Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018

Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018

The Briefing

February 21, 2018

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

It’s Wednesday, February 21, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A contest of worldviews as Russia seeks to exploit key weaknesses in American society

A truly sobering reality is that we have enemies. You have enemies. I have enemies. The church has enemies. The United States of America has enemies. The Constitution itself refers to enemies foreign and domestic, and as you look to the reality of the enemies that we face, it is now increasingly clear that one of those enemy powers is using the very technologies we have developed against us, and furthermore is using them ingeniously and with evil intent to separate Americans.

One of the points profoundly clear in recent days is that what is now marking America and the assault by Russia on our political and cultural system is the fact that Russia has identified a key weakness in American society and is seeking to exploit it. This comes due to the fact that America has also been the home to explosive technologies of social media. The problem that Russia is seeking to exploit is polarization and divisiveness in the country, and the technologies they are using are the very social media and digital technologies that have made America the front runner in terms of international technology and communications.

The indictments handed down by Special Counsel Robert Mueller over the weekend were just the tip of the iceberg, not so much in terms of the politics that might be a different story, but in terms of the big cultural reality that we need to think about as we seek to conduct a worldview analysis here. The worldview analysis takes us to the realization that political division, even political polarization is not new to America, after all this is a country that in a previous century fought one of the bloodiest civil wars in all the annals of human history.

Furthermore, our first president, George Washington in his famous farewell address to the nation warned even then against what he saw as the danger of political polarization that would lead to partisanship. President Washington warned that the nation would be weakened as a democratic experiment, if indeed there were to develop political parties that would claim what he feared would be the ultimate allegiance of citizens, an allegiance even greater than that, they owed to the nation.

The reality behind those indictments is of deep concern as we seek to think these things through intelligently because of our understanding that a foreign power with evil intent is now using technologies to drive Americans further and further apart. Why? Because Russia clearly recognizes that weakening America’s democratic self-government as a constitutional republic is a way of weakening the nation in the world and making Russia by very comparison stronger. Make no mistake, we are looking at a contest of worldviews and a contest to political systems. What is taking place in Russia in recent decades after the fall of the Soviet Union is the rise of autocracy disguised as democracy, and Russia has the intention of weakening America’s reputation and role in the world and furthermore, Russia is clearly intent upon discrediting American democratic systems of government.

Americans were divided during the 1960s and even in the aftermath of that tumultuous decade, one that we’ve remarked upon already this week on The Briefing. What makes the current moment so particularly fragile and dangerous is that the rise of the now 24-hour instantaneous news cycle, and the rise of social media allow for a far more immediate and invasive attempt to subvert American democracy and to separate Americans from Americans, and furthermore to confuse Americans and sometimes even to instigate fear and action amongst Americans by means of false news.

Amanda Taub and Max Fisher for the New York Times wrote a headline story on Monday. The headline is this: With Red and Blue Already Clashing, Russia Was Happy to Antagonize. The bottom line in the article is as the reporters tell us that false information and political advertisements that the Russians had spread “Could ring true only to those already predisposed to suspect the worst.” So what we see here is that Russia saw an opportunity in political divisions among Americans and that ever since 2014 according to these indictments, it has been using the newly developed social media to pose Americans against Americans and to instigate fear and also to make Americans suspicious of one another.

One of the hallmarks of the partisanship of our contemporary moment is that many Americans say that they not only disagree with those in the opposing party, they fear them. The reporters cite [John 00:05:08] Jay Van Bavel and Andrea Pereira who wrote in a recent paper, “Partisanship can even alter memory, implicit evaluation, and even perceptual judgment.” They went on to say, “The human attraction to fake and untrustworthy news,” a danger cited by political scientists far more frequently than orchestrated meddling in their words, “Poses a serious problem for healthy democratic functioning.” The reporters summarized the situation by writing, “It has infected the American political system, weakening the body politic and leaving it vulnerable to manipulation. Russian misinformation seems to have exacerbated the symptoms, but laced throughout the indictment are reminders that the underlying disease, arguably far more damaging, is all American-made.”

