The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

It’s Tuesday, August 24th, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Totalitarianism Is a Hard Habit to Break: China’s New “Three Child Policy”

It’s now official, married couples in China are to be allowed by the government, they’re to have up to three children. Now, as you consider this, you have to recognize that it was the government of China, the state in China, under the influence, and indeed totalitarian domination, of the Chinese Communist Party that put into place one of the most draconian laws ever put by a government upon its people. That was, the one child policy that China put into effect in the 1980s. We’ll come back to that in a moment, but in its evil, it denied to couples the ability to have more than one child. This was in response to a largely Western driven concern out of the explosion of the human population. We’re having too many babies. And so an anti-humanistic philosophy began, not only in the communist party in China, it took hold elsewhere, especially in elite institutions in the west.

And the idea was, and is, as we shall see, that there are simply too many human beings that this has an ill effect upon the climate, upon the environment, upon the cosmos, and that it is a moral imperative to stop people from having too many babies and to put an end to, or at least a suppression on, the so-called population explosion or the population bomb. But we now know that the actual problem faced by humanity, and this is entirely predictable on biblical terms, is not too many people, but too few. It’s not too many babies, but too few.

A society with a decreasing birth rate, especially over time, is a society in big trouble. That’s a particular concern. It’s a particular urgency there in China, which is why they have increased the allowable numbers of children from one to two, now to three.

But let’s make no mistake. This is a totalitarian impulse, even for a government to say, “This is how many children, a married couples allowed to have.” If one or two or three or fourteen, it is still wrong for government to intrude upon that decision. Now, that requires some explanation. One of the things we need to recognize is that biblical Christianity privileges much of human existence to that which is before politics, prior to politics, beyond politics. What is rightly referred to as “pre-political”.

Marriage, for example, is pre-political. Government did not create marriage, God did. Governments respect marriage, they do not create marriage. Love is pre-political. There may be rules related to marriage or courtship or any number of issues related to love, but love is pre-political. The relationships are pre-political. The family is pre-political. And furthermore, the church is pre-political. That’s why we understand religious liberty to be so basic.

The government doesn’t authorize the church. The government is, rather, to respect the church. That’s a very different thing. But a totalitarian government by definition doesn’t allow anything beyond or prior to politics. That’s the very notion of totalitarian.

The word totalitarian is based upon the word “total”, which points to the fact that the state is to comprise the entirety of a society. A totalitarian regime is not necessarily communist or fascist. It could be shaped by many different ideologies. What makes it totalitarian is the fact that it accepts no rival authority, no rival reality, no rival loyalty to that of the state. The state controls everything.

But as you think about the 20th century, you see that the two most awful totalitarian temptations of modern times, that would be communism and fascism, were basically the two great struggles of the 20th century. Struggles, not only for, say, world domination, but struggles for the defense of human dignity. But as you’re looking to the 21st century, the continuing survivor of those ideological totalitarianisms of the 20th century is most importantly, the Communist Party in China.

Now you might say, well, what about Russia? Russia is increasingly autocratic, totalitarian under Vladimir Putin, but it really is not ideological. The Chinese Communist Party, very ideological. That’s why the word communist is in its name. And of course, the totalitarian ambitions of the Chinese social engineers go all the way down to the level of the family. The one child policy in the ’80s by the way, was often accompanied by forced sterilization, forced abortion, and in many cases, encouraged infanticide. That is, the murder of children already born. It was the culture of death in a uniquely Chinese form with that one child only policy.

But the one child only policy showed its evil results in the fact that the population began to fall, the population began to age. Put in sheer political and economic terms, the great challenge faced by China is that they must make the country rich before the country is old, because there is no country that becomes old, that later becomes rich.

Now that’s largely an inflexible economic and political rule. It’s one of the great lessons of history. What are we talking about? Well, when you look at China, the Chinese Communist Party’s political credibility within that very large and very populous nation is the fact that the Communist Party has delivered economically. And you can make the argument. The Communist Party has, to some extent, delivered economically. But it’s largely done so by truncating its communism and leaning into an involvement with the free markets of the West. It is some form of a market that China has been encouraging over recent years. And yet, the totalitarian temptation in China is stronger than the economic temptation. That is to say, when push comes to shove, you can see the fact that the leaders of the Communist Party in China are more determined to keep the communist ideology and their control, than to keep the country on a forward trending and growing economic platform.

But something else to keep in mind is that as you are thinking about the human lifespan, there is a very clear bell curve when it comes to, say, economic productivity. That’s simply a matter of fact, and the barest of all those facts is the fact that infants don’t have jobs. Infants require an enormous amount of investment in the early periods of life. And by the way, it doesn’t stop with infancy.

