The Briefing

Documentation and Additional Reading

Part

Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Is Rich, So Storms Are Worse, by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.

Part

Part

Monday, September 17, 2018

Monday, Sept 17, 2018

Tags: Audio, Google, Hurricane Florence, Ronald Reagan

Transcript

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

It's Monday, September 17, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Why every major hurricane is turning out to be more expensive than the one that came before

Hurricane Florence continues to be the unpredictable, yet predictable storm. Unpredictable in its path and its course, unpredictable in it's varying power, reaching at one point a category four status, and then reaching down to category two, even as it hit the Carolina coast, and eventually becoming what is now a tropical depression. But even though the power of the storm had decreased, the danger of the storm tended to increase. That is because the great danger in Florence is sustained inundating rain. There are estimates that some areas of North Carolina may receive now what might be a year's worth of rain in a single two to three day period. Now, when you're talking about a deluge of this magnitude, it immediately brings up almost inevitable biblical comparisons, at least in a localized version.

The point is this, God made the planet so that the earth can take only so much water at a certain amount of time. Once that ground becomes saturated, then the water has to go somewhere, and the water, as you well know, follows gravity. The gravitational path of water is what explains ditches, and then creeks, and then tributaries, and then rivers, eventually lakes and every other body of water, including the seas and the oceans, but that gravitational pull of water also indicates where water is headed, and thus every time the rain is heavy, the creeks rise. But there is a limit to which any creek can rise and stay a creek, or a river can flood and remain a river. Some of the pictures now coming to us from North and South Carolina show what almost amounts to an inland sea. All the familiar geographical typography being hidden by water or if not hidden, then significantly redefined.

One of the other issues we need to remember, and this again has biblical precedent, is the fact that flood is one of the most difficult challenges for human beings to handle. Why is that the case? It is because, to put the matter bluntly, we were made for land and not for water, and when you have that much water in a kind of localized flood that is so large on a magnitude of what we are seeing now in the Carolinas, you are talking about the kind of disaster that defies even the kind of response that would come from the emergency teams, from the United States military, the national guard, all the kinds of EMS and fire and police and first responders you can imagine, they simply cannot be victors over an entire wall of water.

Right now, our hearts and minds are with those, especially in the Carolinas, suffering from the flooding, and even though many families do not suffer immediate damage, given the interconnection of communities, there is almost no one in North or South Carolina whose life will not be affected in one way or another by this kind of storm. And of course, others may be included as the storm is expected to take a path towards the northeast. But an occurrence like this also makes us recognize certain facts of human behavior, and also of human history over time. Just consider the human relationship with water. God made us so that we cannot do without it. We must be near some form of usable water in order to survive, and where you find easy access to usable water, you find the potential for civilization. Where you find civilization, you tend to find movement towards that kind of usable water. But water in this case is not just usable in our modern sense as we think about drinking and cooking and the other necessities for which we need water.

It is also necessary for the transportation of both human beings and material goods. So that's why when you look throughout much of human history, first you find civilization where there is water. To put the matter bluntly, you find civilization at an oasis, not in the middle of the desert. But you also begin to find civilization clustering around the seas, clustering around major zones and major patterns of migration and of transportation and of commerce, the movement of population and of good. And this is not only true when it comes to the seas and oceans, it is also very true when it comes to rivers. Now, just to give you a point of comparison, one of the major differences between the landmass that we know as North America, and in this case, just think of the United States of America and Russia, they're straddling Europe and Asia, is that Russia has almost no transverse rivers.

That is to say there is no way to move any kind of major material, including commodities such as food, within Russia by means of rivers. Now, that's important for two reasons. Number one, long before there were trains or other methods of transportation, there were rivers, so you find an historic pattern that nations, countries with transverse river systems, tended to have a very consistently distributed population compared to nations that do not. Put the matter again, you'll look at the United States, you find major cities in the interior of the United States, you find major cities throughout much of the United States, and many of those cities have historic origins on or near a major river system. It's also important looking throughout human history to understand that not only have rivers been important to the movement, for example, of agricultural products, but it is also necessary to understand that modern agriculture, and for that matter, historic agriculture, actually also depends upon the regular flooding of river systems.

Now, what sense does that make? Well, just consider the fertile crescent in the Middle East. Just consider the Nile Delta in Africa. What you are looking at is the fact that where you have that kind of flooding river system, you have very fertile farmland. And so the breadbaskets of the world tend to be places where historically, massive rivers have flooded rather regularly. In the United States. You look at the Mississippi River and it's flooding, and you come to understand why there is so much rich soil along the banks and in the region of the Mississippi River system. But when you add the seas and the oceans plus the rivers and the lakes, you come to understand that to be near water is something of a human necessity. But to concentrate populations near water with great infrastructure investment is also a risk. It always has been, it always will be. Coastal communities are not only attractive and lucrative, they are also very vulnerable.

