  Though I still believe all-year Daylight Savings Time is preferable to the status quo, the arguments and information you’ve brought up against DST are definitely helping me look at the bright side of things.  (Pun sort-of intended.)

As you note, the sales benefits of DST are almost certainly a bit overblown, especially since only a select number of retailers are actually reaping the rewards.  But I still think the arguments I cited about children benefiting from light after school, coupled with research that suggests a causal relationship between Standard Time and pedestrian deaths, tip the scales slightly in favor of full-year DST.

Your compromise proposal about a shorter workweek is fascinating, albeit a few hundred orders of magnitude more difficult to institute than passing a law to mandate year-long DST. But it’s true!  If everyone is working fewer hours, there will most definitely be more time to enjoy the sunlight during short winter days.  Perhaps this will be a byproduct of the basic income policy Bernie Sanders is sure to institute when he wins the 2016 presidential election.  Only two more years!

 

Killing Benji: Mark Kozelek and the Impact of a Creator’s Sins on Artistic Achievement

Note: This post contains strong language and references a graphic song title.

Under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek released his latest studio album, Benji, last February. The album was met with rapturous praise for its brutal, poignant, and raw depiction of loss. In his review for Pitchfork, Ian Cohen wrote:

There are 11 songs on Sun Kil Moon’s astonishing sixth LP Benji, and in nearly all of them, somebody dies. And that’s not including the ones where someone’s on the verge of death or seriously headed towards it. Toddlers die, teenagers die, adults die, and the elderly die. They die of natural causes and in freak accidents. People die alone and people die by the dozens—handicapped children, single parents, grandmothers, serial killers. They die out of mercy and die long before they’re due. Rednecks die as respected men and white collar kids die in disgrace. But more importantly, Mark Kozelek wants us to know that they all lived, loved, fought, fucked up, and often did the best they could, before he sets out to “find some poetry to make some sense of this and give some deeper meaning” to their tragedies. Turns out he doesn’t have to dig very far. Here, Kozelek does away with the metaphor and verbal obfuscation often used to distract an audience from their own joy, sadness, crippling failures, and small triumphs. If listeners find themselves unable to make it through Benji in one piece, it’s because Kozelek all but forces us to recognize how the most emotionally moving art can be mapped directly on to our own lives.

Benji is a monumental exercise in empathy. We empathize with and mourn for the people Kozelek so brilliantly sketches – among them, a single-mother nurse working the late shift killed in a freak accident, a friend who suffers through a debilitating injury while playing guitar, and the children and teachers murdered in the massacre at Newtown:

So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around,
Take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.
They went so young, who gave their lives
To make us stop and think and try to get it right…
Were so young, a cloud so dark over them
And they left home, gave their mom and dad a kiss and a hug.

So when your birthday comes and you’re feeling pretty good,
Baking cakes and opening gifts and stuffing your mouth with food,
Take a moment for the children who lost their lives.
Think of their families and how they mourn and cry.

We empathize with Kozelek’s personal acquaintances who “map directly to our own lives,” particularly when Kozelek sings about his mother and father:

My mother is 75
One day she won’t be here to hear me cry.
When the day comes for her to let go,
I’ll die off like a lemon tree in the snow.
When the day comes for her to leave,
I won’t have the courage to sort through her things.
With my sisters and all our memories,
I cannot bear all the pain it will bring.

And we empathize with Kozelek himself, who frames these insights and tributes as reflections in the course of his life on the road, often juxtaposed with memories of his youth and fears of his own mortality.

Kozelek’s lyrics are the most important component of Benji’s resonance, and his unique verse structure contributes to their incisiveness. The intensity and deeply personal subject matter of the album is paired with a lyrical delivery that often comes across as Kozelek simply reading from a diary. His couplets often run a couple of beats too long beyond traditional verse rhythms, giving each song a spontaneous, informal, and intimate feeling. At first, this comes across as a curious technique that clashes with the serious subject matter; by the end of the album, it’s mesmerizing, showing just how confessional and raw Kozelek’s stories can be.

Benji’s power comes from a source that’s greater than the sum of its parts. To appreciate Benji is to place one’s faith in Kozelek- to develop a bond of solidarity, to rage and mourn and quietly reflect alongside him. Kozelek never characterizes himself as a perfect man in any of the songs on Benji; far from it, in a couple of cases. But he does position himself as a searcher of truth through so much chaos and pain and heartache, a man trying to make some sense and create order and meaning in a world of hurt. Benji’s resonance ultimately lies in the shared conviction that the listener develops with Kozelek over how music is a vehicle to preserve and make meaning out of things that will fade away.

