The Briefing

Additional Reading

Part

New York Times

U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness, by Ceylan Yeginsu

Part

Part

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday, Jan. 19, 2018

Tags: Audio, C.I.A., Children's Books, China, Loneliness, Treason

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, January 19, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Today we’ll see Britain name a new government minister, a minister of loneliness; we’ll ask what kind of messages our children are getting from children's books, and why children's books in China would be different from the same kind of books in the United States; and we’ll see treason, spies, and betrayal back in the headlines once again.

Part

With loneliness on the rise, particularly among young people, Britain names a new government minister of loneliness

One of the saddest and most revealing headlines I've seen in a very long time comes to us in yesterday's edition of the New York Times. The headline article,

“U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness.”

Ceylan Yeginsu reports for the Times,

“Since Britain voted to leave the European Union more than a year ago, Europeans have mockingly said that the decision will result in an isolated, lonely island nation. But Britain,”

we are told,

“in fact, already has a serious problem with loneliness.”

Research has already established that. A 2017 report, we are told, indicated that

“more than nine million people in [Great Britian are] often or always [feeling] lonely.”

Now what makes this particularly newsworthy is that on Wednesday of this week the British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a new member of the government, a new official, a minister for loneliness. The Prime Minister said,

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want,”

she said,

“to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

Now, the bizarre aspect of this story is the fact that Britain believes that the answer to this is government establishing a new program headed by a new official, effectively a minister for loneliness. The article goes on to articulate just how dangerous loneliness is suggesting that loneliness can be a greater risk to human health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. You can look that up in the article. But furthermore, we are told that it’s not just a problem, of course, in Great Britain, it is also a matter of concern to a former United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who wrote an article for the Harvard business review arguing that loneliness needs to be addressed in all of society, even in the workplace. The article tells us a great deal about loneliness in Great Britain. It identifies as the Prime Minister's comment signifies that there is a particular problem amongst the aged, the elderly in Great Britain, but the most surprising aspect of the article tells us that loneliness is a newly acute problem amongst many who are very young. The article documents the fact that loneliness is now a major problem amongst many college and university students, young people who are living in the midst of other young people, often in a very concentrated social environment. This just points to the fact that one can be lonely in a crowd. Loneliness is not the absence of other people in our lives, it is the absence of relationships and meaningful human contact.

A biblical perspective would underline the fact that we shouldn't be surprised that loneliness would be not only devastating as an experience, but perhaps even deadly as a health consequence. God made us individual human beings each made in the image of God needing one another. God made us as social creatures needing that kind of social contact, and, furthermore, social encouragement. We know that human beings who are isolated, isolated from society and isolated from meaningful human contact, grow weary of life. All of life becomes distorted, a distorted view of reality; it’s one of the saddest but most inevitable byproducts of loneliness.

But we also see some big problems in this article, for one thing we notice that the extremes of age are identified as two very urgent problems: loneliness amongst the young and loneliness amongst the older. Now of course it can affect persons of any age, but it does tell us that there are two generational concentrations. We thus need to ask the question why. Why would there be, in our own moment, a significant increase of loneliness amongst the aged and amongst the very un-aged, the young? I think we would come to two very important conclusions.

The first is this: The breakup of the family, the isolation of the family, social mobility, and especially the demise of the extended family, explain why so many amongst the elderly are cut off, not only from other elderly persons but from their own families, from meaningful contact with persons who are considerably younger. That was not a problem when the extended family was far more of a reality. The biblical vision of the family starts with what we call the natural family, which starts with marriage; the monogamous, faithful, lifetime union, covenantal union, of one man and one woman. They are then set apart unto each other and from that union will come children, that's the natural family, and, furthermore, to that family may be added other children who come into the family not by the natural means of reproduction but rather by the gift of adoption. And then we have beyond the natural family, the extended family, an entire system of kinship. Most importantly we have the influence of grandparents in the lives of grandchildren, and we also add to that the gift of aunts and uncles and cousins, all of this a part of God's gift of family.

We find this in the very first book of the Bible in Genesis, and as we understand our commitment to a biblical worldview, we are utterly unsurprised when minimizing the reality of the extended family and subverting the reality of the natural family; human beings in our times find themselves increasingly isolated and increasingly lonely. That should come as no surprise. It's a consequence of moral actions for which we as human beings are accountable. It's also tied to widespread social movements, to vast changes in the society, made by industrialization and mobilization and transportation and the modern workforce, but, furthermore, also driven by a subversion of the very commitment to the idea and the ideal of family. But we also come to understand that in our time something else has intervened, many things to be sure, but amongst those would have to be listed the advent of social media in the digital age. That helps perhaps to explain more directly the impact of loneliness in epidemic form amongst young people. Young adults, teenagers, and adolescents who can be lonely even in the concentrated presence of so many others of their own age.