Holman W. Jenkins. Jr writing at the Wall Street Journal reminds us of this, pointing to the fact that right now in the United States, "A whopping $17 trillion in property now exists inside the US storm surge zone." Now that's not adding up all the coastal properties in the United States. That's just looking at the investment and the value of real estate and improvements in the areas covered by the surge zone in the United States. $17 trillion. Now, here's another aspect of human nature that's really interesting. On The Briefing last week, I talked about the fact that worldview issues are always at stake, and we looked at one analysis that tried to break down the worldview between Democratic and Republican, even though it was more generalized, more and less secular. But there's another very interesting aspect to this in human nature as reflected in politics. Why is it that the federal government doesn't budget ahead for what are likely to be massive expenditures necessary given public pressure after this kind of disaster? After all, hurricanes don't happen every decade or so, they tend to happen over and over again.

The United States has major damage from a hurricane at least every two to three years, but the federal government doesn't budget for it, not in any realistic sense. Why? Well, Jenkins is exactly right. It is because the expenditure would be so large, the American people don't want to deal with it even in political consciousness in advance. So let's look at the reality in these terms, and let's consider what it tells us about ourselves. We will not agree to spend that money in advance. We will not acknowledge even that those costs are likely to come, but once the massive video images come from the cable news and from all the kinds of media sources we have now, the same people who said they wouldn't pay for it before, now knowing that it's likely to happen, demand that it be paid for on the other side, but they don't want to know how much it's going to cost, and they don't want to know where the money's coming from. And that leads us to yet another indication of human nature in all of this.

In the United States, there is actually something of a perverse incentive to rebuild along the coasts where the properties are very vulnerable. This is because of the national flood insurance program, which as Jenkins points out, "Long ago turned into a perverse subsidy for coastal development." Now this leads to another insight mentioned in this article that we also cited on The Briefing last week, and that comes down to the fact that almost every major hurricane is going to be more expensive than the one that came before, not necessarily because it's more destructive, but because the capital value involved is always going to be higher. A respected insurance risk analysis company known as AIR Worldwide said in 2015 that it isn't climate change, it's not denying climate change, but being very clear, it's not climate change, but "The growing number and value of coastal properties which turns out to be the largest factor impacting hurricane risk today". But before leaving Jenkins' article, it's also important to recognize another aspect of human nature that is involved here. When you're looking at this massive hurricane, this deluge of rain, you're looking at millions of people who are affected.

Thankfully, we're looking at a relatively small loss of life given the threat of this storm. For that we should be thankful, but there are now at least a million people in North and South Carolina without power. That number is likely to grow, and the property damage is going to be very significant and all kinds of lives are going to be interrupted, and yet we have to note this aspect of human nature. What you are talking about is a storm about which we heard so much for so long, and are still seeing on the national news feeds, and there is a constant barrage of photographic and video evidence of the storm coming, of the storm going, of the storm doing damage elsewhere, of pictures of the storm from outer space and satellites, of the International Space Station looking down at the storm, of the kinds of scenes we're now seeing constantly in this barrage of images, but the point Jenkins makes is this: put altogether, there are numerous natural and other human disasters in the United States every day, every week, every month, but there's a huge difference.

CNN and Fox News and MSNBC and all of their peers within the television media and far beyond, they are not camped out everyone's neighborhood. They are camped out in anticipation of this kind of a storm. And there's another perverse issue at stake here: the media have to make you believe that this storm is the most important story. They have to keep on hyping the story, otherwise you're likely to change the channel and go watch an old movie on one of the movie channels. The same thing is especially true of the dedicated weather channels regardless of the form of media, because they have to present every single weather story as the most important earth shaking, cosmically quaking event, or otherwise you're going to turn elsewhere. One of the insights that come from the Christian worldview, and from in-depth worldview analysis is this: the larger the story, the greater the revelation of the worldview issues that are at stake. The longer the story develops, the harder it is to hide these worldview dimensions from view, but the next dimension is of the same or even greater importance.

Even though all that is true, we will be talking about something else very, very quickly, which we will tell ourselves, and which we will be told is the biggest news yet until the next thing.

Part

Are Google’s algorithms suppressing conservative media? Probably not directly, but the reality may be more dangerous

Next, as we're thinking about the media and the role of the media, the influence of the media in our society, we have to understand that the equation has been flipped in so many ways in our ultra modern age. For one thing, the media used to tell the story. Now the media often become the story. We're looking at the fact that the various forms of media, the old legacy media on radio and television and newspapers, the new digital media, the intermediary cable media, all of these together form an enormous story, and in the digital age, that story, it just grows faster and it grows more urgent. Now, how does this relate to politics?