It’s been odd, then, to read the news surrounding Mark Kozelek over the past month. Instead of being included on “album of the year” lists, Kozelek’s name has been floating around the pop music scene because of a bizarre, pointless fight he picked with The War on Drugs, an alternative rock band based out of Philadelphia led by Adam Granduciel. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t make the news and shouldn’t rise above the level of “forgettable beef.” Instead, Kozelek’s words and actions have begun to make critics reconsider the merits of Benji and spurred criticism about the use of language of male violence.

Which raises the ever-recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal views and actions impact how the audience views his/her work?

* * *

To briefly summarize what happened: Kozelek and The War on Drugs were playing concurrent sets at the Ottawa Folk Festival earlier this fall. Noise from The War on Drugs’ concert was bleeding into Kozelek’s venue, prompting Kozelek to make crass remarks about how the band was playing “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” After that concert, Kozelek issued a “challenge” through the press for Granduciel to play with him onstage and continued to take shots at The War on Drugs. He then released a new seven-minute song for free called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” After Granduciel criticized Kozelek in an October interview, Kozelek then recorded another new song (“Adam Granofsky Blues”) that featured him reading Granduciel’s interview comments… and laughing at them.

This entire sequence of events probably sounds intensely stupid and pointless. And it is! For reasons unknown, Kozelek decided to press on and parlay this pathetic war of words into actual songs for all to hear, sonic tokens for a PR spat that never should have happened in the first place.

And guess what? There are a lot of problems with both “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” and “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Here’s Meredith Graves on how Kozelek is contributing to a culture that encourages male violence through language:

When Mark Kozelek chose to start and carry on a completely one-sided and extremely public feud with a band who genuinely did nothing wrong, who chose not to retaliate and even stated their position as fans of his work, who seem hurt and confused by Kozelek’s constant public attacks that persisted for weeks and how said attacks affected their year—that doesn’t seem like entertainment. It’s important to call it what it is: emotional abuse.

Which is why, in all likelihood, Kozelek chose to say “suck my cock” instead of “I think your band is bad.” “Suck my cock” is a command heard most often in two places: heterosexual porn, and schoolyard taunts between presumably straight boys. In no way does Mark Kozelek actually want his cock sucked by the members of the War on Drugs. What he wants is to make them feel violated, to make them feel submissive. “Suck my cock” is an order, not a request. “Suck my cock” is, when used by the wrong person, the language of physical force, the language of rape.

Graves notes in her piece that the initial press response to the song was actually quite positive, with some major outlets labeling it as “goofy” and a lighthearted “dis track.” But even if you disagree with Graves’ own analysis of the song and find the track to be a bit of harmless fun, it is difficult to think Kozelek is just “playing around” after listening to “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Hearing Kozelek laugh and laugh and laugh at Granduciel’s comments comes across as vicious, mean-spirited, and slightly sadistic, especially in light of the fact that Granduciel is only just recovering from intense anxiety and depression that made it difficult to even leave his apartment.

Maybe Kozelek is unaware of Granduciel’s depression. Regardless, the aggregate effort Kozelek has put into perpetuating this fight, especially given that Granduciel and his band did literally nothing to deserve this, paints a picture of him not as cranky and curmudgeonly, but cruel, pathetic, and deeply wrong.

* * *

The events of the past few weeks have made it seem as if there are two Mark Kozeleks. The first is the creator of Benji, an imperfect, admirable chronicler of things that will fade away; the second is a guy who thinks “all you rednecks, shut the fuck up” is a witty chorus lyric. The former is trying to testify to people working their way through pain; the latter is someone who actively perpetuates pain.

This has not gone unnoticed. As noted earlier, part of Benji’s allure was its authenticity, both in terms of the people Kozelek pays tribute to and the beauty of his work in doing so. The recent War on Drugs incidents have framed Kozelek in a decidedly more negative light and, as a consequence, are casting doubt on his conviction in Benji. More broadly, Kozelek’s senseless spat with Granduciel raises the recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal sins affect how viewers interpret his/her art? Should an artist’s character bear influence on how their work is consumed and remembered?

The general answer to this question is no. An artist’s indiscreet or harmful actions outside the context of their art should not be taken into consideration when weighing their art’s merit. That Roman Polanski molested a child and fled the United States should not affect how we view the thematic quality of his films, even though we might vehemently condemn his actions and consciously refuse to view his work to refrain from financially supporting him. Of course, there are exceptions, especially when malignant beliefs and perspectives affect the thematic core of a piece of art or body of work. The debate about how Heidegger’s philosophy should be judged given his support of Nazism in the 1930s immediately comes to mind.

