Tuesday, May 16, 2023
It's Tuesday, May 16th, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: George Santos and Our Postmodern Identity Crisis
It's often remarked that truth is stranger than fiction, and that's because you just can't make certain stories up. You just can't make up certain developments in the news. You certainly couldn't make up George Santos. It turns out that only George Santos could make up George Santos, and it appears that he's continuing to make himself up as we go along.
But of course, George Santos, whoever he is, as a Republican member of Congress in the area of New York, he is now also indicted on 13 federal charges. Those 13 charges go across a waterfront that includes embezzling contributions made to his political campaign. He also is accused of fraudulently obtaining unemployment benefits, and you might know that going with that are accusations now criminal charges that he filled out many reports fraudulently.
We're talking about fraud on a very big scale, and right now it's also true that George Santos has become a parable of his own making. Over the course of the last several months, he's become one of the most famous, I guess more accurately infamous, members of the United States Congress. And as I said, truth is stranger than fiction. It's hard to imagine that anyone could make up a character like George Santos, but while we're talking about an unfolding story, the story is that he has, amazingly enough, filed for reelection even in the face of 13 federal criminal counts, even in the face of the fact he's had to admit that he has made absolutely false claims about himself on such a wide landscape that frankly, it's virtually impossible to do a complete audit of all of his lies and false claims. It's hard to know if George Santos actually knows who George Santos is, but for Americans, he has become a moral parable.
And it's at that level I think he deserves a bit of consideration today. There's a huge question about personal identity in the modern age, and one of the claims being made by many of the post-modernists is that all truth is socially constructed, and so whoever you are is simply a project that you undertake. If you don't like your origin story, then make up one. If you don't like the story of your adolescence and childhood, then make up one. If you don't like the story that supposedly tells us from whence you have come and who you are, then make up one. And that is exactly what is now being told over against the canvas of our larger society. People are showing up on college campuses, the backstory they tell may or may not be true. People are showing up in churches and congregations. It's becoming increasingly complicated to find out if people really are who they say they are.
Schools, colleges, universities, increasingly dealing with people who are changing their stories as they go along. With George Santos, there is undeniably now at least the accusation of outright criminal activity, and it's hard to understand how that could be avoided. You're talking about someone with whom you now have questions about vast sums of money that have appeared and disappeared in terms of his campaign. You're talking about someone who has had to plead guilty to a theft charge back in Brazil, and that charge goes all the way back to 2008.
You're talking about someone who has identified as being openly gay, but has also presented himself in various ways and claimed to be the alumnus, the graduate, of certain colleges and universities he never actually attended. You're talking about someone who made up his life right down evidently to some of his hobbies. Indeed, even sports achievements, when it's not at all clear that there was anything in terms of reality to this background at all.
But going all the way back to the beginnings of the movement known as post-modernism, the argument was that truth is socially constructed. And if truth really is just socially constructed, then guess what? You can socially construct your own truth, or you might even reconstruct a truth about yourself. In this case, George Santos, it could be argued, is just playing the game that many elite philosophers have been playing in theory, he's playing it in practice. He is himself a demonstration of post-modern humanity. He's the post-modern man. Who is he?
It is becoming increasingly difficult to know if even he knows. But here's where we also just need to point to the big lie in post-modern theory. Truth is not merely socially constructed. There may be any number of ideologies that are socially constructed. They're put together by human beings. There may be any number of philosophical claims and systems made by human beings, but as it turns out, the truth is objective, and we actually count on it being objective.
When we speak of something as being objectively true, we mean it's true whether we subjectively affirm that truth or not. Truth is true independent of the human knower. And this of course goes back to the basic principle of the Christian worldview, that God is the source of truth, and furthermore, that truth is revealed to us in God's Word, and beyond that that God has created a world, a real world in real time, in which real events take place and real truths exist.
Looked at this way, George Santos is kind of the revenge on the post-modern theorists who did say that truth is socially constructed, but you will notice that even many on the left who are arguing in the classroom or in other places that truth is socially constructed, and of course this gets into all realms of critical theory, and cultural Marxism, you go down the entire list. But the point is this, they don't actually believe it.
They actually believe that there are claims about George Santos made by George Santos that are either true or false. Now, here's the thing, if there's an objective truth behind those claims in such a way that some of those claims can be falsified, and others can be said to be true, then guess what? Truth is not merely socially constructed. Truth actually exists, and rightful statements are those that correspond to that truth. Truth is not just a compliment we pay to an idea we like. It's not just a project of social construction. It's real.