Now that is something that has been very much of a pressing discussion in the United States and elsewhere where there has been the realization, especially by governments in Europe and in North America, that social media can represent a very clear and present political threat, a threat to our political order. At the same time, it is clear that other nations and political powers in the world, including the two greatest disruptors at present, Russia and China, also understand the political potential of media, and especially of digital media and intervention in the digital world. Companies such as Google and Facebook and Twitter are now understood to be political players in their own right, and this has led to a very interesting recent controversy. President Trump really became the catalyst for one of these controversies when he accused Google in particular of favoring liberal media sites over conservative media sites. Is that true or is it false? Well, to some degree, it's true and it's false.

It's probably, and I have to use the word probably false, in that it is probably not so straightforwardly tilted to the left as it is tilted to mainstream media, which is to say the likely reality that ends up with an overwhelmingly liberal cast is that the algorithms that Google has produced are actually algorithms directed towards understanding the legitimacy of the mainstream, more legacy media, and that means the liberal media, and what it also means is that those very same algorithms are likely to be marginalizing, or not recognizing, or perhaps even worse, websites and media sources that are outside the mainstream. Now, let's just consider media history for a moment here. For most of the last several decades, that mainstream legacy media has had an absolute monopoly on the political conversation in political coverage in the United States. That began to change with the advent of cable television, and especially the rise of alternative news sources known as the cable news networks, particularly the rise of Fox News as an alternative to the more established new systems.

And just to remember, CNN by that time was already rather established as a cable news network that wanted to look like the mainstream media, and you also have to remember the MSNBC, it includes those very important initials, NBC. It's an extension of one of those rather liberal legacy media outlets, NBC, beginning his radio and then as television. Many authorities within the political universe, and also within our media superstructure, began to say it is simply slander to argue that there's a liberal bias to the algorithms of Google. But on the other hand, Google is given plenty of evidence that it is not a neutral player in this kind of environment. I'll state the matter as clearly as I can. It's not likely that the issue is reducible to Google creating an algorithm, that's simply straightforwardly is prejudiced to the liberal rather than a conservative direction.

No, the reality is almost surely more subtle than that, and perhaps therefore more dangerous than that, but there is the recognition, both on the right and the left, that when you are looking at these massive new powers on the world scene, let's just take Google specifically, you're not talking about neutrality, you're not talking about worldview neutrality, and you're not talking about political neutrality, and that rather unexpectedly exploded onto the nation's media conversation in the last several days with a video that was released of an employee meeting at Google just after the November 2016 presidential election. The video was originally released by Breitbart News, but what makes it really interesting is that the New York Times had to deal with the story. Now, by the way, there's an interesting illustration right there of how the algorithm is likely to work. I mentioned Breitbart, and I mentioned the New York Times. It is likely that the Google algorithm privileges established news organizations such as the New York Times, and is less likely to recognize more ideological and political sites. Now, that's not just a matter of political discrimination making choices between political actors.

It's also a decision about what kinds of sites are going to be recognized as news sites when you have a search or a feed dealing with news. Who gets to define that turns out to be a very important issue. But back to the story. The New York Times eventually had to deal with the fact that this video had been released, and so the story in the New York Times bore the headline, "Leaked Google video after Trump's win adds to pressure from conservatives." Well, why would that be the case? Well, it's because executive after executive at Google stands up in this employee meeting and emotionally makes very clear Google was committed to the election of Hillary Clinton and Google as a corporation. They're going to deny this, but when you put all those corporate leaders in front of employees in a corporate context, there's no doubt they were saying Google effectively lost the election. Several of the leading executives at Google became very emotional as this video reveals, and furthermore, what's really interesting is the use of the pronoun we. That pronoun comes up over and over again. Who would we be?

Well, there is absolutely no doubt that Silicon Valley generally, and Google specifically, along with its parent company, Alphabet, lean left, they lean democratic. Political contributions and the statements by major executives, they already make that very clear, but that raises a great challenge. How in the world, in light of that, does Google then turn around and claim to be an absolutely neutral actor when it comes to political, economic, social, or worldview issues? There's more to this, of course. That includes Google's very well publicized firing of one of its employees, James Damore, who raised the very issues of this kind of corporate bias, and also raised the question of how it relates to progress of employees in the company, and hiring policies. He was fired. He's now suing Google for discrimination. Then we also have the development that there are now organized employee groups at companies such as Facebook that are indicating that conservatives simply don't feel welcomed within the culture of these Silicon Valley giants.