Kozelek’s indiscretions are obviously far less weighty than extreme sexual impropriety or support for genocidal fascism. But his words and continual mocking engagement of Granduciel have already begun to detract from the successes of his earlier work as well as his new projects. Kozelek released an album of Christmas songs during the first week of November, and in his review for Pitchfork, Mark Richardson couldn’t help but discuss both this album and Benji in the context of the War on Drugs incidents:

Timing is everything. We’ve known for a while that Mark Kozelek was going to be releasing a Christmas album before the end of the year, but for much of that time Kozelek was riding a wave of goodwill following the release of (the still very good, even if I’ve stopped bringing it up at parties) Benji. Now Sings Christmas Carols finally comes out and it feels like an unwanted present from the obnoxious uncle you try and avoid at family gatherings… Kozelek is looking pretty sad, not to mention that he’s probably alienating new fans he may have acquired since Benji’s release. And now we’re supposed to allow him into our homes and into Mom and Dad’s 5xCD changer, slotting his CD next to Dolly Parton and Nat King Cole and A Charlie Brown Christmas? If nothing else, we can be thankful that Kozelek finished this album some time ago, so he didn’t alter his version of “The Christmas Song” to include the line “Although it’s been said, many times, many ways, War on Drugs can…

The musical composition of “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” also detracts from Benji’s positive reception. Benji’s music is sparse, plaintive, and repetitive; nearly every track is based on a simple lush melody that’s looped again and again, usually with minimal development, build, or change in form. It was a relatively low-fi approach, but the elegant simplicity of each song suggested a good amount of thought went into the planning of each piece. “War on Drugs” features almost identical production value- and Kozelek banged it out in a matter of days. Maybe there wasn’t actually that much work put into Benji, after all. Maybe that unique lyrical structure is just a lazy songwriting construct instead of a conscious attempt at intimacy.

Maybe, though, these allegations are unfair. Despite the many criticisms listed in this piece, Benji is still a gorgeous, haunting, often beautiful album. It may lack a certain authenticity that came with identifying with Kozelek through the course of the album, but even if all of his characters are fictitious and his personal struggles false, his lyrics and themes ring true. Perhaps his misdeeds may make us more hesitant to praise his work, but that doesn’t mean his work inherently lacks value and grace.

Yet there is something undeniably different when listening to Benji in light of all of Mark Kozelek’s recent adventures. Benji is no longer simply a moving testament to friends gone, family lost, strangers who deserve to be remembered. It stands now as a possible aberration created by a man who is one of the aggressors causing the pain Benji so poignantly tried to transfigure. No one is perfect, but the sheer pointlessness of Kozelek’s actions makes his decisions all the more bitter and confusing, hypocritical and tarnishing.

One of the songs on Benji is titled “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” A Stereogum reader posted the following lyrics from that song as commentary on Kozelek’s actions:

Though I kept to myself and for the most part was pretty coy
I once got baited and had to clock some undeserving boy
Out on the elementary school playground
I threw a punch that caught him off-guard and knocked him down.

And when I walked away the kids were cheering
And though I grinned, deep inside I was hurting
But not nearly as much as I’d hurt him
He stood up, his glasses broken and his face was red.

And I was never a schoolyard bully
It was only one incident and it has always eaten at me.

I was never the young schoolyard bully
And wherever you are, that poor kid, I’m so sorry.

He’s not sorry. And both Benji and innocent people are still hurting as a result.

On Prayer in a Connected World

Let’s recap a few of the headline events from Summer 2014:

  • The Israel-Gaza conflict resulted in over 2,000 deaths, including a substantial number of child casualties.
  • ISIS’ continued rise in Iraq yielded claims of genocide, extensive religious persecution, and almost unimaginable suffering and brutal torture.
  • A genocide continues unabated in Syria. New conflicts arose in Libya.
  • Ebola killed thousands of people and continues to affect thousands more.
  • Over five hundred innocent people were killed in the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 77, which was likely caused by errant pro-Russian separatists in ongoing Russo-Ukrainian skirmishes.
  • Hundreds of people were killed in natural disasters in China and elsewhere around the globe.
  • The murder of Michael Brown sparked protests that escalated dramatically due to near-militarized dispersal tactics in Ferguson, Missouri.

2014 was one of the coolest summers in recent memory on the East Coast, but it felt like the world was coming to a grief-stricken boil.

