Saturday, November 28, 2015

from Aeon--how feeding the ambition of children can set them up to fail in the United States
When you tell somebody: You can be anything,’ says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me (2014), ‘that “anything” they’re thinking of is rarely a plumber or an accountant.

Indeed, a 2011 survey of more than 5,000 children around the world revealed that while almost half of children in developing countries dreamed of becoming doctors and teachers, more than a quarter of American children aspire to such careers as professional athletes, singers and actors. When a grown‑up asks the inevitable: What do you want to be when you grow up?, most kids have an answer: video‑game developer; astronaut; back-up dancer for Rihanna. And many grown-ups will congratulate them for dreaming big, assuring them that, with hard work and a can-do attitude, they can be anything they want.

When your child is four or five, barring intellectual disabilities or severe behavioural diagnoses, anything does seem possible. A child shows an interest in art and we imagine his work eventually hanging in galleries. A talented runner, we think, might make the Olympics. Kids who love science are given microscopes and we begin to wonder if we should start saving up for college fees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Backing our hopes and theirs are the culture’s cheerleaders, led by viral convocation speeches and a steady stream of ‘overnight’ successes unveiled on reality shows and YouTube, all urging us to dream big and never give up.

Consider Steve Jobs’s commencement address to Stanford graduates in 2005. He was, of course, talking to the high achievers who had already earned a degree from a prestigious university. But with more than 22 million views on YouTube, his advice – ‘find what you love… Don’t settle’ – has resonated with the masses. Oprah Winfrey, whose own rags-to-riches tale gives her moral authority, insists that if we follow our passion, achievement will follow. Even Dr Seuss left us with Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990), which has become the go-to graduation gift for millions, assuring kids that their imminent success is ‘98 and ¾ per cent guaranteed’.
At Florida State University, the sociologist John Reynolds reported that the gap between goals and actual achievements grew significantly over the period from 1976 to 2000. His study, published in Social Problems in 2006, found that just 26 per cent of high‑school seniors in 1976 planned to get an advanced degree and 41 per cent planned to work as professionals, compared with 50 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively, in 2000. Despite the soaring change in ambition, there was no increase in advanced degrees. What did increase was disappointment; the gap between expectation of earning an advanced degree and actually getting one grew from 22 percentage points in 1976 to 41 percentage points in 2000. [emphases added]

Combine the optimism surging in teens with the unchanged unlikelihood of being a vocational this or that; with parental encouragement and pressure to "be anything you want to be"; and add to this the frequently unstated core assumption--articulated so readily by Mark Driscoll in his sermons and books, you're not going for a "joe job".   Our Aeon contributor puts it beautifully

The problem, she says, isn’t telling kids you can be anything, it’s our narrow idea of what ‘anything’ is. ‘We’re equating it with prestige, power, title, money, certain sectors. If we could shift, over the next decade, toward high achievement being the equivalent of knowing your skills and your values and your passion, and living accordingly, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.’

As expounded upon at length in the ribbon farm piece "You are not an artisan", many today want career paths that are characterized by "conspicuous production". People gravitate toward the artisan rather than the scut-work of the chimney sweep because of the prestige. There's a whole lot of Americans who bristle at the idea of being a time-punching wage slave. You're not supposed to have some steady job that lacks prestige, perhaps, but lets you get by.  American kids may be getting urged to "follow your dream" and the dreams that are celebrated are the ones that involve prestige and what could be termed "sexy", conspicuous production.  At ribbon farm this was formulated as follows-- "The future of work looks bleaker than it needs to for one simple reason: we bring consumption sensibilities to production behavior choices."  

The author goes on to say that we're not worried that the machines will take away all the tedious or dangerous jobs we don't want to do, we're worried the machines can take away the sexy prestigious jobs we still want to be able to do.  The bard vs chimney sweep contrast is fun, and it's fun in part because while a machine could potentially do the chimney sweep thing in our time, there's by now been albums of music by a computer program composer.  The idea that music and the arts are so inalienably human computer programs can't produce things for them is not as incontestable a point as would have been assumed a century ago.  The writing of popular mainstream Christian books can be farmed out to ghostwriters these days and stuff can get recycled but somebody's got to change that diaper (whether for persons young or old). That kind of work is going to stick around for a while longer even in an era in which many a musical work sounds similar. 

There were two bits of formative counsel I got in college.  The first was "Most of you are average writers so most of you will get average grades. There's nothing wrong with getting a C."  There's a liberation in being average.  You can end up being excellent at something down the line, perhaps, but you'll get there by dint of continuous work and careful thought, not necessarily by some natural born genius or talent (though those don't hurt, if you have them). 

The second bit of counsel I got was, "You'll probably never have a career in the arts but if you can find work that lets you pay the bills and spend time with friends and family and, after that, also have time to make the art or music you want to make, that's good enough. That's a pretty good deal."  Scott Timberg can fret that the arts will be a luxury or leisure activity as much as he wants, but the arts have always been a leisure activity.  It's what humans start doing when mere survival is not the foremost concern.  Even if we don't linger to long on the reality that you cannot, in fact, be anything you want to be and that the power of never giving up and of believing in yourself won't change the impossibility of some things or reduce their improbability, what may be more liberating than following that dream could be realizing that that dream can be pursued as a hobby, not a vocation. 

