And they thought Milo was a bad speaker to have on campuses…

Another interesting piece of “reporting” from the Babylon Bee.

Cthulhu To Speak At Liberty University:

LYNCHBURG, VA—Liberty University has announced its next set of Convocation speakers for the coming semester, and among several prominent athletes and political figures is the ancient, brooding cosmic entity known as Cthulhu, sources confirmed Tuesday.

The horror from beyond time and space will address the student body, giving his remarks on living moral lives and voting Republican, according to Liberty reps.

“We’ve got a really special treat for all Liberty students: the Sleeper of R’lyeh from the unknown reaches of the stars,” Jerry Falwell Jr said in an announcement video. “It’s important to us that our students get a well-rounded experience while attending our university, and that includes hearing from varying perspectives, like various conservative politicians as well as the Great Dreamer from the blackest depths of the sea.”

“Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” he added, his eyes glazing over in a trancelike stare.

According to Falwell, an expedition was sent to the murky waters of the South Pacific to extend an invitation to Cthulhu, who was taking a nap in his house at R’lyeh at the time, waking up to warmly accept the invitation to speak at the school.

Liberty University personnel claim rumors that Cthulhu will devour all of humanity after the event are unfounded.

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MSM; fake news at its best

Here’s a funny piece from Babylon Bee (a site I stumbled upon today); it might be a slight exaggeration.

ABC News Reports Trump Nuked Entire World, Later Clarifies He Just Microwaved A Burrito

NEW YORK, NY—A special ABC News report Friday stated that a deranged President Donald Trump nuked the entire world, flattening the entirety of civilization into a gooey nothingness, before later issuing a minor correction stating that he actually just microwaved a burrito.

ABC News reporter Brian Ross broke the erroneous story, describing in great detail how Trump had finally decided he’d had enough and launched over 4,000 nuclear warheads at every single country on the planet. The White House quickly disputed the story, however, pointing out that in reality, the only thing Trump had nuked was a microwavable burrito “for 90 seconds on High.”

“We apologize for the minor error,” an ABC News spokesperson said Monday after the clarification had been issued. “One of our reporters did seem to suggest that Donald Trump instigated a nuclear apocalypse, destroying nearly all of humanity, and we recognize that is a minor factual error when compared with the actual event that occurred, that being the simple microwaving of a frozen snack.”

At publishing time, ABC News had reported that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was a Russian spy, before later clarifying that he had simply been seen purchasing a bottle of vodka.

Identity Politics = children who are crying out to belong?

I’ve wondered about the connection between identity politics and un-met needs to belong and to be part of a “tribe,” a community, but I hadn’t yet followed that train of thought far enough back.

In The Primal Scream of Identity Politics, Mary Eberstadt provides as assessment of  identity politics and our culture that takes us back to the foundation: the family.  She examines several other authors’ analyses of identity politics (and our cultural climate) and concludes that while some have noticed important factors, no one has gone deep enough in their questions and conclusions.  The whole thing is worth a read.

“Mine! Mine! It’s mine!” The manifest panic behind cries of “cultural appropriation” is real—as real as the tantrum of a toddler. It’s as real as the developmental regression seen in the retreat to campus “safe spaces,” those tiny non-treehouses stuffed with candy, coloring books, and Care Bears. In social science, the toddler’s developmental “mine!” is called the “endowment effect”—the notion that humans ascribe extra value to possessions simply because they’re theirs. Some theorists consider it a subset of another human proclivity: loss aversion.

Maybe that cultural scream of “mine!” is issuing from souls who did have something taken from them—only something more elemental than the totemic objects now functioning as figurative blankies for lost and angry former children. As of today, less than 65 percent of American children live with both biological parents, even as other familial boughs have broken via external forces like the opioid crisis, criminality and incarceration, and globalization. Maybe depression and anxiety have been rising steadily among children and teenagers for a reason. Maybe the furor over “appropriation” unveils the true foundation of identity politics, which is pathos.

Did anyone really think things would turn out otherwise—that the massive kinship dislocations of the past 60 years wouldn’t produce increasingly visible, transformative effects not only in individual lives and households, but on politics and culture, too?