Of course, we live in one of the most peaceful eras that our planet has ever seen. But the ways in which we consume news and information have attuned us to pain, sorrow, and violence. It’s easier than ever to get constant story updates and to learn the gritty details of murders, disasters, and death. We have access to an almost bewildering scope of coverage; thousands of sources are seconds away at our fingertips. And we have an increasing penchant for constantly checking these sources for new updates. We are reading more about more on a more frequent basis.

How has our heightened consciousness to what’s going on in the world affected the way we pray and our belief in the efficacy of prayer?

It’s a question I continue to ask myself, particularly when reflecting on the events described above. Our relationship with each other, and our cognizance of the “other,” has been fundamentally altered by technology’s broadening of the borders of our consciousness. We can access more experiences and existences than at any other point in human history, along with detailed high-level context about events and trends. This is a fairly obvious paradigm shift on the surface, but in many ways, it’s been neglected with respect to how we conceive of experiences and relationships with each other in prayer.

For much of human history, prayer was a personal activity with a communal scope wherein supplications were primarily made for family members or local peers. I’d imagine this was true even as newspapers became more popular and gave lower- and middle-class people an understanding of what was befalling their brothers and sisters around the world. Now, we don’t just pray for our communities or families. The Catholic Church, with its globe-hopping Pope, is a network of connections that span continents, languages, and governments. Our religious communities are rooted in the local but have international scope.

Technology has facilitated and forged these connections through prayer. It’s easier than ever for believers to connect, pray, and learn more about their faiths – and to question and adjust their beliefs as they acquire new information and perspectives.

But technology’s role in shaping how we consume information might be having a counterbalancing effect to this ability to connect. It’s easy to see how this increased access to news, with its constant emphasis on death and destruction, could significantly weaken our belief in prayer’s ability to enact real change. At one point in history, prayers of petition were used to request cures for local maladies, but now they’re employed in the service of a wide array of world conflicts. And it’s somewhat disheartening to wonder how the prayers of a single person can possibly address all of these awful things. Once people stop believing prayer is efficacious, it’s likely their faith will start to wane too.

Of course, it’s all a matter of what you pray for and how you approach prayer. To pray for general resolution to global problems is important, but there are other, arguably more effective ways of approaching prayer. For example, using prayer as a time for focused reflection on particular individuals and cultures may be one avenue to active, agapic prayer. Perhaps instead of asking God for peace in the Middle East, we might learn and recite Yazidi prayers as an act of spiritual solidarity; donate money to charities working with refugees; and read about the amazing life and faith of James Foley and the other people ISIS has taken prisoner.

It is easy to look at the news and despair. It is equally easy (and sometimes justifiable) to view prayer as a ridiculous endeavor that has no tangible benefits or outcomes. In light of these temptations, we should be cognizant of how prayer need not be a fleeting plea in a sea of nightmares, but an invitation to support, empathize, and grow as individuals and communities. Our connected world taketh away; our connected world giveth, too.

 

 

Predicting 2014’s “Fauxbel” Laureate(s)

The announcement of the 2014 Nobel laureates in economics – or rather, “Fauxbel” laureates, given that the economics prize is technically not a “Nobel Prize” – is due tomorrow morning. I offered some predictions last year as to who would win, and I actually got one! (Got one correct, that is; I myself was not among those honored with an early morning call from Swedish-accented strangers.)

Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen predicts that the Nobel committee will select William J. Baumol, perhaps in conjunction with William G. Bowen, for his work on the cost disease. The Guardian floats Baumol as well, along with a host of others. So does Thomson Reuters, which also places its bets on Philippe Aghion, Peter Howitt, Israel Kirzner, and Mark Granovetter (a sociologist). Econ Job Market Rumors, one of the internet’s great econ-themed cesspools, has a thread on Nobel predictions where one poster wonders whether, instead of giving a prize this year, the committee shouldn’t opt for taking some back.

The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics lists a number of contenders, including my own official guess: Harvard University’s Robert Barro. As noted by RTE, Barro currently ranks as the #2 most-cited economist on IDEAS, a database of research papers in economics maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and he is mentioned almost every year as a leading contender for the highest honor in the discipline.

An additional reason why I’m wagering that it’ll be Barro is because of the rough alternation of the prize between recognition of empirical and theoretical work. Last year’s award highlighted empirical research in asset pricing, 2012’s honored two theorists, and 2011’s celebrated the development of econometric techniques used to untangle cause and effect in macroeconomics. Barro is best known for his contributions to growth theory, so his selection would certainly fit with this pattern. It’s also been over 25 years since a Nobel was explicitly awarded for work in this area, so the field is arguably due. Plus, a Barro win would undoubtedly mean some entertaining tweets from his son, a factor the committee presumably weighs heavily.

