Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2018

Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2018

The Briefing

March 28, 2018

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

It’s Wednesday, March 28, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The scandal no one is noticing: Pornography redefined as adult entertainment

The major and popular culture in general has been nothing less than obsessed about this story, at least at this point the scandal, connecting the President of the United States and a porn star. Now, the unfolding controversy may or may not have long term political effect, it may or may not have long term legal consequences, it may or may not even remain in the headlines, and in the public conversations for long, but there is every reason given the trajectory and the shape of our culture, given its current obsessions, to believe that it will continue. And it’s likely to continue because, at least in the public conversation, there is traction to the scandal. But that traction is also overwhelmed by an attraction to this kind of scandal.

But we’re look at an issue that has very important moral consequences, very important questions being asked about American Evangelicals, and what we really believe about sexual morality. Whether or not we are willing to overlook something like these repeated challenges, and scandals.

Yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, on the editorial page, and this is what makes it important, it is because this is The Wall Street Journal, one of America’s most influential newspapers, the more conservative of America’s leading newspapers, and this is the editorial page. This isn’t just an opinion columnist, this is the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. And the editors released an editorial yesterday that says this, quote, “Every sentient voter in 2016 understood that Donald Trump had a bad history with women. He survived politically because his opponent has spent 20 years denying, or apologizing for even worse behavior by her husband. But mistakes of character,” say the editors, “tend to catch up with everyone, and that’s what’s happening now with President Donald Trump and his many women.”

At this point, no one other than the President of the United States and the porn star may know exactly what did happen, or didn’t happen, but the point of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal is that whether or not these charges are true, they have a certain traction, simply because of a pattern. A pattern that is, by now, well documented. And a pattern, the editors are indicating, was already baked into the cake of the electoral result of the 2016 presidential election. Thus, their opening statement that every sentient, that is conscious voter, understood what we were dealing with in the 2016 election.

There is no way that American voters can simply wash our hands of this kind of situation. This is the kind of society that we are becoming, and indeed, to the credit of The Wall Street Journal, they got right too, the 2016 presidential election and pointed out that in 2016 we were looking at no one but two candidates who were deeply involved in all kinds of controversies and scandals related to personal character, and to sexuality. In our political context it’s actually difficult even to speak of long term political consequences, but we certainly do not know what those consequences might be. We’re looking at the midterm elections this November, we’re looking at the 2020 presidential election. Well here’s some news for you, coming rather quickly, right on the heels of those midterm elections in November. But we’re also looking at the fact that for Christians, there are some huge issues here, even beyond this immediate scandal, and even beyond our immediate responsibility for trying to think through the issues of leadership, and morality, and character in extremely dangerous and fast moving times.

Even those few Americans who may be largely detached from this story on a minute by minute basis, I’m not sure how many of those Americans yet exist, but even those Americans are generally aware of the fact, or at least should be, that the vocabulary shifts in the coverage of this story tell us a very great deal about the moral shifts in this society writ large.

Most importantly, we need to note that the coverage of this story broke with Stormy Daniels, that’s her film name, otherwise known as Stephanie Clifford, identified as a porn star. But very quickly that shifted to identifying her as an adult move actress. Now that’s not just a new set of words. That’s a moral statement, a moral statement that effectively has changed the perception of those who are covering and talking about this story, so that pornography is now simply redefined as adult film, or the adult entertainment industry. And you’ll notice that porn star shifting to adult movie actress, or adult film actress, is not just a change of words, it’s a fundamental redefinition of an entire sector of our society in moral terms. And this isn’t by accident.

Part II

The normalization of pornography in American culture

Alyssa Rosenberg, in an important opinion piece, published at The Washington Post, got right to the issue when she wrote, quote, “It would be easy to overlook the most radical thing Anderson Cooper did in his conversation with Stephanie Clifford.” She went on to say, quote, “But as a cultural milestone, the most radical thing Cooper did was refuse to treat Clifford as if she was irresponsible, or immoral, or as if she were less than credible simply because of what she does for a living.” End quote.