After all, it defies common sense to believe that the human surroundings during one’s formative years have no effect on the life to come. There’s also a library of social science, now over half a century in the making, tracing the links between fatherless homes and higher risks of truancy, criminality, psychiatric trouble, and the rest of the ledger suggesting that ripping up primordial ties hasn’t done society any favors. It’s all there, no matter how many of us have deep reasons for wishing otherwise.

One irony is certain. While identity politics has become an object of conversation in the left-leaning circles of Anglo-American and European political thought, deliverance from today’s disfigurations cannot come from the same quarter. The reason is simple. Not only identitarians but also liberals and progressives who are now anti-identitarian or identitarian-skeptical all agree on one big thing: The sexual revolution is off-limits for revision anywhere, anytime. It is their moral bedrock.

No-fault divorce, out-of-wedlock births, paid surrogacy, absolutism about erotic freedom, disdain for traditional moral codes: The very policies and practices that chip away at the family and drive the subsequent flight to identity politics are those that liberals and progressives embrace.

Then there are related family-unfriendly social realities that they also deem benign. Pornography, which once upon a time some feminists objected to, is now the stuff of their full-throated enthusiasm. Prostitution has been re-defined as the more anodyne “sex work.” And, of course, abortion is—in the unnervingly theological modifier applied to it by Hillary Clinton and many others on the left—“sacrosanct.” In the end, asking liberals and progressives to solve the problem of identity politics is like asking the proverbial orphan with chutzpah who murdered his parents.

Yes, conservatives have missed something major about identity politics: its authenticity. But the liberal-progressive side has missed something bigger. Identity politics is not so much politics as a primal scream. It’s the result of what might be called the Great Scattering—the Western world’s unprecedented familial dispersion.

Anyone who’s ever heard a coyote in the desert, separated at night from the pack, knows the sound. Maybe the otherwise-unexplained hysteria of today’s identity politics is just that: the collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures who can no longer identify their own.

My very simplified conclusion after reading all of The Primal Scream of Identity Politics is this: maybe all the immature, hysterical acting out going on in this country really can be traced back to the destruction of the family or put more personally, mommy and daddy weren’t there to provide a stable, loving childhood.  Today’s adults were yesterday’s children who were spoiled rotten in many ways, but not given what they really needed to be able to grow-up into mature human beings.

Discernment and Storytelling

Recently, I was doing some research on discernment and came across this article by Peter Kreeft.  Writing about discerning God’s will in both large life choices (what is my vocation?) and small every day decision-making, he looks at discernment in general and then particularly to the clues God gives us in finding the answer to the question: Does God have one right choice for me in each decision I make?

This is interesting and perhaps helpful to someone struggling to discern what God’s will is for them especially if one is struggling with a bit of scrupulosity over whether a given thing you’re doing (or not doing) is important to God’s will for you and whether a fun or mundane thing is worth your time and obsessing over whether you are doing the right thing in all the small choices in life.  If we are sincerely trying to avoid sin and do truly want to love and serve God and do His will, that counts for a lot and we needn’t fear we’re going to accidentally do the wrong thing and ruin God’s plan for our lives (we don’t really have that much power).

Here are just a couple of the clues:

fourth clue is something God did in fact give us: free will. Why? There are a number of good reasons – for instance, so that our love could be infinitely more valuable than instinctive, unfree animal affection. But I think I see another reason. As a teacher, I know that I sometimes should withhold answers from my students so that they find them themselves, and thus appreciate and remember them better – and also learn how to exercise their own judgment in finding answers themselves. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” God gave us some big fish, but he also gave us the freedom to fish for a lot of little ones (and some big ones) ourselves.

Reason and free will always go together. God created both in us as part of his image. He gives supernatural revelation to both: dogmas to our reason and commandments to our will. But just as he didn’t give us all the answers, even in theology, in applying the dogmas or drawing out the consequences of them, so he didn’t give us all the answers in morality or practical guidance, in applying the commandments and drawing out their consequences. He gave us the mental and moral equipment with which to do that, and he is not pleased when we bury our talent in the ground instead of investing it so that he will see how much it has grown in us when he returns.