Here’s hoping my one-year streak remains unbroken!

Unreasonably Immoderate: Impressions of Atlas Shrugged Part III

Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt? was released to little fanfare and no acclaim last month. As its clunky name implies, it is the final film in a nigh-unwatchable trilogy loosely based on Ayn Rand’s veritable doorstop of a novel. Amazingly, each installment managed to sink lower than its predecessor; the cast was completely replaced for each film, and rumors circulated that Who is John Galt? was originally conceived as a musical. For most people, this combination of awful production and stilted Objectivist dialogue does not an enjoyable evening make.

Not us! Along with our good friend Rory Marinich, we gleefully headed to one of the only movie theaters in our state that was screening Part III and livetweeted opening night. We’re happy to present the fruit of our labors to you here: a timeline of tweets covering our entire journey through this godforsaken film. Enjoy!

#TheShruggening: An Evening of Atlas Shrugged Part III

Some select highlights from the full tweetstorm linked above:

The Moderation Conversation: Talking About Divorce en Route to a Wedding

This is the fifth installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Matt and Chris meet for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript so as to appear significantly more eloquent than they actually are. This exchange, which deals with the ongoing intra-Catholic debate about divorce and remarriage, was recorded several months ago. RM is publishing it now to mark this week’s start of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Vatican City. (This is almost certainly a lie conceived by Matt and Chris to make their procrastination seem intentional.)

The Great Divorce Debate

Matt: Okay! So, we are here in the parking lot of a Panera in upstate New York.

Chris: And, as people are wont to do in the parking lot of a Panera in upstate New York, we are going to talk about divorce.

M: … as we are on our way to a wedding. [Laughs]

Specifically we wanted to talk about the debate going on within the Catholic Church about readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacrament of Communion. There’s been a lot of discussion about this in light of the fact that Pope Francis has called an assembly of the world’s bishops known as the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, for this October and October 2015, to discuss challenges to the family in the modern world. But the issue that’s gotten the most attention in the secular media and in the Catholic press has been this subject of Communion for the divorced and remarried. So maybe you want to give a little more context for the controversy?

C: Sure, yeah. A lot of the debate has revolved around comments made by the German Cardinal Walter Kasper about divorced and remarried Catholics. Kasper expressed support for a new sort of process that would allow them to receive Communion after a period of repentance for the failure of their first marriage. In an interview he gave with Commonweal magazine he discussed ways this could be accomplished, but a number of different bishops and others within the Church voiced dissatisfaction with his reasoning.

One of the things Kasper articulated to Commonweal is the idea that people are always entitled to an opportunity for forgiveness. Not all marriages are necessarily going to work out, and there should be a policy in place where people who are contrite about the failure of their first marriage can be readmitted to Communion and can fully reconcile with the Church.

M: Right. The Church has no problem admitting people who are divorced to Communion. The issue is divorce and remarriage, because the Church sees marriage as a permanent institution and it maintains that to enter into a second marriage is therefore to –

C: Commit adultery.

M: Yes. But while the Church doesn’t recognize divorce, it does recognize the concept of an annulment, which a lot of people see as a kind of “Catholic divorce.” The idea behind an annulment is that the Church declares that a marriage was, for whatever reason, never validly established in the first place.

Something Kasper brought up in the interview that I thought was a pretty significant bombshell was that he mentioned a conversation he had with Pope Francis, wherein Francis supposedly said that he believes roughly half of all Catholic marriages are not valid, either because people don’t really understand the significance of what they’re promising and therefore can’t really enter into a legitimate marriage, or because there were social pressures for them to get married and it wasn’t truly a free decision on their part. I thought that was an astonishingly high number and I think a lot of other observers did as well.

C: Yeah. Michael Brendan Dougherty and Ross Douthat both expressed extreme skepticism at that.

M: Mhm. John Allen [formerly of the National Catholic Reporter and now a Vatican correspondent for the Boston Globe and Crux] has said that he believes the most likely outcome of the Synod will be that it becomes easier to get annulments. I believe right now the question of whether to grant an annulment is decided by a diocesan tribunal, but the decision can be appealed all the way to Rome. Allen thinks that the Synod will sidestep the question of whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion and will settle for streamlining the annulment process.

C: So I guess the question that arises from this is, if we’re creating a broader standard for what warrants an annulment, then at what point is an annulment effectively a divorce? At what point do the two basically converge?

M: Hmm.

C: Did Allen specify what kinds of new things might be considered grounds for an annulment?