In terms of the modern experience in a country like the United States, families, and this means largely parents, have to invest a very great deal in their offspring for something like the first 25 years of life. By the time you take care of an infant and graduate a child from college, you’re talking about an incredible amount of money. There’s a lot of investment there. Of course, that’s important. That’s why parents are parents. And yet, at the other end of the lifespan, it becomes also a matter of lesser economic productivity.

Now, while it is the fact that there are no infants with jobs, unless maybe they’re a model in a baby commercial, the reality is that there are some older Americans who stay in the workforce. But nonetheless, in the main, the further you go in the lifespan towards, say, the 90’s or 100 years of age, or even these days in the West, by the time you read something like retirement age, the reality is that fewer people are in the workforce. They’re living off their investments, they’re living off social security and their retirement accounts. And that means that you see the bell curve. Very heavy social investment, very early in life, then you have the rise in economic productivity. Young people enter the workplace, they hit their career stride, they hit their peak earning, they retain that or something like that for a matter of years, until they approach retirement. That bell curve turns out to be something of an inflexible rule because that’s just the way the human lifespan works. In the beginning, in the middle, and in the end.

Now just to understand that in the modern world, in order to have national productivity and economic sustenance, you need to make the higher part of that bell curve last as long as possible, involve as large a percentage of the population as possible. You need as many people in the workforce. Productive in terms of economic activity. And fewer requiring the investment at the beginning and end of life.

Now, as you look at Western societies, we’re looking at aging. Now, aging’s a big factor. And in general, it’s a very good thing. By the way, the Bible honors those who have a crown of silver hair. But it’s beyond that. It’s also the fact that when you’re looking at modern medical advances, the reality is that even as, in previous centuries of human life, it would have been well, at least remarkable if a man reached 40 years of age, now, most men in Western countries can expect to reach something like 80 years of age.

And indeed, the actuarial tables work in such a way that if you reach a certain hallmark, you have a very good chance of reaching an even greater hallmark. And women are of course, in the main, outliving men. But societies can leverage a necessary increase in economic investment in older generations if it is absolutely confident of the fact that the numbers in the younger generations are growing faster, in order to enable, for example, new economic energy that could be invested by the society in those who are economically dependent.

But that means if the birth rate is falling and the lifespan is extended, then a society is really facing an enormous economic challenge. Now just the classic form of this is seen right now in the nation of Japan.

Japan is in a situation right now where its birth rate doesn’t come even close to being adequate to ensure that the society can economically survive. The political problem for the Chinese Communist Party is this. If the society ages, before it becomes rich, it won’t ever become rich. The economic growth that China has experienced will come crashing to an end if its bills are larger than it can pay.

And China understands that and it bears the responsibility in its totalitarian ambitions for causing this with the one child only policy. Going to a two child only policy didn’t help much. It’s likely that going to a three child policy also won’t help much, because as it turns out, and here’s a lesson for every society on planet Earth, it turns out that efforts to suppress the birth rate are far more effective than efforts to try to increase the birth rate.

By the way, just to give you an indication of how things are going in China, The Associated Press reports that Chinese people over age 60, they number 264 million, accounted for 18.7% of the country’s total population. At the same time, we’re told, the working age population in China fell from 70.1% 10 years ago to 63.3. That’s a drop that simply isn’t long-term survivable, and the Communist Party in China knows it.

But here’s the evil of the totalitarian system. It doesn’t come to terms with the fact that the totalitarianism is the problem. Instead, it thinks that using its totalitarian powers, having limited married couples to one child, they can then increase the birth rate by raising it to three. But human beings are not machines. Even if the Chinese Communist Party treats them as if they are.

Part II

40 Million Pieces of Evidence — Germany Reckons with the Shredded Records of the East German Secret Police.

But next we’re going to turn from the totalitarian temptation of the present in China, to look at the totalitarian temptation of the past in Germany. Particularly, in what was known as East Germany, Germany under the domination of Soviet communism.

And one of the things that most of mark the totalitarianism of the Eastern European government was its secret police turned on its own people, known as the Stasi. Infamous. The Stasi were the secret police that were employed by the East German government to spy on its own people, and even to violate families, to separate married couples, turning one against the other. The Stasi, like the secret police in regimes such as China, and most famously within the Soviet union, they were hated by the people. But the problem is, some of the people had to cooperate with the secret police in order for the secret police to be effective.

And it turns out that records were kept by the Stasi. That’s one of the issues by the way of German culture. One of the reasons why the war crimes of the Nazi war criminals were possible after World War II is because they kept absolutely meticulous records of the Holocaust, and of the mass murders they conducted.