In education, I know there are always two extremes. You can be too modern, too experimental, too Deweyan, too structureless. But you can also be too classical, too rigid. Students need initiative and creativity and originality too. God’s law is short. He gave us ten commandments, not ten thousand. Why? Why not a more complete list of specifics? Because he wanted freedom and variety. Why do you think he created so many persons? Why not just one? Because he loves different personalities. He wants his chorus to sing in harmony, but not in unison.

I know Christians who are cultivating ingrown eyeballs trying to know themselves so well – often by questionable techniques like the enneagram, or Oriental modes of prayer – so that they can make the decision that is exactly what God wants for them every time. I think it is much healthier to think about God and your neighbor more and yourself less, to forget yourself – follow your instincts without demanding to know everything about them. As long as you love God and act within his law, I think he wants you to play around a bit.

I’m happily haunted by Chesterton’s image of the playground fence erected around the children on top of the mountain so that they could play without fear of falling off the side. That’s why God gave us his law: not to make us worried but to keep us safe so that we could play the great games of life and love and joy.

Each of us has a different set of instincts and desires. Sin infects them, of course. But sin infects our reason and our bodies too; yet we are supposed to follow our bodily instincts (for example, hunger and self-preservation) and our mind’s instincts (for example, curiosity and logic). I think he wants us to follow our hearts. Surely, if John loves Mary more than Susan, he has more reason to think God is leading him to marry Mary than Susan. Why not treat all other choices by the same principle?

I am not suggesting, of course, that our hearts are infallible, or that following them justifies sinful behavior. Nor am I suggesting that the heart is the only thing to follow. I mentioned seven guidelines earlier. But surely it is God who designed our hearts – the spiritual heart with desire and will as much as the physical heart with aorta and valves. Our parents are sinful and fallible guides too, but God gave them to us to follow. So our hearts can be worth following too even though they are sinful and fallible. If your heart loves God, it is worth following. If it doesn’t, then you’re not interested in the problem of discernment of his will anyway.

***

Clue number seven is an example from my own present experience. I am writing a novel for the first time, and learning how to do it. First, I placed it in God’s hands, told him I wanted to do it for his kingdom, and trusted him to lead me. Then, I simply followed my own interests, instincts, and unconscious. I let the story tell itself and the characters become themselves. God doesn’t stop me or start me. He doesn’t do my homework for me. But he’s there, like a good parent.

I think living is like writing a novel. It’s writing the story of your own life and even your own self (for you shape your self by all your choices, like a statue that is its own sculptor). God is the primary author, of course, the primary sculptor. But he uses different human means to get different human results. He is the primary author of each book in the Bible too, but the personality of each human author is no less clear there than in secular literature.

God is the universal storyteller. He wants many different stories. And he wants you to thank him for the unique story that comes from your free will and your choices too. Because your free will and his eternal plan are not two competing things, but two sides of one thing. We cannot fully understand this great mystery in this life, because we see only the underside of the tapestry. But in heaven, I think, one of the things we will praise and thank God the most for is how wildly and wonderfully and dangerously he put the driving wheel of our life into our hands – like a parent teaching a young child to drive…

God, in giving us all free will, said to us: “Your will be done.” Some of us turn back to him and say: “My will is that your will be done.” That is obedience to the first and greatest commandment. Then, when we do that, he turns to us and says: “And now, your will be done.” And then he writes the story of our lives with the pen strokes of our own free choices.

Kreeft’s image of God as the universal storyteller is appealing.  This God who loves creativity and fun and variety, who wants us to be happy in following His will, not paralyzed for fear of making the wrong choice, is no Puritan.

Is Trump a master of persuasion?

Dilbert creator Scott Adams has come out with a new book, Win Bigly; Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.  Already a best-seller on Amazon, its described as “an unflinching look at the strategies Donald Trump used to persuade voters to elect the most unconventional candidate in the history of the presidency, and how anyone can learn his methods for succeeding against long odds.”  Sounds like we’re talking about rhetoric.