They feel like they are not wanted, they are marginalized, and the generalized, very powerful liberal ethos of these corporations makes it very unattractive, if not openly hostile to conservative viewpoints and conservative employees. But then again as I mentioned, and just a brief comment, last week on The Briefing, Google is also facing criticism, interestingly from within, when you think of its employee base as well as without, for appearing to be ready to reenter China as a search engine product that will be absolutely under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, and all of its oversight, all of its surveillance, and all of its restrictions. There are conservative groups and conservative voices that had been blocked, at least temporarily, and clearly without legitimacy on Facebook. There are similar kinds of questions being raised by virtually every major media platform in the digital world and beyond. These are huge questions. We're talking about the public square in the present and the future being absolutely dominated by some massive companies that have outsized power. In many cases, we simply have to admit power beyond the reach and influence and authority of many sovereign nations.

But this is where Christians understand that there is nothing of consequence that doesn't have massive worldview implications, and it's at least part of our business to try to think about those implications and understand them, even if the rest of the world ignores them or confuses them.

Part

What we can learn from Ronald Reagan’s letter pleading with his father-in-law to come to faith in Christ

But next, we're going to end on a heartwarming note on The Briefing. In this case, we turn to the Washington Post, where Karen Tumulty, a columnist for The Post covering national politics, released a letter that she had found in the course of her research in writing a book on Nancy Reagan. In the course of her research and documents, in the collection of Mrs. Reagan at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. She found a letter from August of 1982, a letter from the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan to Mrs. Reagan's father, the very well known neurologist, Loyal Davis, who was then dying.

What makes this particular letter from the president of the United States to his father-in-law is that his dying father-in-law was also an avowed atheist, and Ronald Reagan was very clearly writing out a deep and abiding, even urgent Christian concern. This wasn't just a letter from the president of the United States to a citizen, not merely a letter from a son-in-law to a father-in-law. It's a letter seeking to convince the father-in-law of the reality of God, of the power of the Gospel, and to call upon his father-in-law to believe in Christ. Ronald Reagan wrote to his father-in-law about how his own faith has been strengthened through personal experiences he could only credit to God's intervention and the power of prayer.

Then he turned to arguing concerning Christ when he said, "Loyal, I know of your feeling. You're doubt, but could I just impose upon you a little longer, some 700 years before the birth of Christ, the ancient Jewish prophets predicted the coming of a messiah. They said he would be born in a lowly place, would proclaim himself the son of God, and would be put to death for saying that. All in all, wrote President Reagan, "There were a total of 123 specific prophecies about his life, all of which came true." He went on to affirm the fact that it was prophesied and realize that Jesus Christ would be born of a virgin. He then writes to his physician, atheist dying father-in-law, and he says, "Now I know that is probably the hardest for you as a doctor to accept the only answer that can be given is a miracle, but Loyal," he said, "I don't find that as great a miracle as the actual history of his life," meaning the life of Christ.

Speaking of Christ to his father-in-law, Reagan then wrote, "Either he was who he said he was, or he was the greatest faker and charlatan who ever lived, but then," said the president, "Would a liar and faker suffered the death he did when all he had to do to save himself was admit he'd been lying?" And then what the president, very clearly understanding he was pressing his father-in-law, but was doing so over against eternity, the president of the United States turned to quote John 3:16, writing, "The Apostle John said, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believed in him would not perish but have everlasting life."" In his own way, but with great spiritual urgency. President Ronald Reagan pleaded with his father-in-law to come to faith in Christ. Now, in an historical context, this letter is likely to be shocking to many people, and perhaps even offensive. When I posted this letter, including a facsimile of the last page in which Ronald Reagan in his own hand had written 3:16, I received a response and I can only say is both heartbreaking and rather horrifying.

It was the response from secularists that it was absolutely wrong for President Reagan, not as president, but simply as a son-in-law or for that matter, anyone to write to an atheist who was dying, seeking to convince them of the claims of Christ. That is now, you have to understand, to many people in our society, simply out of bounds. That is how secular this society has become, antagonistically secular in so many manifested ways. But of course, on the other side, there's something deeply heartwarming about all of this, because in a letter like this written without any regard for public view, written for simply a private communication between President Ronald Reagan and his father-in-law, believing that this communication would never see the light of day, we have a genuine insight into the heart and the conviction of the 40th president of the United States of America.

Finally, it's important to recognize that this story broke because of Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, her research for a book, and the fact that she turned this letter, with the permission of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation, into the report that appeared just days ago in the Washington Post. It is to her credit and the credit of the Washington Post that they recognize the power of this letter, and they dealt with it with such sensitivity and grace, and they dared to put it before the American people in the president's own hand, even in his own handwriting. Otherwise, that letter might still be in a box somewhere in Simi Valley, California unseen to all of us, and that would be a great shame, because in this letter, there's a great deal of encouragement, the very kind of encouragement every one of us needs.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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