Tuesday, Mar. 6, 2018

Tuesday, Mar. 6, 2018

The Briefing

March 6, 2018

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

It’s Tuesday, March 6, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Election results in Italy send clear moral signal at the expense of the European political establishment

Americans are notoriously disinterested with political affairs elsewhere in the world. A major election was held just over the weekend in Italy, yet another Italian election. Why would that have worldview significance for Americans and for thinking Christians? The answer comes down to this. The election held over the weekend in Italy sent a very clear signal, a very clear moral and political signal. It was a signal at the expense of the European establishment. It was a signal of the win of far-right in populous parties. It was a signal, a big change on the political landscape, not only in Italy, but throughout Europe. And not only in Europe, but in the United States as well.

Now, when we look to an Italian election, we should take for granted, we’re looking at an exceptional case. Italy has had almost 70 governments in the just over 70 years since the end of World War II. Italy is itself notoriously politically unstable, but the instability reflected in the election over the weekend is a particularly dangerous form of instability. It signals that change in the European worldview, as reflected in the election. When we’re thinking about Italy and when we’re thinking about this election, I would suggest we need to go back to the 14th century.

In the 14th century, vernacular languages, that is, common national languages, came to be adopted. This adoption of a common vernacular language distinct people to people, nation to nation, actually had a great deal to do with the rise of nationalism and the very concept of national identity. It was during this time that the King of England shifted the title from the King of the English to the King of England. It was also, surprising to many, only at this time in the 14th century that the King of England began to speak and to rule in what we now know as English. This became true throughout much of Europe. The Franks became the French. Germanic tribes at least came to adopt a unified identity in the Germanic language. This happened nation after nation, with one glaring exception in the 14th century. That exception was Italy.

Italy was very slow to develop either a common vernacular language or a common national identity. Indeed, you have to look to the 19th century and about the year 1861 for the unification of, politically, what we think of as Italy today. That unification, by the way, can’t even be traced to a specific date. It took place progressively between the fall of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, about 1815, and the rise of what we can call as modern Italy, about 1870. 1861 seems to be commonly assumed to be about the most accurate date because that was the year that King Victor Emmanuel II began to rule over what a map would indicate is Italy as we would know it.

Out of the ruins of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy and at the expense of what had been the Papal State, Italy was unified and thus it continued as a monarchy until the end of the second World War. Specifically, after the rule of Mussolini. It was the fall of the monarchy in 1946 that led to the emergence of Italy as a republic. But even as Italy has been unstable, as a language and as a nation, it has been particularly unstable politically. There have only been about 72 years since the beginning of the Italian republic, and there have been almost as many governments as there have been years.

That is itself something of a refutation of the very existence of government. As a matter of fact, yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial in which it said that Italian government is an oxymoron. Two words which simply do not go together. When we’re talking about these multiple successive governments, we’re talking about a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister as the head of government, and we’re talking about a prime minister who has to call together a government of ministers and officials. We’re talking about a newly constituted parliament, almost 70 of them just since the end of World War II. But the particular government that will have to come together after this weekend’s election is, even in Italian terms, a particularly unstable government.

What we see taking place in Italy is extreme political frustration. That extremity of political frustration and political energy exploded in the election, so much so, that some of the parties that will have major representation in parliament would have been unthinkable and perhaps even illegal in previous decades. As we think in worldview analysis, the most important thing to understand is that after the end of World War II, in the second half of the 20th century, after those two cataclysmic deadly and destructive World Wars, the European intellectual elites and their American peers decided that the future must be shaped by a globalist and internationalist, often described as a cosmopolitan worldview.

They were certain that this is the only worldview that would lead to a stable peace. They saw nationalism and national identity as dangers that had to be cooled, even as fires or passions would have to be cooled, by the intervention and leadership of an intellectual elite, an elite of expertise, that would have an allegiance more to that globalist ideal than to any kind of nationalist identity. That was the very confidence that shaped the political elites in Europe and in the United States throughout the 20th century. It was a globalist outlook that was basically amplified after the fall of the Soviet Union.

What we see today is widespread in the United States and throughout Europe. Over the weekend, particularly in Italy, a massive loss of confidence in those political and intellectual elites. The big question in worldview has to do with whether or not it is simply an exhaustion and a frustration or an outright rejection. It should be obvious to recognize that what’s going on in Italy points to the fragility of democracy. If you have a new government virtually every 350 to every 360 days, you do not have anything that actually qualifies as government. This gives credence to that editorial title in the Wall Street Journal.

But we need to understand that the Christian worldview would have us to see that when a government fails to be credible in the eyes of its people, it will fall one way or another. Italy, given it’s parliamentary system, it can fall very quickly as government after government has. In the United States, given our own constitutional form of government, a failure would take longer to recognize. The fuse, in effect, would be longer on the stick of dynamite.