The Amazon description continues, “Scott Adams …was one of the earliest public figures to predict Trump’s win… The mainstream media regarded Trump as a novelty and a sideshow. But Adams recognized in Trump a level of persuasion you only see once in a generation.  Trump triggered massive cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias on both the left and the right. We’re hardwired to respond to emotion, not reason.”

Adams recently came out with an interesting article talking about Trump’s tweets in the Wall Street Journal (you can read the whole thing here): The Power of the Presidential Tweet; Trump’s online missives make his supporters laugh and even his opponents think past the sale.

As a trained hypnotist and a lifelong student of persuasion, I’m often impressed by how much “work” President Trump gets out of his tweets. Most of them are harmless retweets about whatever is going right, and they tend to be forgettable. The good ones are something entirely different, and many are gems of persuasion.

Consider this one: “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked,’ in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!”

When Mr. Trump smack-tweets a notable public critic—Ms. Hill has called the president a “white supremacist”—it violates our expectations of his office. That’s what makes it both entertaining and memorable. He often injects into his tweets what memory expert Carmen Simon calls a “little bit of wrongness” to make it hard to look away. If the wrongness alarms you, consider that for years he has adroitly operated within a narrow range of useful wrongness on Twitter without going too far. That suggests technique. In the Twitter environment, strategic wrongness is jet fuel.

Watch for Mr. Trump’s tweets to make you think past the sale, a well-known technique of persuasion. In the Jemele Hill tweet, he makes you wonder if ESPN’s ratings really are the “talk of the industry.” And in order even to consider that question, you must imagine a world in which the primary claim—that Ms. Hill is bad for the network—is true. Even if it isn’t.

***

When Candidate Trump said he would make Mexico pay for the wall, he was making us think past the sale. If you’re thinking about who is paying for the wall, you’ve already imagined the wall existing. And that makes it easier to convince you it should exist.

I also see the president as employing a modern version of humor. When he goes after one of his high-profile critics, his supporters laugh and reach for the popcorn. This is gonna be good! Voters who preferred Hillary Clinton are not laughing, of course. But they aren’t the audience for his tweet humor. And that makes it even funnier for his supporters. His base is in on the joke, whereas his detractors don’t even know humor is happening.

In the 1940s, humor was mostly about corny jokes with punch lines, and loads of slapstick. By the ’70s, humor evolved to be whatever the public found most inappropriate and shocking. Half the fun of watching “Saturday Night Live” in those days was waiting for the naughty parts. By the late ’90s, humor evolved into more of a reality-focused art. When you watch your favorite reality TV show, you’re probably laughing. When you read comics, you laugh hardest at the ones that speak to your personal experience.

Reality and humor have effectively merged. President Trump came to us through the reality TV world, and apparently he has a good grasp of modern humor. His critics will wince at my suggestion that his tweets are intentionally humorous, or even funny. But ask one of his followers about them. Notice the reflexive smile when you bring up the topic. They see it as weaponized humor. Likewise, they recognize Mr. Trump’s sticky nicknames, such as “Low Energy Jeb” and “Rocket Man,” as both intentionally humorous and effective.

Humor is an extraordinary tool of persuasion. Things that are funny are easier to remember, and humor creates a bond with anyone who shares the laugh. In my opinion as a professional humorist, Donald Trump is the funniest president in the history of the republic. Perhaps Abe Lincoln was second.

Again, there are no jokes of the old-fashioned punch-line variety in the president’s tweets. The humor comes from our shared reality, their inappropriateness and—for his supporters—the fun of watching their shared critics take pies in their faces.

Mr. Trump also has a knack for getting into his critics’ heads. Consider this tweet: “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!” The odds of a tax law change targeted at the NFL are low. But are they zero? Once that risk is in your head, you reflexively treat it as real even if your rational brain says it isn’t.