And it's interesting that so many of the people on the cultural left who want to insist that when it comes to, say, truth about morality, well, that's just socially constructed. Truth about marriage, well, that's just socially constructed. Truth about sexuality, well, that's just socially constructed. Yeah, you know where we're going here. Truth about gender, they say that's just socially constructed.
Until when push comes to shove, they have to admit, "We really didn't believe that. We really don't mean that, not when it comes to George Santos."
An Athletic Phenom, Chivalry, and the Gender Binary: The Track Event That Wrought Mia Brahe-Pedersen’s Blazing 100-meter Dash
But next, we're going to transition to a different story, but it's on a very relevant theme. There's a very key insight in this story and I don't want us to miss it. This is a story that appeared yesterday in The Wall Street Journal in the sports section. Yeah, by the way, The Wall Street Journal has a sports section. The headline in the article, "Phenom Races Toward History," and in this case, the phenom is a 17-year-old girl, Mia Brahe-Pederson. And in this case, the big story is that she beats several contenders as she is seeking to become one of the fastest high school track athletes ever.
And the point is that in a special called meet, she beat all the competition, including four boys. As Rachel Butman reports, "The fans packed into the high school track meet stands stared at the start line, the discus throwers paused, and the sprinter everyone was watching, a 17-year-old girl, burst from the starting box, strode neck and neck with her competitors, then surged across the finish line ahead of them all, including four boys."
She continued, "The rare mixed gender 100 meter race at the Summit Invitational on May the 6th in Bend, Oregon was built just for Mia Brahe-Pederson. That's because the junior at Lake Oswego High School has had an increasingly hard time finding decent competition." That high school, by the way, is in the state of Oregon. The story continues, "She finished in a personal best 11.08 seconds making her the third fastest US high school girl of all time according to track and field news."
And in this case, the young woman even beat her upcoming prom date, Lake Oswego senior Ethan Park, who finished fourth at 11.38 seconds. The young man who was just defeated by his prom date said, "It was just a really cool special moment to see her beat everybody. It was amazing to be a part of that." Well, sports analysts are looking at this young woman, Mia Brahe-Pederson and believing that she could well be a phenom who might well be destined for the Olympics.
One of the issues was that among fellow female competitors there in Oregon, she was so far ahead, she needed some stiffer competition, and so these mixed gender events were put in place. And in this one that was held just back on May the 5th, she came out on top beating even the four high school boys who were also in the race.
Well, I hope by now you're seeing something of why this story is more important than May 1st appear. At the end of the story, we're told Summit High track and field coach Dave Turnbull, who organizes the Summit Invitational, got permission from the Oregon School Activities Association to run mixed gender races in the 100 and 200 meters. Summit has an unusual nine lane track, so Turnbull entered the first five fastest girls and four fastest boys from the 21 schools competing at the meet. The high school coach went on to say, "Our boys were excited to race against Mia. They thought this is a future Olympian."
So what's the point I want to make? Well just consider this entire story. It comes to us in a mainstream newspaper, indeed, one of the most elite newspapers in the United States, The Wall Street Journal. It comes to us at a time when so many people say everything, all of reality is just socially constructed, and among the most socially constructed aspects of reality is gender and sex.
And so when it comes to being male and female, man and woman, boy and girl, it's all just socially constructed. And if it's socially constructed, it can be socially deconstructed and then socially reconstructed. That is behind, and indeed it's central to the T, as in transgender revolution. But if that revolution is true, the story doesn't make any sense. This story only makes sense because the transgender claims are a lie. The transgender ideology does not correspond to reality.
The reality is that the big story here is that a teenage girl beat four teenage boys and the entire field to win this event, even as observers understand she may well be destined for the Olympics. In any event, she won as a girl, defeating four leading high school boys who are running against her. That turns out to be the story. If it doesn't make a difference if boys are boys and girls are girls, there's no story here. If you can just decide that you were one or the other, irrespective of biological sex, there's no story here.
There's only a story here because we actually do know who is a boy and who is a girl, and they know too. It's also a sign of sportsmanship that the teenage boys in this story recognize that they are looking at an athletic phenomenon in this teenage girl. They understand, and indeed, they were even willing to put in civilest terms the fact that they were proud to have been on the track with her, even as she beat them on the track.