But before leaving Europe, we need to recognize that, even as it was announced that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has finally been able to put together a coalition government, the bottom line is that she will form a very weakened government, far weaker than her two previous administrations, and the fact that it took so long after the German elections indicate that Germany, though far more stable than Italy, is also demonstrating this new political instability. Christians understand that political instability is a sign of a far deeper instability, an instability of the understanding of what it means to be a nation, what it means to form a government, what it means to have a constitutional order. Those are very dangerous signs and reminders yet again of the fact that democracy is not a fact, it is always and everywhere a moral and cultural achievement.

Part II

Why we better be careful about assuming it makes sense to jail those who offend us politically

Next, we shift back to the United States where we pride ourselves on being a nation of laws and not of men. That’s classical constitutional theory in the United States. Mike Chase, who is a lawyer representing defendants in government enforcement and white collar criminal matters, writes in yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, “We better be careful about assuming that it makes sense to jail or to charge with criminal offenses those who offend us politically.” The point made by Chase in his essay in the Wall Street Journal is that every single one of us is probably, well, if we’re active in the world at all, a criminal. We have probably violated some statute, some law, some ordinance. And when it comes to the federal government, well, it turns out that our own Department of Justice doesn’t have a clue even how many laws the federal government has adopted and is supposed to be enforcing.

As I often remind Christians, anarchy is biblically defined as the worst of all situations. Government is God’s gift, but a government has to operate with restraint. In the United States, our federal government, that’s just at one level, has been so unrestrained in passing laws, the government itself doesn’t have any clue how many laws it has passed. Chase warns about the United States becoming the kind of nation where an election immediately leads to a criminal prosecution of the losing candidate or the losing party. He also points to the fact that given the current investigation of the Trump Administration by special counsel Robert Mueller, the reality is, if he wants to find something, he can surely find something because every single one of us has almost assuredly done something that can be documented in violation of federal law.

Attorney Philip Howard has made this point over and over again in successive books, pointing to the fact that we have so many laws in the United States, that it is possible to break several of those laws every day without ever intending or without ever knowing or without our government even being able to determine what the law might be in many situations. In his essay in the Journal yesterday, Chase writes, “There are thousands of federal statutes and hundreds of thousands of regulations with criminal penalties. The Justice Department tried to count them but gave up. Many require no evil intent, like clogging a toilet in a national forest, boarding a ship right before it reaches its destination, or carrying more than 500 nickels out of the country.”

Yes, as it happens, every one of those is the breaking of a federal statute or regulation that brings a criminal penalty. In writing this article, Mike Chase points to the fact that the rule of law requires the respect for law, and that respect has to be predicated on a rational basis for law and a rational understanding of what the law would require of us. Using the law as a political instrument is wrong and furthermore, politicizing the law is just going to make our already confused situation all the more confusing, and already corrupt situation all the more corruptive.

Part III

Why a morally-sane society must consider all the ways in which we can protect our children

Meanwhile, also looking at the United States, yesterday’s edition of the New York Times had a very important column by David Leonhardt. He begins it with a brokenhearted account. “On the Saturday night of their high school’s homecoming weekend in 2009, four teenagers were driving together in Coral Springs, Florida, when their Volkswagen jumped off the road and plunged into a canal. A 15-year-old in the car escaped. Three 16 year olds, Anthony Almonte, Sean Maxey, and Robert Nugent, drowned. Their families,” as he explains, “were devastated. Their high school reeled.” The important thing that links this story to very current headlines is the fact that two of these three boys who died, they were both 16, were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The moral point driving David Leonhardt’s article is the fact that even as we have rightly been horrified by the shootings that led to 17 deaths, 17 students and teachers at that very same high school, we seem not to notice or give much attention or moral consequence to the fact that in 2016 alone, automobile accidents killed 2,829 teenagers in the United States. Now, Leonhardt is not suggesting that we should pay less attention to whatever would be required to lower the risk of school shootings. He’s just saying that a morally conscious and a morally sane society would not ignore an even greater cause of death among teenagers, and one he suggests that might be more easily and legislatively remedied. How? By changing the laws concerning who gets to drive and when.

As he says, there are actually few 16 year olds who are ready to be entrusted with a multi-ton deadly machine the very day they turn 16 and might, in most states, be able to get an operator’s license. Instead, Leonhardt suggests that even as there’s a great deal of debate about gun control in this country, there ought to be an even greater debate about automobile control. He advocates what has been adopted in some locations as graduated drivers licenses. As he explains, teenagers slowly gain privileges as they gain experience.