It is really interesting from a worldview analysis to see how just one company and that is Facebook, a company that now by the way, dominates news and communication amongst many people in the world. That one company and its allied platforms, turns out to have been particularly susceptible to the use by outsiders including the Russians in an effort by the use of bots. That is computerized robotic computer programs to send out all kinds of information that led to disinformation amongst the American people, sometimes in the names of what sounds very American organizations and individuals that may even have been real Americans whose accounts had simply been used by the Russians in order to send all kinds of false information.

What’s most alarming in all of this is the fact that first, so much of this misinformation was specifically engineered for the audience they were trying to reach, and secondly, it appears to have been stunningly successful at least in gaining attention. At this point, we do not know the actual impact of any of this Russian meddling on the election. What we do know is that many of the messages sent out by the Russians were of immediate interest to Americans who forward to them and who were involved with them over and over again.

That front page story and yesterday’s edition of the Times pointed out that the use of these bots would in the words of Jonathon Morgan, Chief Executive of New Knowledge, “Focus on anything that is divisive for Americans, almost systematically.” That is one of the very severe downsides to this current technology driven by algorithms, almost instantaneously forces can discover what will interest Americans, what will aggravate them. What will make Americans angry? What might even turn Americans against other Americans?

The Wall Street Journal also had front page coverage of the story yesterday. The Journal’s reporters, Georgia Wells and Robert McMillan tell us, “Facebook has more than 25,000 employees, but fewer than 100 Russian provocateurs armed with social media savvy and widely available technological tools were able to manipulate its platform for years.” Facebook situation was made more complicated, arguably more challenging by statements made by the company’s senior executive head of advertising Rob Goldman who in a series of tweets tried to defend Facebook from its critics and from the aftermath of the indictments, and clearly if he was seeking to quell controversy, he ended up doing exactly the opposite.

He had stated in one of the tweets that the Russians main goal wasn’t to sway the 2016 election, but more broadly to sow division in the United States. Now, it’s not so much that that tweet is wrong as that it was politically ill-timed, there really can be no question that whatever Russia’s short-term gain was in the 2016 election, its long-term gain is to try to weaken American democracy.

Christians must also be aware of the fact that it is now quite documented that the Russians used some specific social media techniques to try to ensnare Christians by the use of pseudo-Christian messaging and overtly apparently Christian identified arguments in order to further divide Americans. The Russians appear to be savvy enough to try to use whatever leverage they can find with any self-identification to try to sow the seeds of division in the United States.

Part II

What Russia has to gain from the decline of America's democratic institutions

In a more sobering sense, Gerald F. Seib, writing for The Wall Street Journal in an article not particularly tied to this story but to the larger fate of democracy, he reports that the Freedom House, which is an independent organization that has monitored freedom globally for 77 years, released last month its annual Democracy Index. Seib explains that’s a measure of the health of democracy around the world and in that report, the Freedom House stated, “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets, including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law, came under attack around the world.”

Freedom House has been watching. It has been measuring. It has been indexing the fate of democracy for almost eight decades now and just consider for a moment, how much world history has been contained in the last eight decades, but it notes sadly that democracy appeared to gain in 2017 in only 35 nations while it appeared to be in retreat in no less than 71. Seib concluded his article by pointing to an erosion in America’s democratic institutions that he says will lead in turn to a diminished ability to lead the world in the direction America wants. Seib’s final words, “and that is precisely the trend Russia wants.”

Part III

Those out of line with ideological uniformity are no longer welcome in Silicon Valley

Next, looking at the United States of America and understanding the changes in our culture and looking again to the intersection of those changes in social media, here’s the headline for you. It’s also from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the headline is this: Thiel Isn’t Alone in Tech Departure. Douglas MacMillan is reporting about the fact that the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel has announced that he’s going to be leaving Silicon Valley in part because of its ideological and cultural uniformity. According to the Journal, he’s not the only one.