But again, we only admire chivalry when we find it among young men, precisely because they are young men, and we admire the achievement of this young woman precisely because she is a young woman, and undoubtedly a superior athlete. So we might say that George Santos is the perfect parable of the post-modern age, but the whole point is we're actually in on the lie. We're in on the joke, we're in on the act. We're just not sure how this act ends.
When it comes to Mia Brahe-Pederson, the fact is that this is an unfolding story, important because we actually do know who she is, and she knows who she is, and even the teenage boys she defeated on that track know who she is and admire her for it.
A Diet of Darkness: The Corrosive Nature of Social Media and the Dark Rabbit Holes in Which Our Adolescents Are Falling
But next, shifting to a different issue, many people in the United States and elsewhere know that we are facing a huge challenge when it comes to social media, and we know honestly that that's true for adults. We understand as adults just how addictive, and for that matter, how seductive and dangerous, so much of what appears in social media can be. We understand how difficult it is to differentiate between truth and reality. We also know that there are certain things we simply don't need to see. There are certain things it would be sin for us to see, and yet when it comes to some platforms and social media, it turns out that they basically run on something that could only be described as absolute, adrenaline-filled temptation.
And central to that is TikTok, and that's why a very important essay appeared yesterday. This one was in The Wall Street Journal. It's by Julie Jargon in the Family and Tech column of that newspaper. And I think the frankness of this article is what deserves a much closer look. The headline, "TikTok Feeds Teens a Diet of Darkness."
Now, I started out by saying that I think it's important that adults recognize just how seductive this is for us. We understand just how fast one can fall into a rabbit hole of social media. We understand just how much like some kind of addictive substance, these very short videos can capture our attention. And of course, there's just one more, and it leads to even more, and the feed is populated with even more. And the next thing you know, you have just seen 75 puppy videos, but if they were really all puppy videos, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
There are much, much darker narratives in social media. There are much, much darker messages that are being sent out, particularly on TikTok, with effects on teens. As Julie Jargon reports, "A recent study found that when researchers created accounts belonging to fictitious 13-year-olds, they were quickly inundated with videos about eating disorders, body image, self-harm, and suicide." And just remember that The Wall Street Journal is a pro-business publication. TikTok's a business.
But when it comes to this business, The Wall Street Journal's been onto it for some time. Back in 2021, the newspaper ran an investigation which, "Found that TikTok steers viewers to dangerous content." We're then told that TikTok since then has in some sense strengthened parental controls, and the company went on to promise a more even-keeled algorithm. But in this case, Julie Jargon goes on to report that current evidence is that the company is still sending all kinds of dark messages to American adolescents, indeed, what she calls a diet of darkness.
Now remember, the way this study was undertaken is that the researchers put together hundreds of fictitious teenage accounts, and so the accounts were set up as if they were teenagers, and the material directed to the teenagers was incredibly, frighteningly, dark. Dark as in self-harm, dark as in suicide, dark as in depression, dark as in sexual messaging as well. Julie Jargon writes about this kind of feed and then says, "After a few hours, I had to stop. If the rapid string of sad videos made me feel bad, how would a 14-year-old feel after watching this kind of content day after day?" These researchers went to these accounts and for 30 minutes at a time, documented the kind of material directed to the accounts. Remember that these accounts were set up as teenagers, even as 13-year-olds.
And the material directed to them, well, according to this study, if researchers, and again, they were posing as adolescents if they paused at all on matters about mental health, then TikTok, "Almost immediately recommended videos about suicide and eating disorders. Videos about body image and mental health popped up on the accounts' For You pages every 39 seconds." The research as reported in this Wall Street Journal account tells us after the researchers published their findings, many of the videos they flagged disappeared from TikTok.
Many of the accounts that posted the material remain. Those accounts include other videos that promote restrictive diets, and discuss self-harm and suicide. The important thing for us to recognize is that social media is not morally neutral. Now, the platform might be, in essence, in its technology, morally neutral. The algorithms may be in some sense morally neutral. But what is behind those algorithms? What is behind these massive social media platforms? That is not moral neutrality.
TikTok says it's taking responsibility to moderate its content, and yet the standards by which that content is moderated, they're not going to be the standards that I think should be, at least I hope they would not be, the standards that will be expected by America's parents, particularly Christian parents. You look at this and you recognize that as human beings, we are not made to be bombarded with all of this darkness, and that's true whatever age we are. It is warping to the personality. It is corrosive to the soul. We were not made to saturate ourselves and just to marinate ourselves in this kind of darkness. But the rabbit holes that are warned about in this particular study are rabbit holes into which young people are falling, and in many cases, they're falling right down the hall. They're falling perhaps even there in the family room sitting on the couch.