See a similar technique in the next tweet: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” It is deeply unlikely any major network will lose its station licenses, but now the idea is in their heads. Everything I know about persuasion tells me it will nudge the networks toward friendlier coverage out of self-preservation.

If you think Mr. Trump’s tweets are nothing but thin-skinned reflex, you’re missing a great show. Historians and trained persuaders will be analyzing his extraordinary Twitter game for hundreds of years, wondering how much of it was based on training and how much was pure instinct.

Did you catch me making you think past the sale just then?

The State of Entertainment

What is entertainment?  How are compelling stories and interesting characters created? I find it hard to define what makes a good story.  Many others have attempted to make this definition and there is plenty of disagreement about it.  However, there is plenty of agreement that the current state of entertainment is rather lacking.

Hollywood and recent TV (which includes things produced quite a while ago) are frequently criticized for poor quality (amazing special effects and beautiful scenery don’t make up for lame stories) and the annoying, if not infuriating, constant liberal propagandizing.  Cable TV subscriptions have been declining for some time, probably dropped in favor of internet streaming and other ways of accessing entertainment.  Having never lived in a household where there was a cable subscription I find it surprising that so many people continue to pay buckets of money for a service that forces you to watch advertisements and whose content is 90% crap.  You may have to pay for streaming, but at least you have more choice about what you watch.  This doesn’t really solve the problem that 90% of what is and has been produced is still crap.  It does help a little to be able to choose from multiple decades of movies and TV.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about YouTube, other than the “controversial” political and social commentary they’re busy trying to scrub off the internet, is the old movies and television shows.  Due to over-zealous copyright enforcers these things are prone to disappearing.  The sad thing is that much of this is simply unavailable anywhere else.

Unfortunately, YouTube apparently has a plan to turn itself into a streaming site requiring a paid subscription a la Netflix (see Razorfist’s commentary about YouTube’s future).  The general response to this seems to be: well, there’s a reason I liked YouTube; it wasn’t like TV.  I quit watching TV ages ago because it sucks.  If YT is going to be just like TV, forget it.  This seems like a poor move after all the uproar that’s been caused by their censorship and demonetization.  They deserve to lose both their content creators and their viewers.  When they lose those, advertisers won’t be far behind in abandoning the platform.  All the reasons people have abandoned cable for the internet are going to be done away with if these companies in the pursuit of profit have their way; and then we’ll just have “cable” on the internet.  Oh, joy.  No wonder some people have no problem with pirated content.  We’d be willing to pay if they’d just give us what we want.

Do these producers of entertainment even deserve our money?  Probably not.  But it’s awfully nice to just be entertained sometimes.  A little escape from reality now and then can be good for one’s mental health.  Life, when it’s not full of unpleasant drama, can be drudgery.  It’s often just hard, even when full of happy moments and an awareness of one’s many blessings.  Humans have been seeking to entertain and be entertained forever.  It should be one of life’s little joys.

What isn’t particularly joyful is watching something that insults your beliefs or makes you feel like you’re being emotionally manipulated.  An awful lot of shows are like this.  The ones with content insulting to conservatives and Christians may have good parts, but can you sift the good from the chaff?  It’s hard, if not impossible, to find something to watch without a liberal bias and objectionable content.

How about those shows that start out really good and are subsequently ruined by manufactured drama?  There’s nothing that makes me lose patience with a show like the feeling that I’m being jerked around emotionally in a deliberate attempt by the creators to keep the show going to make a buck.  It indicates a major lack of creativity: you can’t come up with anything better to prolong the story than recycling the same old relationship problems or the same old story-lines?

It’s also frustrating when a likeable character (that must have been created by accident through some fluky combination of writing and the actor’s talent) is ruined as the series progresses, ruined in a way that doesn’t fit with the original representation of the character.  The flip side of changing a character in a way that doesn’t fit the storyline is not changing the character at all.  When a story is handled well, a character may have certain problems or flaws at the beginning, but as things happen in the story he changes, even if he continues to struggle with some basic flaws.  He actually learns from things that happen; he might even not repeat the same mistake 300 times.  But in standard entertainment, he does just that: even when it appears that he has learned from something, give it a couple episodes and he’s back to doing the same dumb things all over again.