As Macmillan reports, “Several tech workers and entrepreneurs also have said they left or plan to leave the San Francisco Bay Area because they feel people there are resistant to different social views and political ideologies. Groupthink and homogeneity are making it a worse place to live and work, these workers said.” Peter Thiel is openly gay. He’s one of the founders of PayPal, and he made billions of dollars as an early investor in, well there it is again Facebook, but Peter Thiel is also libertarian, even conservative in some of his financial, and economic, and political views, and he was a supporter of President Trump’s election in 2016.

That puts him way out of line in Silicon Valley. So far out of line, that even with his entrepreneurial ability and his ability to see the future in economic terms regardless of the fact that he has been one of the billionaire titans of Silicon Valley, well, it’s just not very comfortable there because Silicon Valley it turns out is a place of ideological, and cultural, and worldview uniformity; and those out of line, well, they are no longer welcome.

Tim Ferriss like Mr. Thiel, a tech investor, is also the bestselling author of the book, The 4-Hour Workweek, left Silicon Valley and moved to Austin, Texas this past December after living in the Valley area for 17 years. As The Wall Street Journal says, this is partly because he felt people there penalized anyone who didn’t conform to a hyper-liberal credo. Mr. Ferriss said that in Silicon Valley people “Openly lie to one another out of fear of losing their jobs or being publicly crucified.”

Now, remember that Peter Thiel is openly gay. In a lot of places, that would be quite enough to make one immune from this kind of criticism, and also Tim Ferriss is himself very socially liberal. Again, you would think that other social liberals would think that’s quite enough, but no, there has to be in Silicon Valley a near absolute ideological uniformity. It’s also very interesting that many people in the Bay Area say that the main problem in the United States is economic inequality but whether or not that’s true, it is undeniably true that income inequality is particularly present in the deepest blue spots on the American map. That is the places of the deepest liberal worldview also turned out to be the same places where you find the most extreme income inequality, places such as Silicon Valley, the City of San Francisco, Manhattan.

Thus, the article concludes by saying that apart from ideological issues, many are being driven away from the Bay Area by soaring housing cost and increasing traffic congestion. What isn’t cited in the article is the fact that the new Tax Reform Law is also going to make it more difficult for people in the income ranges common to Silicon Valley and San Francisco to deduct much of their state income taxes, which some demographers say will lead to many people leaving, not so much because of the ideological conformity, not even so much because of the soaring housing cost, but simply because of the taxation.

We should note that this kind of ideological conformity, even uniformity, could happen just about anywhere. That’s simply a fact of fallen human existence, but we should also note that it is less likely to happen where people who are different from one another live in a natural and organic real community. That’s where this kind of conformity is far less likely to be present. But next since we went to Silicon Valley in California, we should stay in California for just a moment, a couple of really interesting articles that aren’t limited to California but in many ways have at least their beginnings there.

Part IV

How our worldview shows up on our dinner table

One of these has to do with the release of a new book, the book is by Jonathan Kauffman it is entitled Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. It’s the subject of a very interesting review by author Michael Pollan in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, and one of the most important point from worldview analysis made in this article is that what we eat really does reflect our worldview. In some sense, maybe our worldview determines what we eat, but there’s another way that dynamic works. Sometimes what we eat reflects a change in our worldview, changing diet just might mean changing ideas.

Pollan begins his review by writing “For a revolution that supposedly failed, the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s scored a string of enduring victories, environmentalism, feminism, civil and gay rights, as well as styles of music, fashion, politics, therapy and intoxication.” He continued and I quote, “In more ways than many of us realize, we live in a world created by the ’60s.” He went on to say that in this new book, Kauffman demonstrates what he calls, “A convincing case for adding yet another legacy to that list, the way we eat.”