But what are the odds that we can say to our fellow Americans "Expect less from life and consider the constant proximity of death and you might enjoy life more"? Americans expecting less from life?  Didn't one of our writers declare something or other about sucking the marrow out of life?  Meh.  Give a shot, perhaps, but life can suck the marrow out of you along the way.


Friday, November 27, 2015

it is Black Friday and there are they who would say do not go out and buyest thou nothing this day

So once again it's Black Friday and once again the internet will brim with those who say we should buy nothing today. Again there will be internet memes about buying cheaply made stuff in foreign lands made by the hands of slave labor in China.

And, of course, people in a post-industrial Western empire that invented the internet absolve themselves of being part of that empire by choosing to say we should not buy stuff on one designated day.

Jesus is recounted as having run into people who insisted that there were certain things you shouldn't do on a certain day.  For those folks it was the Sabbath and there was stuff you expected to not do on that day. 

Well, let's consider Black Friday with that in mind.  It's easy to say "don't buy anything today." 

But which of you, if you find the light bulbs in your home have burned out, won't go buy new light bulbs so you can see inside your own home on Black Friday?

And which of you, should you run out of toilet paper on Black Friday, will not go out and get toilet paper?

Refraining from buying stuff you don't really need and perhaps only momentarily feel you want is a lesson where if you didn't learn it every other day of your life you won't learn on Black Friday just because some people on the internet have decided to make a point of celebrating their own sense of righteousness.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Driscoll revisits how great the American Puritans this week, although actual Puritans would have considered him a depraved dude if we actually consult their work
The Puritan vision of the Pilgrims saw the rule of Jesus Christ as extending over all aspects of culture. Nothing was considered secular, but rather everything from work to leisure was sacred and to be done unto the Lord. Puritan worship included sermons lasting two hours,
Sunday as a dedicated day of Sabbath for all, buildings without stained glass or icons, and congregational singing absent of musical accompaniment.

Holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, were not celebrated because of their pagan roots, and some people even worked on Christmas day in protest. Puritan authority was rooted in Scripture, while such things as secular philosophies of law and spiritual authorities such as the Pope and the Book of Common Prayer were rejected in favor of a radical biblicalism.

Now I've developed an affection for some of the writings of the English Puritans but the American strain may well never live down things like Salem witch trials.  There's a new-ish book out about that that's been written of lately ...
Even after the Salem tumult subsided, very few New Englanders at any social level rejected the existence of witchcraft; many still maintained that Satan’s minions had been busy in Massachusetts, only among the accusers rather than the accused. Perhaps they were right. The devil could scarcely have planned things more neatly, especially as more and more adults joined the ranks of the complainants. “Who doesn’t have a bone to pick with a neighbor?,” Schiff writes. “There were as many reasons to accuse someone of witchcraft in 1692 as there were to denounce him under the Nazi occupation of France: envy, insecurity, political enmity, unrequited love, love that had run its course.”

Witchcraft certainly served the needs of colonial leaders like Mather and Danforth—until it didn’t. Recent political developments on both sides of the Atlantic were eroding the authority, spiritual and temporal, of the Puritan fathers. A touch of black magic couldn’t have come at a better time. To a modern reader, the witch scare seems like a sudden, disorienting irruption of the supernatural into everyday life. It probably felt that way to many in Salem, too, but at the same time it was also part of the daily grind of Puritanism, a reminder of the dark lord’s ubiquitous pluckings and pinchings.

Its location escapes me but J. I. Packer gave a lecture long ago in which he stated that the influence of the English Puritans was paradoxically necessarily derived from their complete failure to enact the reforms they envisioned for the Church of England. 

For those who haven't read about this before, here's a link to a few observations from Puritans about the Song of Songs to show that whatever public praise Mark Driscoll still ladles on the Puritans, they would have considered his interpretive approach to the Song of Songs a depraved hedonistic anathema. If the dude's going to keep recycling the old praise for the Puritans we can keep recycling reference to how if you actually read them they say some things about things like Mark's approach to Song of Songs and to what a husband should not publicly say about his spouse that, thanks to the passing of centuries, are now public domain.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Toy Story, 20 years on

Well, twenty years ago today Pixar's Toy Story was released.

Kinda trippy to think about that.  Twenty years ago, earlier this year, Braveheart got released.

I thought the Mel Gibson film was overlong and overhyped and while it was competently made it didn't stick with me.

Of the two films it seems mundane and obvious to propose that Toy Story had the less cartoony vision of manhood than Braveheart. Not that you can't like the Gibson film if you like it, but if we were to contemplate which of the films introduced a sea change in how we consider mainstream American cinema what happened two decades ago suggests, at least to me, that Pixar changed our expectations about kids' entertainment.