But we also have to ask whether or not government has any practical power to resolve the real crisis of loneliness. This is where Christians remember the principle of subsidiarity, a principle deeply rooted in Christian thinking, that reminds us that we are unable to solve problems at the big level, the global level, the civilizational level, even the government level, the reflexive breakdown at the most basic level. Subsidiarity affirms that truth and goodness and reality subside along with love at the most basic level more than anywhere else. So when we’re thinking about the family, all these things, all good things, subside in marriage first then in parents and family and beyond that in local communities and congregations and beyond that in concentric rings, but here's the point: Every concentric ring outward is less competent to deal with the problem or to deliver the goods as the one that is next inside the circle.

So a family is the best context for raising children. Parents are the most competent for raising children. The point as we’re thinking about government is this: In the light of the breakdown of the family, government might have to intervene to try to help children, but the sad reality is that no government, however competent or benign, can actually replace a parent. That's just a sign of reality in a fallen world, an affirmation of subsidiarity. So this should tell us that when government establishes, in this case the government of the United Kingdom, a new ministry program and a minister for loneliness it's an affirmation of a problem, it’s not likely, in reality, to be a step towards the solution. To put the matter bluntly, government can't be our friend; government can't solve the problem of loneliness. It doesn't mean that government can’t have a role by some means in helping to facilitate human connection, it does mean that when human connection breaks down at a fundamental basic level no government, no amount of government spending, no goodness of government intentions can solve the problem.

Part

Why children’s books in China are different from the same kinds of books in the United States

Up next, we’ll leave the UK's new minister of loneliness and turn to a report from National Public Radio asking the question,

“What's The Difference Between Children's Books In China And The U.S.?”

It’s more interesting than even the interesting headline would indicate. The first question in the article,

“What are the hidden messages in the storybooks we read to our kids?”

Now looking at the headline,

“The Difference Between Children's Books In China And The [United States],”

we’re likely to lead to the conclusion that this is some kind of issue of conflict between communism and capitalism. Well, that's not absolutely absent but it turns out that's not the major issue. What is the major issue is the fact that children's books are never value neutral. Children's books, the stories we tell children, the stories that children hear and celebrate and remember, they are laden with worldview messages, with value and moral messages, that’s acknowledged in this report from National Public Radio that was released on January 6. It turns out, you wont’ be surprised, that a team of academic researchers has been asking the questions and looking at these books across cultures. The report tells us about one typical children's book in China entitled, The Cat That Eats Letters.

“[It's] ostensibly,”

say the reporters,

“about a cat that has an appetite for sloppy letters. [Letters] that are written too small or too large, or a letter missing a stroke.”

And the challenge, of course, in the story is for children to stop their letters from being eaten by writing carefully and practicing every day. The report then tells us, and I quote,

“the underlying point is clear: "This is really instilling the idea of effort — that children have to learn to consistently practice in order to achieve a certain level,”

It turns out, say the researchers, that this kind of messaging is typical coming from China, and, we would say, looking at Chinese history that this would be rooted, not only in communism in China for the last several generations, but going back for centuries in the deep worldview of Confucianism that has marked China and other Asian cultures, a worldview that underlines the dignity and centrality of effort and consistent practice and application. But it turns out, say the researchers, that books for children directed in the United States and Mexico towards our youngest don't have much to do with effort but seem to have another set of moral judgments and values communicated, and this comes down to happiness; happiness as goal, happiness as achievement. A typical children's book with this kind of message from the United States is one entitled The Jar of Happiness. I quote,

“A little girl attempts to make a potion of happiness in a jar,”

this according to the researchers.

“Only to lose the jar. She's really upset — until all [of] her friends come to cheer her up.”

I quote again,

“At the end of the story she comes to the realization that happiness does not actually come from a jar of potion but from having good friends.”

The researchers indicated that American books for children tend to be overly emphasizing happiness, smiling, laughing, and being surrounded by other people who are happy. Now, again, we’re reminded that the contrast here is between children's books in China, on the one hand, and children's books in both the United States and Mexico, on the other hand. The researchers then turn around to tell us that

“children in China consistently score higher on academic tests [than children in either] the U.S. [or] Mexico.”

The researchers did not go so far as to blame that differential on books for children, but they argue it is a part of the larger culture and its own values and emphases that find their way into books for our youngest. So children in China are told to practice, to study, to be industrious, to demonstrate effort, to try, to achieve consistent practice in order to achieve perfection where as children in the United States and Mexico are told to laugh and to smile and to be happy; children in China are told to steer away from bad people, children in the United States and Mexico are encouraged to stay away from sad people.

All of this emphasis upon happiness in American children's books reminds me of the emphasis upon self-esteem of just about a decade ago, and that reminded me of a report that was published back then on October 18, 2006 by Jay Matthews in the Washington Post. The headline in that story was this,

“For Math Students, Self-Esteem Might Not Equal High Scores.”

Here's the really interesting research that was released then by the Brown Center in Washington,

“Six percent of Korean eighth-graders expressed confidence in their math skills, [but] 39 percent of eighth-graders in the United States [indicated confidence in their math skills].”