So, here you have an author and a reviewer agreeing that one of the legacies of the 60s and the counterculture is the fact that Americans now eat in ways that are very different than Americans ate before that revolution. Kauffman points to some of the menu items that emerged in the 1960s from the hippies. They included granola, tofu, tempeh, tamari, yogurt, nut loafs, avocado used in all kinds of things including sandwiches, but according to Pollan, the counterculture transformed much more than the American menu, it also changed the way we grow our food and how we think about purchasing and consuming it.

Christians looking at this book and at this review, both interesting in their own right, will be reminded of what we knew long before either appeared, and that is that worldview will have consequences, and consequences that will show up on our table and in our diet. Back during the late 19th century when the first wave of the weakening of Protestant theology in the culture began to take hold, it became clear that some Americans were shifting from Christianity to a new theology of a doctrine of salvation through diet.

The very idea of health foods in America came from this era, and the hippies picked this up in the 1960s and the counterculture began a cultural revolution, which has a great deal to do with how Americans who never thought of themselves as a part of that revolution, now eat. Finally, it turns out in a very different development that one of the very words, one of the most basic units of vocabulary to the very idea of health food doesn’t really have any clear definition at all. It’s the most commonly used word in advertising food in America today, it’s the word natural.

Part V

When it comes to food in a fallen world, 'natural' may be too much of a good thing

Last Saturday, The New York Times ran a major article by Julie Creswell, indicating that there is no common definition of natural, and lawyers, consumer advocates, even those who are consumers themselves are beginning to wonder what natural means, if natural means anything. The word organic by contrast does at least have some kind of regulated definition after the United States Department of Agriculture came up with it during the time of the organic revolution, but the word natural, well here we simply have to note the obvious. Natural when you think about it, doesn’t necessarily in any sense mean healthy. Natural can sometimes just mean natural. Natural in other words could be a compliment, or natural could be an indictment. It all depends on which aspect of nature one is being natural about.

The New York Times article is rich with evidence to the fact that different groups are lawyering up on the question of just how to go into court and argue for one definition of natural or another, but a lot of this controversy seems to miss the point. In a fallen world, natural doesn’t necessarily mean healthy at all. Milk could be completely spoiled even organic and still be natural. One of the debate points in this article is whether or not something that is natural could have chemicals artificially put within it, but if the chemical’s natural and the original substance was natural, can the two of them put together be anything unnatural?

The courts haven’t been particularly helpful here. I found absolutely fascinating the fact that one federal judge had ruled that the consumers of Cap’n Crunch Cereal really didn’t believe in the existence of what were advertised as Crunch Berries, and therefore Cap’n Crunch wasn’t guilty of false advertising in saying that there were Crunch Berries therein. So, you have one judge saying that Americans have enough sense to know that crunch berries don’t actually exist. On the other hand, you have other judges who appear to be ready to jump into this situation making very clear that natural can mean only certain conditions are met, but naturally it’s going to be very difficult to come up with those conditions.

As the story continues we are told that another case is currently moving forward against Krispy Kreme Doughnuts because at least one other judge found that Krispy Kreme Doughnuts consumers, who expected that raspberry filled donuts had raspberries, just might have a cause when they discover that such donuts do not. A senior policy analyst with the Consumer Union, that’s an advocacy group, said that about 2/3 of customers confuse natural with organic, thinking that natural means no pesticides when it actually doesn’t. The article continues by saying that consumers now want natural in things that don’t even relate to food such as soap, or shampoo, or cleaning products. Once again, the definition is going to be even murkier then.

All of this may point to many things including our contemporary confusion at the moment. It also points to the fact that there appears to be a yearning in Americans, since we are now so distant from the production of our food, there seems to be a confusion amongst many of us as to what kind of food we should eat. Even on the other side of this revolution, in the food that we do eat, we’re looking for food that we can at least say is natural, but again we simply have to point out that any farmer can take you and show you food that is natural that you do not want to eat. When it comes to food in a fallen world, natural may sometimes be a good thing, but sometimes it might be too much of a good thing.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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