Similarly, the East Germans continued much of the same, keeping an incredible amount of written documentation of all the secret evidence they’d been collecting against East German citizens. It turns out that they now still exist in shredded form. Bag after bag, something like 15,500 huge bags, think a giant trash bag filled with shredded paper.

Now, when the East German government fell in the early 1990s, and when you had, of course, eventually the reunification of Germany and the emergence of modern Germany, the collapse of the Soviet block and of the totalitarian government and the Communist Party, there in East Germany, well, if you go back then no technology really existed to take 15,500 bags of shredded paper and do much of anything with them.

Efforts were still made nonetheless, much as you had inspired agencies on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, to try to take all that paper and at least find some way to reassemble the documents as much as possible.

But now in the digital age, it turns out there really is a far greater potential of taking all of that shredded paper and putting it back together again. Thus far, about 500 of the bags have been now put back together again, the documents reassembled, and it is tearing apart families in the former East Germany.

Annalisa Quinn for The New York times refers to this as a puzzle with 40 million clues, something like 40 million different pieces of shredded paper that are now, at least, being reassembled with an attempt to try to reassemble all 15,500 bags. Now, there is a problem. As you’re looking at the progress, at the current rate, it would take centuries to go through all of those bags and reassemble, all of those documents. What’s the moral imperative here?

Well, many of the people against whom the Stasi had been acting, many of the people who suffered under the totalitarian regime there in East Germany, many of the people who were spied upon by the secret police, and there were files about them in the secret police files, they want to know just what was the truth about what had happened to them. And of course, just given the age span, time is running out.

As Annalisa Quinn writes, “First, the researchers cut the sacks length-wise, careful not to disturb the jumble of torn paper inside. Then they go through the bags loosely, pulling out food scraps, trash, or anything else mixed in during the chaotic rush to destroy evidence. They are working to reassemble scrap by scrap some 40 million to 55 million pieces of paper that were torn up and stuffed into sacks by the East German secret police in the final days of the German Democratic Republic.” Which by the way, during the time, was often referred to as the one third regime.

It declared itself to be the German Democratic Republic, but as the people who lived there said, it was neither Democratic nor Republic, it could only be German. That, by the way, was one of the temptations of the 20th century. It was one of the propaganda victories of so many of the Soviet-block nations. They rushed to put the word “democratic” in the name of the new regime as if putting the word democratic in would simply make people think it was democratic in form. Of course, not hardly.

Now, one of the most interesting things about this in terms of the former East Germany, or the former German Democratic Republic, is that even as the regime was falling, you had two different intelligence agencies. One that was directed outside of Germany, and this was very much aligned with groups such as the KGB and the Soviet Union, and one that was directed inside.

But there was a difference in at least some kind of competence, because the East German spy agency that was directed externally was far better at destroying its evidence. There are no bags of shredded paper from the East German spy agency directed outside the nation. But the secret police, they weren’t too good at getting rid of the evidence against them.

But what is most interesting and telling from a moral perspective, from a worldview analysis, is that people in Germany, particularly in the East, are now asking the question as to whether they should know or want to know what will be revealed by the information inside those bags. Because, at least for some, it is revealed that their own family members were spying against them.

For others, it means some of their most cherished friends were spying against them. Reporting back to the secret police. For some Christians in the Eastern region of Germany, it means that some of them are finding out that some of their own church members at the time were actually agents for the Stasi, for the secret police.

As you think about what this means in human terms, consider this portion of the article in The New York Times. “Petra Riemann first heard about her father’s double life through a newspaper report. Lutz Riemann was an East German actor known for playing a TV policemen. But, according to files seen by the newspaper Welt am Sonntag in 2013, he’d also been an informant keeping tabs on family and friends. Ms. Riemann had known sometimes worked with the foreign intelligence arm of the Stasi, but imagined it was a kind of James Bond figure, she said in an interview–not someone using intimate dinners and birthday parties to gather intelligence on close ones. ‘He used our family to obtain the trust of his victims,’ she said.”

Interestingly, her father would not comment to The New York Times concerning the accusations of his daughter. But back in 2013, he did acknowledge to that same newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, that he had worked as an informant and said that as a committed communist, as the paper says, “he had done so out of ideological conviction.”

But as you think about the webs of intrigue and the moral calculation, going on here, some of what has been revealed already is that some of the informants were basically put into either compromise positions in which the Stasi was able basically to blackmail them, or they had loved ones against whom the Stasi had some kind of evidence, real or constructed, and nonetheless, they used as a threat in order to coerce cooperation, and to basically coerce people, as citizens, to turn on their most intimate friends and family members, and for instance, fellow church members, in order to further the aims of the secret police.