Now, I think Alyssa Rosenberg is absolutely right when she speaks of this as a cultural milestone. And furthermore, as the most radical aspect of the entire controversy concerning Stephanie Clifford. But what Alyssa Rosenberg celebrates, I want to raise some basic moral questions about. Can it possibly be good for our society that now we are deciding, even in the white hot heat of political controversy, even with headlines coming at us and social media hammering at us, are we really deciding right now, in the space of just a few hours and says, that pornography no longer exists as pornography? That instead, pornography is now just to be relabeled and re-identified as the adult entertainment business? And a porn star is now simply to become an adult film actress, as if there’s no shift going on whatsoever?

And the general cultural importance of that interview was indeed exactly what Rosenberg identifies. It was the fact that even though there was controversy about the President of the United States, and even though serious moral charges were made, an even more fundamental moral shift had taken place. And that was a shift away from pornography recognized as pornography, and pornography recognized as shameless, to instead what is supposedly the new enlightened position in politically correct America, that pornography is no longer pornography, it certainly is no longer shameful, and a porn star can simply now be redefined as an adult film actress, and we’re good to go on as if nothing has happened.

Again, Alyssa Rosenberg thinks this is absolutely great, she writes, quote, “Refreshingly, that’s exactly how Cooper and 60 Minutes treated Clifford’s work. The narration in the segment noted that Clifford quote, ‘Has been acting in, directing, and writing adult films for nearly 20 years’, and it went on to say she was one of the most popular actresses in the adult industry. But,” says Rosenberg, “Cooper and his producers never used the facts of Clifford’s job to suggest anything else about her. The discussion of whether her story is credible was confined to facts that are relevant to that question.”

Later, Rosenberg wrote this, “A sloppier, or more motivated interviewer might have suggested that Clifford’s job made her immoral, or unstable, but Cooper never stepped over that line.” End quote. Rosenberg identifies the central issues in this scandal as, admittedly, having to do with sex, but not having anything to do with pornography. As if that’s a distinction we could possibly make in any sane conception.

Whether politically, or just before God’s own throne of judgment, every single one of us is going to answer for everything, and that’s true of President Trump, and it’s also true of Stormy Daniels, otherwise known as Stephanie Clifford. But the reality is that in the meantime, we cannot help making moral judgements. We are moral creatures, and we are constantly making moral judgements, and here Anderson Cooper is being praised for making no moral judgments about the industry, and the involvement of Stormy Daniels, or Stephanie Clifford, but at the same time, the entire context of the CBS 60 Minutes episode was about moralizing, on the larger question of sex. That points to the insanity of our contemporary American moment. An insanity that sells, and insanity that is salacious, an insanity that often seems to go without being noted, even by those who should see clearly what is going on here.

The New York Times wrote an article about Stephanie Clifford indicating that she is now leveraging her fame out of this context into what is called crossover fame, which she is then leveraging quote, “into a national stripping tour with scheduled dates throughout the end of the year.” End quote. Eventually, the President of the United States and the porn star are going to have to explain, just for example, to the parents of America, why they are having to have a discussion with their children about such things in the first place.

Further evidence of this normalization of pornography appeared in an interesting column in Monday’s edition of The New York Times that had nothing to do with this scandal or controversy. The writer was reporter Katie Van Syckle, and she’s writing an inside piece about how The New York Times now covers pornography and the porn industry. She writes of going to Las Vegas for the Adult Video News Awards, and she writes about the fact that in previous years, in almost any time previous to now, mainstream media would not have paid this kind of attention to pornography. But pornography, she makes clear, is big business. She writes about the fact that there were controversies in editorial staff meetings, conversations about pornography. She says, quote, “The theory that adult film was shaping modern sexuality came up often in conversation, but in the same breath, pornography was often dismissed as a subject that was too big, unwieldy, taboo, and icky to tackle.” End quote.

But that’s all changed, she’s telling us. And now, because of the social consequence, and the economic energy of pornography, well, now reporters are going to report on pornography in an entirely new way. She wrote, quote, “But as I started reporting on adult film, I approached it as a beat like any other. And I found that performers wanted to talk. They understood their significance in American culture,” she says, “Even if no one else did.” She goes on to say, “Whatever you think about adult film, it is one of the most consumed forms of media in the world.” She mentions one pornographic internet site, and she says that it alone draws 80 million visitors a day. Quote, “Exact figures for the size of the industry are scarce, but experts put total sales around a billion dollars a year. Plus,” she writes, “Studies show that adult film has become a form of sex education for young people around the world.” End quote.