This doesn’t mean that characters that stupidly continue on their paths to destruction are never appropriate.  It is possible to write a novel about people making a long line of poor life choices and the misery wrought by those choices and still have a satisfying story.  Take Anna Karenina, a hefty Russian novel, devoted almost entirely to just this and considered a classic; I found it to be quite good and enjoyed reading it, though it is by no means a happy read.  Things that evoke strong emotional responses can also be very well done and not feel manipulative.

There is a difference between making things true and making them “realistic.”  Current entertainment often seeks to embrace a shallow “realism” while failing to be true to life.  Let’s make it more realistic they say; so they throw out happy endings and happy interpersonal relationships.  Let’s make every character severely flawed and probably not very likable.  Let’s blur the lines between good and evil and make sure there are no good choices to be made.  And no objective moral standard that anyone follows.  And lots of misery.  And… voila!  Reality!  No, not even close.  Though it is accurate to say that there’s a lot of unpleasantness in life and people are generally quite flawed, it is not true to deny the goodness in people and all that is noble and true and beautiful in life.  Because that’s there too.

Poldark is the most recent in a long list of shows I have begun only to be disappointed for all of the above reasons.  It was always rather soap-opera-ish with its excessive drama, but at first the characters were interesting and likable enough to endure some of that.  Ross was flawed, too stubborn and too proud, but very principled and trying to do the right things.  Demelza was always spirited, but also grateful and respectful to Ross and generally sweet and good.  Their relationship was appealing because it fit better into more traditional gender roles than what we’re typically offered.  But of course that could not last.  By season three, Ross seems more proud and stubborn and less principled than in season one, and Delmelza is turning into a harping, ungrateful bitch.  These people need marriage counseling about how to treat each other.  And it’s not fun to watch.  For example, Demelza chooses to confront Ross about her disagreement with a choice he made and how he’s not listening to her advice and that he’s neglecting her (wah!) right when he’s reeling emotionally from having learned that a relative has died.  Demelza does have some valid points; Ross frequently acts like an ass and acts too quickly without considering the counsel of others.  But how stupid can you be, to nag your man at a time like that?

Also really annoying in the third season is the portrayal of religion and religious people.  There was little mention of religion in the first two seasons.  Church was seen in social events: funerals, christenings, weddings.  One not-good character was overzealous and unkind in his religion, but seemed an outlier not the norm.  The main characters didn’t mention religious things.  Now, however, there is much dismissal of religious belief by many, if not all, the main “good” characters.  A truly evil “religious” character has been introduced.  The pastor of the local church is just a puppet to the main “bad guy.”  I begin to doubt the story’s historical accuracy: was 18th century England really so heathen?

All “good” characters are rejecting God and his commands for what they see as the better way of just being “good” by their own standards and embracing what little good and pleasure they can find in this life.  Is it any wonder they are selfish and stupid?  The choices they keep making, and are threatening to make, will be their undoing of course.  The show’s creators will undoubtedly manufacture yet another break and then reconciliation between Ross and Demelza after dragging their misery out to another season.  If you cared about the characters, it would be too painful to watch; and if you’ve ceased to care because there’s only so much repeated stupidity you can stand, it’s dumb and pointless.  And it’s too annoying to watch even as a lesson: see what happens when you reject objective moral standards and only care about your own selfish needs and “happiness”?  See what happens when you fail to learn from your mistakes and acknowledge your faults and look realistically on your blessings with gratitude?

I am terribly sick of the standard state of entertainment.  It would often be nice to read an entertaining book or watch a show or movie that serves as a form of escape or maybe something cheerful or funny, or informing or even a lesson learned.  Maybe even good conquering evil, or the triumph of human goodness in the face of great challenges?  There’s only so much human stupidity one can take.  And there’s plenty of that in reality; who needs to add more from fictional characters?  Life actually has plenty of drama in it if you’re paying attention.  Sometimes it’s nice to get a break from the drama of real life.  Realism isn’t very entertaining.