M: I’m not sure it’s so much that he thinks that new grounds will be entertained. I think it’s just that he believes the “burden of proof,” so to speak, will be lightened. Maybe a less thorough investigation will be required to determine whether the marriage was invalid. The number of appeals that are possible will be cut down. I don’t think it’s so much changing the definition of an annulment as it is just changing the bureaucracy that people need to go through to obtain annulments.

C: Right. But if you do go that route, if you do make it easier to obtain annulments, it doesn’t really leave a distinct impression of why divorce is unacceptable.

M: So I have to agree with Douthat and Dougherty on the point here about half of marriages being invalid. Their argument is that number is way too high. I think that this whole debate about what percentage of marriages are invalid is a side issue. It’s being raised as a way for the reform-minded side of the debate to accomplish something without having to face the real question head-on. Namely, whether the Church should formally recognize the possibility of second marriages.

C: I’m inclined to agree with the pope that the number could be quite high. Maybe not 50%, but certainly substantial if you account for people who didn’t realize what they were doing when they got married. Wouldn’t surprise me if it were much higher than people might expect.

That being said I don’t really see how this contributes to the debate at all, except to give ammunition, like you point out, to people who would be more inclined to say, “Look, marriage is not as hard and fast a thing as it might be portrayed by traditionalists, so therefore more lax standards for divorce or annulments are warranted.” Seems like a peripheral anecdote.

M: Right. And what makes this such a difficult issue both within the Church and outside of the Church is that there’s a tension between the norm that you want to uphold, the message you want to broadcast about what marriage is and what people should be aspiring to when they get married, and the reality that a lot of marriages do fail.

And so on the one hand, it seems very retrograde or cruel to deny people the possibility of second marriages, but on the other hand, if second marriages or remarriage in general comes to be seen as less of an exception to a rule and more as just a universal possibility, then in some sense that undermines the norm that you’re trying to inculcate. How you strike that balance, I think that’s a really tough question.

 

Second Chances

C: I’d like to get your opinions on a couple of pieces that ran in the August issue of First Things. Rusty Reno and Robert Spaemann both wrote columns about divorce and remarriage, and these two pieces, especially the Spaemann one, they strike me as tone deaf in a lot of ways.

M: Okay.

C: Their arguments are very idealistic. They support an aspirational vision of marriage as something that transcends temporary disagreements or romantic love, anything like that that might fade over time. The problem is that it also comes across as somewhat cruel when factoring in the myriad problems that actual couples encounter in the course of marriage, some of which may render the union unsalvageable. Reno and Spaemann seem not to acknowledge that the realities of marriage can be quite tough, and there are circumstances where people become less compatible over time.

Did you have any opinions on either of those articles?

M: Well, to get back to Kasper’s proposal for a minute, he notes that in a lot of situations where people are divorced or remarried and they have children from their second marriage, the Church essentially asks them, if they want to receive Communion, to walk away from that second marriage. But what Kasper says is that in these situations there basically is no way out of them that doesn’t cause some kind of harm. To walk away from the second marriage, especially if there are children, involves the breakup of another family.

And so, you know, there are competing obligations here – the obligation that the Church says the person has to their former spouse, and the obligation to the person that they’re living with now. In his mind, there’s no way to reconcile those two things without some kind of hurt being caused. So he says that in these situations the Church should be trying to lead people to a place where they’re striving toward the ideal even if they can’t actually reach it.

Now, as for Reno’s piece in First Things: he says that what seems like a very minor change on divorce and remarriage is likely to be interpreted by those outside of the Church as a capitulation with far-reaching consequences. If the remarried, why not the cohabiting? Again, this is what I was saying earlier about norms and rules versus exceptions. It seems to me that we have to find a way to admit for exceptions without allowing the exceptions to totally undermine the rule. But Reno’s position is that allowing any exceptions by definition undermines the rule.

C: Mhm.

M: Which I’m not so sure is the case, but he has a point: divorce is widely considered acceptable these days, and when the law first started to permit no-fault divorce, it was a positive development in the short run for people who were trapped in very abusive relationships or other situations they clearly needed to extricate themselves from. But it is equally the case that now, when divorce is seen as an option that’s always there in the background, there are marriages that are perhaps struggling but that might not get the help they need because it’s easier to just end it.

C: True. I mean, you could definitely make the case for broader support systems both within and outside of the Church to help try to reconcile couples that might be on the rocks.