Now, just remember that this same newspaper in its Sunday magazine wrote an article celebrating that fact just a few weeks ago, and we discussed it on The Briefing. But then at the very end of the article, she does tie it to our current scandal. And she says that it represents a shift in the society. Quote, “A shift that finally puts this powerful business into focus.” End quote. But notice what we’re looking at here. This is merely an economic focus. What is excluded is a moral focus.

One way or another, there has to be some reckoning for the fact that this scandal has now invaded virtually every American home. One day, we are certain there will be a reckoning for the explosion of pornography, and now for the mainstreaming, the normalization or pornography in our culture. And we should note that this often comes in unexpected ways. With something like this most recent scandal exploding into a full bore revolution in morality, and in vocabulary, and in the rules of public conduct and conversation about whether or not we can even say that pornography is pornography, much less say what we all know, and that is that pornography is evil. It is wrong, it is deadly, it distorts human sexuality, it is an assault upon human dignity.

It’s fair to say we haven’t heard the end of this controversy, but the sad thing is that the controversy doesn’t include what might be the longest lasting consequence, the mainstreaming of pornography in American culture.

Part III

Considering the consequences of technology as the world around us embraces it indiscriminately

But now we shift to a very different kind of story, a different set of headlines, this one about the consequences of technology, and how those who operate from a biblical, a theological worldview, think carefully about technology, even as the world around us seems only to celebrate, or at times to lament technology, without thinking about what the technologies would mean. Americans were very troubled by a headline that came just in the last couple of weeks about a woman killed in Tempe, Arizona as she was hit by a so called self-driving car, an autonomous automobile, in this case operated by Uber. We are further told that even as the details remain rather spare, this is now reported as the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle.

Now, one of the things we might think about is the reality that if you are going to have human beings in fast moving, massively heavy vehicles, you are going to have some kind of accident, there’s going to be some kind of injury rate, there is going to be some kind of fatality rate, just given the thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions, of automobiles and other vehicles on the roads. And we know how deadly that can be already.

The promise of the technology, or at least many of the profits of technology, is that the human being is the problem. If you could just take the human being out of the equation, then machines could run more safely and more efficiently. So the promise of these autonomous automobiles, or of self-driving cars, is that if you just remove the driver, the machines, given the new realities of all kinds of technological intelligence, can actually operate themselves. They can get us where we are going, they can get us there more safely, and more efficiently. The problem is, of course, that the Christian worldview affirms that you can never take human beings entirely out of the process, it turns out that this so called self-driving car, was, of course, under the supervision of an employee of the company. And, by the time you take it apart, you recognize that every single component of this technology was also engineered by human beings, as was the software, even the algorithms that are behind the so called artificial intelligence that is required for this kind of technology to operate.

So in the days since that tragedy in Tempe, Arizona, just about every major news outlet has run some kind of story, or analysis, asking the question, “How safe are driverless cars?” Megan McArdle at The Washington Post wrote a piece with just that headline. She answered her own headline by saying unfortunately, it’s too soon to tell. But that reminded me of an article that appeared in The Atlantic back in March of 2016. Then when self-driving cars were more theoretical than actual, an article by Adrienne LaFrance appeared, suggesting that self-driving cars will threaten privacy, not so much safety, but privacy. What’s she writing about? Well, she’s telling us that if indeed automated vehicles become a widespread reality, then they are actually to be rightly understood, not just as a means of transportation, but as a massive means of intelligence, of gathering data. Data about where Americans go, how often they go, how they get there, what else they do, just imagine what this new technology would mean. It would mean that somewhere, or perhaps in multiple places, data will have been collected about every single move in a vehicle that every single American makes.

LaFrance wrote, quote, “This is the age of self-driving cars, an era when much of minutia of daily life is relegated to a machine, your commute was pleasant, relaxing and efficient, along with promising unprecedented safety on public roadways, driverless cars could make our lives a lot easier, freeing up people’s time and attention to focus on other matters while they’re moving from one place to the next.” But she says, “There’s a darker side to all this too.”

But speaking of data collection is just one moral dimension of this picture. LaFrance writes, quote, “In this near future filled with self-driving cars, the price of convenience is surveillance. This level of data collection,” she reminds us, “is a natural extension of a driverless car’s functionality. For self-driving cars to work, technologically speaking, an ocean of data has to flow into a lattice of sophisticated sensors. The car has to know where it is, where it is going, and be able to keep track of every other thing and creature on the road. Self-driving cars will rely on high tech cameras and ultra-precise GPS data, which means,” she says, “cars will collect reams of information about the people they drive around.”