There are, of course, many people who don't take kids' entertainment seriously as art.  We may be content to say that it's silly to watch cartoons or to treat the stories we tell children in mass media as artistic statements.  You get to be wrong about that.  I would suggest that if you want to find out what values and beliefs are inalienably sacred to a culture find out what stories are considered safe enough or important enough to pass on to children. If you're into Game of Thrones that is what it is but I wonder if I couldn't tell you more about American social values and beliefs from a season of Blues Clues.  What if the "grown up" art we are so often drawn to make is a wrestling with the dishonesties of the stories that are shared with our child selves? 

If that's the case then is the solution to subvert the "wrong" lessons or ideals of the stories we tell children or is another option sharing stories with children that don't give them lessons they have to spend the rest of their lives living up to or repudiating?

In a cinematic genre that still traffics in "you can be anything that you want to be" Toy Story has a story of two toys who are forced to confront disturbing realities about themselves.  Woody is forced to confront the reality of how much envy and murder he has in him and Buzz Lightyear is forced to come to a violent, self-damaging realization that he is not a space ranger. If so many childrens' stories traffic in the mantra "you can be anything that you want to be" Toy Story lingers in the mind for showing us characters for whom the path to deeper self-discovery is not through dogged devotion to self-image and self-esteem but through the crucible of doubt, doubt about the self.

Buzz is confronted with the reality that he isn't who he thinks he is. He's not as great and unstoppable as he thinks he is.  He's a toy.

Woody is confronted with the reality that he isn't who he thinks he is.  He's not as good and selfless and kind-hearted as he thinks he is.  Once envy fills his heart he discovers (thanks to some confrontational friends, that he's become a liar and an attempted murderer.

Buzz and Woody reach these moments of disturbing self-discovery and they don't double down on the idea that if they believe they can then they can. They can be anything they want to be and do anything the want to do.  Or not.

It's hard not to think about how, this year, the twentieth anniversaries of Braveheart and Toy Story remind me of favorites. You can't have lived in Seattle in the last twenty years without at least possibly hearing of Mark Driscoll and how he took up the pen name William Wallace II and wrote "Pussified Nation" and how the pen name was inspired by his favorite movie, Braveheart.

My favorite movie from 1995 was Toy Story. I never set out to do that thing people call watchblogging when I started blogging nine years ago.  I was pretty content where I was, give or take a few concerns.  I envisioned a life that would run its course as part of Mars Hill.  My path out of what was once Mars Hill was not something I would say was primarily about "waking up" about how bad it was there because in the midst of it you don't always think you are is that bad.  But I did begin to slowly and steadily and gnawingly have doubts about how I related to people and what that might say about Mars Hill that the things people said I was guilty of seemed to be such a remarkably good "fit" for the culture of Mars Hill.  If there were sinful ways of relating to people and interacting with people I wasn't going to shake those off by staying immersed in the Mars Hill culture. 

So in that sense my path out of Mars Hill was not some Braveheart William Wallace confrontation with a cartoonish evil, my path out of Mars Hill was more like Woody or Buzz confronted with the reality of an inaccurate and cartoonish conception of the self.

I suppose the internet being so often glib and assured as it is, it might be something to note that perhaps somebody could guess that Mark Driscoll's favorite film and Wenatchee The Hatchet's favorite film from 1995 and the reasons we like what we like could be fodder for blog rumination.

If you start with the kind of cartoonish live action drama that presents itself as the way things were and you present that as the emblem of healthy and authentic masculinity then if it turns out that the guy who made that film gets arrested over the years with reports of drunken anti-Semitic rants and the guy eventually says the version of the historical figure he presented on film was wildly inaccurate then it may just be that the actual cartoon was almost inevitably going to present a more nuanced portrait of human aspiration and envy. 

Or not, because you never know until you see a film what it may be getting at and even after you've seen the film there can always be this galactic difference between the film you saw, the film you think you saw, and the film someone else thought he or she saw.  The stories and art works that change the way we think of work in a medium don't always make themselves obvious at the time.

For those who had eyes to see, the 1990s were revolutionary years for animation in the United States.  We got The Simpsons altering what our understanding of cartoons could be, for adults and not just for children.  We got Batman: the animated series bringing a more adult sensibility to the emotional dynamics of kids' programming. We got Pixar and developing work from Dream Works showing that the first and last word in American animation did not have to be limited to mouse ears. We got South Park, too. Not all of it has aged equally well but it was great fun to see it while it was going on.  There's still a soft spot in my heart for Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.

It does seem, two decades on, that between Braveheart and Toy Story one film won the awards the year it came out while the other changed the shape of mainstream cinema in a small (perhaps) but significant way.

The cartoon has stuck with me these twenty years and I love it as much today as when I first saw it.  There are guys who in the face of opposition double down on who they are sure they are. I might be like that myself, but if I get to pick between celluloid William Wallace or Woody and Buzz Lightyear then I choose the toys over the man for the kind of person I'd rather be like.  There's someone else I'd rather be like than them but people who regularly read the blog probably don't need that spelled out for them by now.