M: David Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values, which we’ve written a little bit about before, supports this legislation called the Second Chances Act. The idea is to offer more publicly funded support for marriage counseling and to impose waiting periods for people seeking divorces, during which time the state can try to provide assistance for them to work it out. They cite some research showing that for a fairly significant fraction of couples looking to divorce, at least one person generally thinks there’s some chance the relationship could be saved. Blankenhorn and his crew believe that offering people divorce as a first resort rather than a last resort is maybe not ideal in those situations.

C: I think it’s important to remember that in these proposals that Kasper and Blankenhorn are throwing out there –

M: And just to be clear, they’re very different proposals. One is set in the context of civil society and the other has to do with an internal Catholic debate.

C: I know, but the commonality between them is that divorce should not be advocated as a first solution. It shouldn’t be the go-to measure.

M: And Kasper actually – he’s clear about the fact that he agrees with the Church that divorce is technically not even possible. Marriage isn’t dissolvable and, formally speaking, second marriages aren’t official marriages.

C: [Groans] I’m increasingly frustrated by this line of reasoning. While the official stance might be that divorces are unacceptable, some of the Church’s practices and actions support that some sort of separation is possible. Take the annulment process – it’s technically not a divorce, but it gets to the same kind of themes. You’re walking away from this marriage and it’s being declared null and void. It seems like both divorces and annulments cut against Jesus’ vision of marriage as a bond that cannot be severed.

M: I think the fact that divorce is officially not permitted probably in a lot of cases does lead to the concept of an annulment being stretched farther than it should and being used as a kind of Catholic divorce. And I think that in turn undermines the credibility of the Church. When people see the divergence between the Church’s official teachings and the way that they’re applied… I understand the Church is trying to hold the line, in some sense, but when you hold the line so well that you fail to respond to the situation on the ground, you weaken yourself.

 

Those Crazy Cousins from the East

M: Let’s talk about the Eastern Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage. The Orthodox Church has been separated from the Catholic Church for about a thousand years, but one of the interesting things about the Orthodox is that they do allow remarriages after divorce. And this is based on their idea that marriages are indissoluble only in the sense that it’s immoral for two people who are married to say, “we’re not going to be married anymore.” But divorces are possible. It is possible for marriages to die, for marriages to fail irretrievably.

And so the Orthodox interpretation of the New Testament passages where Jesus says “what God has joined let man not put apart” is not so much that a marriage is somehow metaphysically indissoluble, but rather that Jesus is issuing a moral command. It’s like saying, “let man not kill other men.” Right? Like, everybody agrees that it is literally possible, it is physically possible for a man to kill other men. It’s just not morally acceptable to do that.

C: Do you think this type of interpretation might gain some traction in the upcoming Synod?

M: I don’t know a lot about the historical situation that led to the Orthodox adopting this position while the Catholic Church rejected it, so I think it would be an enormous leap for the Catholic Church to embrace this view at the Synod. And that’s why I tend to agree with John Allen that if there are any substantive changes made, they’re probably going to be peripheral changes, they’re going to be modifications to the annulment process, rather than an actual grappling with the core question of whether divorce is possible.

I mean, the fact that even Walter Kasper, who is considered one of the most liberal participants in this debate, notionally agrees that marriage is indissoluble would seem to rule out any deeper change in the Church’s position on this.

C: It seems like that’s a logical way to look at marriage because it acknowledges the reality that marriage is not easy. One of the interesting things about the passage on divorce in the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus acknowledges that marriage is something that’s extraordinarily difficult. The disciples say that if marriage is this difficult, “it is better not to marry.”

M: Mhm.

C: It’s not something that comes off as a light commitment.

M: But I think defenders of the traditional position would say that Jesus acknowledges that marriage is difficult but then he still doesn’t allow divorce. And so we shouldn’t take the fact of marital strife as evidence in favor of divorce.

C: No, that’s fair. But at a certain point you could say that there is a level of strife that indicates that the union simply no longer exists.

M: One of the more interesting things about that passage is the apparent exception that Jesus builds into it. He says that divorce is unacceptable except in cases of adultery. From what I’ve read on this issue, the Catholic response to that is basically that this is a mistranslation, that the phrases there are a poor expression for what was actually trying to be conveyed. And that by choosing those words, modern translators have put an interpretation onto that that it shouldn’t really have.

But a lot of Protestant denominations accept divorce, even aside from the Eastern Orthodox. So there are Christians who interpret that as a more straightforward exception, that it is actually what it sounds to modern ears like it is.

C: Mhm.

M: I recently came across the following question in an online forum: “If Jesus made an exception for divorce in cases of adultery, why doesn’t the Church?” And the response is, “The word ‘adultery’ is not what Jesus said, although many Bible translations use this word. If Jesus meant to say ‘adultery’ he would have used the word moicheia, but instead he used the would porneia, meaning ‘illicit’ or ‘invalid’, and so the Church” –

C: Oh, that’s interesting.