Finally, as you think about the residue of this kind of sin and this kind of concentrated form, just think of the fact that this is now creating not only personal tensions over time, not only family problems over time, it is creating tensions within current German domestic politics.

Because after all, we are talking about the Stasi that represented East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, and that government sees to exist with the reunification of Germany. And this means that you have many people in the West looking at the evidence of how horrible the Stasi had been in the East, with many living people now exposed as having been complicit. And that has led to tensions within the country, that it probably in truth pale over against the tensions within many families.

Part III

6 out of 10 Children in the World Know ‘Paw Patrol’ Characters by Name? Popular Culture is not Just Difficult to Escape — It’s Practically Impossible

But finally today on The Briefing as we think about big important cultural issues, we’re going to go from totalitarianism in China, to collaboration with the secret police in East Germany, now to “Paw Patrol: The Movie.” It turns out that Paw Patrol, which comes from Nickelodeon, is wildly successful. It is the most popular programming currently addressed to preschoolers, and they made it into a movie.

One of the interesting angles in the analysis of the movie by Ellen Gamerman and The Wall Street Journal is that making movies for preschoolers is inherently, well, economically dangerous. There are a couple of reasons why, you can probably figure this out. For one thing, preschoolers can’t take themselves to a movie. Secondly, it’s got to be a really good movie to maintain the attention of preschoolers. And then, here’s one of the biggest problems for modern theaters, modern cinema. It turns out that the money is incredibly limited by the fact that preschoolers also go to bed fairly early, which cuts into the premium market for cinemas and movie theaters in the United States.

So, it starts out as a dubious proposition. So you better have a movie that’s going to be watched by more than preschoolers and the parents who take the preschoolers to the movie. So that means you need to attract older children, and you’re talking about school age children. It turns out a lot of them like Paw Patrol too, whether they’re ready to admit it or not. But in order to get them to a movie, you have to make it, well, interesting in a storyline from what might be interesting to the preschoolers. And so, you’re going to have to have material that both interests the parents, by the way, Disney movies are famous for having historical references and cultural motifs that would capture the attention of parents, the children would miss them, but after all, if the parents aren’t there, the kids won’t be there. Now you have to have the older kids there too, at least up to something like, say, the third or fourth grade. So you’ve got to make the movie somewhat differently, but here’s why we’re talking about it today.

It’s not just about what it takes, say, to make an entertainment product in the secular world to attract preschoolers and their parents and older children. The headline, by the way, of this analysis in The Wall Street Journal is tongue-in-cheek, “Marketing a movie at the ruff age,” but it also comes to the fact that there’s one statistic in this analysis that is just in the introductory material that has made me pause and think for some time. Let me read it to you.

We are told, “Paw Patrol: The Movie aims to be a superhero tent pole for the string cheese set.” Thanks, we are told, “to the hugely successful Nickelodeon “Paw Patrol” series, about six in 10 preschoolers around the globe know what “Paw Patrol” is, according to market researcher, Kids Global. Now the movies producers say it’s time to go after the remaining four. “This is the biggest turning point for the franchise to date.” And there, the chief executive of Nickelodeon, Brian Robbins, is speaking of the movie rated G that opened in U.S. theaters and began streaming last Friday.

Here’s the thing. Think of all the children in the world, all of them. Take the entire population of children. Everywhere those children are found in the world, no matter what their nationality, no matter their culture, no matter their language. According to this report in The Wall Street Journal, of all the children on planet Earth, 6 out of 10 of them know the characters in Paw Patrol.

Now The Wall Street Journal just drops that in as that we’re supposed to say, “Well, that’s pretty impressive.” It’s not just pretty impressive when you think about the power of popular culture. If you as Christian parents, or just as thinking Christians, you think about the power of popular culture and you say, “Yeah, it’s pretty pervasive. It’s pretty hard to get away from popular culture.” Pretty hard?

Evidently, only 4 out of 10 children on the entire planet living at the current time have escaped Paw Patrol. I’m not saying they want to escape it. From all I know, there are a lot of children who love the dogs of “Paw Patrol.”

But the big issue is this, just consider what we are up against, thoughtful Christian. If 6 out of 10 children living anywhere on planet earth at this time know an American animated cartoon series by name. Some of the social critics in the 1940s and ’50s warned that with the advent of television, American popular culture would be difficult to avoid. It turns out it’s not difficult. It’s nigh unto impossible.

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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