But in a particularly important portion of her article, now all the more important, given recent revelations about the misuse of data from 50 million users of Facebook, LaFrance writes about John M. Simpson, the director of what’s known as the Privacy Project, who recently attended Google’s annual shareholder meeting. Simpson asked a Google executive, quote, “Would you be willing to protect driverless cars user’s privacy in the future, and commit today to using the information gathered by driverless cars only for operating the vehicle and not for other purposes, such as marketing?” According to LaFrance, quote, “The executives on the stage glanced at each other for a moment, before David Drummond, a senior vice president and Google’s chief legal counsel spoke, quote, ‘I think it’s pretty early in the game with driverless cars to have a lot of rules saying thou shalt not do x, y, and z with the data.’ Drummond went on to say, quote, ‘I think once we get these operational, the value could be significant. It’s a little early to be drawing conclusions which would, in a lot of ways, reduce innovation and our ability to deliver a great consumer product.’ End quote.”

Now, you could just translate that into fewer words, which means, look out, they’re going to collect the data, and once they collect it, they’re going to use it. They’re going to sell it. And someone is going to use it for their own purposes.

Part IV

Technology invades the kitchen: How far is too far for American families

All of that came to mind with another recent article, this one appeared in The New York Times on Monday of this week. The headline is “Smart kitchens a tough sell, but tech tries”. Brian X. Chen writes from San Francisco for The New York Times about the fact that American consumers appear, at this point, to be rather reluctant to buy into the entire of a smart kitchen, especially when it comes to vastly expensive kitchen appliances that are going to know everything about the user. And furthermore, one of the most interesting aspects of this article, is the fact that it turns out, many families, especially parents in this case, are reluctant to bring even more screens into the kitchen, with even more data collection invading the space in the home that is to be for the family.

Chen writes, quote, “For many people, the kitchen is the center of the home, and a locus for interactions that go beyond preparing and eating food. Now tech companies and appliance makers, aiming to deepen their relationship with consumers, are increasingly targeting the room that is synonymous with togetherness.” Chen writes about companies like Whirlpool, Samsung, and Bosh, he says those companies are quote, “Racing against tech behemoths like Google and Amazon to dominate the kitchen with internet connected appliances and cooking gadgets that include refrigerators embedded with touch screens, smart dishwashers, and connected countertop screens with artificially intelligent assistants that react to spoken commands.”

But Chen’s point in the entire article is that even as Americans seem to be welcoming technology with an open embrace, in so many other dimensions of their lives, and even, we might say, in other rooms in their house, there appears to be a reluctance to bring all of this new automated, artificial intelligence, smart technology right into the kitchen, where the family is gathering for the most intimate of meals, and the sharing of fellowship.

One mom, speaking of her little boys, ages five and seven, said, quote, “Knowing how addictive their personalities are, they would literally stare at the refrigerator screen, hoping for something to come up. They’d be touching it and moving it, hoping it’s a video game.” End quote. But Chen also says that the technology companies are going to promise a whole lot of benefits. In his words, quote, “Samsung’s aim is for people to someday conduct their digital lives with equal ease from a fridge, a phone, a television, or a car.” He went on to say, “Fed by data about you in the cloud. And with the help of a virtual assistant, all of the machines will operate in perfect synchrony to enable a maximally efficient domestic life.” End quote.

Well, as we remind ourselves from a biblical worldview, every technology comes with consequences, and at least some good news in this article is that there just might be a reservation on the part of many American families, and specifically many American parents. There just might be a hesitation to bring all of that temptation right into the kitchen, which we should mention, is filled with all kinds of other kinds of temptations, but that’s a different kind of story.

It turns out, the temptation of one form might be to reach for a donut, but the temptation of another form might be to speak out and call for the digital assistant. But that’s where Christians understand that that second temptation might turn out to be the one with the most significant and longest lasting consequences.

But in response to this article, and the promises made by just one manufacturer, someone trying to sell this technology, I would simply remind us that from the Christian worldview understanding, what we seek, most importantly, is not a maximally efficient domestic, but a maximally faithful domestic life. That’s something that won’t come by a digital assistant, nor will it come on a screen.

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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