M: I think the Catholic Church is interpreting this to mean that “divorce” is possible in cases where the marriage was not valid in the first place. In other words, this is Jesus talking about annulments. I don’t know enough about Ancient Greek to know how that should actually be read.

C: [Laughs] You’re forgiven.

I guess a little bit more of an inflammatory take on this would be: is it possible that Jesus’ explicit condemnation of divorce is something that’s no longer particularly relevant today? Is that something that, while the spirit of it might be true, the absolutism is no longer really helpful?

M: Why do you say that?

C: It seems like, in a lot of cases it could be more beneficial for couples to separate. You know, people do grow and change over time. Perhaps an absolutist interpretation lacks an appropriate level of nuance to be acutely relevant today.

M: One thing to throw into the mix here is that I’ve heard the argument made, not necessarily from people with any particular opinion on this question, that Jesus’ prohibition on divorce, given the historical circumstances at the time, was actually a very liberating statement. For a man to divorce his wife during a time when men held all the wealth was essentially for a man to leave a woman with nothing. And so, for Jesus to prohibit divorce was a way of standing up for the rights of women, to keep them from being just wantonly abandoned by their husbands.

In the modern context, obviously there are a lot of cases where divorce does have that result, but there are many more cases where it doesn’t, because both partners are similarly situated economically and could live independently if they had to.

 

Francis Goes Big… Maybe

M: It came out a while ago that Pope Francis met with the Patriarch of Constantinople (one of the leading clerics of the Eastern Orthodox Church) when he traveled to the Holy Land, and it was reported that they talked about having an ecumenical gathering in 2025, I believe, to celebrate the seventeen-hundredth anniversary of the Council of Nicaea.

There were varying reports about whether this was just a small-scale remembrance of that historical event, or whether Francis is actually thinking about calling an ecumenical gathering on the order of the Second Vatican Council, a large-scale meeting of the world’s bishops that would try to deal with fundamental questions of doctrine, and try to bridge some of the differences between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. And I wonder if this whole movement for doing something about changing the way that the Catholic Church deals with divorced and remarried people is a step toward making a good-faith offering to the Eastern Orthodox and showing, you know, we’re really interested in reuniting with you.

C: That would be… that’s super optimistic. I kind of hope that’s the case, but based on some of the documents released in advance of the Synod, it seems like not much will change. So, as far as a peace offering for 2025, if you will… I kind of doubt it.

M: Yeah, Michael Peppard had this really great piece at Commonweal after that came out about how it’s been thought that Francis might call a Third Vatican Council, but for Francis, Vatican III is not big enough! He wants a Nicaea III.

C: [Laughs]

So any key takeaways from all this? I don’t know if you’re optimistic that the Synod will do something that’s enough. I’m a little pessimistic myself.

M: Right. Like I said, I think this debate about divorce also raises some questions about society at large. My view tends to be that the Church is perhaps too strict in dealing with this issue, whereas the larger culture is perhaps too lax. And I’d like to think that each could learn from the other. Maybe there can be a kind of dialectical relationship between Church and society on this issue.

I also think it’s helpful to think about debates within the Church as being less between “liberals” and “conservatives” and more between those who believe in hard and fast rules and those who would rather render judgments on an ad hoc basis.

C: Mhm.

M: The people who want to uphold the traditional position in this debate are people who believe very strongly in the value of rules and in the value of not making too many (or even any) exceptions to those rules. And then those on Walter Kasper’s side – maybe even on Francis’ side! – are the people who say that things are not black and white, that you always have to take into account individual circumstances.

C: Yeah. Regarding the Church and society, I had written several months back about considering the Church as an “institutional ethical consultant.”

M: What do you mean by that?

C: To imagine it as a body that could proffer advice to non-members, to proffer advice in a secular format that still retains the spirit of Church teachings. And, to apply that to this issue, I would think it’d be really positive if the Church were able to show the benefits of a Catholic understanding of commitment and marriage to the wider society.

M: Mhm.

C: To really emphasize, instead of just why you should not get divorced or why it’s wrong for you to get divorced, why marriages in the Catholic mode are worth pursuing. That could be in the form of a broader program for people who are about to get married, or just programs along the way during the course of a marriage to say, this is what is a realistic expectation for this relationship. To share wisdom and show the value of being in a committed, devoted relationship.

And on that note, we’re going up to –

M: We are going to a wedding. So let’s think happy thoughts!