So 6 percent of Koreans, 39 percent of Americans. What's the difference? Well as it turns out, the Koreans actually achieved significantly higher scores than the Americans. The Koreans achieved more but felt worse about it, the Americans achieved less but felt a lot better about it. The researchers, looking at the self-esteem movement in American education at the time, simply acknowledged that the research would raise questions about the importance of self-esteem. Furthermore, it turned out that when this kind of study was replicated, the same results came back over and over again. The promise of what has been styled progressivists educational philosophy is that it's basically about emotion, it's about effective state. If the child feels good about himself or herself then achievement will follow, but it turns out that the research indicates, at least in large part, the opposite. That self-esteem, happiness, and satisfaction come after achievement not before. One other interesting aspect of the research from 2006 was that American math educators insisted on the importance of using relevant, real life illustrations for children learning math. The Asian teachers took the opposite approach just saying math should be learned as math. The scores indicate that the Asian students learned more than the American students leading some of the educators in America to the conclusion that when real life illustrations were used for math, the American students remembered the illustrations but actually forgot or never learned the math. But going back to the children's books, the most important realization for Christians and for Christian parents is that books for children are never as innocuous as they appear. There are always hidden or implicit messages, and the stories we tell our children have a great deal to do with the moral formation of their lives.

Finally, one other aspect, we’ve been talking about the fact that there is a growing taste for dystopian fiction among teenagers, young adults, American adolescents, but it turns out that stories for children, just about whatever the culture, generally have to end happily and that includes that Chinese book about the cat that ate the sloppy letters. The children did learn in the story, according to the researchers, that they should work hard and learn how to make correct letters, but they felt empathy for the cat, so even though they had achieved the writing of the characters as were expected they intentionally made some sloppy letters so that the cat wouldn't go hungry. Everybody's full, everybody's happy.

Part

Treason, spies, and betrayal are in the headlines once again

Finally, as we go into the weekend we tend to think of spy craft, cloak and dagger, espionage and treason as things of the past, perhaps World War I or World War II or most especially the Cold War, more recently the focus of fiction and nonfiction and even major films. But a headline that appeared in Wednesday's edition of the New York Times reminds us that all of these things are extremely, continually relevant, even in this day. The headline in Wednesday's edition of the Times,

“F.B.I. Detains Man It Says Betrayed U.S. Spies in China.”

Adam Goldman is the reporter, telling us that

“A former C.I.A. officer [is] suspected by investigators of helping China dismantle United States spying operations [by] identify informants. [He was] arrested, [according to] the Justice Department on Tuesday.”

The report then goes on to tell us that

“The collapse of the spy network was one of the American government’s worst intelligence failures [of] recent years.”

Now, it turns out that Americans were slow to come to the conclusion that they indeed had a major intelligence failure, and even then they weren't certain how it had happened. Had it come by hacking into the spy computers of the CIA? Or had it come by what's known as a mole or human intelligence, a double agent within the American intelligence agencies? It turned out the latter was the case. Jerry Chung Shing Lee, age 53, was arrested this week capping what was described as

“an intense F.B.I. inquiry that began [about] 2012, [that was] two years after the C.I.A. began losing [many of its most important] informants in China.”

What does this mean losing these informants and intelligence sources? It means that they were imprisoned and many of them were executed by the Chinese government because a former American CIA officer, it is now believed, betrayed his country by selling those secrets, exchanging that information with China, and, thus, making himself rich and making others either imprisoned or dead, leading to one of the most colossal failures of American spy craft in generations. The reports indicate that this one failure by this one double agent led to the imprisonment or the death of more than a dozen CIA informants within communist China.

“Officials said the number of informants lost in China rivaled losses in the Soviet Union and Russia during the betrayals of both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, formerly of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. They divulged intelligence operations to Moscow for years.”

Probably for reasons quite understandable, the CIA on Wednesday refused to comment about the arrest of one its former officers by the FBI. When it comes to the loss of human intelligence sources by Americans in China, it turns out there have been several arrests of late. What's common amongst them all is that these are people who had been serving their country, the United States of America, but later turned on their own country and began serving a foreign power, a rival power, in this case the power known as communist China. And, of course, we need to understand that the consequences are not simply to be classified as intelligence, they are human consequences, as was the case in the Soviet Union and in Russia, as was the case now in China; human beings lost their lives by betrayal, betrayal by effective double agents.

From a Christian worldview perspective, we are reminded that we live in a fallen world in which spy craft and espionage and treason are ongoing realities. We come to understand that there is something particularly horrifying about an individual who would, in return for money or gifts or social privilege, betray his or her own country and in doing so knowingly forfeiting the lives of those; we’re talking about what has classically been defined as treason, and treason has been considered by every country as one of the most serious of all crimes in both criminal and moral terms. This story breaks us out of the illusion that we’re living in a safe world that every once in a while is interrupted by something less than safe. Christians understand that we are living in a very unsafe world and that it's safety that has to be explained and defended and preserved and not the lack of safety. The lack of safety is the natural state in a fallen world, safety is a very rare achievement. Treason is a very horrible crime, and we are living, as this headline story from just this week tells us, in a world that is far more dangerous, at least for many, than we would like to admit. We as Christians understand why.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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