There’s another dimension to this story that should also have our attention, especially as parents and grandparents, and especially as we’re thinking through the lenses of a Christian worldview. One of the chief responsibilities of adults in a society is to try to minimize the situations in which a young person, a child or a teenager, feels put into a context of danger and vulnerability, one they themselves feel is very insecure. To put the matter bluntly, restricting the teenage access to cars and automobile drivers licenses could well make teenagers themselves more comfortable, especially teenagers who find themselves in a situation in which they really do not want to ride with a teenage driver.

The statistics are themselves alarmingly, but brutally clear. When you put a teenager behind the wheel, you vastly increase the danger of a deadly accident. Then, with a teenage driver at the wheel, you put even one additional teenager in the car without an adult, and the statistics tell the story. The deadly danger just goes higher and higher immediately. It’s at least morally significant that this argument appeared in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, amidst all the other moral issues of the day.

Part IV

As fake video is on the rise, the task of separating truth from lie is increasingly complicated

Finally, I want to turn to a front-page story in yesterday’s Times. The headline is this, “It was only a matter of time. Here come the fake videos.” Kevin Roose, writing The Shift column for the New York Times, tells us about the emergence of now popularly accessible apps that can produce fake video. Fake video described in this article in such a way that persons can be depicted, even in pornographic acts or any number of other context, simply by manipulating video images.

The reason this story made the front page of the New York Times is that the kind of technology that would allow this video manipulation was, until very, very recently, limited to those with tremendous technological expertise, very expansive computing power, and furthermore, specific kinds of knowledge. But now, all that is shifting. Because, as Roose tells us, there are now social media apps that are featuring the ability to create this kind of fake video. He points to one new app in particular, and I’m not going to give the name of the app, but he mentions that it has been downloaded already at least 120,000 times.

Speaking of this new technology as deepfakes, he says that this technology is now one of the newest forms of digital media manipulation and one of the most obviously mischief prone. “It’s not,” he says, “hard to imagine this technology being used to smear politicians, create counterfeit revenge porn, or frame people for crimes. Lawmakers,” he says, “have already begun to worry about how deepfakes could be used for political sabotage and propaganda.” Christians, thinking from a biblical worldview, are reminded yet again of the fact that there is no value neutral technology. Every technology comes laden with huge moral significance, with moral consequence, and inevitable moral questions.

A technology like this is particularly prone to mischief, as this news article makes clear. We can understand why. Personal identity is extremely important, and until now, until very recently, we would take visual evidence as some of the most conclusive evidence. We would take photographic evidence or video evidence as the kind of evidence that would be extremely credible, even in a criminal prosecution or trial. Of course, now we’re looking at the fact that we can’t trust photographs. We have to investigate the source and the context. The photograph now has to be verified because of the potential manipulation. Now it’s not just photographs, it’s video. Some of the occasions, some of the examples given in this article are truly frightening and beyond what I want to describe on The Briefing.

You could understand, as we think of pornography and other videos, just how dangerous this new technology could be. We simply have to ask the question, how long will it be until this new technology falls into common use? That means even more widespread abuse. An unidentified source behind this technology said, “I’ve given a lot of thought and, ultimately, I’ve decided I don’t think it’s right to condemn the technology itself, which can, of course, be used for many purposes good and bad.” Now, we can understand this comment, but we also have to understand that regardless of whether or not this individual wants to condemn the technology, those who develop it will have to take responsibility for the consequences. That’s not to say they will accept that responsibility and those consequences.

Once again, we face, as Christians, what is required for us to think through the argument about the inevitability of technology. If something could exist or might exist, it must exist. There is now, according to our technologically driven society, there is now a mandate that what might be possible must be actual, regardless of the consequences. The final words of this article are nothing less than haunting. I read, “There’s probably nothing we can do except try to bat the fakes down as they happen, pressure social media companies to fight misinformation aggressively, and trust our eyes a little less every day.” That’s shocking, isn’t it? At least, it should be. It’s very sobering. Here, we’re being told that there’s nothing we can do to prevent this technology. It’s going to happen. The abuse is going to happen. The best we can do is to try to mitigate or lessen the consequences.

Those final words are the most poignant. “We have to trust our eyes a little less every day.” That’s the world in which we live, that’s the world we now see before us. It’s a world in which we have to trust our ears a little less every day, and now, a world in which we have to trust our eyes a little less every day. This is a very, very powerful reminder that people are lying to us all the time. One of our great challenges is to separate the truth from the lie. That’s never been an easy challenge, but it’s getting more complicated and it’s getting harder every single day. This front page story in the New York Times is a very timely reminder, but it’s also important for Christians to understand that it is the biblical worldview and the biblical worldview alone that can actually make an enduring distinction between the truth and the lie. No one had any right to tell us it was going to be easy, but this article yesterday tells us it’s going to be even harder than we thought.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I’m speaking to you from Los Angeles, California and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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