The saddest thing is some of this research is that when it comes to waking hours, many adolescents are basically on this kind of social media platform, and TikTok in particular, all the time, and that means all the time. Now when they're in school, perhaps not so much, but even then this has become a major challenge for educators. But the fact is that so many children and adolescents are just being left to themselves, and what they are doing is falling into caverns of darkness on TikTok and on other social media platforms.
I just want to remind parents, you are responsible for your children. You're responsible for setting the rules. You're responsible for what technology they have, and they do not have. You would not, as children and young adults, encourage them to go and play in the traffic, but that's effectively what is taking place in social media. And even if it is sight unseen to you, and that's really the point, isn't it? It's all the more dangerous because it is sight unseen to you.
The minds of many of our children and young people are being marinated in this darkness, and all kinds of messages are bombarding them that would be very difficult for any adult to take. Indeed, would be toxic for any adult to digest as well. And here's the thing, we're doing this to ourselves. One of the most interesting comments I heard just recently in the media was the fact that many young people said, as according to a major media report, they simply said, "I would prefer to have the time with TikTok, rather than to be forced to spend time with family, or even to spend time with friends."
And when it comes to friends, increasingly they define friendship in terms of commonalities on social media, not so much in school, not so much because they're on the same team, not so much because they're in the same neighborhood, because real friendship and real relationships are being sacrificed in the name of what is very sadly called social media. Because the effect of so much social media is anything but socialization.
There are all kinds of other problems related to spending this much time in social media, including attention span, because especially if you look at something like TikTok, it's a very short burst of information. Once you see it, you just move on to the next burst of information. It's something like a digital version of some kind of emotional high, but that is not the way you can read a book. That's not the way you can have a conversation. That is not the way you can hear and learn from a sermon.
It's not the way you can make academic progress in class. And when you think of the rise and fall of civilizations, you tend to think of vast economic, political, cultural movements, the marching of armies, the winning and the losing of battles. But what if it turns out that the decline and fall of our civilization has everything to do with the transition from puppy videos to eating disorder videos and worse?
One last thing about so much of what's on social media, by the way, is that even when things are presented as being a way of helping someone with this particular struggle, it has a way of sucking other people into this particular struggle, and that's the worst kind of social, as in social media.
A Bridge Between News and Pop Culture No More: Paramount Announces MTV News Will Be Brought to an End
One final thought along these lines, The New York Times reports that MTV News, which as the paper says, "Kept a generation informed," is ending its four decade run.
That is to say MTV News is disappearing, and it was quite a thing for a while. It was particularly advertised as a way of making young people interested in the news, of packaging news in such a way that it would attract young people who otherwise were watching music videos. MTV News was unapologetically celebrity-centric. It was sensational, it was entertainment. Anyone who's really concerned about the news probably wouldn't even call it news. But the point is, it's actually too much news content for people who would rather be watching TikTok.
MTV News has failed because there's really very little market for something, here's what's sad to say, that serious, not that unserious. And if you're thinking about serious or unserious, just recognize that the most famous question asked in the entire history of MTV News was a question asked in 1994 that was addressed to the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton. When the President of the United States, asked this question, debased his office, the question was boxers or briefs?
And the current incumbent President of the United States at the time, Bill Clinton, I'm sure you're shocked by this, went on to answer, "Usually briefs." The Times report then states, "Now, a generation after MTV News bridged the gap between news and pop culture, Paramount, the Network's parent company, announced this week that it was shuttering the news service." Given our concerns of the day, it is also interesting that this article ends by citing someone very much involved in the network, who looking back said this, "For all of us, it was, okay, what is the audience? What's our way in here that feels true?"
Well, there's the whole problem. Now, we're being told that MTV's authenticity was basically about a media approach that asked the question, what feels true or specifically, "What's our way in here that feels true?" If you put the words together, feels true, do you understand how you are elevating feeling at the expense of truth? Truth is true whether you feel it to be true or not. That's the whole point. That's what makes truth true. All that to say, I don't think we're really going to miss a news source that was about trying to find a way to what feels true. Here's what feels true to me. We need the truth.
In John 14, Jesus famously said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father, but by me." That makes sense. The gospel makes sense. The entire cosmos makes sense, only because when Jesus said, "I am the truth," he was saying nothing less than what was true and is true, thanks be to God.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can phone 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'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.